The European Union put out a sweeping set of proposals today that could drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions if the plan ultimately becomes law. Internal combustion vehicles would be phased out by 2035, and it would rope industries like aviation and shipping, which were previously exempt from some EU climate policies, into compliance. The bloc also intends to influence polluters outside its borders by potentially making importers pay for their pollution.
All in all, it’s a roadmap to achieving a goal that Europeans have been hashing out for years. In 2019, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, put forward a “Green Deal” to get the continent to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Reaching that target requires incremental progress. So last year, the EU said it would cut its greenhouse gas pollution by 55 percent by 2030, compared to pollution in 1990. (That’s why the EU is calling its new set of proposals “Fit for 55,” a name that’s elicited some teasing online.)
While that’s ambitious, it’s the kind of action that’s needed to meet the scale of the climate crisis. Planet-heating emissions globally need to drop in half this decade and ultimately reach close to zero by the middle of the century, climate scientists have found. That would spare us some of the worst effects of climate change by meeting one of the targets of the landmark Paris agreement, which is to limit global warming to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Humans have already pushed global average temperatures to 1.1 degrees of warming, triggering more extreme weather, coastal flooding, and species loss.
“This is the ultimate now or never moment,” European Commissioner for Economy, Paolo Gentiloni Silveri, said in a statement. “With every passing year the terrible reality of climate change becomes more apparent: today we confirm our determination to act before it is really too late.”
Perhaps the biggest change that EU residents will feel is in transportation, which accounts for 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the bloc. The commission proposed ratcheting up emissions standards for new cars and vans. Under the existing proposal, they would need to slash their pollution by 55 percent in 2030 and 100 percent in 2035. That will ultimately take new gas-powered cars off the road.
Fuel used for shipping, aviation, and heating buildings would also change under the plan. One of the biggest tools the EU has for regulating pollution is its Emissions Trading System (ETS). That places a cap on how much pollution certain industries are allowed to produce and sets a price on carbon. Aviation used to get free emissions allowances, but the commission now wants them to fully pay for their carbon like other industries. Shipping would be regulated under the Emissions Trading System under the new plan, and a similar but separate system would be created for road transport and buildings. That would incentivize each sector to increase energy efficiency and more hastily turn to cleaner fuels.
The EU doesn’t want its carbon price to disadvantage European businesses or encourage more polluting abroad. So it also proposed putting a carbon price or tax on imports for products like steel and cement that have large carbon footprints. This provision could cause a kerfuffle with the World Trade Organization, The New York Times reports. But the measure aims to encourage tougher environmental standards for industries globally.
Renewable energy will need to replace most fossil fuels if the EU is to reach its climate ambitions. The commission now envisions that renewables will make up 40 percent of the bloc’s overall energy production by 2030. Renewable energy, including solar and wind, made up just over 15 percent of the EU’s energy mix in 2019.
Beyond slashing greenhouse gas emissions generated by people, the EU also wants to get better at drawing them down through natural carbon sinks like forests. It wants to plant 3 billion trees across the continent by 2030. Conserving forests and other ecosystems is important for plants, people, and animals. But repairing the climate by planting new trees has been a tricky, controversial enterprise.
That makes the EU’s other proposed schemes for reducing pollution the most important priorities for the roadmap. But the plan won’t materialize right away. It could take a couple of years just for the proposals to be approved by the European Parliament and member states.