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A first notable positive is that the European Green Deal is comprehensive and encompasses both traditional environment policy and climate policy. That’s a clear break with the last five years where the environment (biodiversity, nature, pollution) was not a priority at all. In addition, mainstreaming a green approach into things like energy, mobility and finance policy is exactly what’s needed to win the war on pollution. (Just yesterday, EU governments – after some initial reluctance – signed off on a groundbreaking law to stop greenwashing of financial investments.)
Second, the Commission clearly wants to push the envelope. It is proposing an increase in the EU’s overall climate ambition to at least 50%, perhaps even 55%, and wants to reopen most of Europe’s key climate laws in the next two years. And it is looking to deploy all the EU’s powers – be they regulatory, financial, spending or otherwise – to deliver this ambition.
Third, the Commission’s strategy acknowledges the crucial importance of European environmental regulations in economic progress, job creation and innovation. This renewed willingness to use the EU’s lawmaking powers to set the standard globally may well represent the biggest break with the previous regime’s deregulation agenda.
Specifically for transport, the document includes plans to revise the vehicle CO2 standards in 2021 (not 2023 as planned before) with a view to shifting to fully zero-emission vehicles and to introduce a final set of pollutant emission standards for cars, vans, buses and trucks (Euro 7/VII). In addition, there will be a green battery package, a major effort to install recharging infrastructure across Europe, a proposal to address underpriced sectors by including shipping in the ETS, strengthening the existing aviation ETS, and amending the Energy Taxation Directive.
This clearly goes in the right direction. Electromobility has got real momentum with new models and battery plants announced all the time. Whereas Europe was nowhere five years ago, we now have a real chance to compete with China and California. But that requires us to keep upping the ante, which is also what we need to do if we want to start making a real dent in transport emissions. So it is great news to hear the Commission acknowledge that in the future there will only be zero-emission vehicles, which implies the EU is gearing up to get behind nations and cities that want a complete phase-out of combustion engine vehicles. The boards of Europe’s big car and truckmakers better take note. There is no way back and it’s time to move beyond pure compliance (like test cycle beating or plug-in hybrids) and go all-in.
That the Commission is willing to take on aviation and shipping, the biggest climate laggards, is excellent news. Similarly pleasing is that ICAO and IMO, the UN agencies that have been sabotaging climate progress for at least two decades, are only mentioned in passing with Corsia, ICAO’s trojan horse fully omitted.
So all of this is good but let’s not get carried away: this plan still falls well short of what would actually be needed to fully decarbonise transport by 2050. For example, the talk of boosting “alternative fuels” sounds ominous. We don’t need another big discussion about biofuels – certainly not if the EU wants to limit and reverse deforestation. What is needed is a plan to deploy zero-emission electrofuels in aviation and green hydrogen in shipping, the sectors where new fuels make sense, because direct electrification isn’t possible. Similarly, the Commission’s plan to assess whether it should extend the EU ETS to road transport is a poor use of its time considering that additional pricing mechanisms – the road sector is already taxed – will have minimal impact but will drain political capital. Rather than revisiting failed policies, we need the Commission to consider new policies such as sales mandates for electric trucks and buses, policies to green big fleets or zero-emission port standards for (cruise) ships.
So there are many things that need to be improved but, all in all, von der Leyen and Timmermans are off to a decent start. Now the real work starts: getting the support of the European Council. That’s going to be exceedingly difficult with countries like Poland and industry lobbies in Germany and other nations looking to derail the programme. But it is not impossible – just last Thursday the European Council agreed the EU needs to make Europe’s economy climate neutral by 2050.
And here lies the real lesson of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which serves as inspiration for the European Green Deal in so many ways. The New Deal started with great oratory and perhaps the most ambitious first 100 days ever witnessed. But it took years of blood, sweat and tears to take America out of the great depression. And so it will be for von der Leyen and Timmermans. If they genuinely want a green deal, there will be immense opposition. Carmakers will scream blue murder and (unfairly) blame the Commission for all the jobs they scrap and replace by robots. Airlines and shipping companies will try to provoke trade wars. So if we’d have to wish the Commission president and vice-president anything for 2020 it would be the courage to be even more ambitious, the competence to get the all-important details right, but above all perseverance.
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms.” F.D. Roosevelt