Illustration by Jason Raish

The race against time

The EU plans to “fundamentally transform” its economy in this “make-or-break decade.” (The rest of the world should take notes.)


The summer of 2021 was the wettest Belgium has seen since records began 200 years ago. Unprecedented flooding across Belgium, Germany and other countries caused hundreds of deaths and billions of euros in damages. It also made it painfully clear that climate change must be dealt with urgently – at the precise moment that the European Commission released its plan to deliver a 55% emissions cut in greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2030. The plan, known as Fit for 55, was enormous at just under 4,000 pages. It was nothing less than an attempt to “fundamentally transform” the European economy and society on the way to a net-zero EU by 2050.

The executive vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, has said that the next decade will be “make or break” in the fight against climate change. Crucially, he has also been clear that tackling the climate crisis needs to be a global endeavour. “We challenge everyone to beat us to it, because in a race to zero we are all winners at the end,” he said in a statement.

The European Commission is hoping that the race to zero well and truly starts in November at the UN’s landmark COP26 climate summit in Scotland. Hurrying to publish the plan in July left four months to convince, cajole and coerce other countries to arrive in Glasgow with detailed targets and plans of their own for big reductions by 2030. Below is a year-by-year blueprint for how the European Commission plans to achieve its emissions-cutting goals over the next decade and beyond. These are proposals that haven’t yet been approved by the European Parliament or the EU Council, where the EU’s prime ministers and presidents gather to approve legislation. The Parliament will want more ambition, while the Council will want less. The most difficult thing about a decade-long sprint is that policy, especially EU policy, doesn’t work that quickly. There are too many layers of government, processes to develop, and plans to be made and approved. So in reality this “make-or-break decade” is more of a five-year sprint. Beginning in 2025, we will start to see far more concrete objectives and milestones about what will be done, spent and built.


Fighting finance greenwashing with a Green Taxonomy. Although it’s not technically part of the European Commission’s Fit for 55 package, the Green Taxonomy is seen as an important part of the effort to achieve the 2030 targets. Essentially, it is a list to help companies and investors know what’s “green”and what’s greenwashing, and it’s seen as a vital tool in achieving the 2030 targets. It builds confidence that “green” investments can be trusted and should help mobilize trillions of euros in private investment and avoid costly stranded assets, like a number of proposed gas infrastructure projects that have been cancelled as they simply won’t be needed in the net-zero future. Just as importantly, it will make business more expensive for companies and technologies with dubious environmental credentials – thereby slowing the growth of polluting business and accelerating investments in clean tech. It covers 13 sectors of the economy that represent about 80% of Europe’s emissions.

But defining “green” is a Sisyphean task. NGOs have walked out of meetings on the topic, while France and Germany have butted heads over whether nuclear energy should be included. For now, the taxonomy has avoided two big powder kegs by delaying decisions on whether nuclear should be considered green and whether gas should be treated as a transition fuel, replacing coal. Expect squabbles on these questions to continue for years to come.


The New Bauhaus. Ending the fossil fuel era isn’t enough; Europeans want to make sure they look good doing it, too. The New Bauhaus initiative is a pet project of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has said it “combines the big vision of the European Green Deal with tangible change on the ground. Change that improves our daily life and that people can touch and feel – in buildings, in public spaces, but also in fashion or furniture.” The plan is to mobilize designers, architects, engineers, scientists, students and creative minds across other disciplines to reimagine sustainable living in Europe and beyond in ways that are inclusive and affordable. It could lead to nothing or it could spark a deeper cultural shift, a green cultural renaissance designed to infiltrate demography, mobility, construction, artificial intelligence and more. Either way, the EU plans to spend €85 million on the project between 2021 and 2022, bringing together smart and creative people to combine beauty and sustainability at five Bauhaus hubs across Europe.


Carbon border tax on six products. Known by the acronym CBAM (carbon border adjustment mechanism), six imported products (iron, steel, aluminum, cement, fertilizers and electricity) will be targeted with a carbon levy to ensure that European producers don’t face unfair competition from countries that have no carbon tax. It’s a way of levelling the playing field so that a Swedish steelmaker using more expensive hydrogen won’t be undersold by imported steel made with cheaper, and dirtier, coal. The money raised will be used to cover the costs of administering the CBAM, with any surplus going into general revenues. That’s not to say it’ll be a big moneymaker, as putting the tax in place, gaining World Trade Organization approval and then actually administering the tax is likely to be incredibly complicated and expensive. Canadian firms should be largely unscathed, since Canada’s carbon tax will make the adjustment unnecessary, depending on where the EU carbon price lands in the coming years. The EU will launch a reporting system in 2023 to ensure a smooth rollout and plans to get the whole system up and running by 2026, when importers will start paying money into it.

We challenge everyone to beat us, because in a race to net-zero we are all winners at the end.

—Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president, European Green Deal


A nice, draft-free library, and super-efficient sports hall, too. Decarbonizing buildings is a massive undertaking. It’s a beast of a file to standardize, and most homeowners would rather get a new kitchen or bathroom than a heat pump. To get around this, the European Commission has proposed mandatory deep energy retrofits for all government buildings (national, provincial, regional and local), as well as ones that serve the public interest such as health, fitness or educational buildings. This will most likely come into effect in 2024 so that there is time for projects to be developed and tendered. Other renovation encouragements will include slapping gas heating with a new carbon tax and the likely development of minimum energy-performance standards for existing buildings. Each EU country will also develop a plan and funding to directly help homeowners double the renovation rate.


