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EU leaders agree to deeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2030

The plan confirms Europe’s status as a global leader on climate change.

President of the European Council Charles Michel, left, talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the end of the second day of an EU Summit on December 11, 2020, in Brussels, Belgium. 
Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

It might have taken 21 hours, but the European Union’s 27 member states have agreed to toughen targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 — a vast improvement from the 40 percent target set in 2014.

Last December, the European Commission — the political bloc’s executive arm — unveiled the European Green Deal, which set the goal for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Now, five years after the Paris climate agreement, the EU has agreed to cut emissions even further amid rising concern that saving humanity from the worst effects of climate change will be impossible without strong leadership.

The increased target is featured in the EU’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus recovery and long-term budget package that was finalized on Friday. The plan will be officially announced on December 12 at the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit 2020, which will be the largest gathering of leaders from governments, businesses, and civil society groups since the Paris accord was signed.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen celebrated the decision in a tweet, saying their “ambitious proposal” to slice emissions would put the EU “on a clear path towards climate neutrality in 2050.”

The agreement, reached after final talks began on Thursday, faced some hurdles. Poland held up the process by demanding that future emissions targets be determined by GDP, meaning the bloc’s poorer countries — like Poland — could pollute more than wealthier ones. It was an unsurprising ask as Poland’s economy relies on using coal, a big emissions contributor.

That issue was tabled, though, with members agreeing to meet next year on the matter. That paved the way for the historic announcement, one that could hopefully make the EU a greater leader in curbing climate change.

The EU is demonstrating leadership on curbing greenhouse gas emissions

The EU as a bloc has long cared about cutting emissions, but Friday’s announcement shows just how serious it is.

“It demonstrates a strong commitment inside Europe to figure out how to put together political support for climate change,” David Victor, professor of international law at the University of California San Diego, told me. Victor called the newly agreed-upon targets the “most aggressive so far.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said it was “worth losing a night’s sleep” to get the deal done. “I don’t want to imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to achieve such a result,” she added during statements to the press Friday. Others, like European Council President Charles Michel — who has urged bolder action — agreed, declaring that the announcement proved Europe is the “leader in the fight against climate change.”

But not everyone thinks the plan’s cuts are enough. Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, wanted the cuts to be 60 percent, not 55 percent. “Having the parliament supporting 60 percent helps the progressive countries in the council to drive ambition upwards,” Canfin told the Guardian back in October.

And it’s not like the EU will just magically meet its targets. It must now do the hard work of turning that ambition into reality.

“Announcements are relatively easy,” Victor said. “What’s really hard is implementation. There’s no date for that. That process is ongoing.”

“The details really matter, and many of the details are unknowable until real governments start trying to meet these targets,” Victor continued, “but it is certainly possible.”

Still, the stricter emissions benchmark is the latest EU commitment to lead on addressing climate change. The hope now is that it follows through on its pledge.