To meet its climate commitments, the EU must involve its people

Under the Paris Agreement, the EU has set 2030 climate and energy targets as an important step to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest. To meet these targets, the EU has enacted the Governance Regulation, which requires Member States to prepare National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) that set out how they will pursue the energy transition between 2021 and 2030. In addition, each Member State must prepare a National Long-Term Strategy (LTSs) that sets out how it plans to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050.

Public participation - the missing link for ambitious climate and energy plans

As specified in the Governance Regulation, Member States were required to submit their draft NECPs to the European Commission by 31 December 2018, with their final NECPs due exactly a year later, by 31 December 2019. 

In response to what they had submitted so far, the Commission issued recommendations to each Member State in June 2019. From its analysis of the 28 draft NECPs the European Commission concluded that as a whole, the envisaged policies are insufficient to reach the bloc’s 2030 targets.

A number of independent analyses from ECF, CAN-E, Sandbag and PlanUp released in recent months have also found that the draft NECPs lack the necessary ambition and credibility required to fully enable the EU energy transition.

We believe that one of the reasons why NECPs currently fail to meet the 2030 targets is due to a lack of meaningful public engagement in the drafting of the plans. Frustratingly, many Member States have not consulted properly – or sometimes, not at all – with the public before adopting the draft NECPs.

This is not only a lost opportunity to get help and inspiration for national efforts towards achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals – it is also a breach of the law. 

In the EU, public participation and consultation in environmental matters is required under international, EU and national laws. These different laws all have to be compliant with one another. In particular, EU and national laws must comply with an international agreement called the “Aarhus Convention”.

The Aarhus Convention grants the public rights to access information and participate in decision-making as well as the right of access to justice on matters concerning the environment.

To comply with the Aarhus Convention, the Governance Regulation specifically requires Member States to open the 2021-2030 NECPs to public participation. 

In 2017, the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) – which oversees compliance by each of the parties with their obligations – had already raised concerns that the Governance Regulation’s requirements for public participation when preparing the NECPs were insufficient to comply with the Aarhus Convention. In 2019, these concerns were repeated in a progress review

After being made aware by ClientEarth of a lack of public participation in a number of Member States and the imprecise wording of the Governance Regulation, the ACCC advised the European Commission in May 2019 to incorporate specific instructions regarding public participation in its recommendations on draft NECPs. However, the Commission’s recommendations did not incorporate any of the specific wording recommended by the Compliance Committee.

The advice issued by the Committee is equally important to the national authorities drawing up the NECPs. For the NECPs to be truly impactful, public consultation must start early enough so that public comments can be taken into account in the final documents. 

There is still sufficient time to carry out public participation before the end of this year that complies with the Compliance Committee’s advice and thereby the Aarhus Convention.

If done properly, public participation could contribute to bridging the ambition gap and help put the EU on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Public participation – a requirement for Member States’ Long-Term Strategies

The responsibility of Member States to conduct public consultations extends to the countries’ Long-Term Strategies (LTSs). Similarly to the NECPs, public participation must be carried out exclusively for the LTSs and must comply with both the Governance Regulation and the Aarhus Convention. 

This means that public consultations previously conducted for documents drafted for former versions of the LTSs would not satisfy the requirements of the Governance Regulation and the Aarhus Convention. Member States that have already submitted LTSs to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, in line with the Paris Agreement, such as Germany, France, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, must, therefore, organise a new phase of public participation. Repurposing any former strategies and submitting them as new LTSs without opening them to public consultation would also breach the Aarhus Convention.

The way forward

The ACCC, the European Commission and independent experts have warned that the current national climate plans regrettably fail to meet the Paris climate targets as well as related EU objectives.

We call on the EU and its Member States to fully implement the Aarhus Convention and to organise public consultations in line with their legal obligations. Civil society’s input and expertise is not only required by law but is key to ensure that both Member States’ NECPs and LTSs are as ambitious as possible. If Member States ignore this call to action, the repercussions risk affecting generations to come.

Further information:

  • Detailed recommendations to governments on public participation are available in our legal memos on NECPs and LTSs.
  • This article has been edited and shortened for PlanUp EU, please see the original article on ClientEarth website.