The European Commission looks set to push ahead with a plan to set an EU 2040 climate target, following the closure of a public consultation on 23 June. However, if the proposal comes before the next European election in a year’s time, the EU executive is expected to encounter significant opposition from some industries and conservative lawmakers who have already signalled that they see the rejection of some elements of President Ursula von der Leyen’s EU Green Deal as a winning political issue.

In 2014, the EU set a target of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, following on from the 20% by 2020 target that it met. In 2019, EU countries agreed to President von der Leyen’s proposal to set a target of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, and the following year they agreed to her proposal to raise the 2030 target to 55%. However, this left an open question: given that 2020, 2030 and 2050 all have targets – shouldn’t 2040 also have one?

Timmermans’ push for an EU 2040 climate target

The 2050 legislation does have an implicit goal for 2040 based on impact assessment trajectories, in order to keep progress on track, but a report published last month by the new European Climate Neutrality Observatory found that the pace at which the EU is transitioning towards a net-zero future is too slow to achieve its 2030 and 2050 targets. Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of the Green Deal, has been pushing for a legally binding 2040 target to avoid back-loading of efforts into the 2040s and stasis in the 2030s.

“Without a 2040 climate target, the EU would be at risk of missing its domestic climate objective for 2050 and possibly undermine its capacity to spur climate action internationally,” the Commission said in a statement when introducing its consultation.

Last month, the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, which advises the Commission, concluded that an EU 2040 climate target of 90–95% GHG emissions reductions is needed to reach the 2050 net-zero goal. This recommendation has been cheered by NGOs. Alex Mason, head of climate and energy at WWF’s European policy office, calls it a “powerful and important report, and a huge amount of analysis that went into it”.

“Much more radical action to cut emissions is essential if we are to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C,” he says. “The EU has essentially already exhausted its fair share of the global carbon budget and should be aiming for much faster emission cuts before 2030. The financial crisis, the Covid pandemic and the energy crisis have shown what governments can do when they put their minds to it, and could do if they treated the climate crisis as the emergency it is.” Some EU countries have already set a climate target for 2040 or 2045 nationally, including Austria, Germany, Sweden and Finland.

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At the Commission, the advisory body’s report was greeted enthusiastically by Vice-President Timmermans’ climate department – but there are rumours of hesitation in President von der Leyen’s office and questions over whether this is a political fight she wants to take on at a time when national leaders will soon decide whether she stays on for a second term.

Industry’s mixed response

Responses to the consultation show that most industry groups are either in favour of an EU 2040 climate target or accept that some kind of interim target is necessary, although with a much lower number than 95%. Some responses, however, are sceptical of the need for a binding 2040 target. Eurochambres, the umbrella organisation for chambers of commerce in the EU, wrote that a 2040 target should only be adopted if there are comparable frameworks in place among global competitors.

“We urge the European Commission to carry out an assessment beforehand,” it wrote. “With the Green Deal, the gap between Europe and global competitors in terms of climate protection costs is widening. The further development of European climate policy must, therefore, go hand-in-hand with securing the domestic industries at risk of production being shifted elsewhere.”

Industry association European Aluminium responded similarly, writing that any EU 2040 climate target should be “flexible” and “rather than only focusing on numbers, climate objectives should be accompanied by enabling conditions”. Any target should be backed by support for European industry and protection from carbon leakage. “Comparably to other regions of the world, the EU has introduced stringent climate targets along with significant regulatory costs which our competitors in other regions do not face,” it wrote. “We would recommend creating new ones based on science-based assessments of sectorial capacities to decarbonise and accompanying these by a regulatory framework fulfilling the needs of the different sectors to reach them.”

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SMEunited, a Brussels-based organisation representing small businesses, did not sound enthusiastic about the ability of all EU countries to leap from 55% to 95% emissions reductions between 2030 and 2040. “The 2040 net emission target should be science-based, and the level should follow the average trajectory between 2030 and 2050,” it wrote. “Some member states have already set net-zero targets well before 2050. Voluntary overachievement by member states is desirable and should be incentivised.”

The consultation also sought views on the policies to deliver future targets, including emissions trading after 2030. Respondents were asked whether the obligation to surrender allowances for carbon captured and used (CCU) in non-permanent products should be maintained, and also whether the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) should be extended to more sectors or to non-CO₂ greenhouse gases. The International Emissions Trading Association wrote that, “setting a 2040 climate target will provide businesses with much needed clarity and predictability on the future framework for decarbonisation of EU economy”. It wants the ETS to be gradually extended to new sectors, and calls for the 2040 target to be accompanied by ambitious targets for technology and nature-based carbon removals.

Political trouble ahead

The key question is whether President von der Leyen is willing to put forward an EU 2040 climate target in the next year at a politically sensitive time for her. Her own political group, the centre-right European Peoples Party, has recently shown an interest in pushing back on her Green Deal ahead of next year’s election. Last month, EPP group leader Manfred Weber spearheaded an effort in the European Parliament to kill her EU Nature Restoration Law proposal. The law is not a major component of the Green Deal, but it is a significant piece of legislation within it, and there is concern the EPP does not want to stop there, sensing political winds at its back.

Von der Leyen has proven to be a popular Commission president since she was plucked out of relative obscurity to become the most powerful woman in the world in a backroom deal between national leaders in 2019. It seems likely that national leaders will choose her for a second term following next year’s election in June. The only thing standing in her way, oddly enough, is her own party. There are EPP members in Germany and elsewhere who think she has moved too far too fast on climate change. A proposal for a new climate target, even if it only confirms the trajectory needed to get to the already-adopted 2050 target, could turn that grumbling into open revolt.

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Given the widespread consensus that some kind of EU 2040 climate target is logical and probably inevitable, a delay in proposing one until 2025 would be more for political reasons than for practical ones. It would then fall to von der Leyen’s successor, or to her in her second term, to put one forward. However, that could actually give more room for manoeuvre for the Commission to adopt an ambitious target like 90–95%. Von der Leyen I may have reached the limit of her political capital when it comes to climate legislation, but von der Leyen II, or a new president, would have a fresh remit to propose something ambitious. For that reason, climate campaigners may be well-advised to hold their fire and not demand a proposal in the next 12 months.