From devastating wildfires in Greece to deadly floods in Germany and Belgium this summer, the impact of climate change in Europe is being felt with increasing frequency and force. So too is the political fallout.
In Greece, the government reacted to the heatwave-fueled blazes by creating a ministry for the climate crisis and civil protection — and by appointing a former European commissioner for humanitarian aid (and a Cypriot national) to lead the new organisation. In Germany, the ruling party’s candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a gaffe-induced election-campaign setback — and questions about his climate credentials — in the wake of the flooding disaster in two western German states.
For the 27-nation European Union, all this underscores the need for clarity and honesty about policy responsibilities as the bloc seeks to deepen cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions and become climate-neutral by mid-century.
At stake is the EU’s ability to avoid another knee-jerk populist backlash and show the long-term rewards of multilateral cooperation to counter global warming, mankind’s most pressing threat.
The distinction between EU and national policy tools is central to the bloc’s new “Fit for 55” package of draft climate legislation, which the European Commission unveiled on 14 July. While EU instruments will deliver some of the emission cuts needed, parallel national action is essential. The Commission proposals aim to reduce EU emissions by 55% — rather than by just 40% as previously agreed — in 2030 versus 1990 levels and hasten the development of clean energy. The measures need the approval of EU governments and the European Parliament in a process due to last at least a year. A central feature of the package would ensure that EU countries retain the freedom to fashion policies for domestic industries — agriculture, waste, buildings and surface transport are among them — that together account for 60% of the bloc’s emissions. Under this proposed revision of European “effort-sharing” legislation, EU countries would face stricter 2030 targets for curbing these sectors’ discharges.
But those goals would continue to vary based on national wealth, with the steepest reductions falling on the richest member states. This key facet would be hard — or even impossible — to pick up from media coverage.
News reports have largely made the package look like a top-down, one-size-fits-all, EU plan, with particular focus on two other draft European laws. One would phase out the sale across the EU of cars with a combustion engine.
The other would create a European system for slashing emissions from buildings and road transport (mirroring Europe’s cap-and-trade market for power plants, factories and intra-EU flights). With the public spotlight on proposed European measures rather than on needed national ones, voters and politicians alike risk failing to see in whose court the ball lies for the EU to make good on its more ambitious climate promise. Climate change may be global, but its politics and policies are largely national. This is fitting. The EU legislative package — and indeed the bloc’s broader “Green Deal” — stem from grass-roots climate activism in the run-up to European Parliament elections in 2019.
The EU assembly’s newly elected members threatened to wield their veto power over Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen, whom member-state leaders had proposed as a compromise choice, to get her to commit to a more ambitious green agenda. Since then, opinion polls in Europe have shown continued, solid support for climate action.
Awareness of the bottom-up nature of climate forces and of policy requirements across the EU is a prerequisite for understanding a key related challenge: ensuring a socially just transition to an economy based on renewable energy rather than on fossil fuels.
While such a revamp promises benefits for societies as a whole, it requires careful policy designs to avoid exacerbating social injustices. The current energy-price rises in Europe highlight the political risks. Von der Leyen’s Commission has accompanied the proposal for a European emissions-trading system for buildings and road transport with a planned “Social Climate Fund” to help tackle “energy poverty”. But such a centralized European aid programme could struggle to find its way into people’s pockets. In any case, proposed European measures like this are meant to act as a helping hand for member states. If EU legislators end up rejecting more European tools to cut emissions, the onus would only grow on member countries to come up with home-grown policies.
National resolve is anyway more urgent than ever. This summer’s horrifying fires and floods show clearly that climate action is a necessity rather than a choice — and that inaction is too costly not just economically but also in terms of human lives and misery.