With the European Climate Law, the EU committing to carbon neutrality by 2050. What does that mean in practice?
Climate change is already affecting the entire world, with extreme weather conditions such as drought, heat waves, heavy rain, floods and landslides becoming more frequent, including in Europe. Other consequences of the rapidly changing climate include rising sea levels, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity.
In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – a threshold the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is safe – carbon neutrality by mid-21st century is essential. This target is also laid down in the Paris agreement signed by 195 countries, including the EU.
In December 2019, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, its flagship plan that aims to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. This target will be reached through the European Climate Law that sets climate neutrality into binding EU legislation.
- Reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible
- Undertake rapid reductions
What is carbon neutrality?
Carbon neutrality means having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. Removing carbon oxide from the atmosphere and then storing it is known as carbon sequestration. In order to achieve net zero emissions, all worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will have to be counterbalanced by carbon sequestration.
Carbon sink is any system that absorbs more carbon than it emits. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests and oceans. According to estimates, natural sinks remove between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 per year. Annual global CO2 emissions reached 38.0 Gt in 2019.
To date, no artificial carbon sinks are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere on the necessary scale to fight global warming.
The carbon stored in natural sinks such as forests is released into the atmosphere through forest fires, changes in land use or logging. This is why it is essential to reduce carbon emissions in order to reach climate neutrality.
Another way to reduce emissions and to pursue carbon neutrality is to offset emissions made in one sector by reducing them somewhere else. This can be done through investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency or other clean, low-carbon technologies. The EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) is an example of a carbon offsetting system.
Another example of an initiative to reduce emissions is the carbon border adjustment mechanism, which would apply carbon prices on imported goods from less climate ambitious countries. This should help discourage companies moving production from the EU to somewhere with less stringent greenhouse gas emissions rules. The Commission should propose this carbon levy in 2021.
The European Union is committed to an ambitious climate policy. Under the Green Deal it aims to become the first continent that removes as many CO2 emissions as it produces by 2050.
On 7 October 2020, the European Parliament backed climate neutrality by 2050 and a 60% emission reduction target by 2030 compared to 1990 levels - more ambitious than Commission’s proposal of 55%. MEPs asked the Commission to set an additional interim target for 2040 to ensure progress towards the final goal.
In addition, members called for all EU countries individually to become climate neutral and insisted that after 2050, more CO2 should be removed from atmosphere than is emitted. Also, all direct or indirect subsidies to fossil fuels should be phased out by 2025 at the latest.
In April 2021, MEPs reached a deal with the Council on the obligation for EU to be climate neutral by 2050.
On 24 June, the Parliament adopted the new Climate Law, which increases the current 2030 emissions reduction target of 40% to 55% and makes the 2050-climate neutrality goal legally binding.
As suggested by the Parliament, an independent European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change will be set up to monitor progress and to assess whether policy is consistent.
Currently five EU countries have set the target of climate neutrality in law: Sweden aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2045 and Denmark, France, Germany and Hungary by 2050.