The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland have blocked a deal to target neutral climate emissions across the bloc by 2050 at a meeting of national leaders in Brussels on Thursday.
The failure to agree the EU-wide pledge ramps up the pressure on Europe to agree a concrete new commitment ahead of the UN climate conference in September. Ariving empty-handed could undermine the bloc’s claim to be a leader in taking action on climate change and make it more difficult to put pressure on China and other countries to do more.
Western and Nordic states have traditionally called for more ambitious action on the climate while central and eastern European countries worry about the pace of change required to adapt while also balancing social and economic adjustments to meet the targets. Poland and Hungary, among other nations, had opposed the 2050 target on economic and social grounds.
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters they were very firmly defending their interests. “Poland is one of those countries that must first have a very detailed compensation package. We must know how much we can get for modernisation.”
A diplomat from one of the opposing countries said they could not commit to a policy without knowing the cost. “Nobody was able to present economic calculations to accompany the idea,” he said.
But Ska Keller, president of the Greens in the European Parliament, said: “The heads of state and government ignored the urgency once more and put at risk the future of all of us. Protecting business interests and power still seems to be more important.”
Momentum behind the target had grown after Germany decided last week to support the ambition first proposed in May by eight member states, including France, the Netherlands and Sweden. However the four opposing national leaders stood firm.
“It is hard to believe that these four governments, driven by the narrow interests of their polluting industries, succeeded in their opposition to a widely-supported and badly-needed increase of the EU’s climate ambition,” said Wendel Trio, director of campaigner Climate Action Network Europe.
The decision comes just days after Britain became the first G20 economy to legislate for a net zero 2050 target. France, Germany and New Zealand are considering similar proposals.
Concerns over global carbon emissions have been growing after a report last year from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the worst impacts of climate change could be avoided if global net emissions were slashed to nearly zero by 2050.
Climate has become a key political issue in Europe, and followed a surge in support for Green parties in the recent European elections.
Youth climate demonstrations swept across the continent this spring, with thousands of students going on classroom strike to protest against climate inaction, and several countries including Britain declared a “climate emergency”.
“With people on the streets demanding action and warnings from scientists that the window to respond is closing fast, our governments had a chance to lead from the front and put Europe on a rapid path to full decarbonisation. They blew it,” said Greenpeace EU climate policy adviser Sebastian Mang.
The target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 would demand far-reaching economic changes to reduce emissions. The European Commission estimates it would require €175bn-€290bn investment in energy infrastructure annually, which could be partly funded by reducing the bloc’s 266bn annual energy imports.
The 2050 target was important for setting the direction, but campaigners also stressed the need for concrete targets and urgent action in the next decade to keep any temperature rise within 1.5C — an ambition of the Paris climate accord.
A dozen EU countries have publicly supported increasing the bloc’s 2030 targets, which campaigners say are necessary to meet the 1.5C limit.
Simone Tagliapietra, research fellow at the Bruegel think-tank, said the bloc needed to put in place concrete commitments in the next budget as “choices made up to 2024 will define the shape of the EU energy system by 2050”.
The 28 EU member states recently submitted national energy and climate plans that collectively fell short of the bloc’s 2030 targets, capitals have until the end of the year to improve their plans.
Long-term climate targets are needed to provide the certainty companies need to invest to transform our economies, according to María Mendiluce, managing director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, who called Thursday’s decision “disappointing”.
“We don’t have much time to wait. . . . . he green race is on, and the race will be won by those that have clear long-term targets backed by climate strategies and plans,” said Ms Mendiluce.
Achieving a net zero target means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to almost nil, and compensating for any remaining emissions with land-based projects that can absorb carbon dioxide, such as planting trees.
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in London