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Europe goes all in on its net-zero pledge, backing tough new emissions targets—but not without a fight

December 11, 2020, 11:14 AM UTC

The European Union further strengthened its targets for cutting emissions on Friday—despite internal resistance from poorer countries within the union that threatened to scupper the deal.

The new goal is to cut 2030 emissions by at least 55%, the most ambitious target in the world and involving the bloc’s 27 members—excluding the U.K., which has its own target. The passing of that 2030 target—which was tabled as an amendment in September and only needed final approval—is part of the EU’s broader goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which was laid out exactly one year ago as part of the union’s Green Deal.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tweeted that the target “puts us on a clear path towards climate neutrality in 2050.”

But efforts to pass the new 2030 target also highlighted the growing rift within the union that mirrors larger divisions worldwide—between richer countries who want to push for more ambitious targets, and the EU’s poorer members in the east—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—who are still more dependent on coal-fired power.

All three of those countries had initially withheld their support Thursday for the deal, asking for more support from the bloc to help transition their economies. The deal was only passed on Friday morning after Poland, the last holdout, received further assurances of funding for the energy transition.

That division among member states is not just about emissions targets. Earlier this week, the European Commission adopted a €750 billion ($910 billion) post-pandemic recovery fund and a €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) seven-year budget—but only after weeks of uncertainty, with threats from Brussels that Poland and Hungary could be cut off from the funds after they threatened to sink the deal. The governments of both countries had objected to rule-of-law stipulations for the funding. Poland and Hungary have both been under fire for moves to restrict the freedom of the press and for stacking the courts with government loyalists, shifts that have long been flagged as overtly undemocratic and violating the principles of the European Union.

Friday’s announcement of the target also comes ahead of this weekend’s climate summit, which marks the fifth anniversary of the signing of the landmark Paris Agreement.

Despite the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been a landmark year for net-zero climate commitments by governments (and by companies), from Japan to Canada, although many of the details of how those targets will be achieved are still vague. The next country to watch is the U.S., with President-elect Joe Biden pledging to reenter the Paris Agreement when he takes office early next year, paving the way for the possibility of firmer U.S. emissions cuts.