Finland pledges carbon neutrality on eve of EU presidency

Members of Finland's new ruling coalition on their way to a press conference announcing the new Finnish government, Helsinki, 3 June 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/KIMMO BRANDT]

Finland’s new government said on Monday (4 June) the country will aim to cut its carbon emissions completely by 2035. The Nordic nation will take over the rotating EU presidency in July, with an ambitious pan-European climate deal still left on the negotiating table.

After more than a month of talks, Finland agreed on a new five-party government, which has now pledged to end eight years of austerity, boost employment numbers and increase fuel taxes. The coalition agreement also sets a carbon neutrality target for 2035.

It is one of the most ambitious benchmarks set by a major EU country and will obligate Finland to reduce its carbon emissions to below the amount that can be absorbed by forests, wetlands and new technologies.

Norway wants to achieve the same goal by 2030 but Finland’s differs in that it will not rely on buying international carbon credits and offsets like its Nordic neighbour.

The new target will require an update of the existing Climate Act, which currently pegs climate neutrality in 2045. Lawmakers also want to change the law so that Finland becomes a carbon negative country by at least 2050.

A full review of the plan is already scheduled for 2025.

Finland confirms coal exit ahead of schedule in 2029

Finland’s environment minister said on Tuesday (10 April) his country will ban the use of coal in energy generation in 2029. The Finnish government is also looking into a large-scale subsidy scheme that will reward energy firms for ditching the fossil fuel ahead of time.

Moving the fight to Brussels

Finnish voters made climate the number one issue ahead of the April vote and elevated the greens to the second biggest party at the EU elections in May. The new government therefore has a strong mandate to deliver higher ambition on climate goals.

That could be good news for environmental groups in the rest of the EU, given that Finland takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency from Romania on 1 July. One of the most significant unresolved issues left on the table will be a draft climate plan for 2050.

The European Commission unveiled the plan in November and made it clear that the EU will have to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 in order to stick to commitments made under the Paris Agreement. That stance was later backed up by the European Parliament.

Cañete: ‘No way around it’, climate neutral EU is needed

EU climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete is in no doubt that the EU has to achieve ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050 and wants to use his final months in the job to push the bloc towards Paris Agreement-compliance.

Now the issue has been kicked over to the EU Council, which will have to unanimously agree on the finer points of the agreement in order to make it applicable to all 28 countries.

June’s meeting of EU leaders is unlikely to offer up a compromise as government heads will be preoccupied with doling out top institutional jobs. The agenda will not allow enough time for what will certainly be long and complex talks.

Although no final agreement is likely in June, some member states are keen for everyone to sign up to strong summit conclusions.  

Climate change efforts set for disappointing EU summit in June

A small group of EU countries is pushing for the European Council to come down hard on climate change at an EU summit in June, EURACTIV.com has learned. But chances are slim that it will be a defining moment for the bloc’s environmental credentials.

Finland will only have two scheduled full Council meetings during its shift, in October and December, so it will have to be organised in order to get the climate plan onto what will be a packed agenda.

An EU source told EURACTIV that “Finland would absolutely love to nail a deal during its six months. It’s capable of doing it too.”

Helsinki has a number of factors going for it too. This will be its third presidency, so the jitters that have hit Romania’s stint should be less pronounced. The new government and the looming 25th anniversary of EU membership should also provide an impetus.

Learning from the past

Comparisons have been drawn between the current negotiations and the lead-up to a summit in October 2014, when the EU’s current raft of climate and energy legislation was given the green light by national leaders.

That summit is recalled by many EU insiders as one of the landmark moments in the bloc’s recent history, as the all-night meeting ended in a widely-hailed deal.

Then-EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy had prepared for the October moment of truth by calling a series of meetings between member states, where grievances and concerns were aired and ironed out.

Successor Donald Tusk has so far not taken that step and relied solely on scheduled meet-ups between different sets of ministers. The results of those meetings will be summarised by the Romanian presidency.

But it is well within the remit of the Finnish to take over the mantle and hold their own set of discussions on the nitty-gritty of the Commission’s proposal.

After all, most countries are now warming up to the idea of going ‘climate neutral’ by 2050, thanks largely to growing support from voters, but are still hesitant to commit until they are sure it is actually possible.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in May that “the discussion is not about whether, but how we can achieve this goal”.

She added that the Bundesrepublik would add its name to a list of at least nine other countries in favour of the target “if a reasonable answer can be found”.

Merkel sends first strong message for climate neutrality by 2050

Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated for the first time that Germany may join a European alliance to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. At a recent EU summit, Germany was unwilling to join a similar initiative by nine EU member states. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Finland’s hopes of becoming carbon negative before 2050 could also prove to be a trump card in the EU-level talks, as it could convince belligerent negotiators that their countries do not necessarily have to cut their emissions as much as other nations.

That is because the proposal on the table is for the EU as a whole to reach net-zero emissions, not for each country to do so on an individual basis. Given that other countries are capable of bigger cuts than others, the point could help move the talks along if used correctly.

So Finland knows how a deal could be brokered: convince Germany and the rest are likely to follow suit. France, Spain and the UK are already convinced while Italy would prefer to see the agreement as a Helsinki-led initiative rather than an Emmanuel Macron one.

One EU official opined that no member state wants to be the only one to oppose an agreement, making it less likely to see a repeat of 2011, when Poland vetoed a similar proposal.

But the Finns might come up short, not because of insufficient time but too much. Leaders had to agree on something in 2014 because their backs were against the wall. No such deadline is in play in 2019.

Signatories to the Paris Agreement have to submit their long-term climate plans “by 2020”. An in-vogue reading of that deadline has member states convinced that they will have most of next year to agree on a deal.

Without that ticking clock, even Finland’s shrewdest negotiators could struggle to wrangle unwilling countries into signing up to an agreement before the end of the year.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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