Climate change slips down EU agenda amid divisions over impact of carbon cuts

States agree on a brief uncontentious statement and park the debate for another day

Mark Rutte: the Netherlands’ prime minister. “I think a large majority of the European population understands the necessity to fight climate change.”  Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/ EPA

Mark Rutte: the Netherlands’ prime minister. “I think a large majority of the European population understands the necessity to fight climate change.” Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/ EPA

 

A debate on how to reach the European Union’s targets to cut carbon emissions was squeezed and ended without the resolution of deep differences between members states after the issue of Belarus dominated a Brussels summit and ate into the available time and attention.

How to tackle climate change and the response to Covid-19 had been the two major issues on the table for the 27 national leaders before the dramatic forced landing of a Ryanair flight to arrest two passengers by the authoritarian regime of Belarus on the eve of the conference seized the agenda.

The EU agreed in December to cut carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 in a deal widely seen as a milestone.

But the bloc has yet to agree on the details of how to achieve the carbon cuts, with key questions outstanding such as how the burden will be shared between members states, how to account for existing different energy mixes, and whether compensation for harder-hit countries will be needed.

It had been hoped that a debate between the 27 would go some way to resolving their differences before the European Commission releases proposals on how to achieve the carbon cuts in its “Fit for 55” package, set to be unveiled in July.

But concerns about the financial impact of an expanded emissions trading system – a way of capping carbon emissions by enabling allowances to be bought and sold – prevented agreement on a regulation that would set binding emission reduction targets for different sectors of the economy.

In particular, Poland has insisted that it will need substantial compensation to transition away from its overwhelming reliance on coal for energy; the highly-polluting fuel accounted for 74 per cent of its electricity in 2020.

Poorer member states have expressed concerns that tying sectors to emissions reductions could hit households with higher costs for heating and fuel.

Ultimately, the 27 agreed on a short few lines of uncontentious text and parked the debate for another day.

Final input

“The European Council will revert to the matter at an appropriate time after the Commission’s proposals have been submitted,” the joint conclusions read.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted following the summit that the debate had nevertheless been “useful as a sort of final input for the commission” ahead of their July proposals.

“I think a large majority of the European population understands the necessity to fight climate change,” said Mr Rutte.

“If we were to run up the costs of households in Europe because of the nice plans we make in Brussels or the Hague, that would not be the right kind of policy, and you would lose support,” he cautioned.

It came in a crucial week for debates over the EU’s mammoth farming subsidy policy, with member states, the Commission and the European Parliament aiming to hammer out a deal on a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy that has aimed to combine green ambitions with support for the agricultural sector.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged that some of the forthcoming package of 12 measures for cutting emissions would have “social impacts”, but said this would be offset by funding, and that the EU was focused on stimulating green innovation and jobs so it could have “a clean economy that is also a prosperous economy”.

“There are different concerns in each country,” the Commission chief told journalists. 

“If you look back, it’s a major success that no member state is questioning our goals anymore. So being climate neutral in 2050, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent in 2030, which is around the corner, is not a debate anymore. The only discussion we have is how best to achieve that.”