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New EU chief makes bold climate pledges

Ursula von der Leyen standing in front of the MEPs in the plenary hall after her application speech.

Ursula von der Leyen will take up her post as president of the European Commission in November.Credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa/Alamy

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen will be the next president of the European Commission, and has put climate change at the top of her agenda. Von der Leyen was narrowly elected on 16 July by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and will be the first woman to take the helm of the European Union’s executive branch.

Von der Leyen’s nine-vote majority reflects the discontent of many MEPs who were surprised when she was nominated last month by national leaders. Many parliamentarians would have preferred a leader of one of the parliament’s political groupings to get the top job in Brussels and thus responsibility for determining and implementing the commission’s policy agenda.

In a speech she delivered in parliament a few hours before her election, von der Leyen said that she intends to make climate and the environment top priorities in all EU policy areas. She pledged to strengthen the EU’s short-term goal on greenhouse-gas emissions from a 40% reduction by 2030 to at least a 50% cut, relative to 1990 levels. The EU will also take the lead in forthcoming international climate negotiations and will encourage other major economies to increase their ambitions by 2021, she said.

From a scientific perspective, the more ambitious carbon-reduction target is a crucial step, says Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Von der Leyen is also set to announce a ‘Green Deal for Europe’ in her first 100 days in office, which would include a law to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. “I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world,” she said.

The proposed deal, outlined in a political agenda she released yesterday, includes a biodiversity strategy for Europe, an extended emissions-trading system and a tax to avoid carbon ‘leakage’ — when companies transfer the production of goods to countries with more relaxed emission limits.

She also pledged to unlock €1 trillion (US$1.1 trillion) over the next decade for climate investment, and to turn parts of the European Investment Bank into a dedicated climate bank, which would channel private investment to climate and clean-energy projects “in every corner of the EU”, she said.

With the proposed policies, Europe will become a leader in international climate-protection efforts, says Claudia Kemfert, a climate and energy policy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “The Green Deal is groundbreaking and will create huge economic opportunities by opening up new markets and avoiding climate damage,” she says. “Europe will set standards in this way.”

But von der Leyen’s ambitious climate proposals were met with caution from some corners — including the parliament’s alliance of Green party lawmakers, who voted against her and criticized her plans. “We were elected on an agenda for change and we did not hear enough on our key demands, namely on concrete proposals to avert climate breakdown,” said Green alliance co-leader Ska Keller.

The new president will need to win the backing of EU nations — strengthening climate targets is something that EU member states must decide by consensus, says Oliver Geden, a policy researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “It’s a hot issue,” he says.

“Now she will have to deliver on those promises,” says Edenhofer. “Inaction or inertia are no options for our climate. Mrs von der Leyen should work hard for a comprehensive and effective European emissions-trading scheme.”

Von der Leyen will succeed Luxembourgish politician Jean-Claude Juncker, who has been president of the European Commission since 2014. Before she takes office in November, she will select a new cabinet of commissioners, including a successor to outgoing research commissioner Carlos Moedas.

The details of the EU’s next multibillion-euro research-funding programme, Horizon Europe, will be finalized by the commission and parliament before the end of this year. Horizon Europe will include a strong focus on aspects of climate change.

Nature 571, 457-458 (2019)


Additional reporting by Nisha Gaind.

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 17 July 2019: This story has been updated with comments from Ottmar Edenhofer.

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