“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” - John F. Kennedy Houston, Texas, 1962
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched the European Green Deal with a radical objective, to turn Europe into a carbon-neutral continent by 2050.
“We do not have all the answers yet. Today is the start of a journey. But this is Europe's ‘man on the moon' moment,” she said.
The US putting humans on the moon remains a feat so awe-inspiring, that today some paranoid souls still have trouble accepting it happened despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the moon landing succeeded just seven years after JFK’s legendary speech stands as a profound example of what scientists and engineers can achieve when properly funded.
The moon programme cost about $25bn, which works out at $175bn (£140bn) in today’s money.
Von der Leyen’s flagship policy will have €100bn (£85bn) in funding to help countries switch to green economies and at least 25% of the EU's long-term budget will be dedicated to climate action.
In addition, the European Investment Bank has also announced a plan to raise €1tn (£851bn) from public and private sources to invest in climate mitigation and sustainability from 2021 to 2030.
At least 35% of the EU’s research and development budget will be dedicated to finding new solutions to prevent or undo the damage we’ve done to our climate. Von der Leyen’s man on the moon invocation appears to be more than empty rhetoric.
So, what is in the Green Deal plan?
“The European Green Deal is very ambitious, but it will also be very careful in assessing the impact and every single step we are taking. The European Green Deal is an invitation for all to participate,” von der Leyen said.
The deal is a holistic policy which is intended to reshape all of the EU’s laws and areas of responsibility to make them fit for purpose in dealing with the climate emergency.
It is a concrete plan with specific actions in mind that will have far-reaching consequences for one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed societies.
As part of the deal, the European Commission will put forward an EU ‘Climate Law’ by March 2020 which will make a target of carbon neutrality by 2050 an inescapable legal obligation.
Net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 means that the EU’s current target for 2030 will increase from a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions to 50-55%.
Describing the initiative as Europe’s new growth strategy, von der Leyen said the goal was “to reconcile the economy with our planet”. A serious statement which perhaps everyone should pay careful heed to.
“European citizens are changing their lifestyle to help protect the climate and the planet. Therefore, our European Green Deal tells them that Europe is at their side,” she said.
The European Green Deal is something – I am convinced – we owe to our children because we do not own this planet. We just do have for certain time the responsibility and now it is time to act.
- Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission President
The plan was adopted at a summit of the European Council, although Poland, with an antiquated energy industry which relies on coal for 80% of its electricity, was allowed to opt out of the deal. The Eastern European country will be again asked to sign the deal in June 2020.
The UK, with its third deadline to exit the European Union looming at the end of January, did not take part in the summit. However, the British government has also set a deadline of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Two other former holdouts, the Czech Republic and Hungary, eventually agreed when they were promised sufficient guarantees of EU funds to help them with the transition.
The Czech agreement was also conditional on the acceptance of nuclear power as a clean emission-free source of energy.
The inclusion of nuclear in the text of the deal was done in the face of strong opposition from Luxembourg.
Nuclear energy has its own problems and risks and environmental campaigners are divided on whether it should be accepted.
However, in the face of the climate emergency we surely need to be pragmatic and accept it as an effective tool at our disposal.
The deal’s wider energy strategy will see a huge build out of the continent’s offshore wind capacity and the electricity, gas and heating industries will be more tightly integrated into what is being called a “smart sector”.
In terms of transport, one million new charging points will be installed across Europe in five years to promote the rapid adoption of electric vehicles.
In other areas of transport where electric power technology is not far-enough advanced, such as aviation or shipping, more sustainable energy sources such as hydrogen or biofuels will be encouraged.
Given the past disasters caused by biofuel crops, hopefully the EU has learned its lesson and biofuels derived from industrial, agricultural and domestic waste are what policy makers have in mind rather than palm oil for example.
The European Green Deal requires all relevant existing legislation to be re-evaluated in the context of achieving a carbon-neutral continent.
