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Road to Climate Neutrality: EU Leadership Needs to Manage Expectations, Build Consensus

Tobias Südhölter

1 October 2023

The EU’s ambitious climate policy has been widely criticised. While the civil society feels the governments are not doing enough, member-states such as Poland are completely opposed to climate directives from Brussels. This has led to a multiplicity of lawsuits before the European courts in recent times.

Road to Climate Neutrality: EU Leadership Needs to Manage Expectations, Build Consensus

The European Union (EU) has proudly championed global efforts to address climate change, presenting itself as a world climate leader. While advocating for stricter measures and targets at the international level, the EU’s domestic climate policy has sought to lead by example. EU climate policy has called for implementing massive-scale lifestyle and energy transitions that are required to manage the effects of global warming. The EU’s Climate Protection Act, introduced in 2021 to guide its member-states’ compliance with the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, sets an ambitious target to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

However, the EU’s efforts to achieve climate neutrality have been subjected to widespread criticism. On one end is an active civil society, which views climate change as a generational catastrophe and criticizes their governments for not doing enough. On the other spectrum are member-states like Poland, whose governments see the law as an imposition and one that would stunt their economic growth. EU governments’ commitment to meet climate goals have further been weakened by the onset of an energy crisis following the Russia-Ukraine war.

These aggrieved parties have been active in approaching the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as well as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to hold accountable those whom they believe are responsible. This has led to a multiplicity of lawsuits reflecting a general trend of dissatisfaction or resistance against the EU’s ambitious project to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The article analyses this larger trend.

The Fit for 55 Package and the EU Emissions Trading System

Fit for 55 is a package of reformed and new directives and regulations from the European Commission on the EU’s climate policy. Launched on July 14, 2021, the package intends to “make all sectors of the EU’s economy fit to meet” this target laid down under the Climate Protection Act. The package envisages a triad of stricter climate targets, market-oriented measures and regulatory requirements. It seeks to tighten the EU’s existing climate protection measures while introducing new ones.

One of the main mechanisms used by the EU to meet its targets is the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). An emissions trading system works on a cap-and-trade principle. A maximum cap of allowed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is placed on participating installations in sectors such as electricity generation, industry and aviation. A firm whose emissions fall below its allowed cap can trade the excess allowance to other participating installations within the EU. Conversely, for a company to exceed the cap, it needs to buy excess allowances from elsewhere in the market to be in compliance with the EU regulations.

The idea behind implementing such a trading scheme is to ensure emissions reduction targets are met by big emitting industries. The initial target for 2030 was for achieving an emissions reduction to the tune of -43% from 2005 standards. The Fit for 55 package proposes a tightening of the ETS by increasing that target to -61% by 2030, compared to 2005 emissions levels. Meanwhile, the reduction target in the sectors that do not fall under EU ETS I was increased from -30% to -40% for 2030 from the 2005 baseline.

Varying Expectations Lead to Criticism

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki criticized the package stating that the emissions trading mechanism will push Europe into its deepest economic crisis “in 100 years”. He also noted that the package would widen economic inequalities, making the poor poorer and the rich even richer. Meanwhile, the Polish Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa has taken to X to question the EU’s authority to make decisions about what kind of vehicles Poles should drive and raise energy prices in the country. Poland has currently challenged the Fit for 55 package before the ECJ.

A study published by the Climate Action Network-Europe sheds light on the ground reality with respect to EU member-states’ implementation of measures intended to meet the Paris Agreement targets. The majority of member states score less than half of the possible points. The ranking shows Denmark (49% of points), Germany (45%), Great Britain (37%) and Belgium (35%) are no longer at the forefront of the fight against climate change and are aiming rather low despite their relative prosperity track. Along with Poland, Estonia and Ireland have also been identified to rank low due to their strong opposition to climate action at national and EU levels.

State government’s inaction against climate change has also prompted individuals to approach European courts to hold them accountable. A group of Portuguese youth have filed a lawsuit against 32 countries (including 27 EU member-states) before the ECHR in Strasbourg in September 2023. Meanwhile, in March 2023, the “Club of Climate Seniors”, a group of female Swiss senior citizens sued the government of Switzerland for its failure to come up with a decent climate policy. The Club argues that rising temperatures, particularly during heat wave conditions are causing deaths among senior women and hence is a violation of their human rights. Decisions are awaited on both cases.

Judiciary as a motor of climate protection?

According to a UN report, there are now more than 2,000 lawsuits around the world seeking measures to halt climate change filed against governments and companies. The number of lawsuits has doubled since 2017. However, these lawsuits have so far not led to any significant legislative commitments for more climate protection. The ruling of the German Federal Constitutional Court in Neubauer, et al. v. Germany in 2020 is highly relevant for European as well as international law with respect to state responsibility for addressing climate change. The Court ruled that the legislature has an obligation to protect the climate and aim towards achieving climate neutrality. It further stated that the burden of emissions reduction may not be “unfairly offloaded” to the future generations. The court verdict indirectly implies an obligation on Germany to work towards more EU climate protection, especially since most emissions are regulated supranationally.

The onus in this instance falls on European leadership. France has an opportunity to build bridges between groups of member states, working alongside the upcoming presidencies of the EU. Denmark, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Austria  are all willing partners in this, as they are already cooperating to implement the European Green Deal.  European leaders should intensify their efforts to build clean, sustainable energy security in practice – not just in theory. They should also address the climate challenge as a matter of EU – rather than national – energy sovereignty. Europeans will be locked into longer-term carbon dependency and unable to benefit from economies of scale if they only operate nationally. Strong thought leadership will be needed to achieve this change of mindset.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Tobias Südhölter


Tobias is the resident European Affairs Fellow for Trivium Think Tank's StraTechos website. He holds a dual masters (M.A./M.Sc.) in European Studies from the Universities of Münster (Germany) and Twente (Netherlands). He has previously worked as an Assistant Lecturer at the Manipal Center for European Studies, MAHE, Manipal, India.


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