Europe strengthened its ambitions in the battle against climate change in 2019 with the European Green Deal. The goal is to make the European Union the first climate-neutral entity by 2050. But how is Europe planning on achieving this?
What is the European Green Deal?
Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, introduced the Green Deal on the 11th of December 2019 as a response to the 2016 Paris Agreement. The intention is to reach “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while maintaining economic growth and this in a way that is fair to every member state and every sector. If successful, Europe would be the first climate-neutral continent and an example to the rest of the world. To this end, the Green Deal contains a set of policy initiatives (to be implemented by the member states themselves) on various topics. For the energy sector, the EU emphasizes the importance of the Energy Transition, which is the transition of our current mainly fuel-driven energy supply towards a power sector (fully) based on renewable resources. The goals in the energy sector also include overall high energy efficiency, high interconnectivity, further digitalisation and electrification, and maintaining affordable prices for energy resources.
The energy sector is by far the most important one on the road to climate neutrality as the production and use of energy accumulates to more than 75% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. But the Green Deal will also have a large impact in other sectors. In the agricultural sector, for example, the “Farm-to-Fork”-strategy was introduced in May 2020. This strategy aims to increase food sustainability by, a.o., reducing the amount of pesticides used, nutrient losses and food waste. Other initiatives and strategies of the Green Deal include increasing biodiversity, promoting the use of energy efficient building methods, reducing emissions in the transportation sector, and improving the circular economy. In this sense, the Green Deal is not only meant to fight climate change but also to improve our more direct environment.
Issues and criticism
Despite the very promising and optimistic outlook of the Green Deal, some member states have criticized its strategy and tight targets, especially concerning the impact it may have on the economy. Climate activists and organisations, on the other hand, find the goals of the Green Deal not ambitious enough. To lower greenhouse gasses, the EU puts a price on their emissions and steadily increases the price each year (the so-called EU ETS system). This way, Europe relies on the market to find the most cost-efficient ways to lower emissions. But even then, large investments are needed to make the energy transition happen and fossil fuel-intensive firms, like airline companies, face difficult times. Member states of whom the energy supply heavily relies on coal-fired power plants, like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, were most opposed to the Green Deal as these power plants will have to be phased out and replaced by renewable energy sources. They argue that the transition will cost thousands of jobs, especially in Poland where more than 40,000 people work in the coal industry.
Europe then brought the Just Transition Mechanism (JTM) to life, which is meant to show solidarity to heavily coal-reliant countries and other regions who will be affected the most by the Green Deal, by raising more than €100 billion (through a combination of EU-wide funds, investments and loans) in the period 2021-2027 and invest it in medium-sized enterprises, research and innovation, renewable energy, emissions reduction, clean energy technologies, site regeneration, circular economy, and upskilling and reskilling of workers. The JTM, in its turn, has been criticized by countries who already made an effort to make the transition happen before the fund was introduced and don’t get the same benefits as those lagging behind.
This criticism was shared by the Flemish minister of Environment, Zuhal Demir (N-VA), who found Poland’s fund share disproportionally large compared to Belgium’s, and unjust that the money for Belgium would largely go to the province of Hainaut, as there it is needed the most according to Europe. She said that “Flanders is being punished for creating welfare” (Knack, 5/2/2020). However, her reaction was heavily criticized by most other Belgian parties, who largely support the JTM. Demir was again reluctant to the Green Deal policies when the greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030 was increased from 40% to 55%, partly because this news was released in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.En k
The COVID-19 crisis
Almost together with the conception of the Green Deal, the COVID-19 pandemic turned 2020 into one large lockdown. Whereas this effectively decreased net greenhouse emissions this year, the development and implementation of renewables also suffered some delay. The accompanying economic crisis was soon thought to have a large negative impact on the renewed climate ambitions, but Europe also saw opportunity. The Recovery Plan, an unprecedented €1.8 trillion European-wide fund that will help to reboot our economy, will be linked to Europe’s climate goals by ordering member states to invest large parts of the money in green and sustainable technology and development. After a few months of negotiations and protests – mostly by Hungary and Poland as there were some rule-of-law conditions attached to the budget – the plan was officially approved in December 2020.
After this introduction of the Green Deal, a lot of questions remain unanswered. Whereas Europe’s intentions are admirable, is it probable that we will be able to achieve the 2050 targets without tempering (or even harming) our economy? And can this be done in a way that is actually fair to everyone? The transition also creates technical problems. Coal-, gas- and nuclear power plants are able to produce constant amounts of power, whereas renewables are often weather-dependent and unpredictable. The possibilities of large-scale energy storage are often still very limited. How will we cope with these problems in the future? To answer these questions, YERA spoke to a representative of the European cabinet of Energy. Read about their view in part 2 of this article.