Under pressure to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the European Union is pushing policies to clean up its economy.
To slow the planet’s heating, the EU made a promise in 2019 to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
If the EU manages to clean up its economy, it could serve as a blueprint to polluters from the United States to China — and show countries across Africa and Asia that one of the world’s richest emitters is serious about climate change.
Emissions: Cutting greenhouse gas pollution
The EU has cut annual greenhouse gas pollution by about 30% since 1990, mainly by burning less coal. It now wants to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 57% from those levels by the end of the decade. But the EU’s latest target falls short of cuts needed to honor the promise of keeping global warming to 1.5 C (2.7°F) by the end of the century. Current policies from member states look set to bring down emissions by just 36%-47%.
Power: More renewable energy
The EU gets 22% of its energy from renewable sources. Last year, it put forward a plan to hit 40% by the end of the decade. Then, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the European Commission said it wanted to increase that again, to 45%. The target implies a quick and strong push to electrify polluting activities and clean up the continent’s electricity grid. The proposal has passed two rounds of legal bureaucracy but must still be agreed on by member states, which are lobbying to keep the target at 40%.
Power: Electricity from solar panels, wind turbines
The industry expects the EU to build the infrastructure for 220 GW of solar power and 92 GW of wind power in the next four years, aided by the falling price of renewable energy. This is more than the amount expected in some scenarios that keep global warming to 1.5 C.
The outlook from the wind industry is less optimistic than solar because of the long time it takes to get permits approved and wind farms built. In November, EU member states agreed to shorten the timeframes for granting permits.
Buildings: Heating homes without burning gas
The EU also intends to renovate more buildings and run them on 49% renewable energy by 2030. In a proposal, the European Commission has argued for putting solar panels on new public and commercial buildings from 2027 and on existing ones from 2028. It wants to do the same for new residential buildings from 2030.
As well as building infrastructure to make clean energy, the European Union would have to electrify activities that run on fossil fuels such as burning gas to heat homes. One of the most effective ways to do so is by swapping gas boilers for electric heat pumps.
Transport: Driving cars without burning petrol
The European Commission intends to cut the average CO2 emissions from new cars by 55% by 2030, before hitting zero by 2035. That would be one of the easiest fixes to clean up transport, the only sector where pollution has steadily risen. Greenhouse gas emissions were 15% higher in 2021 than in 1990.
Experts say the target is achievable, if unambitious. Electric vehicle sales are picking up. The share of electrics among new cars sold in the European Union jumped from 11% in 2020 to 18% in 2021. If more car journeys were shifted to trains, buses, and walking, emissions from transport could fall even faster.
Agriculture: Cleaning up farms
The European Union has made little progress in cleaning up farms, which are responsible for about 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. These come in lots of shapes and from different sources — methane from cow burps, nitrous oxide from fertilizer, and both from manure.
Two-thirds of the European Union’s agriculture emissions come from animals. The EU plans to bring in sustainable feed additives, which can cut methane from cows, and reduce the amount of soy grown on deforested land to feed livestock. According to the EU, the shift cannot happen without a change in people’s diets.
Source: Deutsche Welle