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Climate Planning & Laws

Net-zero will not be arrived at by chance. Our vision is to win credible legal commitments to this objective at EU and national level, underpinned by robust long-term planning frameworks that will chart the course to delivery. Long-term strategies should guide decisions on near-term policies and actions in all sectors of the economy, with robust citizen engagement processes.

Marius Oprea Ysa9uj7zsmw Unsplash

Key challenges

  • Reliable delivery of a goal as challenging as net-zero emissions by mid-century demands a “back-casting” approach: understanding the long-term pathways towards climate neutrality and using these to determine the actions to be taken in the next five to ten years. This implies a significant culture change in policymaking, where the natural tendency is to advance incrementally according to what appears to be politically and technologically acceptable.
  • Transition to a net-zero economy implies major structural transformation. Sustained commitment and steady progress between government mandates will be needed. A major risk is new governments taking office and overturning their predecessors’ decisions on targets, incentives, financing mechanisms, or other policies which may have allowed transformation to take root. Strong institutions and processes are needed to ensure that the imperative of the transition transcends short-term political expediency.
  • The societal buy-in will be essential for a successful transition to net-zero emissions economies, particularly as we move into intrusive aspects, for example, those related to people’s homes. The yellow vest protests in France, triggered by the “last straw” of a carbon tax, illustrate the backlash that could occur if citizens are not on board with the changes needed. Finding ways to engage with, inform and listen to people will be key.


The ECF is committed to ensuring that the EU and its Member States provide strong leadership in implementing the Paris Agreement. As part of that process, we are working to secure the adoption of legal frameworks that will lead to the development of robust long-term strategies and sustained focus on their delivery.

In recent years, the ECF, via its partners, contributed significantly to the design and adoption of the EU’s Governance Regulation. This major piece of cross-cutting legislation requires the Member States to develop economy-wide Long Term Strategies, and National Energy and Climate Plans focused on 2030, which are consistent with the long term pathways. The existence of this framework for planning by back-casting, to be updated every five years, is a major step forward in the EU’s net-zero governance. The task now is to support the Member States in preparing and following up on these plans.

Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is an economy-wide endeavour. The actions taken in one sector can have a significant impact on the options available to another, for example in terms of the demand for steel, or the availability of biomass. Close attention to these overlaps and interactions is needed in order to set the right policies to arrive at the long-term goal. The ECF seeks to support both EU and national governments and civil society with the tools and know-how to develop detailed, quality plans.

A framework for planning is an important foundation, but even stronger are legal commitments to the long-term goal, interim targets or carbon budgets, and independent institutions which will monitor and advise governments on how to deliver these. Overarching climate laws, such as the UK Climate Change Act or Swedish climate law, provide just such a framework. They outlast politicians’ mandates and can have a transformative effect on public discourse. The ECF supports campaigns to deliver national climate laws in countries across Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Ireland and Latvia, as well as the EU’s first continent-wide climate law.

Legally binding commitments also mean that those responsible for delivering them can be held accountable. Climate litigation cases are increasing exponentially at the national, EU and global levels to enforce or enhance climate commitments. Yet they are dependent on NGOs and citizens getting proper access to justice, which is governed by procedural rules concerning standing, remedies available, timeliness and costs. The ECF works to secure citizens’ ability to challenge acts that breach environment law.

We are also exploring innovative approaches to citizen engagement and public participation. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was a highly impactful experiment in deliberative democracy, and similar structures are now being trialled in France and the UK. The ECF is supporting the delivery of those assemblies whilst seeking to develop an understanding of best practice that can be replicated across Europe, and potentially beyond.

How we work

We work closely with experts in climate governance, democracy and economy-wide modelling in order to understand which approaches are up to the challenge of delivering net-zero and to ensure that the highest-quality inputs are given to governments and the civil society actors that we support. This has included, for example, supporting the development of open-source economy-wide calculator models with EU- and national-level granularity.

To secure the adoption of overarching legal frameworks, we work with diverse sets of actors who recognise the importance of strong commitments, governance and planning. These may include environmental NGOs, cities, progressive businesses, scientists and trade unions. We design our approach according to the circumstances of the country we are working in.

Also, core to our approach is working horizontally, across sectors. Climate plans and laws can be seen as the roof of a house, supported by sectoral measures. It is essential therefore to make sure that specialists in the overarching aspects are in regular contact with people who understand the sectors in more detail.


Erica Hope

Director, Climate Planning & Laws Programme

Charlotte Billingham

Senior Associate, Climate Planning & Laws Programme

Donal Mac Fhearraigh

Strategic Communications Lead, Climate Governance & True Zero

Zoltán Massay-Kosubek

Manager, Climate Planning & Laws Programme

Nimali Samarasinha

Manager, Climate Planning & Laws Programme

  • The ECF supports Net-Zero 2050

    The Net-Zero 2050 is an initiative of the European Climate Foundation with contributions from a consortium of experts and organisations funded by the ECF. The objective of the initiative is to start building a vision and evidence base for the transition to net-zero emission societies in Europe and beyond, by midcentury at the latest.