High above the smoke choked cities of 18th century Europe, our planet’s intractable climate crisis commenced. The continent’s breakneck industrialisation gave way to a worldwide carbon conundrum, which—a quarter millennia later—we’re yet to solve. But solve it we will, citizens of Europe were told last week. And we’ll do it here, on the continent the catastrophe first took shape.
A bold Green New Deal is to be adopted, announced the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen. The scheme will upend orthodox EU policy, putting environmentalism at the heart of the bloc’s economic strategy. Nearly every aspect of European business will change for the better, Von der Leyen proclaimed. But both at home and abroad, the doubters abound.
It is the largest overhaul of EU lawmaking in a generation, committing member states to carbon neutrality by 2050 (with current output halved by 2030). Specific recycling standards will supplant loose targets, with a view to create more circular economies, and in the next 24 months, up to 40% of agricultural and fisheries spending will be devoted to global warming. Toxic air pollution will be addressed too, with the introduction of stringent new air quality requirements, and the continent’s transport links—both consumer and commercial—will be reformed.
The proposals have been lauded by green groups, but such sweeping changes invite opposition. The scheme is skewed against eastern Europe, critics say. In the race to catch their westerly neighbours’ prosperity, former Soviet states have—to a large extent—sacrificed environmental standards. Bulgaria and Estonia have more carbon-intensive economies than the world average, and in Poland, some 80% of power is coal-generated.
To smooth (and incentivise) their passage towards net-zero emissions, Von der Leyen has promised reluctant states a €100bn inducement. It’s a financial lifeline most will need, with job losses all but inevitable in the pursuit of environmentalism. The coal industry alone employs almost 250,000 Europeans, primarily in the east. Poland, balking at the prospect of mass unemployment, was unswayed after hours of negotiations, and last week refused to endorse the policy.
There was further division over the classification of low-carbon investments. Determined to curtail so-called ‘greenwashing’—when companies market their products as environmentally friendly without independent verification—Brussels has pushed for tighter regulation. Nuclear energy should be deemed sustainable, France, Poland and a handful of others argued. A compromise was eventually brokered, with recognition that the atomic industry, while not wholly green, could be classified as helping the transition towards carbon-neutrality.
The deal’s international implications will be harder to fudge. Von der Leyen plans to snub nations failing the decarbonisation cause, rejecting new trade deals with opponents of the headline Paris Agreement. That puts her collision course with President Trump, who intends to withdraw America from the 2016 accord, and also China—Europe’s second largest trading partner, after the US—which is lagging environmentally.
For states striving to honour their Paris pledges but still struggling with emissions, the EU will administer a cross-border eco-tax. Essentially a levy on excess carbon creation, foreign importers will be made to cover the cost of bringing dirtier products onto the continent. It’s a controversial move, but necessary, Von der Leyen says, to prevent European industry being undercut by cheaper, less green imports of steel and other energy-intensive products.
It’s a fraught proposal. Firstly, the EU will have to accurately calculate incoming goods’ carbon footprint by pinpointing where emissions occurred—no easy task given the fragmented international supply chain. Secondly, for many in the developing world, the policy represents little more than crass continental protectionism.
Put simply, Europe can afford an unbridled pursuit of carbon neutrality; its poorer partners cannot. With reserves of state aid and the commercial clout to erect trade barriers, the EU is, critics say, edging closer to its protectionist past, justified by environmental high-mindedness.
But Brussels is beholden to party politics as much as it is climate concern. May’s European Parliament election swelled the ranks of the Green grouping, which now controls almost 10% of the assembly. Environmentalism is more politically pertinent than ever before, and Von der Leyen is under pressure to assert Europe’s place in the war on global warming.
She’ll know her continent accounts for just one-tenth of global emissions, but this isn’t simply a numbers game. The EU can lead the planet away from the climate cliff-edge, proving to China, India, America, Brazil, and others that decarbonisation need not mean financial ruin. Her Green New Deal is Europe’s “man on the moon moment”, Von der Leyen declared last week. Not quite, but the rocket is fuelled, and—as the world watches on—take off is imminent.
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