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Europe’s Green Deal on climate change failed its first test

The European Union couldn’t agree on a 2050 deadline for slashing greenhouse gas emissions

BELGIUM-EU-ENVIRONMENT-SUMMIT-DEMO Photo by ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images

In a stunning disappointment to environmentalists, a bid to cut the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero by 2050 flopped at a key summit in Brussels. Today’s decision was the first test of whether the newly proposed European Green Deal — which promises to totally overhaul the continent’s economy — might turn into real action on climate change. Just one country, Poland, was the hold-out on the deal.

The Council released its final conclusions that said that while it supports the 2050 goal, “one member state at this stage cannot commit to implement this objective as far as it is concerned, and the European Council will come back to this in June 2020.”

The outcome in Brussels today signals a tough road ahead to secure commitments on climate action not only from European nations, but from other big polluters as well. New president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen just released the EU’s Green Deal on December 11, a sweeping package of policy proposals aimed at drastically reducing emissions by 2050. Her announcement followed the November declaration by the European Parliament of a “climate emergency” — a phrase that activists with Greenpeace hung from the building where the Council met in Brussels. Unanimous endorsement of the 2050 goal by the European Council today was supposed to set the stage for a green transformation in Europe and encourage changes across other parts of the world.

If the goal had passed unanimously, Europe would have become the biggest economic bloc yet to set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 — meaning it would have nearly eliminated planet-heating pollution from burning fossil fuels and drawn down any remaining carbon it releases. That’s a target necessary to save lives and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, according to scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations climate conference wraps up in Madrid on December 13th, where activists and delegates are pushing countries to up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions under the Paris climate accord.

The failure to come to an agreement would be a “traumatic signal,” said Neil Makaroff, European Policy Adviser for the international Climate Action Network, in an interview before the decision. If Europe’s industrialized countries aren’t willing to make dramatic changes to slow down climate change, why should other countries? The council’s decision shows discord on climate action within the continent too. The Council determines the overarching direction and political priorities of the European Union. “We should be very careful that the Green Deal is not already outdated the day after it has been printed,” said Makaroff.

A previous effort to get the EU to commit to net-zero emissions by the mid-century was blocked by Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in June. The effort was derailed again this week by arguments over whether to lean on nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Countries that relied more on coal also wanted a longer timeline and more funding to cover the costs associated with a transition away from fossil fuels.

The Green Deal includes measures to cut emissions from transportation, make buildings more energy efficient, increase renewable energy sources, protect biodiversity, and make agriculture more sustainable. It also calls for the introduction of regulations designed to reduce industrial waste and encourage companies to increase reuse and recycling. It signals the adoption of a “zero pollution action plan” for air water and soil in 2021. It also pushes for new trade policies that could penalize countries like the US that are uncooperative in global efforts to tackle climate change. It allocates 100 billion euros for regions of the world most likely to be upended by the changes, as part of an effort to ensure a “just transition” towards a greener economy and society.

The targets set out in the Green Deal are aspirational, and the policy package is light on details. It’s more of a rallying cry — and a show of how seriously the commission under von der Leyen — who just took office 12 days ago — takes the climate crisis. To spark action, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, needs to introduce legislation to make its goals legally binding. The commission still plans to introduce what it says will be the first European climate law in March, enshrining the goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 in legislation.

That vote will be another shot to make the 2050 goal a reality. That vote has a lower threshold for adoption, since unlike the decision from European Council today, legislation doesn’t require a unanimous decision. But the outcome in Brussels today hints at more political wrangling ahead.

Update 12/12/19 8:10pm ET: This post has been updated with text from the European Council’s final conclusions.