Climate neutrality - empty watchword or concrete goal? | The French perspective


After June negotiations at the European Council, climate neutrality is no longer an abstract concept used by international experts, but is becoming a widely commented issue of public interest. As Michał Kurtyka, President of COP24 in Katowice, said at one of the meetings of Forum Energii:  "Climate neutrality is a civilisational choice for Europe".

However, since the Polish veto on climate neutrality, which was joined by the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia, the accelerating European drive for climate neutrality has slowed down considerably. Will the new European Commission speed up its course under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen? Why is it so important to set this goal? How to ensure its timely achievement?

The article aims to analyze the French approach to the objective of climate neutrality debated in June negotiations. Why is climate neutrality so essential in the European Union? What are its key features?

What is climate neutrality?

The idea of climate neutrality was introduced in the Paris Agreement in 2015. At COP21 in Paris, 197 countries, including the EU, agreed to limit the global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this overarching objective, they committed themselves to achieving "a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases" by the second half of this century 1. This means that all greenhouse gases emissions will have to be either eradicated or absorbed by then (in natural processes).

These climate ambitions were first reflected in the conclusions of the European Council in March 2018 and then in the European Commission's communication 'A Clean Planet for All' of November 2018. In May 2019, eight countries (France, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Spain) called for this target to be met by 2050 at the latest. At the next European Council meeting in June this year, they were joined by most of the other Member States - except four.

Carbon or climate neutrality - definition problem

Climate neutrality, net-zero emissions, zero-carbon transition... All these terms are used more and more frequently by governments, often interchangeably. Even among EU Member States do exist different understandings of climate neutrality, different ways of counting it and different time frames of achieving it. Some of them, such as France, take into account carbon sinks in forests and soils when calculating emissions. Sweden, on the other hand, plans to achieve climate neutrality by 2045, which is earlier than France, but with the use of international carbon credits, i.e. compensation for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, it does not take into account the actual national greenhouse gas emission and absorption balance 2. Carbon credits are also used in New Zealand and Norway. Another interesting topic is international transport. Currently, almost all European Union countries, except Great Britain, exclude it from the balance of domestic 3emissions.

A good example of controversies over the definition of climate neutrality can be found in France, where  it started within a public debate on a new draft climate and energy law in March 2019 4. The government proposed to replace the name of the existing target - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fourfold by 2050 - with the new term "carbon neutrality" without defining it in law. This raised serious concerns among experts who warned that such a change could lead to levelling down ambitions for 2050. The term 'carbon neutrality' could suggest that it is only about carbon dioxide emissions and not about all greenhouse gases. The Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition argued in the media that this would lead to an eightfold reduction of emissions. However, without translation into law it is difficult to consider it as binding 5.

Taking into account the expressed doubts, the French government proposed in a second version of the draft law to match carbon neutrality with a quantitative target on greenhouse gas emissions, to be reduced at least by six times by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. In the course of parliamentary work on this law, it was additionally specified that, in accordance with Article 4 of the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto method, carbon neutrality takes into account all greenhouse gas emissions 6. This means that the term "carbon neutrality" will soon be introduced in law. Although at first it seemed controversial, giving it a specific legal definition can be considered as a success.

Indicators and monitoring of progress

So far, the EU has not issued any guidelines for monitoring progress towards climate neutrality target. The European Commission recommends not using international carbon credits, but its position on whether and how to take into account emissions from international transport remains unclear 7. The same applies to imported emissions, i.e. emissions from goods produced outside the EU, where less restrictive environmental regulations apply.

Achieving climate neutrality is a challenge for the whole world, and therefore must also have a global dimension, not just a local one. Otherwise it seems like throwing garbage over a fence. When it comes to climate, fences do not exist. In order to achieve effective climate protection at global scale, it is necessary to share the costs and responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions, and therefore to put incentives on countries exploiting the environment unrestrictedly. This issue is particularly relevant in EU countries where de-industrialization has facilitated emission reductions in the last decades, with energy-intensive industries being relocated to developing countries.

The discussion on imported emissions and their significance  for climate neutrality target in France has been going on for a  while. To illustrate that point, the first report of the High Council on Climate Change, which is an independent advisory body of climate experts, called on the French government to propose a method for assessing and reducing emissions from imports. In 2015, the French carbon footprint was estimated at 6.6 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. However, it only applies to emissions generated on the French territory, whereas if imports of goods were taken into account,  emissions would amount to 11 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita 8. It seems that an emission indicator based on domestic final consumption would be more appropriate than only domestic production. If final domestic consumption includedin the emission balance, the total carbon footprint would be 20% higher in France between 1995 and 2005 9. This means that emissions from imports should be accompanied by special measures and policies not only at national but also at international level. Interestingly enough, France has just introduced a provision into its new energy and climate law requiring the calculation of  an indicative greenhouse gas emissions ceiling, known as  'carbon footprint'. This carbon footprint takes includes emissions from the production and transport of imported goods and services and excludes emissions from the production of exported goods and services.

This issue could be raised during the new term of office of the European Commission. The recently elected President Ursula von der Leyen proposed, among other things, the extension of the ETS system to transport and the introduction of a carbon tax 10to be imposed on goods imported from regions of the world where climate regulations are less restrictive than in the European Union. One can mention here the results of an analysis by a team of international experts who tried to prove that border carbon adjustments are the only effective protection against carbon leakage and in the meantime  encourage other countries to step up their efforts to reduce emissions 11.

To sum up, climate neutrality is far from being an empty watchword. If given a precise legal definition and appropriate indicators, it can even become the most important milestone in public policy and a concrete target to be achieved. After a heated debate in the recent months, Francehas laid the first foundations of neutrality: objectives and indicators have been defined, experts consulted  and citizens invited to work together towards this common goal. It is difficult to say how stable this new construction will be, but let the French train speed up and show others how to reach the station climate neutrality.


Author: Delphine Gozillon, Forum Energii
Cooperation: dr Joanna Maćkowiak-Pandera, dr Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, Klaudia Wojciechowska
Photo: Maximilien Struys Photography


  1. Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, December 2015
  2. French law excludes international carbon credits. French High Climate Change Council, 2019 report.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Government draft energy and climate bill proposed by the government and submitted to public debate.
  5. D. Gozillon,  Reforming the European climate governance after the Paris Agreement: case study of the French energy and climate strategy, Master thesis, Institute of Political Studies of Paris, May 2019.
  6. Government draft of the Energy and Climate Law.
  7. French High Climate Change Council, 2019 report.
  8. Estimates of the carbon footprint and emissions from imports come from the French low-carbon strategy. It takes into account three gases: CO2, methane and nitrogen dioxide. Eurostat estimates France's carbon footprint at 7.2 tonnes and takes into account all greenhouse gases, but does not provide data on imported emissions.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See
  11. M. Mehling,  H. Van Asselt, K. Das,  S. Droege, C. Verkuijl,  Designing Border Carbon Adjustments for Enhanced Climate Action, „American Journal of International Law, 2019, nr 3, s. 433−481,

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