EU Climate Action and Implications for the United States

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Updated May 26, 2020
EU Climate Action and Implications for the United States
European Union: A Key Actor
economic consequences of the Coronavirus Disease 2019
The European Union (EU) has sought to play a leading role
(COVID-19) pandemic could complicate EU policymaking.
on international climate action for decades. The EU and the
United States worked closely to negotiate the 2015 Paris
EU Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Efforts
Agreement (PA) to combat greenhouse gas (GHG)-induced
The EU negotiates on behalf of its member states in the
climate change. The EU opposed President Trump’s 2017
U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, including
decision to withdraw the United States from the PA. The
the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and the PA. Under the KP, the EU
current 27-member EU and the United Kingdom (UK)—
met its 2008-2012 obligations and is on track to meet its
which withdrew from the EU in January 2020—remain
2013-2020 obligations (Figure 1). In the PA, the EU made
committed to the PA and to more robust climate action.
an aggregate GHG-reduction pledge in its Nationally
Although the U.S. withdrawal is scheduled to take effect in
Determined Contribution (NDC), in which the EU and its
November 2020, some Members of Congress are interested
member states commit to a “binding target of at least a 40%
in the possible geostrategic and economic implications of
domestic reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to
climate change and mitigation efforts. (Table 1 compares
1990.” To fulfill the EU’s NDC, each EU member agreed to
selected U.S. and EU GHG emissions indicators.)
a distinct target that is legally binding within the EU
context. The EU’s NDC target covers all GHG not
Table 1. Selected GHG Emissions Indicators
controlled by the Montreal Protocol on Substances That
(EU data for 2016 and 2017 include the United Kingdom)
Deplete the Ozone Layer, including carbon dioxide (CO2),
from the energy sector, industrial processes, product use,

agriculture, waste, and net removals by land use, land-use
Total GHG Emissions (2016)
3.6 Gt CO
change, and forestry (LULUCF).
5.8 Gt CO2e
GHG Emissions per Capita
7.1 t CO2e
18.1 t CO2e
The EU’s NDC target is the same as the binding target
agreed in 2014 in the EU’s 2030 Climate and Energy
GHG Emissions per Million $
220 t CO2e
310 t CO2e
Framework. To help achieve this target, the EU adopted
GDP (2016)
legislation in 2018 to reform and strengthen its Emissions
Share of Global GDP Based
Trading System (ETS), which limits CO2 emissions from
on Purchasing Power Parities
energy-intensive companies and installations. Also in 2018,
the EU updated legislation to curb emissions in sectors not
covered by ETS (including buildings, transport, waste, and
Share of Global CO2 Energy-
agriculture) and legislation to ensure no net emissions from
Related Emissions (2017)
the land use and forestry sectors.
Sources: World Resources Institute, Climate Watch 2020;
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook 2016;
The EU also views transitioning to “cleaner” energy as
International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2019.
crucial to reducing emissions. In 2018 and 2019, the EU
Notes: CO2 = carbon dioxide; CO2e = carbon dioxide-equivalent:
finalized several measures to promote clean energy,
the tons of CO2 that would have the equivalent effect of 1 ton of the
including setting stricter energy efficiency and renewable
GHG on forcing global average temperature. Units used are metric:
goals for 2030. EU officials estimate that, once fully
t = metric ton; Gt = gigaton, or 1 billion metric tons.
implemented, these new policies will lead to steeper
emission reductions than previously anticipated.
EU Climate Policies and Challenges
EU leaders have endorsed the goal of achieving a climate-
In the EU context, environmental policy—including climate
neutral economy (no net GHG emissions) by 2050 and
action—is an area of shared competency in which both the
adopted this objective in March 2020 as the bloc’s long-
EU and its member states may adopt legally binding acts.
term emissions-reduction strategy, consistent with the PA.
All EU members must abide by agreed EU laws and
However, Germany and several other EU members face
regulations on climate action, and national laws or policies
challenges in meeting existing GHG targets through
must not conflict with or undercut common EU measures.
domestic efforts alone. These countries may meet their EU
European public demands for stronger climate action are
obligation by acquiring extra GHG reductions from other
growing, as seen by gains for pro-environment “green”
EU member states. In Belgium and Germany, reducing
parties in recent European elections (including those in
GHG emissions is made more difficult by cutbacks in
2019 for the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly
nuclear power generation. Reflecting concerns about the
elected institution). Still, reaching consensus on more
costs of expected and anticipated climate policies, certain
ambitious EU-wide measures poses challenges, and the
business sectors and some member state governments have
expressed a degree of resistance to setting more ambitious

