Facing the Climate Crisis

Conversation

How does the European Green Deal respond to the climate emergency? What are its strenghts and weaknesses? What main economic and political barriers have to be overcome to reach higher ambitions?

Facing the Climate Crisi

Jutta Paulus and Michael Bloss, both Member of the European Parliament for The Greens/ EFA and Klaus Röhrig, EU climate & energy policy officer at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe in a conversation with Lisa Tostado, Head of Climate, Energy & Agriculture Policy Programme, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.

Lisa Tostado: In this conversation, I would like us to explore the European Green Deal. How does the European Green Deal live up to the climate emergency that was declared by the European Parliament? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Climate Law and other initiatives under the European Green Deal that we already know about? How do they contribute to the overall objective to reach climate neutrality by 2050? 

Michael Bloss: Those are really important questions that you’re asking, but the answers to them are not so clear because we don’t really know what the European Green Deal means. How the initiatives within the Green Deal will become tangible is still very much politically contested.

Moreover, the framing of the Climate Law puts us on the wrong path because it presumes that becoming climate neutral by 2050 saves us from the climate catastrophe, but that’s not true. We have to start reducing our CO2 emissions now! So the real question is not what happens in 30 years, the real question is what are we able to achieve in the next ten or five years, and this is where the Commission’s proposal for the Climate Law is really lacking. It doesn’t even define a clear number for the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target by 2030; instead, it defines a range of minus 50-55%. But it’s already clear from climate science that the 55% reduction target is not enough; we need to cut our emissions by up to 65% just to keep the possibility of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

It’s not the Commission that has the last word; it’s the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and the majority of the parliament is in favour of substantial improvements of the Climate Law.

Jutta, do you want to add anything from the point of view of the parliament and other initiatives that you have been working on?

Jutta Paulus: The Green Deal consists of a lot of initiatives and up to now we have only seen legislative proposals, we have seen the Climate Law, but we have to make sure that the other initiatives, like transforming industry and biodiversity strategies, are at least as important as the Climate Law itself.

I would like to focus a bit on the biodiversity strategy which was issued recently, albeit watered down from the first proposals. It must complement the climate approach because we need biodiversity so much to make sure that we can preserve our carbon sinks and even enlarge them – which is urgently needed. 

Thinking about biodiversity, we really should make sure that we preserve our national parks, because they can help us mitigate climate change and they can help us become more resilient to climate change. We must see nature as being part of development because humans are part of nature. If we keep on pretending that we can exist without nature, we won’t get anywhere.

Klaus, what is the perspective of an organization and different environmental NGOs on the European Green Deal? What are the biggest barriers to such a Green Deal, and how can they be overcome politically, economically and socially?

Klaus Röhrig: Climate Action Network is very happy about the kind of growing understanding of the challenge of climate change, and it’s important to put that at the heart of the next policy cycle because, as Jutta and Micha mentioned, it’s important to understand that every sector needs to maximise their efforts.

At the same time, we also see a mismatch between the climate emergency declaration and very weak proposals, with the EU Climate Law for example. It should really enable the maximisations, bring all the sectors together, define the new targets that we need in order to actually honour the commitments of the Paris Agreement. We need to maximise our efforts for the short-term greenhouse gas reductions as well, because we are aware that greenhouse gas emission cuts are essential to safeguard the 1.5-degree target.

How can we ensure that Europe’s climate targets are not undermined by efforts to offset emissions in Europe by claiming emission reductions results elsewhere, and do you think that Europe should stick with climate neutrality or aim to go fossil free? What are the different narratives and discourses in parliament and in society at large about these different notions? Is there an actual debate on them?

Jutta Paulus: Some argue that Europe will not be able to reach its climate targets without Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and while it’s important to be realistic, we shouldn’t just say, ‘Well, we’ll just do CCS and so we can just go on burning fossil fuel.’ It must not be a lifeline for fossil fuels, but we must talk about CCS, for example, for the cement sector where you have not only the energy related emissions but also the process-based emissions. We should speak about a role which CCS could play at the end of the day, but we must not count on CCS as the major instrument to reduce our emissions.

We should make sure that we reduce our emissions domestically as far as possible and if we talk about climate neutrality and storing carbon somewhere, we should always look to the natural options first. If we reconstruct wetlands, for example, if we keep our carbon sinks, if we let our forests go wild in order to preserve carbon in the ground, because most of the carbon is not stored in the tree trunk but actually underground.

Michael Bloss: We cannot speak about climate neutrality without speaking about fossil fuels in Europe. We need to speak about subsidies. There’s even a push to prolong subsidising coal. Phasing-out coal is something that we can do quickly, except that the German government doesn’t seem motivated to do so.

