The State of the European Union and the new 2030 targets on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions

di Giulia Notaristefano - 30 Novembre 2020

 from Brussels, Belgium

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00160

The State of the European Union 2020

This year’s State of the European Union (SOTEU) took place on September 16, 2020.  During the SOTEU, the President of the European Commission addresses the European Parliament to present the priorities for the following year (European Commission, 2020a). The SOTEU is also a crucial moment in which the Commission demonstrates its accountability towards the European Parliament, the only EU body elected by European citizens. This year’s SOTEU was of particular relevance, considering that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all aspects of society (European Parliament, 2020). On September 16, President Ursula von der Leyen touched upon seven main topics (European Commission, 2020b). These are health, the single market, a common COVID-19 vaccine, digitalization, EU external affairs, migration, and the environment. This article explores these points while focusing on a notably silent one: The change of the 2030 targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


Seven priorities for the year ahead

First of all, the Commission promised to protect lives and livelihoods by building a stronger European Health Union through the new EU4health programme. Cross-border health threats should be addressed by strengthening the European Medicines Agency and building an agency for biomedical advanced research and development. Besides, the President of the Commission mentioned the re-discussion of health competencies between Member States and the Union (European Commission, 2020c). 

Second, the Commission stressed the importance of ensuring stability within the Single Market and completing the Capital Market and Banking Unions (Ibid). Third, President von der Leyen communicated her disapproval for vaccine nationalism as a solution to the Pandemic. On the contrary, she expressed support for an EU leading role in vaccine cooperation to create an accessible, affordable, and safe vaccine. Fourth, the Commission promised to push this decade to become Europe’s Digital Decade. How? By ensuring broadband connectivity for all through the creation of an European Cloud that allows to share data for research purposes while strengthening control over personal data (Ibid).

The fifth objective mentioned by the Commission is to provide a prompt and decisive response to global events while strengthening the EU’s relations with its partners and neighbors. Clearly, the Commission did not miss the opportunity to mention the migration crisis, a phenomenon that Europe has been facing in the past years. President von der Leyen explained that she wishes to build a Union where racism and discrimination have no place. Also, she stated that reforms will be made to ensure a closer link between asylum and return and strengthen the integration process. Lastly, von der Leyen addressed one of the main challenges of this Century: the reduction of GHG emissions (Ibid).


Number one priority: New 2030 targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Differently from the COVID-19 Pandemic, which will eventually come to an end, the climate will not stop changing unless political actors do something to slow down the process. The Commission is well aware that global warming is one of the most critical challenges that the international community has to address. Not by coincidence, the President introduced the topic by saying: “There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet” (Ibid). Despite the European Green Deal already represents the blueprint to achieve zero-net GHG emissions by 2050, the Union has to increase the speed of its green change. President Ursula von der Leyen then explained to the European Parliament that the 2030 target for emissions reduction has to be more ambitious. This decision was based on 170 business leaders’ requests, on a public consultation, and on an extensive impact assessment (Ibid).

The impact assessment showed that, even though EU countries have already managed to reduce emissions by 25% since 1990, the emissions should be reduced at a faster pace. Likewise, it would not be possible to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, if the 2030 target for emissions was left at 40%. Indeed, the President of the Commission explained that the EU should diminish its gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to the emissions of 1990 (Ibid). Von der Leyen clarified that this target is “manageable, feasible and achievable”. This will also be possible through an investment in green energy that is foreseen to be increased by 350 billion per year (Ibid). Moreover, 37% of Next Generation EU funds are planned to be invested in projects that can have an extensive impact (Simon, 2020). 


2030 targets, 2050 objectives, 40% emissions reduction: where do these numbers come from?

In December 2015, 195 states met in Paris to attend the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference. As a consequence of the Paris Conference, the first universal, legally binding, global agreement on climate change was adopted (IPCC, n.d.). The Paris Agreement sets the long-term target to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial level (European Commission, 2020d). Having the EU ratified the Agreement, it committed to take measures to remain below that temperature (European Commission, n.d). The Communication “A clean planet for all”, of November 2018, is one of the main steps that have been taken by the EU Commission to put forward the 2050 long-term goals (European Commission, 2020d).

In that Communication, the Commission based the choice of its objectives on the assessments made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body in charge of providing policy-makers with regular scientific assessments on global warming (IPCC, n.d.). Based on the IPCC evaluations, the EU committed to present by 2020 a long-term vision to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by mid-century. In order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, the Commission considered necessary to reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (Communication from the Commission (EU) 2018/773/COM, 2018).

However, other measures to reduce gas emissions had been taken even before the “A clean planet for all” Communication. For instance, in 2014, the European Council adopted the “2030 Climate and Energy Policy Framework”, which introduced three binding targets for 2030. One of these was, in fact, a 40% reduction of GHG emissions compared to 1990 levels. These targets were then also included in the “Clean energy for all Europeans” package proposed by the Commission in 2016 (Veum, Baucknecht, 2018). 


