The Clock is Ticking on the EU’s European Green Deal

Well over half of the way into the first 100 days of the freshly installed European Commission (EC), led by President Ursula von der Leyen, the design and scope of the EU’s much hyped European Green Deal (EGD) is still quite vague. Serious questions loom about the plan’s ability to help Europe hit UN climate targets. Paul Hockenos explains why.

Von der Leyen’s bombastic The European Green Deal paper, released shortly after the new Commission’s start, declared to the world that the EU was poised take up the lead in battling climate change. In word, it was arguably the most ambitious package of proposals ever, broadly outlining a mission to transform the EU bloc into a sustainable, ultimately carbon-neutral economy. The agenda of its predecessor Commission, the memorandum underscored, would only slash emissions by 60% by 2050. It vowed to do much better – climate neutrality by 2050, namely zero-net emissions – by ratcheting up emission-reduction commitments and hitting them through an extensive array of green policies and programs.

In the era of the EGD, it posited, the logic of climate protection would apply to every sector in the EU’s purview: energy, transportation, agriculture, construction, development, and environment. The specific measures would be spelled out in a draft European Climate Law that the Commission would make public in early March, 100 days after the new Commission’s inauguration on December 1, 2019. To become EU legislation, the European Council, composed of the 27 Member States, and the European Parliament would have to debate, most probably amend, and pass it.

Currently, the Commission is conducting cost-benefit analyses of sector scenarios and engaging in informal bargaining with Member States. It is also clear that many sectors, the most key being agriculture, which accounts for a third of the budget, won’t be greened to aligned with climate neutrality.

The headline issue now on the table – referred to by Brussels insiders as the “elephant in the room” – is the emissions-reduction targets for 2030. This will be the EU’s polestar for the next decade and a signboard to the world that the EU is serious about climate action.

The EU currently aims for a 40% drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But, Sascha Müller-Kraenner, director of Environmental Action Germany, a Berlin-based environmental advocacy organization, says that the sum of the EU’s past efforts already puts a 45% to 50% drop easily in sight. “The more conservative countries want to bump the official target up to 50%,” Müller-Kraenner says, “which is basically nothing, while apparently von der Leyen herself will go up to 52%. Environmental groups say 65% or more is needed to keep warming below 1.5 degrees.”

The EU Greens wants to push climate target to at least 60% with the aim of becoming a net-zero-emission and 100%-renewables-based economy well before 2050. They argue this is necessary to reach the targets of the Paris summit.

Almost as important as the volume of reductions is the tempo of negotiations. It is imperative to have a reduction commitment and draft law ready for the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), which begins on 9 November in Glasgow, UK. At the COP 26, all of the Paris treaty signatories will present their reduction goals for 2030 – which will define the next decade of climate protection policies, as well as determine, say climate scientists, whether the planet will be able to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The EU’s lead is so crucial here because it is seen as being at the forefront of climate protection,” says Müller-Kraenner. “If it is late with its 2030 targets, or if they’re too low, other countries will follow suit. This would derail the whole timetable of the Paris accord. The schedule for the EU being ready for the Glasgow conference is very tight. The Visegrad countries, and Germany too, are resisting the higher targets,” he says, slowing it down.

Germany’s stonewalling has been highly public. The Merkel administration’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, insists that the car industry should remain exempt from increases in the 2030 reduction target. Altmaier, a vocal supporter of Germany’s prodigious car industry, has repeatedly intervened in EU processes to protect the industry.

“For years, the carmakers have done nothing to reduce CO2 emissions and now they urgently need to make progress,” said Greenpeace’s director Tobias Austrup. “The fleet emissions limit values planned so far are not enough,” he said.

A parallel and closely linked debate is raging over the EU’s 2021 to 2027 budget. NGOs such as Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, which represents a worldwide network of over 1,300 NGOs, argue that the size and distribution of the highly contested budget will affect Europe’s energy systems and climate protection impact for decades to come.

Compared to the Member States’ national budgets, the EU’s budget is actually quite small, just €162 billion a year, but absolutely essential to get the EGD up and rolling. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU shrinks the budget – a reality that some, including Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria, want to accept, while others insist that member state contributions have to be hiked into order to make up the difference or even increase the budget’s size in order to fund the EGD.

Since the issue is so contentious, groups like CAN are pushing for an EU commitment to orient all of its spending around the principle of sustainability, and earmarking 40% specifically for climate protection programs. This would mean the recipients of cohesion funds and agricultural monies – together two thirds of the budget — would be required to spend them not as they choose but according to green criteria. The EU Greens are for “climate proofing” all EU investments, “so that every single euro invested in the future serves projects that are truly sustainable instead of being locked-in environmentally and climate damaging activities.”

A step in the right direction, the European Investment Bank (EIB) will phase out its support to fossil fuels by 2021 and become the “EU‘s climate bank.”

So far, the Commission is proposing that just 25% of the total budget contribute to climate action and other spending on the environment across multiple programs.

“At the moment, there’s no compromise in sight,” says Markus Trilling of CAN, referring to budget size and spending principles. Von der Leyen’s grand vision is to stimulate billions in private sector investment for the EGD. CAN wants to see the budget expanded in order to guarantee that the EGD’s initiatives are funded.

The countries most affected by the cohesion and agricultural monies naturally insist on spending the funds as they want to, which includes investments in fossil fuels and conventional agrobusiness. Just last week, Croatia caused an uproar when it came to light that the Commission had issued the country a €101 million grant – through the EIB – for Croatia LNG, a project for infrastructure to receive, store, reload, and re-gasify liquefied natural gas (LNG).

“There is a fundamental incompatibility between aiming, on one hand, at a low-carbon economy, while on the other hand pumping millions of euros into gas infrastructure,“ the op-ed’s author Elena Gerebizza argued in euobserver.  Gerebizza works for the Italian NGO Re:Common, which is a member of Counter Balance, a group that challenges public investment banks.

Ms. von der Leyen must decide whether she is serious about a Green Deal that is more than a hip, politically correct label. Time to do so is shorter than she might think – and her biggest obstacle is her own party’s officials in the halls of power in Berlin.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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