By Virgilio Falco
With the new European Commission taking shape, new targets are put in place for the European Union. Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen, President-elect of the European Commission, in her speech in front of the European Parliament, on the 16th July has beenwas clear: “I will put forward a Green Deal for Europe in my first 100 days in office. I will put forward the first ever European Climate Law which will set the 2050 target into law”.
Few weeks after getting the confidence of the European Parliament, Mrs. von der Leyen has redesigned the entire Commission, establishing a new portfolio given to the new Executive Vice-President Mr. Frans Timmermans called “The European Green Deal”, and asking every single Commissioner to put in action significant measures to achieve relevant goals in reducing emissions, moving the bar from 40% to 50%-55% by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. In her plan is also present a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan and the will to turn parts of the European Investment Bank into a Climate Bank, unlocking €1 trillion of investment over the next decade.
To complement this work, she announced the introduction of a Carbon Border Tax to avoid carbon leakage and the creation of a Just Transition Fund to support economically this transformation. Mr. Frans Timmermans, former Spietzencandidaten for the Party of European Socialists, will coordinate this entire program (and all the college of commissioners on this topic) to enhance Europe in a new era. His mission will be tougher than expected, especially towards those countries not in line even with the current (low) targets. “I will have the responsibility to make sure that the Commission, as a whole, does not do contradictory things anymore” he said during the parliamentary hearings. “I want to come before Parliament with a draft climate law that stipulates not just 2050 [target], but also what we need to do in medium steps to get there” he clarified when it comes to discuss about the medium term.
All the 26 commissioners have received in their mission letter a request to act against climate change (and the Directorates General of the Commissions have also received indications to make concrete proposals, for all their areas of work, to have a greener Europe). For the first time, each commissioner also received a specific mission to align their work with the goals of the United Nations. It is possible to read in the 26 letters sent by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to the designated Commissioners: “Each Commissioner will ensure the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within their policy area. The College as a whole will be responsible for the overall implementation of the Goals”.
However, the game is not one to play only on the long term, which may and most probably will be influenced by many factors (e.g. global factors, technological progress,market logic etc.). In the short-term – the so called transition period – it will be of fundamental importance to understand what will be the energy source able to produce less emissions in the environment between now and 2050 (the year hypothesized for the complete cessation of CO2 emissions). Surely renewable energy will play a significant role during the transition and after it. Other options such as gas, hydrogen and nuclear power are still undergoing studies and the time (and the new technologies) will reveal their future use.
Also critical will be to take into account the different starting points of every member state. On this issue Mr. Mauro Petriccione, Director General of DG Climate of the European Commission said in a Pparliamentary audition: “While the Union will most likely meet its 2020 targets, the situation across member states is uneven”. On this topic it is clear that, especially for the regions were coal is still the main source of energy, the previously mentioned “Just transition fund” invoked by President von der Leyen will be extensively used.
With regards to this, the sector, it could also be totally redefined by the new technologies and by scientific research. Mr. Petriccione in a recent interview was clear: “Research and development will reduce costs of breakthrough technologies and help develop new products and solutions. With recycling practices on the rise, the production of many industrial goods such as steel, glass and plastics will become more resource-efficient and less emission-intensive, as energy needs decrease further.”
“For heavy industry, becoming greenhouse gas emissions-free will often mean significantly modernising existing installations or completely replacing them. This investment will increase the competitiveness of EU industry and its presence in the global economy as it becomes less dependent on carbon. Digitalisation and automation are effective short-term ways of increasing competitiveness, while a combination of electrification, increased use of hydrogen, biomass and renewable synthetic gas can reduce energy-related emissions in industrial goods production. Carbon Capture and Storage and Carbon Capture and Utilisation can help tackle emissions that prove impossible to eliminate”.
At the same time, it is clear that the industries that which use oil and coal to produce energy will be progressively penalized. Measures in this sense are also coming from the European Investment Bank which is adopting in its own Board agenda a halt to all loans for coal-mining facilities. Just to understand the impact of this choice, it may be enough to note that the EIB funded €2 billion of fossil fuel projects in 2018, and more than €11 billion from 2011 to 2017.
However, the biggest political dilemma is: What happens if it is just Europe doing its homework?. Or to put it in other words: will China and the USA use this extra commitment of European companies to gain advantage for their (more polluting, but cheaper) productions?”. In the recent European Chamber’s Business Confidence Survey 2018 of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China the EU companies said that “the most concerning source of disruption for EU companies is that of China’s unpredictable regulatory environment and unequal treatment of European firms”. The survey results also signify that it is time for China to lift protectionist measures. Chinese enterprises have proven that they can compete without the government protection in both domestic and international markets.
In the current global scenario the COPs meetings and the UN agreements, together with the Friday for Future protests and the commitment of top companies are significantly changing the paradigm of environmental choices made by people over the last few centuries.
This green wave has indeed provoked a change of approach for different parties, even those historically more distant from the ecological narrative. All European parties that have formed a group in the European Parliament have a part of their program dedicated to future environmental challenges.
In addition, in many countries, Green parties have achieved visible electoral gains (first of all Germany and Austria, but also Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, just to name a few) mainly using the argument that we need an urgent and concrete green way in order to face the challenges of the future.
Yes, politics might be in crisis and yet political choices are still those which will guide us towards a greener and more sustainable future for the planet. However, although the political paradigm is already being reshaped by the environmental issue, the question around wether or not the European Union will succeed in winning the challenge to be a model for a zero-emission planet remains open.