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Ursula von der Leyen

View from Brussels: Green mission tops agenda of new Commission

Image credit: European Parliament

The EU finally got a fresh executive branch on Wednesday (27 November), as a new European Commission was belatedly given the green light by MEPs. Top of the agenda is an ambitious climate mission.

It was not an easy ride for Germany’s former defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who will become the EU’s first female Commission president on 1 December.

Three of her picks to serve in her team were rejected by European lawmakers and it was not unthinkable that MEPs would flex their muscles again when it came to a vote on her entire Commission.

But after more than 60 per cent of them decided to give their blessing to team von der Leyen, the real work can begin in earnest. Most of it will have a distinctly green tinge to it, after the incoming president rooted much of her agenda in environmental policy.

Within the first 100 days after taking power, von der Leyen has pledged to increase the EU’s existing targets for cutting greenhouse emissions and to enshrine a new one for 2050, which if met would make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent.

“We don’t have a moment to waste any more on fighting climate change,” she told MEPs gathered in Strasbourg, adding that “it is an existential issue”. The main policy that her Commission will unveil is the so-called European Green Deal.

Von der Leyen says that it will be “our new growth strategy” and that “the faster Europe moves, the greater the advantage will be for our citizens, our competitiveness and our prosperity”.

The Green Deal is expected to include the new and updated emissions reduction targets, new billion-euro strong funds for fossil-fuel-dependent areas and an overarching industrial strategy, which is expected to prioritise renewable energy manufacturers, clean mobility providers and sustainable development.

She will also be able to count on the financial clout of the European Investment Bank to help pay for what is estimated to be a half-trillion-euro-per-year endeavour. The EU’s triple-A rated lender recently decided that it will no longer fund fossil fuels after 2021 and estimated that its new policies will attract €1 trillion in investments by 2030.

Environmental groups in and around Brussels hope that the walk will match the talk so that other parts of the world will follow the EU’s lead and start reducing emissions accordingly.

WWF Europe’s Ester Asin told E&T that “immediate action” is needed and that “we also expect the Commission to apply their ‘zero tolerance’ commitment, holding to account those countries that do not respect long-standing EU environmental laws”.

However, there will be disputes over what policies to follow and how quickly changes must be made. EU countries are currently working on energy and climate plans for the year 2030, which must be submitted by the end of this year.

Those plans have already been labelled as “inadequate” by a number of climate analysts and the current Commission has even acknowledged that their cumulative effect would be insufficient to meet the bloc’s targets.

Transport is also largely ignored or sidelined in the strategies. Representatives of the biofuels and natural gas industries told E&T that they unfairly prioritise electrification over other fuel sources and that costs are not taken properly into account.

“Without a comprehensive evaluation of the costs and full transparency to voters and taxpayers it will be very difficult to convince investors to invest,” said Eric Sievers of EthanolEurope, an industry group.

One country that may not face any recourse over its energy and climate plan is the United Kingdom, which is still due to leave the EU at the end of January, pending the result of December’s general election.

Commission officials have reiterated in recent weeks that the UK’s departure will leave a gap in EU climate policy, both in diplomatic and numerical terms, given Britain’s comparatively strong record in decarbonising its economy.

According to rough estimates by the Commission, the EU is currently on track to cut emissions by around 45 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2030. Without the UK, that figure drops by a few percentage points.

In a mission where every little counts, the UK’s departure could be felt hard in climate circles. Another brewing argument revolves around by how much the EU should increase that 2030 target, currently set at 40 per cent.

Von der Leyen says 50 per cent is the logical first step, while the European Parliament in general says 55 per cent should be the goal. Brexit could well end up pulling on the ambition brake.

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