As we talked about the locking-in of fossil fuel infrastructure and subsidies to fossil fuels, I would like to briefly address the current crisis and the enormous amounts of money that are being spent right now. We have two tendencies. The CO2 emissions in Europe dropped because of the pandemic and many have demanded that the European Green Deal objectives now be at the heart of the recovery programmes. At the same time, the dire economic consequences of the pandemic may lead countries to prioritize indiscriminate GDP growth over climate action or to bail out GHG intensive sectors. How do you think the EU has been dealing with the climate agenda in the face of that crisis and what are the ways forward?

Klaus Röhrig: We see some positive signals. After a Danish initiative from the environment ministers we have a large European coalition calling for taking the recovery as an opportunity to make sure that the recovery packages do not just recreate the world the way it was. We should make sure that we create a real, enabling framework so that all the investment that we are putting into the system really sets us in the right direction.

This moment should be a moment to reflect on the industries of the future. It will be extremely necessary to make sure that we don’t give out checks or just bail out industries that we see as totally incompatible with that future – these industries will drag us down again and they will prevent us from becoming a climate resilient economy and society.

While there is a lot to be done, the European council discussions that we are seeing show a bit more progress, but then the devil is in the details. If we don’t manage to have the new annual financial framework being really climate proof, there is definitely the risk that we will take decisions now that will lock us in a fossil fuel infrastructure and that we should try to avoid.

What are the political dynamics with respect to what Klaus just said about the recovery programmes and the locking-in of infrastructure, etc., and what do you think Germany’s role – with the upcoming German presidency – is?

Jutta Paulus: I’m not sure how much the German presidency can actually deliver. Germany should focus on enabling the transition and enabling the transformation. A great opportunity would be for Germany to focus on renovating: insulating buildings and making them use less energy will bring us forward in our climate ambition and it is also a chance to roll out renewables. Additionally, domestic jobs are created. 

Has Europe been inward looking itself? Is the European Green Deal too Eurocentric, and in what respect is the European Green Deal sensitive to the international dimension of climate change? How can the EU’s role in climate diplomacy be strengthened and how can the blueprint for personal climate neutrality by 2050 become an inspiration for other countries?

Jutta Paulus: In the EU, we have sort of a contradictory policy. While we are focussing on Green Deal objectives, we are still working on trade policies where those Green Deal objectives are not reflected at all. I am very much interested in the development of the carbon adjustment mechanism coming up in the next months, where we can see whether there is really an international approach to climate policy.

Paris would have never have happened had not the French been doing so much climate diplomacy in the years before and so I think that the EU has also the responsibility to take this role. 

Michael Bloss: I want to point out that the next Climate Conference is the most important one since the one in Paris.. It’s where all member states have to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions, and those have to be ambitious enough to collectively stay below the two-degree warming threshold. At the moment we are far away from that. 

If we are fast in Europe and agree on very ambitious targets, on which we base our NDC, that could really be a signal to the world that Europe is taking it serious and forward. It could also create this kind of competition not only for who is the best climate saver but it’s also the question like who is first in reaching the technologies that bring us there. So this kind of upwards spiral is the best-case scenario.

One major demand of the civil society movement has been climate justice. Klaus, how do you think that demand has been integrated and how could that be done better?

Klaus Röhrig: There is still a lot of work to make this better. But this is where we as civil society organisations have bit hope for the European parliament to shape the discussion, to be a defender of the equity principle and to be a defender of climate justice for the domestic ambition level and the role of the EU internationally. How should Europe’s international responsibility reflect outside of its domestic ambition? 

Michael Bloss: One last point. In Copenhagen, the industrialised countries promised that from 2020 onwards they would ensure that every year there is €100 billion for the Global South, for financing adaptation mitigation efforts. We are nowhere near this amount and the coronavirus crisis will even worsen the situation as countries will have more budgetary constraints and are likely to spend less on transferring money to the Global South. This is one of the big problems because they need it even more. They are impacted by the climate crisis much more than we are by the coronavirus crisis. If Europe wants to be a global leader, then it also really needs to make it tangible and put the money there. 

Jutta, would you like to add something? 

Jutta Paulus: If we step back and try to look at the situation from above, then I think we really have a turning point in history because this pandemic has put the last nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the US as a global leader. Because their government has had such a pathetic approach to this crisis that it has become clear to the whole world that not only the technological, not only the geopolitical, but even the domestic organisational standards have just gone away.

At this point, the question is who will take over this position, which might be China of course, or there could be a situation where we have a lot of players who are more or less on the same level of their geopolitical influence so to speak, like the EU, China, Russia. I think the way this turns out will also define the approach to the environmental crisis we are facing together on this planet.

Thank you all for taking the time. 

The conversation took place on 25 May 2020.