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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Europe Makes 2021 Year of the Green Deal

As the world picks itself up from the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union is laying down a new set of laws and rules to force its economies and societies to move away from fossil fuels and make fighting climate change a legal requirement.

(CN) — The European Union is rolling out the world's first set of laws, rules and policies to force not just the 27-nation bloc in Europe to cut back carbon emissions, but perhaps drag the rest of the world along too.

It's called the European Green Deal and it aims to lay the ground for a new financial and political paradigm based around fighting climate change by forcing businesses and societies to move toward renewable, and still-developing, energies such as hydrogen, solar, wind and biomass.

“This is Europe's man-on-the-moon moment,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, when she introduced the EU's plans for the Green Deal in 2019.

She has made the Green Deal a central pillar to her presidency, the first by a woman in the EU's 63-year history. Von der Leyen, Germany's former defense minister, wants to modernize Europe through renewable energy and digitalization.

A large part of this pioneering package of climate change legislation is set to be unveiled by the European Commission on July 14 during a session of the European Parliament, the EU's only directly elected governing body. The parliament is expected to debate the legislation and pass it within the coming months.

Importantly, the Green Deal is underpinned by a recently approved “climate law” that binds the hands of unwilling politicians too: Cutting emissions is now a legal requirement under EU law. A bitterly divided European Parliament approved the law in June with left-wing and green politicians complaining its mandate to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 does not go far enough and far-right and pro-business politicians warning it will put Europe at a competitive disadvantage.

The July 14 package of climate rules – and tougher revisions to existing regulations – is expected to be extensive. The EU is looking at charging a controversial tax on some foreign goods, such as steel and fertilizer, coming from places not doing their part to reduce carbon emissions – a so-called “carbon border adjustment tax.” Additionally, it is looking at raising even further fuel standards for vehicles, ships and airplanes, which could lead to increased taxes on low-grade fuels.

The EU also is introducing new financial mechanisms to penalize businesses and even building owners for their emissions and encouraging climate-friendly investments. Meanwhile, the EU is devising new standards to determine what investments – both public and private – can be labeled as sustainable and green.

There's stuff for the losers too: The Green Deal sets out to help people and businesses that get pushed out of work, such as those in the coal regions of Poland and Hungary. The EU is calling this its Just Transition Fund. In June, EU leaders set aside 17.5 billion euros (about $20.6 billion) to help regions being forced to stop producing coal, lignite, peat, oil shale and gas. Helping workers and businesses hurt by green policies is viewed as critical to prevent public unrest and backlash, as was seen with the anti-fuel-tax protests in 2018 by the so-called “yellow vests” in France.

Experts say this package of new laws and rules reflects the urgency people in Europe, but also around the rest of the world, feel about climate change. Europe, like every region on the planet, is reeling from the effects of climate change, which include more frequent flooding, heat waves, drought, glacier melting, intense storms and a loss of biodiversity.

Polls show Europeans see climate change as a top concern and Green party candidates, especially in northern Europe, are riding a wave of support. This shift toward the Greens and support for climate change legislation can be attributed in part to massive street protests that broke out before the pandemic, often inspired by Swedish teenager and activist Greta Thunberg.

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This year, the Greens in Germany have a good shot at winning enough votes in federal elections in September to be in a position to form a new coalition government and potentially shift European politics even more towards green priorities. Germany is seen as the most powerful force in EU politics due the size of its economy, the largest, and its population, also the largest.

Following years of intense debate and growing anxiety over global warming, the EU's legislative model for tackling climate change could become a suite of best practices for the rest of the world to want to follow – or possibly be forced to swallow if they want to sell their products in Europe.

“What I find important is that in a way it's a new narrative,” said Timon Wehnert, a senior researcher at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, a think tank in Berlin.

“Historically, 10 years ago or so, it was more this discussion: 'It's the environment or jobs – either/or – and we have to decide where to put our money,” Wehnert said in a telephone interview. “I increasingly see this shift in paradigm: 'No, it can be both.'”

