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EU commits to climate neutrality despite pushback from Poland

SNL Image

The Turow coal-fired power plant near Poland's border with Germany, operated by state-controlled utility PGE.
Source: AP Photo

EU leaders hailed an agreement on targeting bloc-wide climate neutrality by 2050 following drawn-out discussions, but gave Poland another six months to get on board after the country held out for more money to finance costly coal plant closures.

During a summit of the European Council on Dec. 12, member state leaders said they agreed to support a target to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. The EU is the third-largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world after China and the U.S. and accounts for around 9% of global carbon emissions.

"In the light of the latest available science and of the need to step up global climate action, the European Council endorses the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement," leaders said in late-night conclusions after the summit. They added, however, that "one member state" — Poland — at this stage "cannot commit to implement this objective."

The preliminary deal came a day after the European Commission, the bloc's administrative branch, unveiled a sweeping set of environmental proposals, dubbed the "European Green Deal." The package spans 50 policies to be rolled out over the next three years and amounts to a new economic policy, with measures ranging from new state aid rules to a carbon border tax on imports.

Holding out

Before endorsing the target, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Poland wants to take a closer look at a proposed mechanism to leverage €100 billion in financial aid for the most coal-dependent regions.

The commission plans to present details of the plan — which would rely on a mix of EU and national budgets, loans from the European Investment Bank and private money — in January. A commission spokesperson said some of the funds could come through state aid and other incentives.

"We acknowledge that the transition is a big one for Poland. It has to step up," von der Leyen said during a news conference. "But this will not change the time frame of the Commission." She said heads of state will reconvene in June to see if Poland is ready to join the commitment.

Germany has pledged to spend €40 billion to soften the blow for its coal mining regions from a planned phaseout of coal-fired power by 2038. Poland has an even higher share of the fossil fuel in its energy mix and officials there have said it will cost €900 billion to ditch coal and build enough capacity to replace it.

Slow progress

The EU's net-zero target was first proposed by the previous commission more than a year ago and had so far hinged on opposition from a group of Eastern European states. Hungary and the Czech Republic finally came on board this week, seemingly convinced by promises of more financial aid and a nod to nuclear energy.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš had told reporters before the summit that he would only support the goal if the EU acknowledged nuclear's role in achieving it.

"Countries have a different energy mix and also different costs to reach this [target]. For the Czech Republic, it will probably be more than €30 [billion], €40 billion," he said. The Czech Republic has plans to raise its share of nuclear power over the coming decades.

Although the EU could now be headed for a bitter fight over money next summer, the council agreement at least gives the go-ahead for the Commission to pursue its proposals.

The commission's roadmap foresees ramping up the EU's 2030 emissions target from 40% to at least 50%. Net-zero emissions means that, by 2050, all carbon would have to either be avoided or offset. Scientists say that is necessary to rein in global warming to below 2 degrees C, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Within the EU, there are still divisions over the broader issue of the bloc's next long-term budget, from 2021 to 2027, which has implications for funding the green measures proposed by von der Leyen. The commission president wants the EU to increase the overall share of its budget tied to climate action from 20% to 25%.