Bold sustainability ambitions in the European Union

Already in July, Ursula von der Leyen made clear that the new European Commission has bold ambitions to tackle climate change: The European Union must become an example of how to live sustainably. In this regard, energy efficiency and circular economy are central to the European way of life.

Frans Timmermans and the European Green Deal

The European Green Deal will be the guide for this ambitious transition, targeting among other things, an emission reduction of 50% to 55% by 2030. This target is about 10-15% higher than the current 2030 climate and energy framework. The Commissioner in charge of the Green Deal will be the Dutchman, Frans Timmermans, who also holds the position of first Executive Vice-President of the next European Commission. In his hearing in the European Parliament on 8 October, he urged the European Parliament to be ambitious and lead by example in the world. To make a real difference with regards to global warming, the EU needs to focus on talks with its global partners, according to Timmermans. He feels like he has got a strong mandate, since according to statistics, 9 out of 10 European citizens want the EU to act decisively on climate change.

Concretely, Timmermans will propose a draft Climate Law within the first 100 days of his mandate. This law will put into legislation the EU’s climate ambitions, but most importantly determine the in between steps to be taken to reach these goals. Timmermans is strongly considering using infringement procedures against Member States not complying with the EU’s upcoming climate laws and its ambitions. Furthermore, the Climate Pact will engage citizens with the EU’s climate policy which would make legislation seem less ‘top-down’.

Virginijus Sinkevičius and the European Circular Economy

Three years after its adoption, the Circular Economy Action Plan can be considered fully completed. Its 54 actions have now been delivered or are being implemented. Together with Timmermans, Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius will however increase the ambitions in the field of the circular economy. Sinkevičius stated during his hearing in the European Parliament on 3 October that if the EU ensured the complete circular use of just four materials (steel, aluminum, cement and plastic) – which goes further than the existing Circular Economy Action Plan – EU’s industrial emissions would be cut in half.

Sinkevičius believes that a new action plan can involve three major areas:

  • First, by examining the ways in which the EU produces and consumes. He mentioned particular further action on eco-design and more focus on reuse and repair. This strand could also integrate circularity in other sectors such as textiles, construction, food and ICT.
  • Second, by helping consumers make informed choices.
  • Third, by moving beyond recycling. Waste should not only be minimized, but prevented completely in areas such as textiles and construction.

Environment Council

Not only the European Commission wants to increase the European ambitions regarding climate change and sustainability, but also the Council realizes their importance. On 4 October, Environment Ministers held a debate on the EU’s strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral economy and adopted conclusions on climate change, which set out the EU’s position for the UN climate change meetings (COP25) in Chile in December 2019. The Council called for action to promote circularity systemically across the value chain, including from the consumer perspective, in key sectors including textiles, transport, food as well as construction and demolition. The Council also stressed the need for more measures on batteries and plastics.





The EU looks to boost the sustainability of the European transport sector

As the end of the term of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU approaches, several files, which are key to boosting the sustainability of the European transport sector have been concluded. However, some still say that current files to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector are too much of a compromise and lack ambition and at the same time it is feared that most EU governments will not reach the binding 2030 emissions targets. Will a European-wide green wave continue to evolve? Or will it succeed only in a certain number of Member States (e.g. the Netherlands, the UK and Spain), which scored above 50% in the ranking of draft national energy and climate plans (according to a report by Transport & Environment)?

Back in December 2018, after intense interinstitutional negotiations, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU agreed on new emission performance standards for new cars and vans. The regulation, which was officially endorsed in April 2019 by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament, requires car manufacturers to meet new standards for their new cars and vans by 2025 and 2030. More specifically, they have to emit 15% less emission from 2025 and onwards. Starting from 2030, new cars and vans have to emit respectively 37,5% and 31% less CO2. The progressive emission reduction targets of the regulation aim to contribute to the commitments made under the Paris Agreement to reduce consumption costs (fuel) for consumers and to strengthen the competitiveness of the EU automotive industry. The European Commission will review the effectiveness of the regulation and report on this to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU by the end of 2023.

Similarly, earlier this month, the Council of the EU adopted targets for zero- and low-emission vehicles in public procurement, which the European Parliament already endorsed in April 2019. The most recent legislation on the promotion of clean vehicles in public procurement already dated back to 2009. Concretely, this Directive sets out minimum procurement targets at national level for both cars and vans, as well as trucks and buses. The legislation also includes a new definition of ‘clean vehicle’. For cars and vans the definition is based on CO2 emission standards, with a zero CO2 emission threshold from 2026 onwards. The definition of trucks and buses is based on the use of alternative fuels. In addition, the Directive includes sub-targets for zero-emission buses. The Directive will be published in the EU Official Journal in the coming weeks and will enter into force 20 days afterwards. Member states will then have two years for adoption of national provisions.

Lastly, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU also endorsed new rules on CO2 emissions of heavy-duty vehicles. As today the CO2 emissions of trucks and buses represent around 6% of the total CO2 emission in the EU, this Regulation determines that manufacturers will be required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new trucks on average by 15% from 2025 and by 30% from 2030, compared with 2019 levels. However, if truck manufacturers do not achieve these goals, they will have to pay a fine in the form of an excess emissions premium, as the targets are binding.

The first-ever CO2 emission standards for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles indicate the EU is serious about reducing the impact of the most polluting European sector, i.e. the transport sector. However, a recent report criticizes some efforts of the European Commission, like, for example, the new renewable energy directive (REDII) which is not ambitious enough regarding biofuels. But the promotion of zero- and low-emission vehicles, as well as the emission performance standards for light vehicles, form a major part of the contribution of the current Commission in achieving a climate-neutral economy by 2050. Together, they set a firm basis for the next European Commission to build on in the 2019-2024 mandate. As a consequence, the European Commission will already provide its comments on all national energy and climate plans by the end of June.

It is clear that ambitions to efficiently decarbonize all modes of transport will be one of the biggest challenges of the new European Commission and it is expected that Europeans will see numerous new legislative proposals which will try to tackle transport-related emissions and prepare our continent for a greener future. However, the Commission will not be able to address the challenges alone, full commitment of and cooperation among Member States is the key for success.