Climate ambition falls off the Council’s agenda

The Council’s new five-year Strategic Agenda makes little mention of the Green Deal, nor any acknowledgement of difficult trade-offs.
Parts of the Bavarian old town of Passau are flooded by the Danube in Germany on 4 June. Persistent heavy rain led to widespread flooding over the weekend in Bavaria which has left five people dead.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

02 Jul 2024

“As the effects of climate change become more visible and pervasive, we urgently need to step up our action to manage this existential threat,” EU leaders said in a “strategic agenda” marking the start of a new parliamentary term.

“The success of the green transition will depend on significant mobilisation of private and public investments,” they went on, acknowledging that “change towards a greener, fairer and more inclusive future will entail short-term costs and challenges.”

What a difference five years makes. Those passages are from 2019; in the 2024-2029 Strategic Agenda, published last week, makes little mention of accelerating climate disruption, nor any note of difficult trade-offs or challenges.

“What is really missing is a very clear commitment to providing more clarity on the road towards climate neutrality,” says Vincent Hurkens, head of EU policy at the climate think tank E3G.

The agenda pledges to “pursue a just and fair climate transition, with the aim of staying competitive globally and increasing our energy sovereignty” – a nod to geopolitical concerns including Russia’s war on Ukraine and a more adversarial global trading environment.

It reiterates the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 – the cornerstone of the Green Deal agreed in 2020 – but says this must be achieved in a “pragmatic” way, with a focus on “the markets, industries and high-quality jobs of the future”.

Notably, there is no commitment to put in place any more binding targets, such as an interim 2040 emissions limit foreseen under the Green Deal.

This is ridiculous and alarming.

“It would have been very important to already signal that the leaders are committed to agreeing on an ambitious 2040 target,” Hurkens says, and the agenda shows “very varying degrees of concreteness”.

Ilaria Di Silvestre, head of EU policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says leaders should have looked at other aspects of the Green Deal beyond the distant 2050 target, which is just one aspect of the “whole picture”.

“We have two lines on nature protection,” she says. “This is ridiculous and alarming.”

Ecosystems “should not be seen as a by-product of the work on climate or as collateral effects of climate policy, but more as allies in addressing the climate crisis. And this is still far from happening,” she tells The Parliament.  

The subject of environmental protection has been the focus of some of the most heated debate on climate-related files over the past year, with the Nature Restoration Law being stripped back before finally getting legislative approval.

In the strategic agenda, EU leaders did not commit to implementing this or other recently passed laws, Di Silvestre notes. “Implementation is already an issue and if it is not the [Council’s] priority, if there’s no political willingness in that sense and no budget allocated, then there’s a concrete risk that nothing happens,” she says.

Change at the top

The Council’s rhetorical reversal mirrors that of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who made few mentions of the Green Deal in recent debates as she sought a second mandate. “We shifted the climate agenda to being an economic one,” she said in her State of the Union speech last year.

Politically, that proved wise. National leaders nominated Von der Leyen for that second mandate at their summit last week.

She will also need the approval of a majority of MEPs, who will vote on this at their first plenary in Strasbourg on 18 July. Despite the rise of right-wing parties, the broad political centre still dominates the chamber and MEPs may be able to guide Von der Leyen back towards the Green Deal as a condition for their support.

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