The European Union missed its target to spend 20% of its pre-2020 budget on fighting climate change and overstated its green spending to claim that the goal had been met, the European Court of Auditors has said.

The EU had pledged to spend at least 20% of its 2014-2020 budget on measures to limit climate change, and by its own account hit that goal exactly, spending €216 billion in the period.

The auditors said, however, that the EU had overstated its climate spending by at least €72 billion and the actual figure was likely nearer €144 billion, or 13% of the total budget.

"Not all the reported climate-related spending under the EU budget was actually relevant to climate action," said ECA member Joëlle Elvinger.

Agriculture subsidies made up 80% of the "climate" spending the auditors said was mislabeled. While some schemes had made a solid contribution to fighting climate change, for example by enriching soil carbon storage, others had little climate impact – such as crop diversification – the auditors said.

In its official reply, the Commission stood by its assessment that the 20% target was met but accepted some of the auditors' recommendations, including one to use scientific evidence to assess agriculture spending's climate contribution.

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"The Commission does not share the ECA's view that climate reporting is unreliable," it said.

The EU assigns a score to spending based on its expected contribution to addressing climate change. The auditors said this system is "beset with weaknesses", involves significant approximations, and is unreliable since it does not assess the real impact made by the projects once the money is spent.

The auditors warned that the EU had not fixed loopholes in its system of tracking climate spending, potentially undermining its new target to spend 30% of the EU's 2021-2027 budget and 37% of the bloc's Covid-19 recovery fund on climate action.