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View from Brussels: Climate Groundhog Day

EU leaders were left disappointed and dumb-founded last week when efforts to ratchet up the bloc’s climate change efforts were vetoed by Poland. It’s not the first time it has happened either.

The stage was set last Thursday (20 June) for all 28 EU members to agree that the bloc should collectively go carbon neutral by 2050. A deal then would have given the Europeans something to shout about at a UN summit in September on climate change.

All signs pointed to the plan going off without a hitch, as the normal troublemakers seemed to be on side: Hungary quietly gave its blessing earlier in the week, the Czechs were in political turmoil with thousands out protesting in the streets and Slovakia’s popular new president made green policies a priority when she took office.

Many climate experts thought that Poland would not have the gall to exercise its veto by itself, given that we live in a post-Paris Agreement world of heatwaves, flygskam (flight shame) and melting glaciers.

But veto Poland did, convincing three others to stand with them as well. It wasn’t the first time they’ve put a dent in the EU’s green credentials either.

In 2012, the Poles fatally blocked an attempt by the EU to set in stone 80 per cent emission cuts for 2050, with Warsaw claiming the roadmap was too ambitious and too unfair to them.

Last week, it was much the same story. Poland is still convinced that the 2050 date is too soon for the EU to get to a point where all the emissions produced are absorbed by carbon sinks like trees and wetlands, as well as fledgling carbon-capture-storage technology.

Even though Europe will now go to September’s New York summit with only a pledge to get the ‘climate-neutrality’ agreement done and dusted by early 2020, there is still a little bit of hope for the environmentally-minded in Brussels.

The problem, and also solution, is money. Poland knows that weaning their coal-heavy energy system on to natural gas and renewables will cost a great deal. Its government claims the total bill will be €900bn.

The EU institutions acknowledge the cost and estimate it’ll cost at least €300bln a year up until 2050 for all 28 countries.

But there is plenty of the green stuff knocking around. MEPs want to ring-fence 25 per cent of the EU’s next trillion-euro-strong budget just for climate action, while poorer countries like Poland will be eligible for even more funding.

Diplomats thought that they had made a convincing argument before last week’s climate collapse but more cajoling will have to be done. Budget talks are ongoing so it actually makes sense that Poland would hold out longer to squeeze a bit more out of the negotiations.

The Eastern European country’s situation is not as dire as its diplomats would have you believe either. Companies are starting to invest big in electric mobility, wind farms and building renovations.

Last year, the Polish government set up a €25bn decade-long programme to retrofit fossil-fuel boilers and improve insulation, in an attempt to address the country’s atrocious air quality.

The goal is to refurbish 4 million homes and buildings. Currently, a dispute over the management of the programme threatens to delay progress but it demonstrates that investments will come pouring in when the right laws are in place.

It’s a similar story with electric cars, Polish power companies are pooling resources to build batteries and even a tailor-made vehicle that has been dubbed the ‘Tesla of the East’.

But the potential is limited because the vast majority of power behind the plug still comes from coal generation, which is hard to sell to green-minded consumers.

Poland’s energy chiefs admitted on Thursday (27 June) that the country will come around in the end but clearly need its fellow EU members to stump up more financial assurances before they put pen to paper.

Waiting until the economics make sense is one thing, but as wildfires rage in Spain and glaciers melt faster than expected, it’s hard not to agree with a recent statement by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “climate action cannot wait”.

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