Approximately two weeks ago, the E.U. came under pressure from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to increase its climate change goals, as well as to get more serious on various other related measures. This push came a few weeks before the Climate Ambition Summit due to take place on December 12—the so-called “sprint to Glasgow” in reference to COP26, which would have been happening right now in Glasgow had it not been for the pandemic, postponing it to 2021.
One issue Guterres touched upon, in an increasingly direct approach when it comes to pushing for climate action, was for the E.U.—and more broadly all OECD countries—to phase out coal by 2030, emphasizing that, “There must be no new coal,” at an event organized by the European Council for Foreign Relations. Guterres also called for such a phase-out in non-OECD countries by 2040. Another point he made related to the financing of fossil fuels: “I ask the E.U. to stop the financing of fossil fuels internationally and to promote a shift in taxation from income to carbon.”
Although the E.U. does indeed have an especially ambitious approach to climate action, the matters brought up by Guterres are still sensitive ones due to certain divisions within the bloc. Notably, with regard to the increasing of the emission reduction targets by 2030, Guterres called on the E.U. to raise it from the current 40% to 55%. This matter is also on the agenda for the European Council summit due to take place on 10-11 December.
There are two significant issues to keep in mind concerning this possible increase: the challenge of getting all E.U. countries to agree to it and, on the other hand, the implications for the E.U.’s role on the world stage if it is not able to approve of this increase.
First is the way in which all 27 Member States must approve of the measure—this includes Poland, the E.U.’s most coal-dependent member. This can be seen as an obstacle that must be cleared before the E.U. can realize this measure. Indeed, Warsaw has recently said, “in-depth analysis” on the effects of such an increase is necessary before Poland can sign up to it.
Divisions amongst the E.U. Member States are once again apparent when it comes to a related matter highlighted by Guterres: the phasing out of coal by 2030. Currently, 9 Member States are coal-free, while 11 others, plus the U.K., plan to be so by 2030. This leaves 7 Member States, having either set a later phase-out date—such as Germany and Poland at 2038 and 2049, respectively—or having set none at all. The Czech Republic is currently discussing when its own phase-out date will be, but if the recommendation of the national commission on the future of coal is followed, it will be 2038—much past the 2030 deadline Guterres is pushing for.
The phasing out of coal seems to be hitting not only the obstacle of heavy reliance on it for power production but also the challenge of “switching hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fossil fuel industry to climate neutrality industries,” as Polish Minister of Climate and Environment, Michał Kurtyka, has said.
This all comes in the midst of a standoff on the E.U.’s long-term budget, where Poland and Hungary are blocking the deal arrived at a few months ago due to a provision that would, in certain cases, allow the E.U. to halt funding to those Member States in violation of the rule of law principles.
The second significant issue is related to the image the E.U. has set for itself as a global climate leader. If these increased targets are approved, the Union will be able to submit them as its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)—or climate pledge, in other words—under the Paris Agreement, which calls for such a renewal of NDCs by this year.
If the E.U. leaders can approve of the new targets, it would make the bloc among the first major economies to put forward such an update to its previous pledge. This issue can be seen as a kind of pressure for the target increases to be implemented. If the E.U. is not able to agree to more ambitious targets and update its NDC, it would seriously dent its image as a leader in the area of climate action.
This is particularly true in light of the recent announcement by the U.K. on December 4 that it will now be aiming for a higher emissions reduction target by 2030, from the 40% it had set with the E.U. in 2014 to 68%. As a statement by the Prime Minister’s office read, “Today’s target is the first set by the U.K. following its departure from the E.U., demonstrating the U.K.’s leadership in tackling climate change.”
Indeed, whether or not the E.U. will step up its own targets—meeting this ‘challenge’ of sorts—will not be certain until a day or two before the Climate Summit, when the December 10-11 European Council meeting brings the E.U. leaders together in Brussels.