EU leaders fail to show united front on climate change

2019-06-25 07:52
Young climate activists take part in the "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Aachen, western Germany. (Leon Kuegeler, AFP)

Young climate activists take part in the "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Aachen, western Germany. (Leon Kuegeler, AFP)

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European Union leaders have failed to strike a deal to commit the block to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 at a European Council summit this week.

While only eight countries had committed to the target at the previous summit in March, large-scale environmental protests and the huge gains made by green parties at the European elections in May had raised expectations of a breakthrough. Several European leaders had backed the target.

But four countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary - blocked the proposal on Thursday amid concerns it would hurt their economies, dependent on nuclear power and coal. As unanimity is required among member states to pass the deal, the 2050 goal was not included in the EU's strategic agenda for 2019-2024.

The target would commit the EU to a net zero carbon footprint by 2050 by reducing emissions from transport, homes, and industrial or other economic activity, or offsetting them with projects aimed at soaking up CO2 or avoiding future emissions.

The European Commission presented the plan in late November, writing it should include "investing into realistic technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance, or research - while ensuring social fairness for a just transition".

It would make the EU the world's first major economy to commit to going climate neutral ahead of a key UN conference in New York on September 25.

"It is incumbent on the EU ahead of the summit in September to make an agreement on the 2050 target to ensure the EU is showing leadership and the world is on a path to achieving net zero given the scale of the challenges we face on the climate emergency," Luke Murphy, who heads the Environmental Justice Commission at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), told Al Jazeera.

"Of course it's right that there needs to be a focus on the economic and social justice policies that need to be implemented, but that is essentially what should have been agreed at this summit," Murphy added.

Environmental campaigning group Greenpeace EU has called on European leaders to hold an emergency climate summit ahead of the UN meeting in New York, and recognise the need to step up its current targets. 

"We were very firmly defending our interests," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters in Brussels. "Poland is one of those countries that must first have a very detailed compensation packages. We must know how much we can get for modernisation."

Paris commitment

The European Council's conclusions dropped the 2050 deadline, instead reiterating a commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C.

It pledged to issue its guidance by the end of the year for a strategy to be adopted in early 2020 "that will preserve European competitiveness, be just and socially balanced, take account of Member States' national circumstances and respect their right to decide on their own energy mix". This will likely coincide with the EU's long-term budget negotiations.

Martin Nesbit, head of the Climate and Environmental Governance Programme at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, argues that there has to be greater conditionality between budget decisions and the willingness of member states to sign up to the 2050 target.

"Member states need to move to a slightly firmer position in the negotiations and say that significant elements of cohesion spending in the states that are blocking the 2050 target will be withheld unless they agree to it," Nesbit told Al Jazeera, arguing that developed economies like the EU would need to make the commitment for developing countries to follow suit.

"I'd say China has a more developed policy on greenhouse gas emissions than Poland does. There's often an exaggeration of the unwillingness of countries like China and India to take action," he added.

A group of European researchers warned this week that global emissions would need to be halved by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. According to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), most governments are not taking enough action with only The Gambia and Morocco being on track to meet that goal.

"Emissions keep rising and impacts are being felt all around the world, with developing countries experiencing the brunt of these impacts," said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics. "Recent examples include devastating floods and loss of life in East Africa caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai, and record 50°C temperatures in India." 

'The sooner, the easier'

While the leaders of the EU's 28 member states fell short of agreeing on the proposed target in Brussels, thousands of youth took to the streets for the fifth global climate strike on Friday. Schoolchildren and teenagers have been skipping school to demand government action to tackle climate change.

The first global climate strike on March 15 drew an estimated 1.5 million students to the streets in more than 100 countries. It helped propel the Extinction Rebellion protests which brought parts of London to a halt and led to the British government declaring a climate emergency. The UK has committed to going climate neutral by 2050.

After Europe-wide elections in May, the Greens became the fourth largest group in the 751-seat European Parliament, due to hold its first plenary session on July 2. Green parties emerged as a leading political force in Germany and nearly doubled their share of the vote in France, the United Kingdom, Finland and Denmark.

"The benefits of committing to the target are greater the sooner the decision is made, in economic as well as environmental terms," Nesbit said.

"It is challenging but feasible. The sooner the investor and the private sector have clarity on what the target is, the easier it is to meet that target," he added, explaining that businesses need to know if carbon restrictions will become greater in order to invest in the right technology.

"There are huge opportunities from the green transition. In terms of green jobs, green manufacturing, being able to export goods in this low-carbon economy," Murphy said. "Whatever pace we are moving, we are moving towards that."

"It's not just government and green groups. Businesses were disappointed by the decision as well. Actually there is huge support in the UK for the net zero target from the business community as there is across the EU because they welcome stability."

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