For a given carbon budget over several decades, different transformation rates for the energy system yield starkly different results. We consider a budget of 33 GtCO2 for the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from the European electricity, heating, and transport sectors between 2020 and 2050, which represents Europe's contribution to the Paris Agreement. We have found that following an early and steady path in which emissions are strongly reduced in the first decade is more cost-effective than following a late and rapid path in which low initial reduction targets quickly deplete the carbon budget and require a sharp reduction later. Costs of solar photovoltaic, onshore and offshore wind have plummeted during the last decade. We found that those technologies can become the cornerstone of a fully decarbonised energy system and that installation rates similar to historical maxima are required to achieve timely decarbonization. Key to those results is a proper representation of existing balancing strategies through an open, hourly-resolved, networked model of the sector-coupled European energy system.