A Climate Neutral Law that legally binds European Union members to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050 has been unveiled. However, a split between member states means interim targets for cutting emissions by 2030 may not leave enough time to encourage others to follow suite ahead of this year’s key COP26 climate-change conference. The 2030 targets will determine the starting point for the trajectory out to 2050.

The law drawn up by the European Commission is the legislative framework for the European Green Deal announced at the end of 2019. Besides net zero, the deal also proposes increasing the 2030 emissions-reduction target to “at least 50 per cent to 55 per cent” below 1990 levels.

However, the proposed law will only explore options for a new target after a review ending in September 2020, even though 12 members wanted a June deadline so that other countries could upgrade their individual climate pledges well before November’s COP26 meeting.

The law requires net-zero emissions by mid-century, but net-zero does not mean no emissions. The target would be achieved by balancing the sources of emissions such as fossil-fuel combustion with the removal of greenhouse gases by natural sinks such as forests, soils, agricultural lands and wetlands, as well as through carbon-removal technologies.

And not all member states will have to achieve neutrality by 2050: the target will be an EU-wide collective objective, not one imposed on individual countries.

The EU’s emissions policy until 2030 is already covered by law. The current formal target of a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 is in line with limiting temperature rises to below 2°C. However, a 50 per cent to 55 per cent target would be consistent with the trajectory required for limiting warming to 1.5°C – which is what the EU now wants.

The 2030 position will determine the pace of change over the following two decades – hence the concern about leaving the enhancement of the 2030 targets so late. Under the proposed law, the Commission would only assess how the upgraded 2030 targets would be incorporated into the law in June 2021.

The proposed climate law now goes to the European Council and the European Parliament for debate and approval.

First published 5 March 2020.

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