The long discussed plan, though a seminal milestone, risks becoming too watered down as it is stretched to become everything to everybody. The new version now raises as many questions as it answers. Paul Hockenos takes a look.
Green growth blueprint or just more greenwashing?
The European Commission’s (EC) freshly installed president Ursula von der Leyen has kicked off her five-year term by dropping a bombshell: an ambitious roadmap for a European Green Deal for the European Union, as its officially titled. The far-reaching, more-comprehensive-than-ever proposal – which the European Parliament (EP) must approve next year – is indeed monumental, and could launch the EU on a path to becoming the first climate neutral continent before 2050, a goal that the EU will enshrine as law. The program envisions the EU spending a trillion euros on the strategy by 2030 and includes a CO2 tax slapped on imports produced under conditions that violate EU climate standards. All major EU laws and policies will be evaluated through the prism of climate protection, claims the Commission – a fundamentally changed perspective that climate activists and environmental parties have demanded for years.
If successful, the Green Deal could also serve as a blueprint for regions and states across the world to emulate and draw from.
But despite the hoopla and jubilation, there remain a number of looming questions and vague formulations that must be clarified.
What comes next? Can Poland or other countries block it?
No. The European Council, composed of the member states, met at its scheduled December 12-13 summit in Brussels to deliberate the adoption of the Green Deal, among other matters. Only one country, Poland, failed to endorse it. Their opposition stems from the costs of the transition—some 80% of Poland’s electricity is coal-based. This will not, however, affect the process of the program’s preparation, passage or implementation – except in Poland.
The proposed Climate Law will include a climate-neutrality target despite Poland’s objections; given that the issue falls in the field of environment, member states on the Council only have to reach a qualified majority to pass it into law. Nevertheless, it would be much preferable to have Poland on board, and this can happen in June at the next Council summit. In March 2020, the Commission will announce its progress on turning the proposals into bills. After that, the Climate Act in bill form will appear before the Council and the European Parliament, where passage is virtually assured.
Where will the one trillion euros come from?
Von der Leyen’s Christmas wish list is a long one, and it’s anything but clear who will ante up and by how much. The plan foresees €290 billion a year more for investment in energy systems and infrastructure from 2030 and €100 billion for helping the coal-addicted Central Europeans make the painful transition.
However, the EU itself doesn’t actually possess the sums (2019 budget: €165.8 billion) that are so casually dished around in the proposal, and major payers, such as Germany, have steadfastly refused to reach further into their own pockets – at least so far. The larger spenders have even talked about cutting funding for the next five-year budget. (On the assets side, the European Investment Bank is striving to mobilize one trillion euros in financing over the next decade, and the EU’s emissions trading scheme will bring in more once finally fixed.)
The next EU budget, namely the 2021-2027 budget, is an obvious place to look for more. In its Dec 13 statement, the European Council underlined that the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) will significantly contribute to climate action. Yet the share designated for climate protection is just 25%, while environmental NGOs and Green parties are calling for that to be upped to 40% or 50%. Negotiations over the budget between the EU’s institutions – the parliament, the EC, and the Council — will last well into 2020 and will now look different with the Green Deal on the table.
Are the deadlines realistic and meaningful? Can the 2030 targets be confirmed before the COP 26 in October 2020?
The Green Deal document includes a lot of deadlines and lofty goals, but not a lot of details. When one considers all of the measures and decisions that will have to be taken to hit the deadlines, one’s initial jubilance is tempered. “The devil will be in the details,” says Jan Peter Schemmel of Öko-Institut, a German research institute. “We’re going to have to summon all of our energies and patience, and bring serious political capital to the table for all of the ostensibly small but actually very significant changes in guidelines and ordinances, emissions certifications, and car and truck standards, and more.”
The timeframe for setting the plan’s most important benchmark, the 2030 emission-reduction goals, has already been postponed from the new Commission’s first 100 days to June 2020. It is imperative that this be concluded as soon as possible since the Paris Agreement commits all countries to submit new, higher 2030 climate targets to the United Nations, at the latest by the climate summit, called COP26, which takes place in Glasgow in November 2020. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room should negotiations be delayed, and missing the cut-off date would surely give a green light for others to do the same.
Is the 50%, “perhaps 55%,” emission reduction goal enough, fast enough for the EU to become climate neutral by 2050?
The EU Greens, Greenpeace, and Climate Action Network Europe say no. “Nature doesn’t negotiate,” says Greenpeace, citing scientists’ evidence that global warming is happening faster now than anyone five years ago predicted. An EU emissions reduction of 50 to 55% by 2030 is insufficient even to meet the 2°C target, much less 1.5°C. The groups urge the Commission to propose a reduction of at least 65% by 2030 – and climate neutrality by 2040.
Is Green Growth possible?
“The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy,” pronounced von der Leyen, underlining the project’s most controversial element: namely turning Europe carbon-neutral by transforming it into the industrial world’s leader in green technology and industry.
However, there’s an ever-growing consensus among experts and scholars that heading off climate disaster also means reigning in growth and dramatically curtailing our consumption habits. Ever higher, or even stagnant, levels production and consumption will work against renewable energy expansion and the weaning of industrial societies off fossil fuels. In that sense, how can an authentic Green Deal at the same time be an industrial program committed to growth?