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Climate action

To prevent climate change from reaching dangerous levels, the international community has agreed that global warming must be kept below 2°C compared with the pre-industrial temperature. The EU is therefore working hard to cut its member countries' emissions and to promote strong action by other major polluters. It is also addressing the unavoidable impacts of a changing climate.

Hiker on glacier © Digital Vision/Karl Weatherly

Hiker on glacier.

Targets drive green growth

Taking action now to combat climate change can save human and economic costs in the longer term. The growing demand for clean technologies also offers an opportunity to modernise Europe's economy and create 'green' growth and jobs.

For 2020 the EU has set itself binding climate and energy targets in order to:

  • reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions to at least 20% below 1990 levels
  • increase to 20% the share of EU energy consumption coming from renewable sources
  • improve energy efficiency to reduce the amount of primary energy used by 20% compared with projected levels.

The EU has offered to scale up its emissions cut from 20% to 30% by 2020 if other major economies commit to undertake their fair share of a global reduction effort.

In the longer term, much deeper cuts in world emissions will be needed to prevent dangerous climate change. The EU is committed to reducing its emissions by 80-95% of 1990 levels by 2050 as part of a collective effort by developed countries to do likewise.

The European Commission describes how it could achieve reductions of this size most cost-effectively in its 'Roadmap for a low-carbon economy in 2050'.

The Commission has also proposed new climate and energy targets for 2030. They include:

  • reducing greenhouse emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels
  • increasing the share of renewable energy to at least 27%
  • continuing to improve energy efficiency.

This proposal is being discussed by member governments and the European Parliament.

Emissions trading: reducing emissions at least cost

The Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is the cornerstone of the EU’s climate change strategy, and is gradually bringing down emissions from industry at least cost.

Under the system, launched in 2005, a 'ceiling' on emissions from energy-intensive industries like power generation, steel and cement is lowered every year. Companies have to surrender allowances for every tonne of CO2 they emit, giving them a permanent incentive to minimise emissions. Some sectors receive a certain amount of allowances for free, but increasingly firms must buy them at auction or on the carbon market.

Preparing for the consequences of climate change

Even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, those already in the atmosphere would continue changing the climate for decades to come. We therefore have no choice but to adapt to climate change. The kinds of action needed range from modifying building regulations to take account of future climate conditions, to building flood defences and developing drought-tolerant crops. The Commission has set out a strategy to promote and facilitate adaptation across the EU.


Climate action

Manuscript updated in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series



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