A bumpy wooden path through a peatland in Belgium

NECPs: paving a bumpy road towards climate neutrality

If Europe is to achieve its climate targets, then every European country must play its part. National Energy and Climate Plans are the blueprints where each EU country outlines how they intend to cut emissions. But are the plans up to scratch and what happens if they aren’t? The EEB looks at agriculture, heating and public participation. 

Samantha Ibbott reports. 

A central objective of the European Green Deal is to bring Europe’s economy and society to climate neutrality by 2050. To ease the way to this goal, the EU created a 2030 target to reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). To meet this target each country must play its part in reducing emissions and illustrate how it intends to do so in a 10-year National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP). These plans are updated when changes to EU-level targets occur and are then re-submitted to the European Commission, whose job it is to review and approve the plans. 

A round of updates has just occurred, and despite some delays in submitting their updates, all revised NECPs are now sitting on the Commission’s desk. So how do these new plans measure up? To try to answer this question, we’ve had a look at a few symbolic elements of the plans. 

Recipe for success 

Achieving these targets requires an unprecedented level of climate action across all sectors: replacing fossil fuels with renewable electricity, electrifying processes, reducing energy and material demand, implementing circularity measures, rewetting peatlands… That’s why NECPs cover everything from energy to agriculture. No sector can be excluded or given a free pass to continue with business-as-usual, because business-as-usual is why we’re in this mess in the first place.    

But that’s not all. To be successful everyone needs to be on board. Citizen engagement is a vital component of the NECPs. From the products we buy to how we get around, these plans will impact everybody’s everyday lives! Leaving people out of the planning process is a recipe for disaster and could lead to poorer policies and public backlash down the line. 

Discover what can be done to safeguard renewables against social backlash.

What public participation? 

So, did they follow the recipe? In short, no. Let’s start with public involvement, or the lack of. Governments are obliged to consult with their citizens when creating and updating their plans. How? By providing ample time for participatory processes, full transparency during the revision process, and ample opportunity for the public to respond to the proposed plans. Unfortunately, many EU governments treated the consultative aspects of the process as nothing more than a tick box exercise

Agricultural technofixes 

Agriculture is one of the largest elephants in the room of climate action. Despite its significant contribution to the climate crisis, there is a glaring absence of any agricultural emission reduction targets in many countries’ plans. Livestock, fertiliser, manure management, and drained peatlands are all major sources of GHG emissions yet there is a systemic reluctance to address them at source. Instead, countries opt for techno-fixes focusing on efficiency improvements and “sustainable intensification”, avoiding the big picture.  

Attempts by industry to spread misinformation about the impact of the meat and dairy industry are immense, but the science is clear. The agricultural sector generates 32% of the world’s methane emissions, making it the single largest source of human-made methane emissions. Europe must move away from industrial rearing of animals towards extensive and mixed farming which reconnects animals with the land needed to produce their feed and recycle their waste. This unavoidably means reducing the total number of animals farmed, something policymakers continue to hide away from.  

The issue of overfertilisation is a similar story. Excessive use of fertilisers results in air pollution, as a significant amount of the nitrogen (a potent greenhouse gas) and ammonia (a harmful pollutant) applied to soils is lost to the air. But instead of planning to reduce Europe’s reliance on (fossil-gas-based) synthetic fertilisers, most countries aim at (marginally) improving the efficiency of their application. This is not enough. To truly reduce emissions, countries should be doing more to promote agroecological practices which can restore soil health and fertility, with the added bonus that healthy soils store more carbon.  

Natural allies 

Peatlands and wetlands are vital ecosystems in Europe’s attempts to tackle emissions and they can either be a great ally or Europe’s Achilles heel. When healthy, these ecosystems store vast amounts of carbon, yet they have been and continue to be drained to make way for farming. And once the land is dried, the carbon they once held is rapidly released into the atmosphere. Studies have shown that if Europe is to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, it must rewet one million hectares of peatlands annually. This should be a key priority for Europe and yet, once again, this opportunity is not mirrored in countries’ plans.  

Heating and cooling 

Finally, energy use within the heating and cooling sector – a hot topic since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine – is a huge factor in reaching climate targets. Thankfully on this front, countries have set a goal aiming to reduce energy consumption in the sector by 25.5% by 2030. But our analysis shows that if countries wish to truly align with the European average and promote a substantial shift towards decarbonised heating and cooling, they should aim for a new, more stringent target and reduce individual energy consumption by ~25% per person.  
But to build a truly resilient energy future in the EU, it is essential that the Commission collaborates with individual countries and ensures a unified and strong commitment to move away from fossil-fuel and towards sustainable heating and cooling practices. And while we’re on the topic of the Commission, let’s take a closer look at their role in all of this.

Guardian or neglectful custodian? 

With the plans sat on the Commission’s desk, what comes next? As we’ve already stated it is the Commission’s job to review the NECPs and ask governments to improve them when needed. Then after a bit of back and forth and once improvements are made, the Commission approves the plan for use. 

As we’ve just illustrated, multiple analyses indicates that these NECPs do not have what it takes to reach EU climate goals. In this case, we would expect the Commission to push individual governments to up their ambition. But will they? As seen with recently with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plans, this isn’t always the case. In fact, Client Earth is taking the Commission to court for approving France’s CAP Strategic Plan despite it breaking EU law. Can we expect the same level of disregard for the NECPs?  

Now or never 

This is not just another round of NECPs. The science clearly shows that the need for action is now. Within this decade. Therefore these 10-year plans are crucial. It is now or never. Countries must implement ambitious plans that have been designed hand in hand with their citizens and the Commission must be vehement in defending the common climate agenda and holding EU countries accountable. Only with strong commitments and enforcement from leaders can Europe bring climate neutrality within reach.

Whose role is to step in when EU countries fail to uphold the law, and why are they failing to do so?