Carbon Critical

Mar 22, 2024

The EU’s Desultory 2040 Emissions Reduction Pledge

The fine print for Europe’s ambitious reduction goal—90 percent by 2040—is on the line in Europe’s upcoming elections. 

A graph showing the EU's CO2 emmissions 1990-2050.
Attribution CC BY

Two years loom large in the minds of European climate advocates and policymakers: 2030 and 2050. 

In close view, 2030 is a critical indicator of progress on the path toward the European Union’s larger goal of net zero by 2050. Globally, these years underpin climate action at both the state and international level, as domestic policies and nationally determined contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are designed around these decadal markers.  

In February, the European Commission set another goal: a 90 percent emissions reduction by 2040. This is highly ambitious. Europe may have met its 2020 goal (a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to its 1990 level), but delivering the 2030 (a reduction of 55 percent) and 2050 (net zero) commitments will be much heavier lifts. 

And as targets go, the midpoint between two major milestones is not an enviable position. Current policy and industry effort is locked in on 2030, while broader conversations remain framed around lofty net zero ambitions by 2050. So, what does that mean for 2040—the nonbinding and neglected middle child of Europe’s climate strategy? 

Interim Goal to Interim Goal

Achieving the EU’s 2040 goal will depend on the outcome of its 2030 target. “Fit for 55” is the EU’s signature climate strategy for this decade, which hopes to deliver 55 percent emissions reduction on a 1990 baseline by 2030. That reduction is required by law, and while the ramifications of violating a legally binding target remain unclear, missing that milestone would certainly cast doubt on the EU’s ability to deliver on its 2040 and 2050 pledges. 

To bridge the European Environmental Agency’s estimated 24 percentage points gap by 2030 (according to the EEA, at the end of 2023 the EU had reduced its emissions by 31 percent), states will need to start now reducing their emissions by more than double the rate they have since 2005. This is all to say that meeting the 55 percent target is not a given, particularly following the European Commission’s assessment of member states’ plans, which already projects only a 51 percent reduction by 2030. 

Missing the mark by 4 percent may appear marginal, but there is more to that shortfall than meets the eye. The 2020 goal was met primarily due to the reduction of coal fired power generation. In 2020, Germany alone had reduced its carbon dioxide emissions for coal by 370 metric tons since 1990. By the close of the decade, other sectors like transportation will also contribute meaningful reductions, driven by a greater market share of affordable electric vehicles and the expansion of charging infrastructure. Energy efficiency standards and technologies such as heat pumps could substantially reduce the large emissions footprint from commercial and residential buildings.

These are the core sectors of the EU’s 2030 climate strategy because they encompass the most developed and commercially viable emissions reduction technologies. But these alternatives to high emitting methods of power generation and transportation have taken decades to come to maturity. While these sectors will continue to spur decarbonization efforts through 2030, meeting the EU’s 2040 goal will require similar reductions across high-emitting sectors with unproven sustainable alternatives. 

Turning to Manufacturing and Agriculture

As 2040 nears, focus will turn to reducing emissions from hard to abate sectors like industrial manufacturing and agriculture. The manufacturing sector—which accounted for 21.6 percent of total EU emissions at the end of 2023—will require a massive increase in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is unproven at scale and facilitates continued use of fossil fuels. Hydrogen will also play a role in decarbonizing industrial heat processing and fertilizer supply, but the handful of production processes for clean hydrogen are not yet cost competitive with traditional, carbon-intensive methods.

These strategies—accompanied by others like grid enhancement, fuel cell heavy vehicles, and small module nuclear reactors—need early government support to prepare for deployment. Overcoming decades long lead times and large capital expenditures requires investment support and planning done years in advance. The EU has made some progress on proactive signaling, including the Agriculture and Fisheries Council carbon farming measures and early targets for clean hydrogen production, but detailed preparations to deploy the nascent technologies required to meet the 2040 target have yet to materialize. 

Recommendations for integrating long-term climate planning into the EU’s legislative agenda exist, often authored by civil society groups unbeholden to constituents impacted by green policies. The barrier to effective implementation of these recommendations lies in convincing the public that these measures—and the elected representatives who support them—are needed. 

Obstacles for Integration and Success 

While achieving the 90 percent emissions reduction target would be a technological feat alone, the current socio-political environment in Europe may threaten Brussels’ ability to drive change. The successful implementation of EU climate policy will require strong governmental stewardship, but the green transition has become the latest feature of raging culture wars between the left and right. 

The explosion of farmers protests from France to Germany are symptomatic of dissatisfaction with officials in Brussels. Farmers have voiced their frustration by driving tractors to state capitals, blocking highways, and egging legislative buildings. This tactic is not new: Dutch farmers also blocked highways back in 2019 to protest a decision by the Netherlands’ high court to impose stricter nitrogen regulations. But if that farmer mobilization is a harbinger for what is to come, the recent protests should serve as a cautionary tale for June’s elections to the European Parliament.

Following the Netherlands’ 2019 nitrogen protests, a far-right, pro-farmer political party known as the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) emerged under the leadership of Caroline van der Plas. In 2023 it became the largest political party in the Senate, the Netherlands’ upper parliamentary chamber, and is now considering forming a coalition with the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders in the lower house. In general, farmer dissatisfaction has mobilized a political base with a penchant for the populist right, even attracting support from key politicians including France’s Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump in the United States. But BBB’s ambitions are not just domestic; the group has put forward a list of 21 candidates for the European elections in June.

As EU citizens head to the polls, proponents of the 2040 pledge may have to reckon with unfavorable electoral math. Although the 90 percent reduction target has been set, a comprehensive legislative proposal will not be finalized until after the European Parliament elections, meaning that the composition of the European Parliament may significantly sway the Commission’s final proposal. 

Not Everyone Is on Board

As the European elections draw closer, the opportunity to build momentum for the newly set 2040 goal is at risk. If the European Parliament swings right, the EU’s ambitious climate agenda will confront an unfortunate electoral reality: not everyone is on board with the green transition.

As such, the European Commission may be forced to placate right-leaning parties with anodyne climate legislation. Given that the 2040 target is not yet legally binding and therefore lacks the legitimacy of the 2030 and 2050 commitments, the onus to enshrine the goal and define how it will be met lies with the approval of the new European Parliament. And while compromise with right-leaning parties may be necessary, watered down commitments will not deliver 90 percent emissions reduction by 2040.

Emily Hardy is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, DC.

Dan Helmeci is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, DC.

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