The European Climate Law: A new binding step towards climate justice

The European Climate Law: A new binding step towards climate justice

On 5 May 2021, the Council and the European Parliament after fourteen intense hours of discussions landed a provisional political agreement on what seems to be the final draft for the first-ever European Climate Law. The latter comes after years of excruciating peaceful battles of activists and engagement by the public sphere who demanded the EU to once and for all step up against the soaring climate emergency. The provisional document makes both objectives of a climate-neutral EU by 2050 and a cut on greenhouse gases of at least 55% by 2030 into binding law, marking a historic moment for Europe and the planet altogether. Such a goal will require an upfront investment of an additional €82 billion to €147 billion in spending every year. However terrifying these numbers sound, it is quite insignificant compared to the costs of climate change’s inaction that accounts for €140 billion by sea-level rise alone.  [1]Despite the many outstanding issues concerning the ambitious climate plan, the good prospects of Jytte Guteland, leader negotiator from the European Parliament, finally came true. According to the Swedish lawmaker, member of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), in March there were already promising signs that the bloc’s 2050 climate neutrality goal would become hard legislation. [2]

The negotiations had witnessed constant delays before finally achieving a provisional agreement which ignited a lot of indignation by the Greens and activists around the continent. In fact, as outlined by Micheal Bloss, German Green Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who took part in the negotiation, it was the Council of Ministers which had repetitively shown a hostile position over key issues such as the 2030 target and just compensation for the European citizens confronting governments for their inaction[3]. Next to the important battles on the reduction targets between the two sides of the table, there was another factor that had played a significant role in speeding the negotiations process: time pressure. In fact, striking a deal on the climate law was an absolute priority for the Portuguese Presidency that hoped that negotiations could finally be over by Earth Day on 22 April. The latter coincided with the US-led international climate summit and therefore represented the perfect scenario for the Commission and other European heads of states to present the brand-new Climate Law, thus putting the EU one step ahead in the run-up to the sustainable transition.

The continuous delays over essential key points came as a worrying threat since, as echoed by several campaigners, further postponements could have crippled the Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’June package, hence increasing uncertainty over the overall outcome of the Green Deal. Nevertheless, likely due in part to all these factors listed above, The European Parliament and Council reached a provisional agreement on the Climate Law Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law) in an informal meeting between the representatives of the three institutions on 20 April 2021. Currently, the Proposal, following the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, is now awaiting approval by the European Parliament at first reading to then finally be adopted. The two institutions agreed on the provisions of such a document including a legal objective for the Union to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and a 55% reduction in net emissions of greenhouse gases compared to 1990 with a high degree of transparency and clarity on the contribution of emission reductions and removals.[4] The latter points come after countless years of battles by several environmental movements and the public which have repeatedly shared their discontents over the trivial, or lack thereof, sustainable solutions proposed by the EU. Although not enforced yet, this climate law sends optimistic signs to both governmental and non-governmental European actors: the EU is all-in for a climate transition and a breach of such regulation will face legal repercussions. On a similar note, due to its cross-sectoral nature, such law will undoubtedly promote stronger provisions on adaptation to climate change as well as strong coherence across Union policies with the climate neutrality objective. In doing so, on the one hand, the EU as a whole will gain internal credibility in the eyes of the European public sphere as a solid and unified institution wherein people’s voices are heard. On the other hand, in setting up a legal framework that assists economic investors and sectors, the Union will make its brand-new Green Deal an exemplary leading model for foreign countries ‘sustainable transitions.

Precisely, the climate law aims at including the latest established EU target for 2030 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared to levels in 1990. Despite being under careful revision, by June 2021 the Commission is set to review and, if necessary, amend, all relevant policy instruments in order to convey all additional emissions reductions for 2030. Moreover, to monitor the development of the 2030-2050 EU-wide trajectory for greenhouse emissions reductions, and indeed increase both its transparency and consistency, the executive is ought to assess every five years the climate-neutrality measures pursued by each Member State. In its overseeing power, the Commission will be empowered with a great deal of authority as it is allowed to issue recommendations to the Member States whose actions are inconsistent with the European Green Deal objective[5]. In turn, Member States are legally bound to take into account these recommendations and apply the relevant changes within their policy planning unless they do have a sound reason not to do so. Applying such a legal process over the ever-more critical threat of climate change will help the EU and its Member States to strengthen resilience throughout their adaptation strategies and to reduce their vulnerability to the tremendous effects of climate change. As outlined in the text, “The European Climate Law will transform political promises into a binding legal obligation and send a strong political signal to our partners and business”. Moreover, it will insert the EU climate neutrality target for 2050 into law proposing the way to get there. Most importantly, to pour oil on the rising Eurosceptics troubled waters, it will bridge the gap between institutions and European citizens. Establishing a climate regulation means providing small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and generally its citizens, with predictability, transparency, and accountability to foster clearer information and thus likely mobilizing a bigger share of public and private investors.[6] In other words, in its multifunctional framework, the European Climate Law was coined to provide:

