European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tells lawmakers her new ambitious plan of cutting 55 percent emissions by 2030 should help the European Union achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels, Belgium September 16, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels, Belgium September 16, 2020. (Reuters)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is doubling down on the flagship goals she set out on taking office last December: urgent action to combat climate change and a digital revolution.

The European Union's chief executive laid out ambitious goals on Wednesday in her first annual State of the Union address, including plans to ensure that the bloc is more resilient and united to confront futures crises after the coronavirus pandemic, which has plunged Europe into its deepest recession in history.

Von der Leyen, who wants Europe to become the world's first climate-neutral continent by mid-century, unveiled a plan to cut the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40 percent.

She also pledged to use green bonds to finance those climate goals.

"There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet," she said. "While much of the world's activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter."

She predicted the new target will be "too much for some and not enough for others" but she told lawmakers that it should help the 27-nation EU achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

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"Our economy and industry can manage this, and they want it, too," von der Leyen said as she set out her priorities while speaking in the European Parliament.

EU leaders agreed last year to make the bloc’s economy carbon-neutral by the middle of the century.

The former German cabinet minister also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States, and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion-euro coronavirus economic recovery fund in digital projects.

Green bonds

Von der Leyen said she wants 37 percent of the recovery fund approved by EU countries to be spent on environmental objectives, adding that 30 percent of the fund should be raised through “green” bonds whose proceeds are meant to have a positive impact on the environment.

The EU also plans to dedicate a quarter of its budget to tackling climate change and to work to shift $1.1 trillion in investment toward making its economy more environmentally friendly over the next 10 years.

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Greenhouse gas emissions

According to the EU, its greenhouse gas emissions already decreased by 23 percent between 1990 and 2018, a period when the economy grew by 61 percent.

World leaders agreed five years ago in Paris to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. 

Scientists say countries will miss both of those goals by a wide margin unless drastic steps are taken to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Von der Leyen also confirmed the EU is working on a kind of carbon tax aimed at avoiding a situation in which EU countries reduce emissions, but at the same time import goods embedded with CO2.

“Carbon must have its price because nature cannot pay this price anymore," she said.

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Funneling green funds to gas

The European Parliament said on Wednesday it has voted to allow some gas projects to tap the European Union's flagship green transition fund, teeing up tough talks with the bloc's executive and national governments, which have already agreed to exclude the fuel.

The EU wants to launch a multi-billion-euro Just Transition Fund with cash from the bloc's coronavirus recovery fund and budget, to help fossil fuel dependent regions shift to cleaner energy.

The goal is to push members towards EU goal of net zero emissions by 2050, and a new, tougher 2030 target for emission cuts, which the EU Commission proposed this week.

But final rules need to be decided by the European Parliament together with the Commission and national governments, which have said the fund should not support any fossil fuels.

The parliament on Tuesday voted to back an amendment to make some gas projects eligible for aid and will formally approve its position with another vote on Wednesday. The projects must be in coal-heavy regions and comply with the EU's 2030 climate target.

Greece's Manolis Kefalogiannis, lead lawmaker on the issue, said the rules enabled a "limited possibility of investments in natural gas as a 'bridging fuel'".

Others said spending public money on gas contradicted EU lawmakers' promise, made last year, to tackle the "climate emergency".

Frayed European solidarity

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share protective medical kits with those worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus.

The bloc's leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

"In the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common," Von der Leyen said. "We turned fear and division between member states into confidence in our union."

She stressed that the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned London the agreement "cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied".

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Source: AP