He said the new recognition that fighting climate change can be economically feasible “opens up new possibilities.”

“This is why I find the Green Deal really a game changer of the whole political debate we're having in Europe,” he said. “I see a lot of convincing signs that it is going in the right direction.”

In drafting such globally significant legislation, Europe is using what's known as its soft power – the “Brussels effect.” Europe, the world's largest single market, prides itself on setting global standards and these climate change laws seek to do just that. They put Europe at the forefront of scientific and political efforts to solve the climate change quandary, one of the world's most complicated puzzles.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on May 25, 2021. (John Thys, Pool via AP)

On June 24, the Green Deal got a kind of official kickoff when the European Parliament approved the so-called European Climate Law, which makes it a legal requirement for all of 27 nations of the EU to reduce carbon pollution.

“The climate law is considered the centerpiece of the Green Deal, really the core,” said Silvia Pastorelli, a policy expert at Greenpeace in Brussels, in a telephone interview.

But she, like other environmentalists, was deeply dissatisfied with the law because she believes it falls far short in reducing emissions and fails to strip funding and subsidies for fossil fuel projects, such as pipelines. Environmentalists complain that the oil and gas industry's lobbyists are too influential in Brussels.

The climate law mandates a net 55% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 in the EU rather than the minimum 65% cut advocated by environmentalists. Under the law, the EU is also required to become climate neutral by 2050. Climate neutrality is a term used to designate when the activities of a company, a nation or even a person are not adding to global warming. Defining climate neutrality is tricky, contentious and the subject of intense debate.

“I think we are very much on track to achieve that 55%, but we need to be somewhere else, that is the problem,” Pastorelli said. “If we want to achieve limiting temperature increase by 1.5 [degrees Celsius], what we should be doing is at least 65%.”

She also questioned the EU's assumptions on how it plans to achieve its mandates. For example, the EU is including reforestation as a method to reduce emissions, but she said that it is difficult to quantify how much carbon forests and peatlands can absorb because they are vulnerable to wildfires and other harmful effects caused by global warming.

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The European climate law is an offshoot of the Paris Agreement, the landmark treaty signed by 196 nations during a pivotal United Nations climate change summit held in 2015 at Le Bourget, a military airport and aviation hub outside Paris. In signing the Paris Agreement, world leaders agreed to become legally required to reduce carbon emissions and stop the planet from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050.

The EU's Green Deal likely will feature prominently when world leaders meet in Glasgow for the annual U.N. climate change conference in November and lay out new commitments to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions. There are high expectations for the Glasgow conference. China and the United States, among others such as the United Kingdom and Indonesia, are crafting their own new climate policies.

“Frankly, I see promising signals,” Wehnert said. “I see more movement this year, which we have been lacking over the last years globally.”

The European Green Deal has global implications: the EU's plan to incorporate the science of climate change as a core principle into its legal, regulatory, economic and financial systems potentially will force other nations to take similar steps. It could also cause geopolitical fractures by depriving oil-dependent powers like Russia and Saudi Arabia of a prime marketplace.

For decades, Europeans have been at the forefront of both talking about the dangers of global warming and doing something about it – though far from enough. As with the rest of the world, Europe belches billions of tons of gases each year into the atmosphere.

The sheer volume of toxic gases it belches is declining, but below desired levels. In 2010, the EU zone emitted about 4.5 billion tons of heat-trapping gases a year; today, that number is down to under 4 billion tons.

It's an improvement – but still exceeding levels the EU had hoped to achieve a decade after it began taking the first baby steps to contain the noxious fumes pouring out of a European landscape crammed with industrial smokestacks, clogged cities and coal-fired power plants.

The set of laws and rules behind the Green Deal, therefore, is designed to force the EU to both reduce its emissions by increasing its renewable energy supply and meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. In theory, other regions of the world will need to implement similar legally binding plans to cut carbon emissions in order to fulfill the mandates under the Paris Agreement.

