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The election result is undeniably good news for the green agenda. Not just because the green parties did well in Germany and France, but because all of the lead candidates – socialist Frans Timmermans and the liberals strongly and from the start, but Manfred Weber a bit later and increasingly vocal – were in agreement: the Commission needs to be a Climate Commission. This is excellent news. The climate agenda isn’t the exclusive property of one party. It lives in most of Europe’s political groups, from the Christian-Democrats to the Spanish Socialists, the Italian Five Star Movement to Macron’s En Marche.
So, against the odds, we now find ourselves in an unusual situation for environmentalists: one of political opportunity. So, how do we make the most of this moment? A lot will hinge on who leads the next Commission. Possible candidates include Manfred Weber, Michel Barnier (who penned an outstanding op-ed) and ‘Trust Busting’ Margrethe Vestager. The European Parliament and heads of state should nominate someone who is genuinely committed to climate action. But this time around it might not just be about personnel. The European Parliament has started ‘coalition’ negotiations on a detailed programme for the next five years.
So, what’s needed? First, we need to remember that we can’t transform our societies and economies without the people’s support. Below the green wave surface there’s a lot of anger and distrust – as witnessed in my native Belgium and Flanders but also in big countries like Italy and France. We don’t just need a good climate commissioner and ambitious targets, we need a wholescale industrial, economic and social mobilisation strategy that delivers progress for all. What do we mean by that?
First, we need a green industrial strategy. With EU carmakers investing €130 billion in electrification, success is this area is now key to our economic and industrial future. Just imagine what happens if Volkswagen’s electric strategy fails. We need to be crystal clear on the way forward and set an end date for the internal combustion engine in Europe. We can become a powerhouse in electromobility and create new, high-quality jobs, in particular in the battery supply chain and in less wealthy regions that depend on fossil technology today. All EU policies including R&D, trade, competition, new battery regulations and vehicle CO2 standards, should be mobilised to achieve this goal.
Second, we need a green investment offensive. Success in the coming years will depend on whether we can roll out the charging infrastructure for cars, trucks and ships fast enough – and the clean energy to power it. The EU should create specific green infrastructure funds for cities and rural areas ensuring all Europeans reap the benefits. This investment plan needs to be backed by new measures that oblige member states and business to contribute, as well as a green investment list (taxonomy) that only promotes zero emission mobility, making it possible to mobilise trillions of euros in private investment.
Third, the EU needs to rebuild consumers’ broken trust in the benefits and effectiveness of its rules, in particular for clean air – citizen’s top environmental concern along with climate change. The Commission will get new powers to control emissions of vehicles on our roads and recall faulty vehicles across the whole EU in 2020. This is an opportunity to create a well-resourced and independent emissions surveillance watchdog. We also need to tighten the air quality standards for cars and trucks (by introducing a final Euro standard), create new clean air zones for ships, and stop sweet-talking countries that don’t respect European clean air laws.
Finally, we desperately need a new deal for aviation and shipping. Undertaxed and under-regulated, they have become Europe’s fastest growing climate problem. Europe must stop relying on opaque and industry-captured international regulators (ICAO and IMO) and design its own European strategy built around fuel taxation, carbon pricing and the industrialisation of hydrogen and ammonia for shipping and synthetic kerosene for aviation.
The appeal of this agenda is that it would be good for the environment but also make Europe more prosperous, healthy and secure. Coupled with policies and funds to ensure no-one gets left behind and that zero emission technology isn’t just for urban elites, but for people in the suburbs, rural areas and peripheral EU regions too, this agenda can turn the election’s green ripple into a genuine green wave.