Only 29 years to go - The challenging path towards climate neutrality in 2050

by: in Law

Dear reader, welcome to the New Year 2021: a year with hopefully many opportunities and a less bizarre reality. However, while coping with Covid-19, there is already a need to take a long-term perspective: how to reach the aim of a climate neutral European Union in the year 2050. That is only 29 years from now, and the path towards it has yet to be charted with more precision…

Climate change, and also other environmental problems, need to be urgently addressed. Next to environmental legislation with standards to limit polluting behaviour, funding will play a crucial role. The European Union wants 30% of the EU funds to be channelled towards fighting climate change, and with the “Recovery Plan for Europe” - set up with the aim to repair economic and social damage caused by Covid-19 -  a greener Europe is promised. Furthermore, important decision-making for strengthening EU climate policies is on its way: the European Council agreed in its meeting on 10-11 December 2020 to endorse a sharpening of the European climate goal for already the year 2030: instead of a 40% emissions reduction it should be at least 55% emissions reduction compared to the year 1990, as a step towards climate neutrality in 2050.

The legally binding decision-making for such a target belongs to the competence of the EU legislator, and hopefully it will adopt a good decision shortly. However, already the formulation of the target deserves careful discussion: the 55% reduction goal for 2030 endorsed by the European Council is a “net” goal, as is also the proposed 2050 climate neutrality goal currently discussed during the legislative process. This means that the goal will be calculated as a sum of emissions and removals of greenhouse gasses. Hence, a too high amount of emissions has to be compensated with for example absorption of carbon dioxide by trees. From a legal perspective, one may argue that such a compensation approach – which includes emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry - is a too complicated concept, with a risk of misunderstandings or even fraud regarding the measurement and calculations of emissions and removals of emissions. Or will new techniques provided by satellites help to ensure precise calculation?

Furthermore, apart from the discussion whether the targets are ambitious enough, it has yet to be decided what exactly needs to be done to achieve the new 2030 goal, which is only nine years from now. For this, existing climate legislation at both EU and national level needs to be adjusted soon. However, what will be the most sensible approaches still requires fundamental discussion, such as in the energy area – an area for which the EU has no strong powers. Also, while we have experienced under Covid-19 that it is possible to do academic work with little aviation emissions, academics consequently should consider how to change travel behaviour after Covid-19. And, shouldn’t also be considered to what extent other worldwide transport patterns have to change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: what about the idea to restrict long-distance shipment of products to only what is strictly necessary? More precisely, do we need to have long-distance transport of animals (including dead animals), and animal feed, across the world?

While such fundamental debates are necessary to lay the foundation for adequate legal instruments to combat climate change, shaping the debate on what measures to take is not an easy matter: in view of the Aarhus Convention, consultation regarding developing environmental policies and other measures is needed. However, does consultation lead to effective and efficient approaches to achieve the 2030 and 2050 goals? Meanwhile, if you want to participate to EU climate law-making, you can subscribe to the “Have your say” communication service from the European Commission ( Then, you will get notifications inviting you to comment upon new Commission initiatives, including those addressing the climate change problem. However, please be aware that you need to reserve time if you want to participate meaningfully: during the fall of 2020 many climate related initiatives were published… And it is not an easy task to understand these correctly, let alone to participate with sensible input.

Nevertheless, these Commission initiatives serve to reach ultimately climate neutrality across the European Union in 2050. For the codification of this climate neutrality, and the pathway towards it, a draft regulation is pending, in which the more ambitious climate goal for 2030 should be included as well.

There are more or less two different regulatory approaches with which the EU steers towards these goals:

1) through hard legislation such as a reduced total amount of allowable emissions under the European Emissions Trading System, and
2) through softer regulatory approaches obligating Member States to adopt climate and energy plans which will be assessed by the Commission, and for which the Commission can issue recommendations.

One of the questions I find very relevant is what role the recommendations from the Commission could play in national court procedures, particularly regarding claims that ask the courts to order national governments to strengthen their greenhouse gas emission reduction policies. Indeed, Commission recommendations are not legally binding, but perhaps they will be seen by judges as a relevant source of information when identifying the legal duties of national governments in the field of climate change. Such case law developments are unpredictable, as are other legal problems that will eventually emerge when implementing the established reduction goals. The transition to a climate neutral society is not an easy path, we have never walked it before.

While the challenge to become climate neutral is unprecedented, I think we should take it up with a positive, courageous, and problem-solving attitude. Hence, I wish at the beginning of this new year to us all that at a festive climate law conference - to be held on Saturday the 31st of December 2050 - the achievement of a climate neutral European Union (in whatever form it then exists, but hopefully covering a large carbon neutral territory) can be celebrated. The goals are on their way, the implementation has to follow. Let’s all try our best!

A Dutch version is published in: Tijdschrift voor Milieu & Recht, 2021, volume 1.

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