  • An EU-wide legal target for climate neutrality by 2050 that binds both EU institutions and national governments.
  • Establishing a predictable business roadmap for industry and investors with relevant emission-related data showing what needs to be done and how fast.
  • An oversight mechanism to keep everyone on the right track with appropriate tools for anyone who falls behind.
  • Ensuring that there is no trade-off between the achievement of a fair and thriving society and the creation of a modern, resource-efficient competitive economy.
  • Focus on reinforcing Europe’s resilience among its vulnerable communities. [7]

Whereas the European Parliament was aiming to strike a higher target of 60% in the next decade, it can be surely recognized the importance that the European Green Deal, along with its centerpiece Climate Law, has on both international fora and bilateral negotiations with global players. In the words of Joāo Pedro Matos Fernandes, the Portuguese minister of the environment whose country holds the rotating EU Council presidency, “the European climate law is the law of laws that sets the frame for the EU’s climate-related legislation for the 30 years to come.”[8]

The European Climate Law Legislative Train Schedule

After years of pressure received from the European Parliament and members of activist groups, in March 2020 the European Commission finally adopted a legislative proposal for a European Climate Law which, as mentioned above, embodies a trademark for the sustainable transition that is waiting at the door [COM (2020) 80]. On 17 September 2020, the Commission amended the proposal of such regulation to include the latest objective of the EU to reduce the EU’s net GHG emissions of at least 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030 [COM (2020) 563]. Moreover, the executive furtherly adopted the communication “Stepping up Europe’s 2030 climate ambition-Investing in a climate-neutral future for the benefit of our people” [COM (2020) 562], also named after the 2030 EU climate target plan. In the words of Commission President von der Leyen, this target will put the EU one step closer to reaching climate neutrality by the middle of this century as well as bring terrific socio-economic benefits to the EU.[9] The new proposed legislation, which flanks the pioneering European Green Deal, is part of a larger global effort on tackling climate change through the promotion of sustainable mitigation strategies to reduce the GHG emissions from fossil fuels according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The latter was set up in 1992 to safeguard the environment from the upending danger of climate change.

Despite the multiple negotiations attended in the UNFCCC framework, the CO2 emissions took a rapid turn upward growing by 67% from 1990 to 2018. Due to the frightening evidence that emerged throughout several emission gap reports offered by the UN, during the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, also known as the 21st Convention of the Parties (COP21), global leaders came to a consensus to limit temperature rise below 2°C and reach net-zero emission in the second half of this century.[10] Indeed, despite the Paris Agreement requires governments to develop long-term strategies by 2020 and foster nationally determined contributions (NDCs), it does not have any legal authority to supervise whether these commitments are fulfilled or not. This voluntary-based approach has proved itself to be quite negative and detrimental as it leads to an underestimation of the climate-related risks by both political and social actors. Nonetheless, ever since the signing of the Paris Agreement, there has been a significant increase of environmental awareness among the public sphere. Looking at the number, according to the Parlameter 2019 Eurobarameter, 52% of the respondents considered climate change to be today among the most important environmental problems next to air and marine pollution, and deforestation. [11]Hence, public opinion is increasingly demanding stronger climate action and is prepared to undergo a more climate-friendly lifestyle that involves using public transport, reducing flying, and favoring the use of renewable sources of energy. Moreover, beyond changes in the lifestyle patterns, in these last years, the young generations have become tenacious advocates for the environment performing peaceful protests and marches. Despite the unleashing increment of activism and an encouraging flourishing of civil commitment with politics, more often than not these demands were poorly turned into effective actions by the institutions.

Taking a step back, in 2018 the Paris Agreement’s guidelines were finally completed by the COP24 climate conference, although presenting still quite a few loopholes concerning international emissions trading that were not addressed at COP25 conference in 2019 too. These last thorny points are on the agenda of the upcoming COP26 conference which will be in Glasgow this November. Moreover, in 2018, in order to simplify and fortify the implementation of the energy union goals, the EU endorsed a regulation laying out the governance framework for the energy union and climate action, the so-called Governance Regulation. The latter was designed to explicitly outline the Union binding target of 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 by 2030. Furthermore, the regulation contains tools to keep track of the progress of the EU climate legislation such as the Effort Sharing Regulation and the LULUCF Regulation.[12] One year later, in October 2019, the Commission was able to proudly raise the target set in 2018 to 45% emission reduction by the end of the decade. Nevertheless, looking beyond the 2030 target, it can be argued that, before the end of 2019, the Commission did not have a binding long-term emission target. In fact, despite adopting the ‘clean planet for all’ strategy that kicked-started the discussions to pursue a prosperous, modern, competitive, and climate-neutral economy by 2050, the Commission lacked a concrete plan to achieve it. Furthermore, although the EU leaders had recognized the imperative to ensure a cost-effective, fair, and socially balanced transition, a few Member States, such as Poland, highlighted their inability to comply with the 2050’s net-zero objective. Therefore, the European Council, along with the Parliament and Commission, agreed on endorsing a common-but-differentiated strategy that takes into account different national circumstances to leave no one behind. Parallelly, the European Council for the first time officially notified the Commission and Council to keep working forward on the European Green Deal and design an EU’s long-term strategy as a priority for 2020.[13]

