Will the real MAC please stand up?

December 5, 2018

“What a day! More tomorrow. Goodnight and goodbye #EU2050”. EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete was obviously very pleased about the announcement he made last Wednesday. Under his stewardship the Commission proposed a plan that would see the EU almost entirely cut its carbon emissions in the next 30 years. It is a bold plan which broadly sets the right direction for the EU economy and its climate, energy and transport policy for decades to come (although the plan is way too optimistic about bioenergy).

Cañete is an unlikely messenger for this plan. When the former Spanish agriculture minister joined the Commission he was plagued by accusations that he was an oil man. Some even called for him to be rejected as Climate and Energy Commissioner. Four years on, Cañete has helped negotiate the Paris agreement and implemented the 2030 climate and energy package. Now he has drafted a strategy to completely overhaul the EU economy which he is busy promoting in Katowice where climate negotiators from across the world have gathered to implement the Paris Agreement.

On the other hand there’s still a lot of doubt about where MAC, as he’s often referred to in Brussels, really stands. The strategy offers an appealing vision for the future, but its ambition is in stark contrast to what the Commission has been proposing on climate in the short term. Is this because Cañete can only now break free from the shackles of the 2014 climate and energy package that formed ‘his bible’ as climate commissioner, but was negotiated by others? Or is it rather that Cañete, and with him this Commission, prefers ambitious words about the distant future over ambitious action right now?

Two files will help determine where MAC really stands.

The first is the mother of all transport laws: the car CO2 standards. Negotiations on the 2025/2030 car CO2 standards are stuck. Parliament wants higher ambition (-40% in 2030 compared to 2020/1 levels), a penalty for not meeting the zero and low-emissions sales target, and enforcement of the standards in the real world. The Commission has so far opposed each of these demands, giving conservative member states and the Austrian presidency a convenient excuse not to compromise. The Commission’s opposition to better enforcement is particularly galling since test cheating has decimated the stringency of the 2021 regulation and carmakers are already manipulating the new WLTP tests to ease the 2025 standards. The Commission knows this but still refuses to support the one thing that can end cheating once and for all: real world enforcement.

The negotiations on the car standards just broke down the day before yesterday. There will probably be another attempt to seal the deal before Christmas. So which MAC will Parliament’s negotiating team see in the final trialogue? The MAC that authored a strategy that would see the entire car fleet electrified, or the one that has sided with the Austria and Germany in blocking all Parliament’s efforts to improve the rather poor Commission proposal?

The other defining choice is around palm oil diesel. The Commission is obliged under the new Renewable Energy Directive to produce a methodology to phase out high ILUC biofuels – meaning palm and soy biodiesel. Some 70% of Europeans support removing palm from the EU’s green energy laws. EU farmers are behind the phase out – as is civil society. It’s just the palm oil-producing countries that are unhappy. But frankly, they should be thankful that the EU has subsidised their product for so long, and they should look for better uses for palm oil than EU car and truck drivers’ fuel tanks. The decision is due in February 2019, three months before the EU elections. So we should feel very confident that Cañete and his colleagues will deliver, were it not that the Commission prevented exactly this outcome just six months ago.

Cañete and with him the Juncker Commission are at a turning point. They are no longer implementing the 2014 climate pact and are supposedly setting their own course. The publication of 2050 strategy was a fine moment for MAC. It has given us and other environmentalists much hope. But, in the end, actions speak louder than words.

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