New laws and policies dealing with creating a “circular economy” will be introduced to eliminate waste and institutionalize the philosophy of reduce, reuse recycle across the whole economy, changing how products, including batteries for example, are made to ensure they can be reused or recycled.
Other fundamental programmes will accelerate the renovation of homes and other buildings to make them energy efficient, reshape agriculture to make it less polluting and more sustainable and protect and expand biodiversity.
Is this good for Europe?
The EU is the world’s second-largest economy and accounts for 10 percent of global emissions.
However, while creating a net-zero carbon emissions continent by 2050 will help towards mitigating the damage we’re already causing, the rest of the world needs to meet similar obligations.
If the EU can show the way through policies and legislation, it can act as a clean, green beacon for communities and countries everywhere.
The plan will involve some tough changes, many aspects of our lifestyles will have to be left in the past. However, the result should bring tangible benefits for quality of life, jobs and the economy.
Even if we disregard the direct impact of the policy initiative on the climate, a successful transition will mean Europeans enjoy clean air, soil and water, safer, healthier food, an increase in biodiversity, forests and wild spaces along with a decrease in various illnesses associated with pollution.
Europe’s gamble could place it at the forefront of cleaner industrial practices and see it become a world leader in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and other climate change-mitigation technology.
If the EU can successfully decarbonize without a major dent to prosperity, Europeans will have shown that sustainable change is possible. Indeed, the EU’s emissions have fallen by 23 percent over the last four decades while its 512 million citizens have enjoyed a 61 percent rise in GDP.
If other parts of the world don’t follow the EU’s lead, the Green New Deal allows for the bloc to leverage its power through trade and foreign policy.
The imposition of carbon taxes on imports from countries making insufficient progress on transitioning to a cleaner economy is one policy suggested by the deal.
The EU may also choose not to agree to trade deals with countries which do not adhere to the Paris Agreement.
Such a policy may primarily be used against the United States, the largest carbon emitter per person, which has decided the Paris deal does not apply to it. The 2015 agreement was signed by 194 countries, including the world’s other biggest polluters, Russia, India and China.
The EU public, wide awake to the climate emergency, are unlikely to object to such a move in the face of continued denialism by Washington.
Research and development supported by the deal will mean European businesses large and small will have acquired the expertise, technology and processes to provide assistance in such transitions.
Early European investment in building a net-zero emissions society should pay off in effective, affordable solutions we can sell to the rest of the world.
Is the Green Deal radical enough?
Of course, not everyone is impressed by the EU’s green deal moonshot programme. Environmental campaigners and activists criticised the plan as insufficient.
Susann Scherbarth, climate justice spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth Europe, said the target of 2050 “did not represent emergency action.”
“The huge demonstrations of people calling for climate justice know that all of Europe must phase out all fossil fuels, including gas, in the next decade – today’s announcement won’t reassure them of a safer future,” she said.
“Like the green deal unveiled by the European commission yesterday, this promise risks being too late and too vague on details how it will be achieved.”
Friends of the Earth said the long-term strategy must be combined with “immediate action to dramatically reduce climate emissions in the next 5 years.”
Short-term action is essential given that the climate crisis is already killing people and destroying livelihoods.
- Susann Scherbarth, climate justice spokeswoman Friends of the Earth Europe
Such criticisms may seem harsh and ungrateful in light of what the EU is promising compared to the inaction elsewhere in the world.
However, the plan does come somewhat late in the day and without continued pressure how can we make sure our political leaders follow through and deliver on their promises?
In the 60s and 70s the Cold War superpowers had the funds and drive to take the first pioneering steps off world. The achievements of the space race are still inspiring children all around the world.
Today we cannot afford to delay the green revolution, so tomorrow, let's make sure our grandchildren can be proud of our part in the Green Race to a clean planet. If Europe takes those first pioneering steps, we could lead the way.
Here at the Switch we are dedicated to building a cleaner, greener future right now.
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by Damien Crossan