The Green Deal 

If targets were already set, why has the Green Deal been made? As mentioned above, in 2018, the Commission committed to present by 2020 a long-term vision to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Within this context, the Green Deal can be better understood as a vision, rather than as a mere policy paper. It is a roadmap that aims at turning the EU economy into a sustainable one through a green transition (European Commission, 2020e). Precisely, the original document defines it as the Commission’s “commitment to tackling climate and environmental-related challenges” (Communication from the Commission (EU) COM/2019/640 final, 2019). It also adds that it is “a new growth strategy to transform the EU into a prosperous society […] where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050” (Ibid.).

The Green Deal includes a series of steps and actions needed to achieve the green transformation. These actions include, for example, the Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030, and the EU Strategies for energy system integration and hydrogen, all proposed in the first half of 2020. Most importantly, these actions incorporate a European Climate Law, also proposed in March, that aims at creating legally binding legislation to enshrine 2030 targets and 2050 objectives (European Commission).


The EU Climate Law

On October 6, 2020, the European Parliament passed an amendment to the EU Climate Law proposed by the Commission. With this amendment, the Members of the European Parliament agreed to increase the 2030 targets of emissions reduction from 40% to even 60% (European Parliament News, 2020). This was a proposal of the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, a member of the Socialists and Democrats group. Some of the MEPs of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) are not satisfied with this change. They believe that this new target is too ambitious, and they are in favor of the 55% target that, even if ambitious, seems more realistic and feasible (Simon, 2020).

To summarize, during the SOTEU 2020, the Commission proposed to reduce by 2030 emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels, instead of reducing them by 40%. The European Parliament, in its latest amendment of the proposed EU Climate Law, raised its ambitions to even 60% emissions reductions. These targets are part of a longer-term vision, the EU Green Deal, which aims at setting the steps to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050. If some members of the Parliament consider the 60% as an overambitious target, Greenpeace and Greta Thunberg disagree. According to Greenpeace, cutting emissions by 55% by 2030 would “fall far short of the cuts required by science to keep global heating to 1.5°C” (Greenpeace, 2020). The NGO further explains that the proper target to limit global heating should be 65%. Greta Thunberg, in the online publishing platform “Medium”, also explained that not “even 65% CO2 emission reduction targets” are in line with the Paris Agreement (Greta Thunberg, 2020).


How is the European Union doing?

“The European Environment State – and Outlook 2020” published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in December 2019 can answer this question. According to the Agency, the EU was not making sufficient progress to address environmental challenges, not even when the target was still 40%. In particular, the report states that “the current rate of progress will not be sufficient to meet 2030 and 2050 climate and energy targets” (European Environment Agency, 2019). Based on past trends, the European Environment State labeled GHG emissions reduction by 2030 as “partially on track”. Even worse, the prospects of meeting policy 2030 and 2050 targets are labeled as “largely not on track”. Still, between 1990 and 2017, GHG emissions have declined by 22% due to policy measures and economic factors  (European Environment Agency, 2019). 

In particular, the “Trends and Drivers of Greenhouse gas Emissions” provides an interesting overview of the GHG emission trends and drivers at EU level between 1990 and 2018. This report confirms that GHG emissions continue decreasing in absolute terms in the EU, and it further highlights that, in 2018, they reached the lowest level since 1990. Economic factors and EU policies and measures seem to be amongst the main drivers of these positive results. On the contrary, fossil fuels and road transports seem to be the main obstacle to GHG emissions reduction. The former is still the largest source of energy, and thus emissions, in the EU. While the latter is the only sector that did not contribute to the positive trends. In fact, the best outcome was produced by the residential, industrial, agricultural, and waste management sectors (European Environment Agency, 2020). 


The road ahead to meet the 2030 targets

Despite the positive trends, the EU would still have needed to triple its efforts in order to meet the 2030 targets that were set at 40% (European Environment Agency, 2020). If the Climate Law will actually enforce the targets at even 60%, this means that the efforts should be more than quadrupled in the next years. According to the EEA (2020), these results could be achieved by increasing the use of renewables, keep improving energy efficiency, and intervening at the core of industrial processes, thus at agriculture, forestry, and land use as well as waste management. 

Since EU policies seem to have worked in the past twenty-eight years, keep working on integrated policies could be the key also for the next decade. The EEA (2020) recommends not to make trade-offs with other economic sectors, but to integrate each sector in order to promote green investments. This way forward has to be accompanied by stronger endeavors to lower energy intensity and higher energy efficiency and develop the carbon intensity of energy production and consumption (European Environment Agency, 2020). In conclusion, the next steps that the European Commission will undertake are the preparation of the legislative proposals needed to achieve the new targets, and the revision, by June 2021, of all relevant policy instruments to achieve the emission reductions. 


Bibliography (C-E)

Communication from the Commission (EU) 2018/773/COM A clean Planet for All, 2018. Document 52018DC0773. Available at [Accessed 13 November 2020]. 

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Thunberg, G. (2020). The EU is Cheating with Numbers – and Stealing our Future. [online] Medium. Available at: [Accessed 16 October 2020]. 

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Photo by Fredric Körbel on unspalsh. 


Autore dell’articolo*: Giulia Notaristefano, expert in International and European Affairs of the think tank Trinità dei Monti. Bachelor in International and Diplomatic Sciences at the University of Trieste and Master in European and International Studies at the University of Trento.


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