Climate change efforts set for disappointing EU summit in June

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) pictured in conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron (R). [Photo: EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

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.

In preparation for the summit on 20 and 21 June, a group of eight countries has made a plea for leaders to sign up to robust conclusions, particularly in regard to a draft climate plan for 2050 that is currently the centre of a charged debate.

According to official documents seen by EURACTIV, Cyprus, Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden all want to send a “strong message” ahead of a landmark United Nations summit in September.

The June summit is the last scheduled meeting before October.

They are urging the other 20 member states to agree that the bloc should go to New York with strong statements on cutting net emissions to zero and making sure no one is left behind by the transition to a green economy.

It is expected that the likes of China and India will turn up at UN headquarters with big plans, including a new date for peak emissions or significant electrification proposals. A weak showing by the EU could undermine the bloc’s climate leadership aspirations.

But some member states, including Estonia, Hungary and Poland, are less keen to push the boat out and are preparing to hold firm and stick to targets that have already been agreed, according to officials.

They will also insist that so-called climate neutrality be set for mid-century rather than committing to an explicit 2050 date, despite German leader Angela Merkel recently softening her stance on the issue.

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EU sources maintain that the June summit will not be a memorable one for climate action, as national leaders will be preoccupied with doling out top institutional positions for the next five years, following the end-of-month elections.

In November, the European Commission unveiled a draft strategy that suggests the EU economy must be emission-free by 2050 in order to stick to the Paris Agreement on climate change. EU capitals have been dissecting the draft plan ever since.

According to the Paris deal, long-term plans must be sent to the UN “by 2020”, which means that the deadline is rather flexible. The wording means that the final cut-off point is arguably 31 December 2020.

However, more progressive camps say the EU should aim to submit its plan as soon as possible, while others are calling for a slow and steady approach.  

That lack of firm deadline means that national leaders are not feeling the pinch yet and will prioritise more pressing items on the docket. In June’s case, that is the top jobs issue and the work programme for the next five years, known as the strategic agenda.

Past examples of decision-making on energy and climate laws at EU level suggest that leaders will need an entire summit, dubbed “an all-nighter” by many Council observers, to reach a unanimous agreement.

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September’s UN summit has been touted as a landmark moment for climate action, particularly by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, but the lack of cliff-edge is unlikely to prod EU capitals into making what they would consider rash decisions.

Environmental groups were disappointed in March, when the Council concluded that the EU should be “striving for climate neutrality”, without mentioning a timeline.

But Commission sources were satisfied with what the member states agreed and told EURACTIV that they had not expected climate even to be mentioned in a summit that was otherwise dominated by the Brexit issue.

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Ahead of the June summit, the rotating presidency of the EU, currently held by Romania, will summarise all the lower-level meetings held so far on the 2050 climate plan, in order to add to the discussion between heads of state and government.

Romania’s successor, Finland, could prove crucial in bringing member state positions closer together between July and December. The incoming presidency holder will reportedly target a final deal on the 2050 plan as the marquee result of its stint.

EU sources explained that the bloc could decide on its mid-century plan at the eleventh hour though, as the UN only needs “notification” rather than an in-depth strategy. It would take a significant amount of time for a full plan to be written and submitted.

The same sources conceded that there is nothing to stop one member state from vetoing a decision, as was the case with Poland in 2011, but insisted that the post-Paris Agreement world is a different place and the chances of that happening are reduced.

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