(CN) --- A divided European Parliament on Thursday passed a cornerstone piece of legislation that legally binds the European Union and its 27 member nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a major step that gives Europe the claim to be the first large region in the world to make such a legal vow.
This new “European Climate Law” makes it mandatory for the EU to meet new, bigger greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030 and to be so-called “climate neutral” by 2050 – in other words, no longer contributing to global warming. The legislation also sets up a scientific council to vet the EU's policies and projects and to make sure the EU is on track to meet its new goals.
The legislation passed 443-203 with 51 abstentions. The vote was largely symbolic because EU leaders, including those from the parliament, had previously agreed in April on the contents of the law.
“This is the law of laws because it will discipline us in the years to come to stay within the boundaries we’ve set,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU commissioner in charge of climate change policies.
The new law, which now can be signed into the EU's statutes, will serve as the nerve center for a series of new rules the European Commission, the bloc's executive body, is preparing to introduce to the European Parliament on July 14.
The EU is looking at “carbon taxes” on foreign products, raising fuel standards, creating a system of rewards for climate-friendly businesses and rolling out a slew of measures to make its economies and societies leave behind fossil fuels.
In its entirety, the climate law and the other pieces of legislation will underpin the European Green Deal, the European Commission's long-term strategy to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement's mandates by weaning Europe off carbon fuels for energy and scaling up energy production through wind turbines, solar panel farms and hydrogen-powered plants. The plans also include reforestation, energy efficiency, tougher car standards and changes to farming practices as other ways to reduce the release of heat-trapping gases.
The climate law was the subject of months of bitter disagreements between those seeking more ambitious goals and those worried this massive energy transformation will hurt businesses and regions such as the mining towns in eastern and central Europe.
In the end, after lengthy “trilogue” discussions between the three branches of the EU governance – the elected parliament, the executive commission and the European Council, composed of national governments – all sides agreed on a compromise climate law in April.
On Thursday, many European parliamentarians expressed their dislike for the climate law. Left-wing politicians affiliated with green parties said the bill was embarrassing because it was not radical enough in getting Europe to move away from fossil fuels. Although Europe has done much to get greener, it has found it hard and extremely complicated to move away from fossil fuels.
Those on the left were countered by right-wing nationalist politicians, mostly from poorer eastern and central European countries, who said they were worried the new environmental laws will hurt workers in the coal industries and leave European businesses at a competitive disadvantage to those in countries without such stringent environmental rules.
The biggest sticking point was over setting a threshold for the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. In the end, all sides agreed to committing the EU to reducing its carbon emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels. Until now, the EU had set itself a goal of reducing emissions by 40% compared to 1990. Greens were calling for a 65% reduction goal, arguing that the next decade is critical.
Timmermans said the commission's analysis showed that the EU could achieve this 55% reduction target and also meet the Paris Agreement's commitment to stop the global temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures.
Green politicians disagreed and expressed outrage over what they see as a feeble attempt by Europe to lead the world in moving away from fossil fuels.
A number of Green members voted against the climate law, even though it is widely viewed, despite its flaws, as a landmark piece of legislation and an example for others, like China and the United States, to follow.
“Science tells us that the EU Climate Law we vote on today will lead to global warming between 2 and 3 degrees,” said Micha Boss, a Green member. “This fails the Paris Agreement. These aren't just numbers. We're talking about people's lives and huge consequences for nature on this planet.”
On the other side, politicians from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia were among those who warned that Europe's ambitions to become a renewable energy leader will leave many behind and exacerbate inequality. Opposition also came from pro-business, right-wing parliamentarians, many who express doubts about the need for drastic societal changes to tackle climate change.
Catherine Griset, a member of France's far-right National Rally party, said the EU's climate change policies will lead to major disruptions in every economic sector and put Europe's industries at risk.
“Our competitors will take advantage of our weaknesses,” she said, speaking against the bill prior to the vote. “It will lead to more taxes, higher energy costs, social damage.”
Still, the legislation's passage was not in doubt because it was supported by the large moderate groups in the parliament representing conservatives, social democrats and liberals. These groups applauded the climate law as setting the bar high for other powers in the world to follow.
“It's an ambitious goal, but it is achievable,” said Jessica Polfjard, a Swedish parliamentarian with the European People's Party, an umbrella group of conservatives. “The EU can show it is ambitious.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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