EU climate neutrality goal not negotiable amid pandemic: lawmakers

(Reuters) - European Union lawmakers said on Monday the coronavirus pandemic should not soften the bloc’s long-term climate goals, although some called for a “beefed up” fund to help coal-dependent regions move towards a greener economy.

Europe is facing a recession and governments are pumping out cash to keep economies afloat. Still, the EU’s executive Commission has pledged not to roll back its climate ambitions.

The EU will use its “Green Deal” – a policy package centred around a target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 – to drive the bloc’s economic recovery from the pandemic, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

EU lawmakers doubled down on the 2050 target on Monday, in a debate over the bloc’s planned 7.5 billion euro ($8.2 billion)Just Transition Fund to help high-carbon regions shift away from fossil fuels.

Alexandr Vondra, the Czech lawmaker guiding parliament’s talks on the fund, had suggested the pandemic could require the 2050 climate goal to be delayed.

The virus has had a “profound impact” on Europe’s economy, Vondra - who represents a country not enthusiastic about the climate targets and asking for more financial support for the transition - said in a draft proposal for parliament’s position on the fund.

“It may therefore be necessary to revise or postpone the date of achievement of the climate neutrality objective,” the proposal said.

However, the push for a delay found no supporters when parliament’s environment committee discussed it on Monday.

Lawmakers from the three biggest political groups in parliament - which make up 432 of the total 705 EU lawmakers - spoke out in favour of keeping the 2050 goal.

“I understand that some would like to delay this goal due to the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in my view, the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to transform and rebuild our economies based on the European Green Deal,” Hungarian lawmaker Sandor Ronai said.

Some supported Vondra’s call for the fund to be significantly larger, given EU climate targets will cost coal-reliant countries such as Poland hundreds of billions of euros.

The Commission hopes its Just Transition Fund can win support for EU climate goals from Poland, which is expected to suffer the biggest coal sector job losses of any EU country.

Poland is the only EU country that refused to commit to the 2050 climate goal, and its government has said the pandemic will make climate targets harder to achieve.

The Commission had proposed putting aside 7.5 billion euros for the fund from the next EU budget, for 2021-27. Of this, 2 billion euros were earmarked for Poland.

This figure is not set in stone. The Commission plans to produce a new EU budget proposal this month, amended in light of the pandemic - after which, EU leaders will begin wrangling over a compromise on the final amount.

Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Mark Potter