EU ministers approve landmark climate measures, but tough talks await

EuroActiv Politico News

LUXEMBOURG — EU governments backed key efforts to slash emissions in the early hours of Wednesday, even as they left the Continent’s climate masterplan riddled with exemptions. 

Seventeen hours of negotiations between the bloc’s national environment ministers ended in a compromise deal that moves the European Union one step closer to implementing sweeping measures intended to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent this decade. 

Concessions granted to some countries in the process raised concerns that ministers had weakened the legislation, setting the stage for difficult negotiations with the European Parliament on the finalized package. 

Still, the mood was upbeat as the vote passed just after 2 a.m. on Wednesday, with both ministers and the Commission praising the outcome.

“In the middle of Europe’s biggest energy crisis, we have launched one of the most comprehensive climate packages in EU history,” German Climate Minister Robert Habeck said.

Talks to settle on a common position on core elements of the Commission’s landmark climate legislation package, known as Fit for 55, kicked off on Tuesday morning and lasted well into the night as ministers struggled to resolve the sticking points. 

They had traveled to Luxembourg to thrash out a consensus on the reform of the EU’s carbon market, targets for carbon sinks, national emission reduction goals and the phaseout of combustion-engine cars — cornerstones of the EU’s plan to curb planet-warming emissions. 

In the end, the headline targets were left unchanged. Ministers agreed that the EU must collectively remove 310 million tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere by boosting natural sinks like forests, end the sale of combustion-engine cars in 2035, introduce a carbon price on transport and heating fuels, and more. 

But with each EU member country pushing to protect national interests — and little appetite for increasing climate ambitions given the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine and soaring energy prices — governments introduced numerous smaller tweaks to the Commission’s original proposal. 

“We cannot compromise with climate change. We cannot negotiate with nature,” Danish Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen told his colleagues as they each laid out what changes to the legislation they wanted to see. “And all the small concessions that might be made add up, and they leave a bill to pay for future generations.” 

Funding fight

It was Greece’s environment ministry official Petros Varelidis who, perhaps unintentionally, summed up the mood in Luxembourg during Tuesday morning’s first round of debate. 

“Ambition comes with a price tag,” he said.

Varelidis was referring to the EU’s controversial new carbon price, which will make fossil fuels used to heat homes and drive cars more expensive in an effort to incentivize a switch to alternatives. 

The proposal raised alarm in capitals fearing a Continent-wide renaissance of France’s “Yellow Jackets” movement once higher bills hit, but was tempered by the promise of a €72 billion Social Climate Fund. 

That money pot, however, ran into fierce opposition from countries skeptical of more financial redistribution within the bloc, like Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordics — a divide that sent negotiations into overtime as countries fought over the size of the fund. 

In the end, they agreed on €59 billion, more than the frugally-minded countries wanted but still less than what many lower-income members had called for. 

For others, the price tag for climate ambition was an exemption for their pet issue. 

Car-loving Germany wavered on banning the combustion engine in 2035, threatening to derail the talks until parts of the Berlin coalition were placated with a vague promise from the Commission to look into future options for e-fuels. There was a successful push by Greece, Malta and Cyprus to create larger exemptions for small islands in rules governing aviation and shipping emissions.

Countries — led by heavily forested ones like Sweden and Finland — also made substantial tweaks to rules governing carbon removals, doing away with binding intermediate targets and an enforcement mechanism. 

Upcoming talks

Still, the EU’s Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said after the agreement passed that it would set the bloc on a path toward reducing emissions by at least 55 percent this decade and net zero by mid-century. 

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke spoke of a “historic result” that would transform Europe’s economy. 

The European Parliament will push for a more ambitious position in negotiations with EU countries, which are expected to start after the summer break.

MEPs and capitals diverge sharply on a number of issues — lawmakers, for example, want to exempt households from the new carbon price on heating and transport.

And after Parliament’s split over the end of free carbon credits — effectively a pollution subsidy for Europe’s heavy industry — crashed an initial vote on the climate package earlier this month, MEPs will likely fight hard to defend their hard-won compromise for a 2032 phaseout date. Ministers, meanwhile, settled on 2035 without much of a fight.

That sets the EU up for an interinstitutional battle over climate ambition in the fall. But on some issues, Parliament and Council are in near alignment.

Both institutions ended up backing the same combustion engine phaseout date — meaning the EU is virtually certain to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2035.