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26th Jan 2021

Interview

2019: EU's Green Deal - a global 'gold standard'?

  • European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans: 'Because of the need for recovery from the Covid crisis, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest. We better do it in the right way' (Photo: European Commission)

For decades there has been extensive scientific consensus that the climate is changing - but only during the past few years experts have been able to link that change to particular weather events.

In Europe, the increase in heatwaves, floods, droughts, landslides plus other noticeable effects have changed citizens' perceptions and their expectations of environmental protection.

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A wave of climate strikes across the bloc, and the outcome of the 2019 European elections, where Green parties did well, were a powerful reminder of this new reality, especially for those responsible for finding an effective response to what is widely seen as the biggest challenge of the 21st century.

The long-anticipated "European Green Deal" was launched in December 2019 by European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, who was given the responsibility of overseeing the bloc's climate policy after leading a passionate campaign to become the president of the EU executive.

This so-called "new growth strategy" is designed to make Europe the first continent to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 - an idea that marries up the EU's legally-binding commitment (made under the international Paris Agreement in 2015), where the average global temperature rise is to be limited to well below 2℃.

The Green Deal's flagship initiative will soon take the form of a "European Climate Law," transforming these political promises into binding obligations, while providing predictability and legal certainty to guide investors - and hopefully setting an example for other international partners to follow.

As climate change does not affect everyone equally, neither does the green transition. The move towards a low-carbon society is expected to increase the burden on those regions or countries reliant on extractive industries and related energy production, as well as carbon-intensive industries.

That is why for Timmermans, who comes himself from a coal region in the Netherlands, "leaving no one behind" is essential for the success of the Green Deal.

"Whenever there is a challenge, the people who are the most vulnerable pay the highest price. We need to make sure that those who are most vulnerable are also best protected," he told EUobserver, adding there needs to be a "just transition or there will be just no transition" at all.

With the announcement of the Green Deal, the commission pledged to raise its 2030 ambition on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55 percent (below 1990 levels). But the specific target is yet to be decided.

"It will be bloody difficult for everyone," Timmermans warned, pointing out that the commission's ambition for 2030 will be especially challenging for households, and the transport and agriculture sectors.

Asked whether he expected the necessary investment for the bloc's green transition, Timmermans said that "member states understand that we need an agreement on the updated 2030 climate target soon. It is the signal that financial markets are waiting for".

"Right now, the markets want to be part of this [transition in Europe]. But if we start showing weaknesses again, they may turn against us," he added.

"Because of the need for recovery from the Covid crisis, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest. We better do it in the right way," Timmermans pointed out.

Some critics, meanwhile, have argued the pandemic and related economic downturn might overshadow the Green Deal as one of the bloc's top priorities.

However, in a more optimistic view, Timmermans said that the coronavirus pandemic, the environmental and biodiversity crisis as well as the industrial revolution bring the potential "for a comprehensive solution, where Europe rises to the occasion".

However, all EU climate action stands at the crossroads between domestic ambition and international cooperation, especially with the G20 countries, which are responsible for about 80 percent of all global emissions.

The bloc's new goal for 2030 has also been a key element in its global climate diplomacy, as it shaped the debate about the EU's official contribution to the Paris Agreement ahead of the deal's fifth anniversary this year - when countries are expected to present tougher climate goals.

"The issue of where our target for 2030 should be is very much linked to the question: to what extent Europe should take responsibility for global emissions reductions," said Timmermans, who thinks that the objectives of the Paris Agreement can be achieved "if other industrialised countries also take their share of responsibility".

With its upcoming 'carbon border tax', expected for early 2021, the EU aims to protect European companies being forced to comply with stricter environmental rules at home, while pushing international partners to uphold the bloc's standards when trading in the single market.

"We need to play this very cleverly and carefully. Be the most ambitious in the world, become the first climate-neutral continent, but at the same time allow other international partners to go in the same direction, because if we lead and nobody follows, we will not reach the goals of the Paris Agreement," Timmermans concluded.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.

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