As a whole, the EU emits about 7.5% of the world's greenhouse gases while China, the biggest polluter today, emits about 26% of the world's heat-trapping gases, the United States 12.6%, India 7% and Russia 5%, according to data from the World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit that focuses on climate change. However, the EU's role in heating the planet is much larger when its past emissions are taken into consideration, according to figures from Our World in Data, a research group affiliated with the University of Oxford.

Wehnert said the EU's push to combat global warming through its new set of rules and laws is a good start.

“To me, it is really the responsibility and the leading by example and providing solutions that other countries can take up,” he said.

To buttress this new legal framework, the EU plans to raise about 750 billion euros (about $886 billion) over the next six years to invest in what it is calling its green and digital transition away from an economy based on fossil fuels. These funds are the core of the EU's efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Each EU state will be allotted loans and grants from the recovery fund with a large portion of the funds slated to go toward green projects.

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Wehnert said the EU is putting in benchmarks and safeguards to make sure the funds are spent on climate-friendly projects.

He said he was impressed at the proposals EU nations are bringing forward, though he said the plans being submitted by most countries fall short of the commission's goal of making sure 37% of the recovery funds go toward fighting climate change.

A makeshift globe burns in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, on Oct. 21, 2020, as activists protest against the ECB's climate policy. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Still, hanging over all the EU's green plans are doubts about whether its objectives and plans are realistic. There are concerns that the EU, like other regions of the world, will fabricate complicated formulas to show it is meeting its legal mandates even as it continues to emit far too many heat-trapping gases.

For example, the EU's plans rely heavily on unproven technologies, including huge leaps in creating massive amounts of energy for its industrial plants through hydrogen, the most common chemical element in the universe. The EU is pushing forward with ambitious plans to produce hydrogen-fueled factories and power plants, buses and trucks.

“I can see how hydrogen in general has been painted as this silver bullet solution: 'We just need loads of hydrogen and this is going to deliver everything that we need,'” Pastorelli said. “This is obviously not exactly the case.”

She added that the EU's plans for producing energy using hydrogen will likely rely on fossil fuels. To get hydrogen fuel cells, water is supercharged with electrical currents to create a chemical reaction, a technique known as electrolysis.

“The problem is that in most cases gas is used to produce hydrogen so this has nothing to do with renewable energy,” Pastorelli said.

She also worried that the EU's plans rely on unproven technologies to capture and store carbon emissions emitted by heavy industry.

“It is another favorite buzzword at the moment from the fossil industry,” Pastorelli said. “It would allow them to continue with the core business model of extracting fossil fuels … This is an end-of-the-pipeline solution that doesn't solve the problem at the source.”

Scientists warn that including carbon capture technologies into models on how to reduce carbon emissions is deeply problematic.

“This has been ongoing for at least a decade, if not more,” Pastorelli said. “A lot of money has been poured into it without getting the results they were hoping to get.”

She also was concerned about how the EU is planning to spend the 750 billion euros in pandemic recovery funds. For example, the EU may allow countries to use funds on gas infrastructure, arguing that natural gas should be considered a fuel that can act as a bridge between coal and oil and renewable energy.

Environmentalists contend the EU's approach falls short of meeting the Paris Agreement's mandates, even though they acknowledge the EU is a leader on green policies and sending a strong message to the rest of the world.

“The plan that the EU has set is unprecedented, that is for sure,” Pastorelli said. “It's still very important that the EU is setting up this framework, this Green Deal, and is working on revising policies, setting up new pieces of legislation to reach these objectives.”

But she argued no region or country has proven to be up to the task of tackling the emergency facing the planet.

“I struggle to see real leadership, honestly,” she said.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged the EU's new green policies can have global ramifications.

“It's not just about the standards the EU sets for itself,” she said. “But also the impact the EU economy, which is huge, has on other countries in the world.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Environment, Government, International

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