Throughout last year, discussions on the 2030’s climate ambition rose due in part to the Commission’s communication on ‘Stepping up Europe’s 2030 climate ambition’ that included the proposal of increasing the emission cuts to at least 55% by 2030. In order to achieve such a goal, the European Council invited both Council and Commission to endorse in-depth consultations with Member States to take note of their national socio-economic differences and impact at the national level. As the climate target requires all Member States and institutions to work collectively and more cost-effectively, the Commission, in designing the Green New Deal framework, has to ensure a just transition based on the principles of cohesion and solidarity. A few months later, the EU leaders endorsed the new binding climate target of net domestic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and incorporate this objective as part of the European climate law proposal.[14] The road to reach such a climate goal, according to EU leaders, has to stimulate sustainable economic growth, create jobs, deliver health and environmental benefits for EU citizens without hindering the EU’s global competitiveness when promoting green innovation. On 4 March 2020, the European Commission officially adopted a legislative proposal for a European climate law as a substantial part of the European Green Deal. The document was followed by a comprehensive impact assessment to mark the guidelines to achieve a 55% reduction target by 2030.[15]

The proposed legislation requires Member States and EU institutions to adopt the necessary measures in order to achieve the climate neutrality objective while acknowledging the common-but-differentiated strategy of the Union. The binding act would give the Commission delegating powers to delineate a trajectory to reach the long-term objective of 2050 starting from the 2030 target. This delegating power of the Commission comes with certain restrictions as it could be revoked at any time by the European Parliament and/or by the Council to maintain a system of checks and balances. This resolution, as stated by Commission President von der Leyen in her State of the Union speech, “would set the EU on a feasible path to climate neutrality and benefit the EU economy”.[16] Nevertheless, after having referred the proposal to the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), the European Parliament pleaded for a wider 60% emissions reduction by 2030 and for negative emissions post 2050. Furthermore[17], as to answer the calls of a large number of environmental groups and the Green party, the Parliament insisted on founding a European Panel on Climate Change as an independent scientific advisory body by June 2022.

Finally, after the Environment Council agreed on a general approach on 17 December 2020, the Council and the European Parliament secured an agreement on 20 April 2021. The proposal in the trilogue determines the long-debated 55% net GHG emission target for 2030 and EU-wide climate neutrality by 2050.[18] Despite not entirely fulfilling the 60% goal, the Parliament negotiators were able to include the establishment of the Advisory Board that will provide the Commission with transparent scientific expertise to use in its midterm assessments. To conclude, on 5 May 2021, Mr. Pedro Lourtie, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Council of the European Union (Coreper I), notified the European Parliament that the Council would, in line with Article 294 TFEU, approve the European Parliament’s position in case the latter will do so at first reading. [19]Therefore, the latter is expected to approve the proposal that will be enforced right after, signing a new era for climate law.

Compromises and Contestations of the European Climate Law

While a provisional agreement was reached after months of delay during the trilogue between the Council and the Parliament, the latter painfully had to compromise on the heated political fight on extending the emission target to 60%. Despite having backed off to a still promising of at least 55% of GHGs emissions cuts, both Parliament and activists are holding the grudge for how the negotiation has been carried out by the Council. As mentioned earlier, several Members of the European Parliament regarded the latter as having repeatedly tempted to hinder the policy process by blocking any kind of conversation. Green’s member Bloss said that this behavior has not been very helpful as the law needed to be finalized in the shortest time possible and not as the elephant in the room.

