Inside StoryMon-Fri 6:30pm ET/3:30pm PT

How will the EU reach its new climate targets?

The European Union has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent

Early Friday, the 28 nations of the European Union announced they agreed to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

"It was not easy, not at all, but we managed to reach a fair decision. It sets Europe on an ambitious, yet cost-effective climate and energy path. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of mankind. Ultimately, this is about survival,” said EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

The plan will be legally binding for every member state, and the goals are intended to challenge the United Nations climate meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.

"This agreement keeps Europe firmly in the driving seat in international climate talks ahead of the Paris summit next year. We have set an example others should follow,” said EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

The path to the emission plan was not an easy one. Each country had its concerns. For the United Kingdom, certain benchmarks had to be voluntary, as Prime Minister David Cameron continues to battle anti-EU sentiment at home.

Countries like Sweden and Germany are already meeting or beating international energy-saving targets. Their leaders wanted stricter measures. And then there was Poland, which threatened to block the deal unless it included a complex set of allowances. Much of Poland’s domestic energy comes from coal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained the EU’s compromise on Friday saying, "Countries that have more GDP per capita will have to contribute more, and others that have less GDP per capita will have to contribute less. It’s a bit similar to emerging economies. Those countries that are lagging behind in regards to economic progress have to be given the possibility not to reduce quite so much in this point in time. There is, if you like, a target zone between 0 and 40 percent, and it will be broken down according to the GDP per capita."

Alongside the enthusiasts, there are critics. Some environmentalists say the plan doesn't go far enough to secure an 80 percent emissions cut of by 2050. Smaller countries worry the goals could have negative economic effects.

Among the member nations' leaders, there was a sense that the plan symbolizes something bigger: a mammoth step toward a cleaner planet. "There was also a will to convince the United States, China and other countries that Europe could be a reference. And if Europe had not found an agreement tonight, how could we go and get the United States, China, other countries, emerging countries, those who have questions, if the Europeans had shown weakness?" said French President François Hollande.

According to the Global Carbon Project, greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are on course to reach their highest levels in 2014. That may explain the sense of urgency resonating from Brussels.

What could this agreement mean for Europeans' day-to-day lives?

Where does this put Europe compared with the U.S. and China?

Could the U.S. commit itself to similar reduction targets without enormous sacrifice?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

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