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European Climate Law: The beginning of a new chapter

Climate Planning & Laws

Only three years ago, conversations about a net-zero economy and a climate neutrality reality were just being put on the table as the goal that Europe should reach in 2050. Now, a new chapter in the EU’s climate history has opened: Europe has become the first of the world’s three biggest emitters to have a Climate Law, making the objective of climate neutrality legally binding.

The European Climate Law, which provides a framework for ensuring that all legislation and financial flows are steered to consistency with the climate-neutral pathway. It sets into law the objective of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, and a collective net greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990.

Experience at the national level confirms that such laws have an important orienting and enabling effect, increasing awareness and understanding of the economy-wide climate mission, enhancing investor certainty, and providing regular checks and balances to policymaking.

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Some key aspects of the EU Climate Law include:

  • Legally enshrining the objective to reach climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest.
  • Agreement to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 55%” by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, an objective that will also become a legal obligation for the EU and its Member States. The amount of greenhouse gas removals that can contribute to this target is capped.
  • Regular checks of progress towards the climate neutrality goal and of the consistency of measures with the pathway towards it, with corrective action to be taken if needed.
  • The establishment of an Independent Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, the European Scientific Advisory Board, composed of 15 scientific experts who will ensure evidence-based law-making and provide ‘scientific’ advice to policymakers on the alignment of EU policies with the Union’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.
  • The requirement that all future legislative proposals, including budgetary proposals, should be consistent with the 2030 target and the climate neutrality objective. 
  • A requirement for the European Commission to publish an indicative greenhouse gas budget for the period 2030-2050, which should inform a new target for 2040.
  • Voluntary sectoral decarbonisation roadmaps for industrial sectors under the guidance of the European Commission executive, who will facilitate dialogue, share best practices, and monitor progress.
  • A commitment to further define the methodology for monitoring Member States’ objectives to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
The establishment of an EU-level expert advisory body brings the European Union one step closer to more science-based climate policy. The European Environment Agency must now ensure that the body remains politically independent and that its members are appointed only on the basis of their merits.
Romain Laugier, policy officer at WWF European Policy Office

A coordinated action

This outcome is the culmination of months of negotiations and years of persistence from the ECF and its partners.

  • Between 2017 and 2019, the ECF coordinated analysis from Climact, Cambridge Econometrics, IEEP and other partners, as well as coordinated advocacy from partners including WWF EPO, CAN-E, EEB, and Greenpeace who contributed to net-zero being adopted as the EU’s mid-century goal.
  • Governance grantees such as Ecologic Institute, Grantham Institute at LSE, and IDDRI spearheaded years of thought leadership work on what constitutes a climate law and core best practice elements.
  • The ECF and partners have promoted the success and impact of national climate laws, including via this assessment of national climate laws published by Ecologic Institute in February 2020 and focuses on lessons from national governance innovations that could be applied to the EU level.
  • In August 2019, the ECF established the EU Climate Law Hub, which became the main reference point for governance experts and advocates of a strong climate law at the EU level and developed strong relationships with key figures.
  • The establishment of the hub led to putting forward proposals for the climate law, starting with a concept paper by Ecologic Institute in December 2019 and then a draft law in January 2020 which were later on considered by the European Commission in a proposal in March 2020.
  • The ECF has commissioned expert analysis and proposals on specific elements of the law, including from Grantham Institute LSE on the independent advisory body and from Ecologic Institute on greenhouse gas removals.
  • Working in a coordinated way via the hub, its members have carried out intensive advocacy throughout the adoption process, from initial Commission proposal through positioning by the European Parliament and Council to the final inter-institutional negotiations, where the Parliament fought for many improvements that were resisted by the Member States.

The journey to this agreement on an EU Climate Law has not been easy. Besides the governance architecture itself, a major focus of discussions and negotiations has been the ambition level of the targets, and many scientists, NGOs, and activists consider what has been adopted to be inadequate. There was disappointment too over other issues such as the need for better provisions on access to justice and stronger measures on the alignment of financial flows. Nevertheless, the adoption of the Law remains an important milestone. Today, we peak this long process and open the first page of the EU’s journey to climate neutrality under the eyes of a management framework to guide its achievement.

It should be noted that this is a law that is mainly focussed on the collective EU level. It does not replace the need for national governance measures such as domestic climate laws.