Nobody said that addressing climate change would be easy, and the same is true for agreeing on which policies we need to meet the challenge. As Europe’s politicians are finding out, it is one thing to make a commitment to go climate neutral “as early as possible,” but landing on a robust, time-bound plan is an entirely different matter.

That Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel finally signaled her support for going climate neutral by 2050 shows that some troublesome political knots may be starting to untie. Germany’s support for the plan is both welcome and wise: The country is a major player in European policymaking, and just as European action is necessary for the world, German action is necessary for Europe.

Climate action is rapidly becoming a central issue in European politics, partly through the catalyzing impact of Greta Thunberg’s school strikes and growing public awareness. The “Green surge” in May’s EU parliamentary elections show that environmental concerns are having a real impact on European politics.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, initially proposed a climate neutrality goal for 2050 last November. The EU Parliament endorsed the strategy and voted in support of increasing the EU’s emissions-reduction target for 2030 (which is reflected in its commitment under the Paris Agreement) from 40% to 55% below 1990 levels.

In late June, the European Council will vote on the climate neutrality proposal and decide whether it intends to abide with the Paris Agreement by strengthening its 2030 target next year. Whether the EU sends this clear signal in June has ramifications that go beyond its borders: The EU’s 28 members are collectively the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the United States, and have historically played a decisive role addressing global challenges, including the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Europe’s decision will either propel other countries to step forward with more ambitious plans of their own, or be used as an excuse for countries to delay or tamper their own efforts to tackle climate change. There is no middle ground.

A Climate-Neutral Europe Is Achievable

The EU has good reason to pursue climate neutrality by 2050 and a more ambitious emissions-reduction target in 2030: These goals are achievable, beneficial and have the power to reinvigorate Europe’s environmental leadership.

The cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the EU remains economically advanced and extremely complex. However, shifting to net-zero emissions over the next three decades need not be a burden. In fact, the emissions-reduction trends are positive, and with existing measures, the EU is on track to cut emissions 26% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 32% by 2030.

Between 1990 and 2017, Europe reduced its emissions by 22%, with a decrease in all the EU’s economic sectors, except for transport. The latest Eurostat data confirms emissions continue to decline, though not at the same pace as in the past.

The European Commission estimates that when agreed legislation is fully implemented, Europe is poised to lower its emissions 45% by 2030. 

The European Parliament voted 3-to-1 in favor of ramping up this target to 55%  or more to better align with reaching climate neutrality by mid-century.  

Transforming its energy sector has been the key to the EU’s plummeting emissions. In 2005, renewable energy accounted for only 9% of Europe’s overall energy consumption. In 2018, renewable energy comprised 17%. The EU’s offshore wind farms account for 88% of installed capacity worldwide. 

To reach a climate-neutral economy, this renewable energy transition must speed up. At present, just three fossil fuels – coal, natural gas and oil – are responsible for 43% of the EU’s electricity generation and 72% of its energy consumption. The region meets 55% of its energy demands by importing oil, natural gas and coal from elsewhere. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Europe’s renewable energy generation needs to increase by 80% by 2050, while renewable energy consumption must grow more than 60% (see chart below). 

A Climate-Neutral Europe Is Economically Advantageous

Such efforts will require major investments, but they will pay off. The EU Commission proposed investing a quarter of the EU’s budget in the fight against climate change and the implementation of a carbon-neutral future.

Since 1990, Europe’s economy has grown by 54% while greenhouse gas emissions and energy use have decreased by 22% and 2%, respectively. As the transition continues, it will bring jobs, growth and a healthier environment, including better air in Europe’s cities and towns.

Building a low-carbon economy has already created 4 million new jobs in Europe. A zero-carbon pathway would cut the bloc’s dependency on energy imports by up to 70%, strengthening the EU’s geopolitical and trade position.  

Going climate neutral could also attract up to $339 billion of annual investment by 2050, boosting the EU’s economy by up to 2% a year. These impressive figures do not include savings from the costs associated with inaction on global warming, such as extreme weather events. 

A Defining Moment

A decisively pro-climate vote at the European Council meeting later this month will have a galvanizing effect on Europe’s place in the world. It is vital for the bloc to rally behind a climate-neutral mid-century target and commit to strengthening its 2030 reduction targets by next year.

This is a defining moment that will show us all that Europe is still a global climate leader.