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EU pins hopes on Green Deal

December 9, 2019

With the EU on track to miss its 2030 carbon targets, all eyes are on the new European Commission as it prepares to unveil its long-term plan for tackling climate change. Will it be enough to convince the skeptics?

The banks of Seine in Paris, including a bike path, are seen flooded, with the Eiffel Tower in the background
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/MAXPPP/O. Corsan

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen kicked off her first week on the job with a stark warning on climate inaction.

"We should always keep in mind how much more it will cost us if we do not act now," she told delegates from nearly 200 countries in Madrid on December 2, the first day of the United Nations climate conference

Read more: CO2 emissions gap: UN report warns of 'collective failure to act'

As head of the EU executive for the next five years, one of von der Leyen's main challenges will be the European Union's response to the climate crisis. With environmental groups calling for more ambitious environmental targets by 2030 and beyond, the first draft of the commission's flagship environmental plan — the European Green Deal, due to be released on Wednesday — is under immense pressure to deliver.

A poll released by the European Council on Foreign Relations and YouGov from April found that nearly two-thirds of Europeans think "climate change is a major threat that should take priority over most other issues." Responding to their concerns, and the pressure from the hundreds of millions that have taken to the streets in the past year of climate strikes, lawmakers in the European Parliament passed a resolution on November 28 to declare a "climate and environmental emergency."

Largely a symbolic act, the move will put added pressure on policymakers to hit the EU's proposed environmental targets and ensure consistency with the rest of the EU's regulations, from trade to agriculture to transport.

Rising temperatures

Draft Green Deal met with criticism

The European Parliament's move to back a climate emergency, the first multilateral bloc to do so, called on the European Commission "to ensure that all relevant legislative and budgetary proposals are fully aligned with the objective of limiting global warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius," or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Read more: Can carbon trading cut EU emissions to net zero?

A draft version of the commission's European Green Deal, seen by DW, outlines a wide-ranging strategy to address issues like biodiversity loss, resource use and waste, sustainable agriculture and the enforcement of environmental rules across the EU, among others. It also includes a €1-trillion sustainable investment plan for the next decade, a "just transition fund" to support regions adapting to the new climate realities and pledge to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 — a target that has until now been rejected by governments in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The contentious issue will be up for discussion as the EU heads of government meet in Brussels later this week. 

Protesters hold a banner during the Global Climate Strike of the movement Fridays for Future, in Hamburg
Image: Reuters/F. Bimmer
A layer of smog covers the city of Brussels
Brussels, home to the European Union, is no stranger to smoggy daysImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Though the official report has yet to be released, it's already been met with some criticism in environmental circles. Greenpeace EU climate policy adviser Sebastian Mang, reacting to the leaked plans, said the EU's proposed "unprecedented" policies are "simply not up to the task."

"Declaring an emergency is just not good enough," he said in a statement, which called the commission's plans "flawed, insufficient or missing." The group criticized the proposals for being too timid when it comes to tackling emissions from cars and the aviation sector, for not addressing the "the overconsumption of meat and dairy products" and for delaying crucial 2030 climate targets.

Read more: 8 EU states push to raise 2030 climate goal, but Germany absent

The European Environmental Bureau said the draft plans "raised concerns that some of the specific commitments in the European Green Deal will fall well short of what science deems is required to address problems such as climate change."

Environmental groups have called for the EU to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 65% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, in an effort to limit global heating to below 2 degrees Celsius; some experts have warned that on the current track, the world is heading for an increase of more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The EU target expected in Wednesday's proposals is said to be between 50-55%.

Chart showing greenhouse gas emissions, projected to 2030

Pascal Canfin, the MEP who heads the environment committee in the European Parliament, said lawmakers had to be realistic. "Today, there is clearly no majority to support 65%," he told DW. "We need to strike a majority, and the majority in the parliament is for 55%."

Canfin said a key priority for the Green Deal would be legally binding targets for 2030 and 2050. Without that, it would just be "an action plan, and it would be seen as disappointing and as a setback."

The European Commission would not respond to criticism of the draft plans ahead of the release of the report. However, a spokesperson told DW that the commission intended to present a plan that would help Europe achieve its "climate ambitions," while encouraging similar action around the world. "We will be pushing our partners to go further and faster, as we will go further and faster ourselves," said the spokesperson.

An aircraft passes the rising sun as it approaches the airport in Frankfurt, Germany
The European Environment Agency has said wide-ranging change is needed across all sectors, including aviationImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Probst

EU needs to 'raise ambitions'

Jagoda Munic, director of Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels, told DW that it's still "too early" to judge whether the Green Deal will be the catalyst for change. She said the real test of the EU's green plans will be when it comes to actually following through with the implementation — and, she said, the EU's track record hasn't exactly been great. According to a report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) earlier this month, the EU is poised to miss most of its 2020 climate and energy targets. Further, it says that "without urgent action during the next 10 years" existing measures put the EU on course to cut CO2 emissions by only 30% by 2030.

Read more: COP25: Controversial carbon markets take center stage

"In the next five years we have to raise ambitions," said Munic. "Even when we have good policies, we fail to implement them — particularly in environmental climate policy." She said the EU will need to introduce mechanisms to motivate reluctant member states to actually follow through with the bloc's new environmental and climate policies, and enforce existing rules and regulations.

Transition funds could be 'key'

Munic said proposed Green Deal initiatives like the just transition fund, which aims to support regions shifting to carbon-neutral economies, and the trillion-euro investment in research, innovation and green technologies are a good first step. But added that financial support must not be limited to Europe's coal regions, but be made available to people more broadly affected by climate change.

Canfin believes transition funds will be key to helping convince the skeptics within the EU to realize they "cannot stay isolated on this issue" and alienate young voters. He believes the transition funds will help countries like Poland and Hungary realize that even if the EU decides to stop funding fossil fuels, "it doesn't mean less money for energy, for agriculture, for infrastructure" and other important areas.

"There is a genuine effort to make real change in the commission," said Munic. "Of course, we'll probably not agree necessarily on all the elements of that change, but it's a good time to discuss exactly what the solutions need to be. And that will be the big debate in the coming years."

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Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues