Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Environment
  2. COP26
20 October 2021

The EU climate chief Frans Timmermans: “The planet is probably going to be OK. But we won’t”

The EU Commission vice-president on why the UK’s climate ambition needs to be matched by “very concrete policies”.

By Megan Gibson

Frans Timmermans believes in the value of show and tell. The 60-year-old executive vice president of the European Commission, who leads its work on a Green Deal, has, in the run up to the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, travelled the world meeting with heads of states and representatives to discuss, debate and determine their plans for climate action. The pace has been gruelling but Timmermans, who has four children, two of whom are still teenagers, seems indefatigable. With the window of opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe quickly closing, Cop26  which begins on 31 October in Glasgow is touted by some as a make-or-break chance for governments to reform their pledges to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

It’s not simply a matter of what nations say they’re going to do, said Timmermans. Governments need to be able to demonstrate they can actually deliver on their big promises. “It’s very good to announce a date at which you’re going to be carbon neutral,” he told me during an interview at London’s Europe House, on a swift trip sandwiched between meetings in Egypt and Indonesia. Yet more crucial than deadlines, he said, are details. “It’s even more important to show the pathways of how you’re going to get there.”

That message goes for the hosts of Cop26 as well. “What I see from Her Majesty’s Government is quite ambitious,” said Timmermans, acknowledging the UK’s pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. “The thing is,” he continued, “our experience in Europe is [that] your ambition needs to be backed up with very concrete policies in a very, very concrete timetable.”  

Luckily for Timmermans a Dutch politician and diplomat who previously served as the Netherlands’ foreign minister and as a first vice president for the European Commission from 2014 to 2019 he’s familiar with concrete policies and complex portfolios. While serving under Jean-Claude Juncker, Timmermans had to deal with everything from migration to the Catalonia referendum and the rule-of-law dispute with Poland. He’s been known variously as Europe’s “rising star”, its “best communicator” and a “henchman-in-chief”.

That could be why he is especially well suited to his current role. When Ursula von der Leyen became president in 2019 beating Timmermans, who ran as the European Socialists’ candidate she tapped him to oversee the bloc’s sweeping Green Deal. This is the policy aimed at cutting EU emissions by 55 per cent over the next decade and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday.

Despite the urgency to deal with climate change, Timmermans plays an effective diplomat. Any critical statement he makes regarding another nation’s efforts is invariably prefaced with praise. Even when discussing the myriad questions around China which hasn’t, as yet, indicated what commitments it will make at Cop26 Timmermans led with positivity.  “We would not have the Paris Agreement without a very active Chinese contribution,” he said, underlining that the superpower is responsible for around 28 per cent of global emissions and that it’s very much in China’s own interest to act. “The fact President Xi Jinping has announced they will no longer finance foreign coal-fired power generation is a huge help. But now we hope they will also make some announcements about what they’re going to do domestically.”

What about Russia, a persistent laggard when it comes to climate action? “What’s happened over the summer with the wildfires and what’s happening with the permafrost has increased awareness in the Russian body politic,” said Timmermans. “They have become more constructive.” Even when discussing EU member states, Timmermans who wasn’t previously known for holding back genuine criticisms takes a more forgiving approach. “If you’re a country like Poland, where [around] 70 per cent of your electricity is still from coal, then your challenge is a lot bigger,” he said. “But member states have shown a high level of solidarity with those whose challenges are bigger.”

Yet there is one area that Timmermans doesn’t equivocate on: the need for a just transition. Developed nations previously pledged to contribute $100bn a year to developing nations to help pay for the impacts of climate change on their economies. Yet the 2020 deadline for that goal was missed. “We need many industrialised nations to be more ambitious than they are today,” he said. “Our credibility with those countries hinges on our ability to put on the table the money that we promised.”

Content from our partners
Cyber security is a team game
Why consistency matters
Community safety includes cyber security

And it’s not just the developing world that faces tough questions about who bears the cost of climate change. As an energy crisis has swept across Europe, the UK and China in recent weeks, it has been lower income demographics that have most felt the squeeze. On 13 October the European Commission announced a “toolbox” of measures member states can use to help citizens weather the immediate situation. Measures range from offering direct funds to help people pay their bills to temporarily reducing tax for the most vulnerable.

In Timmermans view, the best way to help the EU’s poorest populations in the long run is to speed up the move to clean energy. “The money will be there and everybody knows that it will be; the problem we have is that the money has to be available in a very a very short period of time,” he said. “The International Monetary Fund calculated that, globally, $11m a minute is invested in the fossil fuel industry [in subsidies]. Just imagine if that money was being invested, or even half of that money was being invested, in renewables that would revolutionise our energy mix.”

With so many nations still not able to say when and how they’re going to cut emissions, does Timmermans see any reason to hope that real, tangible solutions will come out of Cop26? He does, because even the laggards now recognise the urgency. “I don’t think the climate crisis is going to be a politically divisive issue anymore. From left to right, conservatives, progressives, everyone understands this is a crisis that is an existential challenge to humanity. The planet is probably going to be OK,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “But we won’t.”