European Green Deal: Good for Europe but will it save the planet?

European Green Deal: Good for Europe but will it save the planet?
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The roadmap for making the EU’s economy sustainable and climate neutral by 2050 was recently presented by the European Commission and endorsed by the European Council at its summit in December. One member state, Poland, was at this stage not able to commit to the target.

But the biggest challenge will be to get the rest of the world on board in sharing EU's objectives and tackling the existential threat of global climate change, causing wild fires and intentional fires raging in other continents, sea ice and ice sheets melting at the poles and permafrost thawing. As a result, much more carbon dioxide and the even more potent methane are released.

The planet has entered a new age never seen before in its history, the Age of Fires (Pyrocene), writes professor Stephen Pyne, with fires everywhere. Working with a sense of emergency, the new Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has in very short time published an ambitious Communication on The European Green Deal.

Still there are people, not to mention the Trump administration, that denies the impacts of human activities on climate change or think that other issues are more important but the Communication is unambiguous on this point. Referring to scientific research, it describes tackling climate change as our generation’s defining task. Without tackling it now, it will be too late for coming generations.

The Communication aims at “turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities” across almost all sectors of the economy and making the transition to zero-emissions of greenhouse gases just and inclusive for all regions and inhabitants in the EU. Huge investments will be required, estimated to €260 billion of additional annual funding.

The WWF European Policy Office, which often is critical of the Commission, commented that, “This agreement on climate neutrality is better late than never: credit to those EU countries which supported it and to the Commission for its timely and necessary reference to an upcoming just transition mechanism. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and reduce emissions starting today.”

“The proposed package is comprehensive, identifying the right areas for action - from biodiversity and nature restoration to climate change and stopping deforestation - and it presents us with a number of new and potentially transformational initiatives.”

According to the Commission, emissions in 2018 were 23 % lower than in 1990 while EU’s GDP grew by 61 % in the same period. By summer 2020, it plans to present a plan to increase the target for reducing EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 “to at least 50 % and towards 55 %”. The WWF comments that the target should be 65 %. “The climate crisis cannot wait.”

In the coming months and years, the Commission plans to implement a vision of how to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. In an annex to the Communication, it lists a number of actions under different headings, many of them to be implemented already during the first months of 2020. By March 2020, it will propose the first European “Climate Law” which will enshrine the 2050 objective in legislation.

It takes 25 years to transform an industrial sector and its value chains. In March 2020, the Commission will also adopt an EU industrial strategy to address the challenges of the green and the digital transformation of the economy. The decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries, such as steel, chemicals and cement, is seen as essential.

A new circular economy action plan will guide the transition of other sectors, in particular resource-intensive sectors such as textiles, construction, electronics and plastics. As regards the latter, the Commission intends to ensure that all packaging in the EU market is reusable or recyclable by 2030. It will also analyse the need for a “right of repair” of electronics.

In transport, a 90 % reduction of emissions is needed by 2050. As part of its industry strategy, the Commission will support “climate and resource frontrunners” to develop the first commercial applications of breakthrough technologies, such as clean hydrogen, fuel cells and other alternative fuels.

To supply batteries to e-vehicles, the Commission approved in December derogations from state aid rules to support innovation projects in the battery chain. In the area of sustainable and smart mobility it will fund calls to support the deployment of public recharging and refuelling points as part of alternative fuel infrastructure.

The key objective of this funding call under the Green Deal is to contribute to the roll out of 1 million public accessible charging points for the 13 million e-vehicles expected on European roads by 2025. But so far, it is not clear if the new infrastructure will also include Electric Road Systems (ERS), where e-vehicles are charged from the road when driving.

More refuelling stations will accelerate the transition to e-vehicles and thus make investments in ERS economically feasible. Sourcing limited battery raw materials is mostly done from conflict areas in third countries. When charging electricity from the road, batteries can be made smaller and cheaper. ERS eliminates the need for stops for recharging and enables heavy vehicles to utilize battery solutions.

Further decarbonising the energy system, which currently accounts for more than 75 % of EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, is critical for reaching the climate neutrality target. Member States will present their revised energy plans already by the end of this year. Replacing coal by renewable sources is clear but not how natural gas will be decarbonised. The Communication is silent about nuclear energy.

Another important policy area covered by the Communication is agriculture. Food production results in pollution and contributes to the loss of biodiversity and climate change, while much food is wasted. The Commission will present a “Farm to Fork” strategy for a more sustainable food policy. It will also propose that at least 40 % of the agriculture budget would contribute to climate action.

Last but not least, in early 2020, the Commission will present a “Just Transition Mechanism” with the aim of facilitating €100 billion of investments in the regions most exposed to the challenges of the climate change transition.

Learning the lessons from France, where an increase in fuel taxes led to the outbreak of the Yellow Vests protests, such a mechanism is necessary so that “no-one will be left behind”.

But it needs to also to be seen in the broader context of inequality in society. United Nations writes in its recent Human Development Report 2019 that climate change and inequality are intertwined. On the one hand climate change deepens existing inequalities, on the other hand redressing inequalities could make climate action easier.

It will not be easy and the Commission writes that climate change will continue to create significant stress in Europe despite mitigation efforts. But the biggest problem will be how non-EU countries will respond. “The global challenges of climate change and environmental degradation requires a global response.”

The hope is that the European Green Deal will serve as a kind of model for the rest of the world. According to the Communication, EU intends to step up its engagement with partner countries and use its trade policy to support tackling climate change. Whether EU can persuade other countries by example to step up their measures remains to be seen.

The previous Commission was reluctant to raise the issue of the fires and deforestation in the Amazon at international climate action summits. Asked whether the Commission would consider the idea of criminalising intentional deforestation of the rain forests, where we rapidly are approaching a tipping point, as a "crime against humanity" or ecocide, it chose to ignore the question.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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