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EU Parliament’s climate champion role in doubt after key vote

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The European Parliament finally managed to agree on a thorny piece of climate legislation — but its role as the Continent’s green champion has been thrown into doubt. 

In a do-over vote on Wednesday, lawmakers passed three climate bills linked to the planned reform of the EU’s carbon market, one of the bloc’s key tools for reducing emissions. 

A first vote on the proposals collapsed in dramatic fashion earlier this month when a clash between the assembly’s largest political groups ended with the Parliament plenary rejecting the entire legislation. 

The failed vote risked delaying progress on the Commission’s package of measures to slash the bloc’s emissions by 55 percent this decade — dubbed Fit for 55 — but a new compromise was found within a week.

“It was a failure for the climate, it was a failure for this institution,” Pascal Canfin, chair of the environment committee, told Wednesday’s plenary session. But, he added, “in just two weeks we managed to turn the situation around … it’s a great result.” 

Not everyone agreed. The deal, critics say, is out of step with the reality of climate change and the Parliament’s earlier calls for steeper targets. 

“This package is fit for 55,” said the Greens’ Bas Eickhout. “But it is not fit for 1.5 degrees,” the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to relatively safe levels. 

The Greens nevertheless backed the compromise, which sought to bridge the divide between the center left’s climate concerns and the conservatives’ efforts to protect industry from the most stringent measures. 

Under the deal, now approved by a large majority, the Parliament will push for a somewhat more ambitious reform of the EU’s Emissions Trading System compared to what the Commission proposed last summer, for example extending carbon pricing to waste incineration and a wider scope of the shipping sector. 

But on the overall level of emissions cuts, the Parliament settled for a modest increase — despite its repeated calls for more ambitious targets. At the start of its term, it had declared a climate emergency, and later demanded EU emissions cuts of 60 percent by 2030 rather than 55 percent.

MEPs agreed on limiting emissions covered by the ETS — about 40 percent of the EU’s total — by 63 percent this decade, up from the Commission’s 61 percent but far below the environment committee’s proposed 67 percent or the 70 percent demanded by climate campaigners. 

As part of the compromise, the center-left S&D and centrist Renew Europe accepted the many industry-friendly amendments pushed through by the conservatives in the first round of voting in exchange for a faster phaseout of free pollution permits for industry and a marginally tighter cap on emissions late in the decade. 

NGO Carbon Market Watch found that Parliament approved “an overall emission reduction in 2030 that is merely 23 megatonnes lower” — equivalent to “the annual emissions of just four steel plants” — than the position that was rejected in early June. 

“This is a disappointing outcome from a body which claims to be a climate leader,” said Camille Maury of WWF Europe, accusing lawmakers of caving into industry lobbying. “The outcome is also totally inconsistent with the Parliament’s previous call for an overall 60 percent EU emissions reduction target for 2030.” 

‘Best we could get’

Parliament’s largest groups celebrated the vote as a success. 

Center-right MEP Peter Liese, who will lead ETS negotiations on behalf of the Parliament in interinstitutional talks, said it was a “great day” for climate action, adding: “Overly ambitious demands were scrapped … but we nevertheless want considerably more [ambition] than the European Commission.” 

The center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), whose opposition was key to bringing down the ETS bill earlier this month, were mostly satisfied. 

“It’s no secret that I and my group would have wanted even more ambition,” said Jytte Guteland, who led the S&D’s work on the ETS reform. 

But the compromise, she added, had “united” lawmakers, giving parliamentary negotiators more leverage in talks with EU governments in the Council — where they are likely to face an uphill battle to defend the bloc’s climate ambitions. 

“I think this was the best outcome we could get,” Guteland said. 

Her centrist colleague Emma Wiesner from Renew Europe also said she was “proud” of the result but lamented that groups hadn’t managed to agree a more ambitious compromise. 

“I guess we were really hoping that Parliament would see sense for the climate,” she said. “But we didn’t have the politics with us … Parliament wasn’t ready for that.” 

The institution’s more conservative factions, in turn, felt that what was agreed was perhaps too ambitious. 

Before voting started on Wednesday, Polish conservative MEP Patryk Jaki demanded that the Parliament delay the climate legislation in light of the energy price crisis and the war in Ukraine. 

“If we vote this draft this will mean the end for coal and this would be tantamount to higher prices and higher costs of living for Europeans,” he said. 

S&D chair Iratxe García, calling on Parliament to back the compromise ahead of the vote, said any further delay was not an option. 

She reminded MEPs that in the two weeks since the failed vote in early June, Europe had experienced an intense heat wave, seen droughts spread across the Continent and lost thousands of hectares of forest to wildfires.

“In my region, 30,000 hectares have been destroyed, one of the largest forest fires in my country’s history,” she said, referring to the devastation of the Spanish mountain range Sierra de la Culebra last week. “The only way to act is to start acting right now.”

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