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When Juncker took office his top priority was jobs and growth and one of the key ways he wanted to achieve this was by “better regulation” or, more accurately, deregulation with environment top of the hit list. The top climate job was given to a Spanish conservative, and none of the vice-presidents were in charge of sustainability. For a time, things looked pretty grim.
And yet the EU helped broker the Paris climate agreement, reformed its emissions trading system (today’s ETS price is €24/tonne of carbon, a far cry from 2014’s €4/tonne), and agreed 2030 climate targets. It also regulated truck emissions for the first time, strengthened vehicle emissions tests and controls in the Dieselgate aftermath, set new CO2 standards for cars, decided to phase out palm oil from biodiesel, and started the conversation about the total decarbonisation of our economy by 2050.
That’s a decent track record bearing in mind the global political environment this Commission had to operate in. “You don’t seem to like President Juncker,” an angry Commission official once snapped at us. “But I can tell you you’d like President Trump, Putin and Xi a lot less!”
But it’s also fair to point out that things like the ETS, the 2030 targets, and the car CO2 standards were requested by the European Council in 2014. Where the Commission had freedom was in the choice of measures and how far they’d go. And this is the other side of the coin: the Commission’s proposals were mostly underwhelming with governments and the European Parliament needing to step in to secure a more acceptable level of ambition.
Perhaps this then characterises the ‘Juncker method’ on environment: play safe and focus on what will secure a broad consensus (including with industry or climate-sceptic governments) but let governments and Parliament fight the detail and get their hands dirty if they want something genuinely ambitious.
The Juncker method helped the Commission claim many victories. But there will also be a heavy price to pay for this at times cynical approach. For example, the transport part of the climate and energy package falls way short of what’s needed to meet the 2030 climate targets – without change we’re headed for major non-compliance. The same is true for palm and soy biodiesel where the Commission’s attempts to please both civil society and EU trade partners mean the biofuels tragedy is set to continue. Or take aviation, Europe’s fastest growing climate problem, which was farmed off to ICAO. These examples are not anecdotal – they are at the heart of one of Europe’s key credibility problem (at home and abroad): the discrepancy between its glowing rhetoric and lagging action (often aggravated by a lack of proper enforcement).
It’s far from clear what the new Commission and Parliament will look like. What is clear though is that time’s running out for the environment. With all the indicators dark red, with millions of young people protesting against what they see as the planet breaking down, we now desperately need a Green New Deal for Europe.
Whoever is in charge next will need to make climate action a top priority. There will be two big tests. First, Europe needs to commit to fully decarbonise its economy by 2050 at the very latest. Second, we’ll need a lot of additional action to deliver on the 2030 targets in the sectors outside the ETS. That means we’ll need new laws covering things like a ubiquitous electric vehicle charging infrastructure roll-out, CO2 performance standards for batteries, a proper EV mandate for cars and trucks, and a plan to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles in Europe.
On aviation, all the lead candidates have now said they want to end aviation’s tax holiday. That’s a start but we’ll also need to start forcing airlines to burn zero emission fuels like synthetic kerosene if we want to keep their emissions in check. On shipping finally, Europe’s got a major opportunity to become the world’s powerhouse in battery and hydrogen ship manufacturing. All of this will require not just the personal commitment of the next Commission president, but also a structure to deliver the programme. That means putting an extremely capable vice-president in charge of the low-carbon economy transition, overseeing the work of the climate and energy commissioner and his/her industry and transport colleagues.
Europeans support ambitious climate action and, perhaps as important, it is in our strategic interest to accelerate the transition. We’re heavily dependent on dirty energy imported from mostly dirty regimes. If we can’t wean ourselves off oil, gas and coal, then who can? Over to you, Madam or Mr President.