With deeper regards to its policy development, as discussed earlier in the article, the European Commission, while adding the climate law into the agenda in March 2020, left out the proposal on the bloc’s 2030 target until September due to the large amount of data needed to assess its economic and social impact. These constant delays received fierce criticisms by activists all over Europe and several other civil union organizations that condemn the institution for blatantly refusing to step up for the climate and enforcing some effective action. Precisely, a group of young climate activists captained by Greta Thunberg has referred to the climate law as an institutional surrender that postpones immediate action to tackle climate change. In an open letter to the EU leaders, Commission and Parliament, they said that “such a law sends a strong signal that real and sufficient action is being taken when in fact it’s not”. [20]These objections were echoed by several Greens and Social Democrats MEPs who aimed for a final 2030 target of at least 65 percent. Jytte Guteland, the leading Parliament’s rapporteur on the EU’s new climate law, remarked in several instances how she perceived internal fragmentation across the Parliament’s center-left upon the ‘infamous’ 2030’s reduction target. Indeed, one side stood for a 60 percent reduction compared to the 65-70 pushed by the other, the Swedish Social Democrat added that “for the sake of the EU, its citizens, the planet and the industry, we need to do more the first decade”. Moreover, she continued, “the first 10 years are very crucial since if we emit more [emissions] we will have a very difficult situation after 2030.”[21] Moreover, representatives from the center-right European People’s Party were also significantly divided with some claiming that von der Leyen’s 55-percent reduction target for 2030 was too high-sounding. Anna Zalewska, member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), said that “the European Union must be ambitious in its plans to tackle climate change, yet this ambition must be matched with pragmatism and credible action”.[22]

Notwithstanding the long-lasting political battles on the tricky 2030’s target point, the draft that the European Parliament and the European Council reached a provisional agreement on includes the establishment of a European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change. Such provision was highly welcomed by the Environmental NGOs which, throughout the negotiations, recurrently slammed the deal calling it a political act rather than scientific. Indeed, Romain Laugier, writer and member of WWF, said that “the establishment of an EU-level expert advisory body brings the European Union one step closer to more science-based climate policy”.[23] On this note, EU negotiators furtherly agreed on a greenhouse gas budget for 2030-50 which will be used by the Commission as a reference point for setting the 2040’s intermediate target.

Although receiving fierce criticisms from both EU legislators and member of civil society, it is important to highlight that the European Climate Law serves as a just and transparent binding document to finally attributing the right weight to the climate emergency. After years of negotiations and hesitations, the EU has finally shown to the ‘there-is-no-planet-B-alarms of the public that climate change has now become a class-A priority. The binding regulations will support the European Green Deal in boosting the economy, thereby benefiting people’s lives, and will likely witness a new wave of Euro-enthusiasm. To conclude, the European Climate Law has the opportunity to turn the sustainable challenge into an opportunity to shape society on a grand scale. Indeed, if (climate) sorrow unites people, so does an active campaign on climate resilience and mitigation that punishes the environmental transgressors. 


[1]Politico, <<What is the Green Deal?>> 26 April 2021, www.politico .eu

[2] Kira Taylor, <<Very big tasks ahead in EU climate law negotiations>> 16 March 2021 www.euractiv.com

[3] Ibid.

[4] Council of the European Union, <<amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law)>> 5 May 2021

[5] European Council, Council of the European Union, <<Climate change: what the EU is doing>>, 7 May 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/climate-change/

[6] European Commission, The European Climate Law, March 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/default/files/eu-climate-action/docs/factsheet.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Elena Sánchez Nicolás, <<EU negotiators strike deal on climate ‘law of laws’>>. 21 April 2021. Eurobserver.com

[9] European Parliamentary Research Service, <<European Climate Law; EU legislation in process>>

[10] United Nations Climate Change, The Paris Agreement: What is the Paris Agreement? www.Unfccc.int

[11] European Parliament, Parlemeter 2019: Heeding the call beyond the vote. A stronger parliament to listen to citizens’ voices. Eurobarameter, www.europarl.europa.eu

[12] European Commission, <<Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action>> https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/progress/governance_en

[13] European Council of the European Union, << European Council conclusions, December 2019>>, 12 December 2019, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2019/12/12/european-council-conclusions-12-december-2019/

[14] European Council, <<European Council, 10-11 December 2020>>, 10-11 December 2020.

https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/european-council/2020/12/10-11/

[15] Climate Law Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law), Regulation 4.03.2020: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020PC0080&from=EN

[16] European Parliament, <<Legislative train schedule>> https://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/theme-a-european-green-deal/file-european-climate-law

[17] Climate Law Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law) Amended Regulation17/09/2020: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020PC0563&from=EN

[18] Ibid.

[19] Council of the European Union, General Secretariat, <<Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the framework for achieving climate neutrality and amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law)>>. Brussels, 5 May 2021.

[20] Elena Sánchez Nicolás, <<Thunberg dubs new Eu cliamte law ‘a surrender’>>. Brussels 5 March 2020. Euobserver.com

[21] Elena Sánchez Nicolás, <<EU cliamte law: MEPs want EU to be more ambitious>>. Brussels 10 September 2020. Euobserver.com

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

Gabriele Bertoni

I recently graduated in European Studies at Maastricht University with a Minor in Philosophy and Sociology. During these three years I took part in several environmental student-based movements as well as cultural projects. At EU Logos Athena, by being the Head of Environmental Portfolio, I can finally put into practice all the skills gained throughout these past three years and actively contribute to make this world more sustainable.

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