As lockdowns ease across Europe, the climate crisis and carbon emissions are back on the table. Are EU citizens ready for thirty years of change? Is the EU Green Deal enough, will it work, is anyone listening?
Climate activists connect Covid-19 to wider environmental issues, linking zoonotic diseases to habitat loss, highlighting the positives of quieter roads and plane-free skies, and emphasising the need for global cooperation in the future. But the truth remains that since early 2020 the coronavirus has overshadowed all other concerns for governments, the media, scientists and citizens alike.
The EU Green Deal, signed off in December 2019 and rolled out in stages since then, has struggled to impact as a story. Yet the agreement, which aims to make the 27-country region carbon-neutral by 2050, reaches into all areas of the European economy and society.
Europe’s man on the moon moment
“This is a new industrial revolution as important and radical for Europe as the first Industrial Revolution was for the UK,” says Yvon Slingenberg, the head of the directorate-general on climate action in the European Commission.
“By 2050 there will need to be no more use of fossil fuels, and this impacts heating, mobility, power generation – every aspect of energy use in people's lives.”
Targets include a 50%-55% cut in emissions by 2030, continent-wide afforestation schemes, large-scale retrofitting of buildings, introducing a circular economy industry, and enabling meaningful emissions trading. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has called it “Europe’s man on the moon moment”.
But, what engages people the most, a vision of something new and truly different or a sense that things can go on more or less the same, but also be greener and cleaner? The people of Europe enjoy among the highest standards of living on earth. Will they have to modify their expectations to hit that carbon-neutral target?
“I see nothing that makes me think incomes will be lower, but certain high-carbon things and activities will be less common and more expensive,” says Paul Ekins, professor of resources and environment policy at University College London.
“The Green Deal won’t necessarily make people poorer but it will change the way they travel, what they eat, and it will change the way they heat their homes – and homes are the most important and intimate part of our lives.”
For this reason, he says, it’s essential for citizens to engage with the deal.
“Politicians won’t be able to reduce greenhouse gases unless citizens are behind it. People will need to understand the big picture so that they can engage with the granular. What people will want to know is how they’re going to have that holiday in Spain? Will they fly? Will there be a trans-continental railway? Will it be relatively quick, if not quite as quick as flying? Will it be expensive? Will stag weekends in Prague only be for the very rich?”
EU leaders are keen to sell the Green Deal as a “new growth” model rather than embracing “degrowth” – the increasingly mainstream notion that society needs changing from top to bottom.
“I think we do have to reflect on what growth means without people thinking that their standard of living or prosperity need to decrease,” says Slingenberg.
“To win over people you have to show them how life can be improved and prosperity increased. To win business around you have to provide incentives and support.”
But zoom in on any single policy area and the difficulties become obvious. How do you decarbonise aviation? Will Europe simply replace today’s cars with electric cars? Will rewilding be part of this “new growth” and how do you monetise it?
Industrial-scale farming and meat consumption are two major flashpoints. The EU’s “Farm to Fork” strategy, unveiled in May, promises to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly, but does not state clear reduction targets on the number and size of industrial farms, or the overall number, or maximum density, of animals bred on such farms – despite the fact that a tenth of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions relate to agriculture, and 70% of those come from the animal sector.
“We believe that we can best change the economic system through the behaviours of citizens,” says Slingenberg.
“The way we consume animal products is a problem at present. If we educate people that eating less meat is good for them then that will modify the way food is produced. We already see that with young people, who are demanding a different way of doing business. My daughter is always telling me not to eat certain things.”
Critics believe such pragmatism is more about positive-sounding communications than the realities of modern farming.
“The EU’s own European Environmental Agency has said the EU needs to take a hard look at each sector and has explained that it is no longer a case of pursuing economic growth and trying to soften the environmental and social impacts via additional policies,” argues Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace’s EU spokesperson.
“The meat issue is an area where you can see this most clearly. There is a broad consensus among scientists that production and consumption patterns need to change and yet the EU shies away from making any policies that will achieve that. They are scared that they’ll be seen as telling people what to eat and how to live when they don’t have to do that, only change the conditions so the right choice is also the easy choice.”
When the EU Green Deal was approved in December 2019, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told journalists he had secured an exemption for Poland on the 2050 target. While Poland signed off on the deal, there is still pressure to ease the impact of radical reforms on some countries. Meanwhile, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden have pledged to get to carbon-neutrality faster than mid-century.
“We have to allow countries to change at different speeds so that the green deal is fair to all,” says Slingenberg.
“That means allowing them to trade in emissions and also to receive additional funds to develop green initiatives. Those nations more dependent on coal, for instance, will need to be considered and allowed to change at a suitable pace. But we have to be careful, at the same time, not to create islands of greenness. All European citizens must have the opportunity to make their economies greener.”
Meaningful convergence on emissions can only be achieved if Europe persuades China, the US and others to decarbonise at a comparable rate
In January, a €7.5bn Just Transition Fund was announced. The scheme – which had grown to €40bn by May – aims at helping regions dependent on coal, shale oil or peat to make the change to a green economy. The funds can’t be used for, say, nuclear energy or fossil fuels.
But meaningful convergence on emissions can only be achieved if Europe persuades China, the US and others to decarbonise at a comparable rate. This might be achieved by soft diplomacy and demonstrating the Green Deal is a success, or else by higher tariffs on carbon-intensive products, by means of a so-called “border carbon adjustment”.
“There is a new recognition in the EU that it has a responsibility for what happens in other parts of the world,” says Greenpeace’s Franziska Achterberg.
“For example, there are plans to make sure that EU consumption of products such as soy, beef and palm oil will not drive further forest destruction. The EU, without the UK, is still powerful and can impose its standards on export markets such as Brazil and Argentina. It has huge leverage and has no cause to be bullied by others”.
A climate windfall?
Meanwhile, back in 2020, we all still have the coronavirus to deal with. Is it an obstacle to any kind of positive economic reform – or a potential opportunity?
“The virus has shown us that we can change behaviour and generate huge funds to tackle major crises,” says Slingenberg.
“We need to show the same kind of willingness in dealing with the climate emergency.”
The discussion inside the EU when the coronavirus hit was how green the recovery was going to be. In May the EU Commission announced an EU recovery fund of €750bn on top of more than €3 trillion in earlier recovery packages. But, currently, there are no meaningful environmental or social conditions attached to the plan. Regions where economies were most damaged by Covid-19 wanted solidarity, not conditions. It’s essentially up to EU governments and companies themselves to decide whether the recovery will be green and just.
“There is a tension between getting back to normal and getting back to different,” says professor Ekins.
“Covid-19 has presented governments with an opportunity to put forward investments on a scale never seen before. The amounts are fantasy money. If that money is not spent in a green direction then we can forget any chance of carbon neutrality and keeping sea-levels safe.
“Governments will never be able to obtain funds like this again. The stakes are enormously high.”