Five Takeaways From the EU’s Big Climate Overhaul Plan

After years of protests, lobbying, and negotiations, Europe’s transformative plan to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change is now in the hands of politicians and lawmakers.

On Wednesday the European Union’s executive body presented a mammoth package of measures known as Fit for 55, the first step down the very long path toward cutting the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. The next step will take years. Turning those headline-grabbing numbers into enforceable regulations requires intricate negotiations among the EU’s 27 member states.

Brussels-watchers know what to expect, but the rest of us are advised to exercise patience. As talks advance, it’s important not to let the myriad technicalities obscure the big picture—that humans need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of the decade and reach net zero by mid-century to forestall a level of temperature rise that would be catastrophic for all living beings on Earth. 

As we wait for the world to change, here are five more things to keep in mind: 

1. This will be a market-led revolution

The EU’s strategy to cut emissions still revolves around the region’s carbon market, the world’s largest, also known as the Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS. Under the proposals unveiled Wednesday, the rate at which pollution caps shrink each year will increase to 4.2%. That will force manufacturers, power producers and airlines to speed up their emissions-cutting pace.

To ensure that European companies aren’t undercut by competitors in other regions, the EU wants to introduce the world’s first import levy for highly-polluting products. The measure, known as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, will affect imports including steel, cement, aluminum, fertilizers and power from countries with lower environmental standards. 

2. The transformation will impact every single thing you can think of

Abstract changes in the carbon market and new taxes on raw materials will trickle down to every part of the economy. Europeans will feel the impact when buying plane tickets, moving around cities, heating their homes and powering every single gadget that runs on electricity. 

Two proposals stand out, though. First is the mandate that emissions from new cars drop to zero by 2035, which would effectively put an end-date on sales of internal-combustion passenger vehicles. The other is the goal to raise the bloc’s renewable power target to 40% of the energy mix by the end of the decade, up from the current 32%. Clean energy giants have already overtaken fossil fuel producers in recent years , but this will give them even more of a boost.

3. Forest wars are looming 

Traditionally seen as an add-on to climate plans, trees take center stage in the EU’s proposal. Forests, grasslands and other non-urbanized areas are known as “sinks” because they absorb carbon. They will be key to eliminating the emissions that can’t be cut by raising taxes or switching technologies, such as using renewable-powered hydrogen to green energy-intensive industrial processes like cement or steel manufacturing.

The EU’s first step will be to expand woodlands by planting an additional 3 billion trees. But that’s a deeply controversial measure that’s pitting the forestry industry against regulators and climate activists. Sergiy Moroz at nonprofit European Environmental Bureau warns that the bloc’s forest strategy “proposes to use forests to mask failure by other sectors to take climate action.”

4. Keep the words “just transition” in mind 

EU leaders have insisted that the transition to a green economy won’t come at the sacrifice of the regions, nations, and families currently dependent on fossil fuels. Polish coal miners might be the first that come to mind, but it’s not just them—it could be anyone. A retired person living in an old, heat-spewing building that doesn’t meet new efficiency requirements. A farmer struggling with low prices who can’t afford the changes needed to lower the carbon footprint of his animals and fields.  

Poland has “very serious” concerns about the EU's proposal to create a separate emissions trading systems for heating and road transport fuels, the Climate and Environment Ministry said on Wednesday. Members of the European Green Party say their biggest challenge is to ensure that lower-income households—which also happen to be those most vulnerable to climate change—don’t end up paying the costs of the transition. 

5. Europe is leading, but it’s still not enough

Wednesday was a day for big statements. Implementing the package will be “bloody hard,” said Frans Timmermans, the commission’s executive vice-president for the European Green Deal. But two years after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen first outlined the climate neutrality goal, “we know where we want to go, and what we need to do to get there,” she said.

Europe’s target is more ambitious than the U.S.’s, and China’s. But it’s still “insufficient” to keep global warming below 2º Celsius by the end of the century, according to the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker. Anything above that will be catastrophic, scientists warn. 

“You can’t ignore climate science,” said Greenpeace EU Director Jorgo Riss. “This whole package is based on a target that is too low, doesn’t stand up to science, and won’t stop the destruction of our planet’s life-support systems.”

Laura Millan writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

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