The road to more EVs. In a bid to maintain the recent momentum of electric vehicle (EV) sales, the EU plans to build a comprehensive charging network with one million chargers by 2025. The main European highways will see 300-kilowatt (kW) charging (enough to add a 100-kilometre range to your car in less than five minutes) every 60 kilometres. Heavy-duty usage is also being promoted, with 1400kW charging appearing just as often for EV trucks. Five years later those peaks should double and also fan out to Europe’s broader, secondary highway network. By 2030 the EU expects there should be a total of 3.5 million chargers on European roads.


Separating the forest and the trees. The EU burns a lot of trees for energy. As of 2026, Europe will end financial support for electricity-only biomass plants (biomass plants that produce electricity and produce heat aren’t excluded). It’s part of a broader shift to improve the use of biomass (mostly trees, but also 27% agriculture and 12% waste), which represents an enormous 60% of renewable energy consumption in the EU. There will be crackdowns on where biomass can come from, and smaller five-megawatt facilities that generate both electricity and heat for district heating or industrial uses like paper making will be subject to emissions regulations for the first time. This would dovetail with the EU’s new 2030 target to boost forests as carbon sinks, potentially by planting three billion trees and paying forest owners for providing ecosystem services such as cleaning air and water, fighting erosion or decomposing waste.


The Social Climate Fund. Maybe it’s the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) effect of France’s 2018 gas tax protesters, or maybe it’s just good politics, but there is a clear effort to ensure that funding goes toward smoothing out public opposition to the inevitable increase in gas heating costs and at the pump. 2027 will be the final year of the first fund, which begins in 2025 and will disperse €23.7 billion ($35.36 billion) to low-income households. The EU will spend another €48.5billion between 2028 and 2032, mainly supporting the poorest regions in Europe.

Ending the fossil fuel era isn’t enough; Europeans want to make sure they look good doing it, too.


More wind turbines, fewer gas plants. There are a slew of initiatives designed to tinker with Europe’s energy markets by 2028. They aren’t transformative, but collectively they should make a big difference in reducing GHGs. The 2030 renewable energy target gets increased to “at least 40%” from the current “at least 32%.” An “energy efficiency first” principle will be mandated to apply to all major policy and investment decisions. And the EU’s methane reduction strategy for all energy-related methane emissions received a big boost in September when a shared 30% reduction target with the U.S. was announced and more countries quickly joined the pact.


Cutting aviation and shipping’s CO2. By 2029, airlines will have just one year left to ensure that 5% of their fuel is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It doesn’t look like much, but that will rise to 63% by 2050. To encourage uptake, taxes on SAF will be low, while traditional aviation fuel will be subject to carbon taxes for the first time. The targets and taxes will apply only to flights within Europe (so, Canadians, your flights to Europe shouldn’t cost any more). Maritime shipping will be treated similarly, though GHG shipping fuel targets will apply to voyages outside of Europe as well.


Hydrogen highway. The buzz around hydrogen has started to fade as the physics of what it can efficiently achieve become better understood. But big things are still being planned. In 2030, the EU intends to produce 10 million tonnes of green hydrogen. This is the point at which the European Commission expects green hydrogen made from renewable electricity to become cost-competitive with blue hydrogen made from fossil fuels. And while much of the hydrogen will be destined for chemicals, fertilizers and other industrial uses, there is also a goal to have hydrogen refuelling stations along the core highway network.


Farewell to the internal combustion engine. Technically, the proposal is not a ban on fossil-fuelled engines but a requirement that all vehicles sold as of 2035 be zero-emitting. That has left parts of Europe’s auto supply industry scrambling to promote e-fuels (synthetic biofuels made with animal fats, oily plants and electricity) as a way to save their business and meet emissions targets. But as the NGO Transport and Environment points out, e-fuels have an overall efficiency of just 13% (compared to 73% for direct-charging EVs). In the long run, e-fuels may find a niche keeping antique cars on the road. With many carmakers vowing to completely shift from gas-powered cars to EVs prior to the 2035 deadline, this should be one of the easiest targets to hit. Fully electric vehicles are about 10% of sales in Europe and are growing quickly.

By the time this article hits North American doorsteps in November, it should be clear whether COP26 has been a success or, as the UN chief warned in September, a failure. While Europe can claim global leadership on combatting climate change for now, that leadership is ultimately worth relatively little without developing a broader global coalition for greater ambition. The EU accounts for only about 10% of global emissions, and without global action on emissions, the deadly floods in Belgium and Germany that punctuated the summer of 2021 will become a more common occurrence. On the other hand, the European Commission clearly has its eyes fixed on creating a virtuous circle of international competition driving for net-zero. The more countries strive for it, the cheaper it gets; the cheaper it gets, the faster it goes. The clock is ticking.

Adrian Hiel is a Canadian dad, husband and writer who has spent the last 17 years in Brussels imbibing more Tintin, Gueuze and political dysfunction than he ever thought possible.

Illustration: Jason Raish

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