EU Climate Action and Implications for the United States
EU climate goals. Poland remains reluctant to commit to a
GHG-neutral EU by 2050 given its reliance on coal.
Figure 1. EU Historical GHG Emissions and Emissions Projections
(based on targets and pledges for the EU-27 and the United Kingdom)

Source: Graphic created by CRS, based on data from Climate Action Tracker, at
Notes: LULUCF = Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry; NDC = Nationally Determined Contribution; QELROS = Quantified Emission
Limit or Reduction Objectives.
The EU’s Kyoto targets were 8% below 1990 emissions levels (average 2008-2012) and 20% below 1990 levels (average 2013-2020). The
EU’s 2020 pledge (from 2009) is a 20%-30% reduction below 1990 emissions levels by 2020, conditional on developed countries committing
to comparable efforts and developing countries contributing according to capabilities. The EU’s 2030 unconditional target (in its NDC
from 2015) is to reduce GHG emissions at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. In projections to 2030, the higher trajectory reflects biennial
reporting by EU member states and policies adopted as of 2017. The lower bound assumes full implementation of existing EU directives on
renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The European Green Deal
of the European Green Deal must be approved by the
In December 2019, the European Commission (the EU’s
member states (acting in the Council of the EU) and the
European Parliament to become EU law, a process that is
executive) proposed a new European Green Deal. It sets out
often contentious and can take two years or more. In
a multipronged approach to climate change and other
January 2020, the European Parliament passed a
environmental challenges, while promoting resource-
nonbinding resolution supporting the European Green Deal.
efficient economic growth and innovation. Key elements
include increasing the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction target
Some experts contend that COVID-19’s negative economic
from 40% to at least 50% (and possibly to 55%) from 1990
effects could stymie momentum on the European Green
levels and adopting in EU law the goal of a GHG-neutral
Deal, especially as some industry interests exert pressure to
EU by 2050. The deal also pledges a “just and inclusive
prioritize economic recovery. Others see an opportunity to
transition” in which no segments of EU society are “left
put environmentally sustainable economic policies at the
behind” economically. The European Commission plans to
center of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plans. The EU
mobilize at least €1 trillion (about $1.08 trillion) over the
asserts that it remains committed to the European Green
next decade from the EU budget and financial institutions,
Deal, but implementing some aspects could face delays.
member states, and private investors. This funding is
expected to include a €100 billion (about $108 billion) Just
Implications for U.S.-EU Relations
Transition Mechanism for regions dependent on carbon-
EU efforts to step up its climate action policies and
intensive activities and fossil fuels (for example, in Central
elements of the proposed European Green Deal may
Europe and the Baltic states).
exacerbate tensions in broader U.S.-EU relations. The EU
has pledged that it will not conclude future free-trade
As part of the European Green Deal, the EU is considering
agreements with countries that are not parties to the PA,
implementing a future “carbon border adjustment
creating another potential friction point in already fraught
mechanism”—such as a carbon border tax—to reduce risks
U.S.-EU trade talks. Some analysts suggest that possible
to competitiveness and of carbon emission shifts to
EU carbon border adjustments could increase costs for U.S.
countries with less ambitious climate policies. The
firms doing business in Europe. U.S.-EU frictions also may
European Green Deal also calls for a more robust EU
mount if a perceived lack of U.S. engagement and
strategy on adaptation to climate change (in recognition that
cooperation on climate issues impedes the EU’s ability to
many European regions will remain vulnerable despite
convince other countries to pursue more robust GHG-
mitigation efforts) and new EU strategies on biodiversity,
mitigation measures. (Also see CRS In Focus IF10668,
industrial policy, sustainable food, and a circular (waste-
Potential Implications of U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris
minimizing) economy. Specific legislation proposed as part
Agreement on Climate Change, by Jane A. Leggett.)

EU Climate Action and Implications for the United States

Kezee Procita, Senior Research Librarian
Kristin Archick, Specialist in European Affairs
Jane A. Leggett, Specialist in Energy and Environmental

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