The European Climate Law: is it enough to get to climate neutrality?

Learn about the latest developments in EU policy in Energy Cities' What's EUp? - October 2020



David Donnerer

Publication date

October 1, 2020

At first glance, the European Climate Law proposed by the Commission maintains the top-down narrative in EU policymaking – meaning that the essential roles are reserved for the EU executive and the Member States. For example, the EU Commission could unilaterally increase emission reduction targets over time (i.e. every 5 years) to keep the EU on track in reaching 2050 climate neutrality. It also would submit each new proposed legislation to a “climate neutrality check”, and also regularly assess whether measures of Member States are consistent with the 2050 objective.

Member States are let off the hook

Despite these new additions to the Commission’s portfolio of actions, the European Climate Law still lets Member States off the hook for a number of reasons. Firstly, Member States have no obligation to reach climate neutrality on their own, as this is only an EU-wide objective. Secondly, any recommendations issued by the Commission are non-binding, meaning that EU countries can ignore them without fear of punishment. Thirdly, while Member States are encouraged to debate the 2050 climate neutrality objective with their stakeholders and citizens through multilevel climate and energy dialogues, they have no obligation to do so. And experience shows that when EU countries are only “encouraged” to do something, they generally don’t feel the need to do so.

No recognition of cities’ key role

Although EU institutions regularly pay lip service to the crucial importance of local authorities in delivering EU energy & climate policies – notably e.g. in the framework of the Covenant of Mayors – the European Climate Law ultimately lacks any recognition of the key role of cities in making the EU climate-neutral. The EU Parliament’s position on the Climate Law, prepared by Socialist parliamentarian Jytte Guteland, somewhat improves the proposal in this regard. It notably calls for nationally binding climate neutrality targets, an EU-wide phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, a EU carbon budget and the adoption of a 2040 emission reduction target, in order to make the trajectory towards climate neutrality more stringent and consistent. Furthermore, the Parliament strengthens the role of external actors: it calls for the creation of an independent scientific advisory board, the European Climate Change Council, to oversee the EU’s progress towards climate neutrality. In addition to this, it proposes to make the participation provisions of the text stricter, to enable local authorities to get involved in the decision-making process at EU and national level.

Are the Parliament’s improvements sufficient?

It’s certain that not all of the Parliament’s progressive proposals will survive the upcoming institutional negotiations, which are expected to be concluded by the end of the year. While Member States seem to be getting more and more on board with the notion of climate neutrality – see e.g. Poland which surprisingly agreed recently to end coal by 2049 – it is unlikely that they will agree to nationally binding targets and a 2025 phase-out date for fossil fuel subsidies. But even if some of the EU Parliament’s improvements to the European Climate Law will make it through – such as the proposed European Climate Change Council – these changes will not be enough. Even in an improved format, the European Climate Law cannot get the EU to climate neutrality.

Lean management of climate neutrality objective is key

What is then needed to transform the EU into a climate-neutral continent by 2050? Essentially, a different approach to business-as-usual EU policymaking with two main changes. Firstly, flexibility is key. Lean management of the climate neutrality objective is required, in order to be able to rapidly adapt (i.e. every year) the necessary measures and targets. The current EU policymaking process often takes 2-3 years to decide on a new proposal or revision of existing proposals, which is too long in a time when unforeseen disruptions (e.g. the current COVID-19 pandemic being a case in point) will become only more frequent as the climate crisis progresses.

Provide cities with a real seat at the table

Secondly, cities need to be assigned a proper role in EU decision-making, that goes beyond representation in merely consultative EU bodies such as the Committee of the Regions. European cities should e.g. have the power to quickly report to the Commission and/or EU courts national and EU-level threats and obstacles (e.g. changes in national legislation) to their ability to contribute to the delivery of the EU climate neutrality objective. Such a legal mechanism – aka to raising a “red flag” – should also be accompanied with the possibility for cities to have a real “seat at the table” in negotiations on any EU legislation critically affecting their implementation of the 2050 climate neutrality target. In order to put this in place, a binding, permanent multi-level dialogue should be established, which would involve city representatives, Member States and the Commission. The legal backbone for such a dialogue could be set out for example in a new EU regulation on urban mainstreaming in European policymaking, or added as a provision to the European Climate Law framework.

2050 may be far away, but we have no time to lose if the EU should become climate-neutral by 2050. It is only by moving beyond business-as-usual, i.e. by accelerating the decision-making process, while truly leveraging cities as key players on an equal footing in co-shaping EU policies in this regard, that the EU stands a chance to attain this ambitious goal by mid-century.   

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