How the EU plans to end humanity's “out of joint" relationship to climate

Frans Timmermans quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet as he defended ambitious EU climate plans, perhaps forgetting the Danish prince’s reputation as a procrastinator.

 

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Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 “will be bloody hard”, declaimed European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans, when presenting the EU’s so-called ‘Fit for 55’ package on Wednesday. With full rhetorical force he also quoted Shakespeare and told journalists at the press conference that “we can’t abandon our children and grandchildren” before reassuring the physical and digital room that getting on a path to net zero would turn everyone into a winner with “more space for nature, healthier lives and new economic opportunities”.

Working out exactly what the mammoth bunch of legislative proposals actually means for business, people, nature or the climate will take time. Many of the plans, most notably the idea of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), are fiendishly complicated. And before any of the theory can be turned into practice, all of these plans need to go through the EU’s painful co-legislative procedure, which means winning over the European Parliament and 27 EU member states in the coming months and years.

“Everyone knows it is in their own self-interest to move,” said Timmermans. There is not a single country on earth that is not worried by climate change and does not want to move to zero emissions, although "not everyone can move at same pace”, he insisted.

The idea is compelling. The EU has enshrined its emissions reduction commitments in a recently agreed Climate Law, but whether all countries are truly onside is debatable. Poland is the EU's most infamous climate policy sceptic, but even in supposedly ambitious countries, citizens are winning cases against governments for failing to take action on climate change commensurate with the science. Only time will tell whether today was a turning point.

A dislocated climate

Timmermans turned to Shakespeare to underline the chaotic state of the climate and the impact of a rapidly warming world on nature and humanity. “The time is out of joint,” he said, quoting Hamlet. He suggested that by enacting the ‘Fit for 55’ package, the EU can help humanity “live within planetary boundaries”.

However, he failed to mention that the Danish prince commits murder in his attempt to restore order. Hamlet is also frequently accused of being a procrastinator and of not acting quick enough to kill Claudius his stepfather (who is also his uncle) to avenge his father’s murder. A flaw that ultimately ends in his own demise.

The Commission was quick to reassure that the suite of measures would be “fair” for industry and consumers alike, whatever the size of the company and the depth of people’s pockets. For business, for example, the CBAM is aimed at stopping carbon leakage and ensuring that countries with less strict emissions legislation do not have a competitive advantage over the EU.

Concerns that bringing buildings and transport into an emissions trading system could push lower income households into energy poverty were pushed aside with reference to a new Social Climate Fund. Financed by the EU budget with an amount equivalent to 25 per cent of expected revenues from emissions trading for heating and road transport fuels, €72.2bn should be available for member states from 2025–32 to “help those who face the toughest challenges”, said Timmermans.

Economic arguments

However, not everyone is convinced this will do the trick. While nobody accused the Commission of trying to commit murder, citizen groups and green politicians expressed concerns the proposed social funds were too small to make sure the most vulnerable were brought along on the net-zero journey.

Dirk Vansintjan, president of REScoop.eu, the European Federation of Citizen Energy Cooperatives, suggested an over-reliance on market measures could “alienate citizens” from the energy transition. Research by the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition, a not-for-profit organisation, suggests energy bills could increase by as much as €429 ($507.74) a year for every residential household by bringing buildings and transport into an ETS.

Critics of climate action will claim the proposed measures “will harm the economy, but there will not be an economy if we do not act on the climate”, warned Philippe Lamberts, president of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament. The Commission was at pains to underline that prosperity would increase if the package was agreed and European companies would be the first to profit. The package offers “certainty and incentives to the private sector”, said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, while Timmermans insisted on the power of pricing carbon to “stimulate innovation and bring new technologies to market” in Europe.

Still procrastinating

For many NGOs, however, the Commission’s proposals were too reminiscent of Hamlet’s procrastination. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greenpeace and others railed against the EU executive for still failing to grasp the gravity of the climate crisis, despite Timmermans and von der Leyen’s fine words. For them the science is clear that the 2030 emissions reduction target should be 65 per cent, not 55 per cent, if the global temperature rise is to remain below 1.5°C.

“The package does not tackle this gap, proposing for renewable energy just a 40% target, while 50 per cent by 2030 would do far more to protect the climate and build a sustainable future economy,” says the WWF’s European office.

NGOs were most disparaging about the Commission’s efforts to tighten proposals on bioenergy, claiming better protection in particular for the continent’s forests. “The Commission claims it has tightened the rules, but it is really just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,” said the WWF’s Alex Mason.

Timmermans is correct that decarbonising our economies will be “bloody difficult”. It is now up to the European Parliament and EU member states to decide if the Commission has, as he believes, dreamt up a “balanced package” that can create jobs, keep companies in Europe, boost innovation, inspire the rest of the world and be ambitious enough to stop the worst effects of climate change.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it,” is a quote the vice-president could also have used. The Commission was never going to please everyone with this package and it will doubtless undergo many changes as it goes through the legislative procedure, although Timmermans was clear any alterations must be in line with the legally binding 55 per cent cut in emissions.

But it is vital, if the EU is serious about leading climate action and the energy transition, that it procrastinates no longer. Timmermans is right that reaching net zero is “everyone’s responsibility” and that the time in which to do this is short.

This piece was originally published on Energy Monitor.

Philippa Nuttall Jones is editor-in-chief of Energy Monitor.

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