Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, attend the weekly College of Commissioners meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has put climate change at the top of her priorities and pledged to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050, will present her plans on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is unimpressed by the commission's new climate law © Virginia Mayo/AP

The European Commission’s new climate law — designed to ensure net zero emissions in the EU by 2050 — has had an inauspicious unveiling. Climate activist Greta Thunberg was among the signatories of an open letter describing the proposal as a “surrender” of the environmental fight. On the opposite side, diplomats have expressed concerns about proposals to give Brussels almost unilateral power on climate targets. Balancing ecological ambitions and politics is difficult, but there are clear steps the commission can take.

The most striking suggestion in the draft document is a proposal to deploy a “delegated act”, a powerful legal instrument, in the fight against climate change. This would allow Brussels to raise mandatory targets every five years from 2030 almost unilaterally.

Climate activists have been underwhelmed by the “2030 perspective”: the first new emissions target will only come into effect in a decade. The draft also failed to provide proposals for 2030 emissions levels. They are due to be released in September. Member states including France and Italy argue that this offers little time for debate before international climate talks in November. They have called for a June release. Activists are also concerned that the proposed law fails to suggest binding obligations on the 2030 targets. Such commitments can play a key part in ensuring that targets are met. The ruling that Heathrow airport’s third runway was unlawful last month stemmed from a 2016 obligation.

The delegated act is also a potential political stumbling block, with accusations that it is a “power grab” for the European Commission. Particular resistance is to be expected from coal-heavy Poland, the only member state to reject the 2050 net zero goal set last year. Such controversial measures could stoke tensions between richer and poorer states, already heightened by divisions over funding, immigration, judicial independence and more.

The commission’s first step should be to publish a 2030 emissions target in the coming months rather than in September. It should also consider creating interim targets for the next decade. Incentivising countries to make preparations to decarbonise their economies sooner, through technologies which are already available, is vital. Waiting 10 years to act risks reliance on breakthrough innovations to meet targets.

At the same time, the EU must work to support member states which are most dependent on emissions-heavy fuel sources and industries. The draft law mentions the need for “a successful and just transition”: this should factor in the radical alterations needed to how governments, business and individuals operate. Delegated acts may be needed to motivate recalcitrant member states, but the commission must do its best to mitigate their cost.

The EU should also consider the global context. A paper released by the Institute for International Finance this week said that sustainable financing was being undermined by the wide variety of measures used by different governments. It proposed that policymakers such as the G20 devise mechanisms for global alignment. With such authorities distracted by Covid-19, the bloc should consider how its new standards match with other regulatory frameworks.

In a statement announcing the new law, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described climate neutrality as “European destiny”. This is not a bromide: the EU has taken an admirable lead in the climate fight. But its success is not inevitable. It will require more ambition, political savvy and an effort to ensure all members see the value of the Green Deal.

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