Europe’s election results won’t shake its climate commitments

The greens may have lost seats but the desire for climate action stands firm, writes Belinda Schäpe
<p>With the conservatives big winners in the elections, Ursual von der Leyen – a champion of the Green Deal – is likely to be re-elected as president of the European Commission (Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Alamy)</p>

With the conservatives big winners in the elections, Ursual von der Leyen – a champion of the Green Deal – is likely to be re-elected as president of the European Commission (Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Alamy)

Last weekend, 400 million Europeans cast their votes in a crucial election that will shape not only their future but also the global approach to climate change. While green parties lost seats in the European parliament, climate action will likely remain a top priority in line with public concerns on the issue. Even though the EU’s climate efforts are often met with scepticism and criticism, a closer look reveals a story of remarkable achievements and profound implications for global partners, especially China.

The EU has fast-tracked its climate action over the past five years

Since the last elections in 2019, the EU has significantly accelerated its climate action by implementing the European Green Deal.

The bloc aims to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Moreover, with the Fit for 55 package, it has put forward a detailed and ambitious plan to reduce emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to 1990. Earlier this year, the European Commission put forward another proposal to reduce emissions by 90% by 2040. Some EU member states have set even higher ambitions. For example, Germany aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 and to reduce emissions by at least 65% by 2030.

In response to the energy crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has doubled down on renewable energy as the provider of energy security. As part of the RePowerEU plan, the EU increased its renewables target from 32% of energy consumption to at least 42.5% by 2030 and aims for the power sector to become net zero by 2040. Germany even increased its 2030 renewables target from 65% to 80% and remains committed to achieving a coal phase-out by 2030, alongside 22 other member states.

The EU has also introduced new reforms to its emissions trading scheme, one of the key instruments for lowering its emissions. Free allocations will be gradually phased out and the scheme’s scope will be expanded from electricity and industry to include emissions from shipping, aviation, buildings, and transport.

The EU will need to bring everyone on board with its mission to decarbonise

As a result of these commitments, in 2023 EU emissions dropped to their lowest level since the 1960s. The current policy direction puts the EU on track to reduce emissions by 51% in 2030 compared to 1990, close to its 55% reduction target. Renewables are responsible for over half of the emission reductions in 2023 as fossil fuels dropped by 8%. In particular, emissions from coal have halved since the Paris Agreement in 2015, while power sector emissions have fallen by 20% in the last five years. Germany was the country that saw the largest fall in power sector emissions in absolute terms.

The EU is also driving the international climate agenda with its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) aiming to foster greener production beyond EU borders. While the measure has received criticism, it is expected to incentivise carbon pricing and low-carbon markets globally. With added diplomatic and technical support, CBAM could play an important role in driving industrial decarbonisation and providing opportunities for countries championing green industries around the world, including China.

The rocky path to carbon neutrality

Challenges remain for Europe as it addresses climate change.

Public acceptance will be key for delivering the EU’s climate agenda. Protests against the EU’s green agenda, for example from farmers over the past few months, risk stagnating policy ambitions as illustrated by the backtracking on the Nature Restoration Law and the enhanced emission reduction target. The EU will need to strengthen efforts to bring everyone on board with its mission to decarbonise faster.

Accelerating the green transition, while ensuring supply chain resilience and economic competitiveness remains a balancing act. Concerns over Europe’s dependence on China for green technologies are dominating the agenda. While a faster rollout of renewables will be necessary to meet the global goal of tripling renewables by 2030, Europe wants to ensure stable supply chains and play a bigger role in the manufacturing of green technologies. Over-reliance on China’s supply chain poses a potential risk to the smooth implementation of the continent’s climate goals. More open and constructive engagement between both sides would be needed to tackle this challenge.

New EU institutions will continue implementing the climate agenda

The new European Parliament and Commission will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of climate policy, with significant implications for global partners like China.

The newly elected Parliament shifted further to the right but that doesn’t mean that climate policy will drop off the table. Right-wing and populist parties gained strong votes, particularly across the bigger member states Germany, France, and Austria, while Green parties have seen the biggest losses. However, even with a smaller Greens mandate, Europe’s climate agenda will likely stay on course as climate impacts remain high on voters’ minds, as illustrated by the heavy floods in Germany’s conservative strongholds in the south. The Conservatives are among the biggest winners of the elections and are supporters of the EU Green Deal, paving the way for some continuity for the next five years with Conservative EU Commission President von der Leyen likely to be re-elected.

Under a von der Leyen Commission 2.0, we can expect continuity in ambitions to tackle climate change. The past five years have illustrated von der Leyen’s commitment to delivering her flagship initiative the European Green Deal, despite the significant challenges of the pandemic and war breaking out in the continent and beyond. Climate change continued to be one of the few remaining topics on the positive agenda between China and the EU as tensions increased, but heightened geopolitics and competition over green technologies are increasingly also spilling over into the climate sphere. Von der Leyen’s de-risking agenda aims to equip the EU with the right tools to strengthen its autonomy, particularly also in key green technologies. These tensions will have to be well managed by both sides for climate change engagement to continue effectively.

Implications for China

For effective climate cooperation between China and the EU, it is crucial to consider the big-picture trends in the EU’s climate actions rather than focusing on individual setbacks or challenges in isolation. The EU’s ambitious targets and comprehensive strategies, like the Green Deal and the Fit for 55 package, demonstrate a genuine commitment to combating climate change despite the challenges they face. By acknowledging the EU’s efforts, China sets a precedent for the EU to view China’s climate actions, including its significant investments in renewable energy and long-term goals for carbon neutrality, in a positive light.

Going forward, China and the EU should engage more proactively with each other’s concerns. China should seek to address European concerns over resilience in green technology supply chains, while the EU should seek to address Chinese concerns over newly introduced policy instruments such as the CBAM. The EU’s stringent environmental regulations often set global standards, influencing policies beyond its borders. As China continues to strengthen its own climate policies, aligning with EU standards can facilitate smoother trade relations and ensure compliance with global expectations.

China and the EU are both key leaders in the global fight against climate change. Amid geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainty, climate engagement between the two on the political and technical level will remain vital. Together, they are important drivers in accelerating the global transition through multilateral fora. This will be even more important with a potential change in the US administration. Both countries stand to win from enhanced climate action and can learn from each other in tackling the challenges they face to control climate change.