Tackling the climate crisis: Implementation time in Europe (Gastkommentar Euractiv)

The climate crisis is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of our time and as impacts are becoming more apparent, Europe must move ahead with implementing its adopted policies, write Paul Schmidt, Johannes Pollak and Michael Kaeding. 

Paul Schmidt is the secretary general of the Austrian Society for European Politics. Johannes Pollak is the rector of the Webster Vienna Private University and a professor of political science. Michael Kaeding is a European Integration and European Union Politics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Droughts, widespread forest fires, floods, landslides, coastal degradations, and temperature increases are already part of our present and will occur more frequently in the future. Far from theoretical doomsday scenarios, these developments are based on scientific evidence. Furthermore, climate change harbours an unprecedented social and political explosive force since it deepens existing societal cleavages within countries, resulting in more and more polarised societies across Europe and worldwide. It is widely acknowledged that humankind has to take action immediately to mitigate the effects of climate change and remedy its causes.

On an international level, the United Nations Climate Change Conferences are held annually to assess progress in dealing with climate change. And the reports are less than reassuring. At COP 21 in Paris in 2015, it was agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In recent years, world leaders have emphasised limiting global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. The focus lies on reducing the amount of naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock farming, all of which are increasingly influencing the climate and temperature on Earth. Eight years after, we are still far from achieving this objective. Electoral cycles seem to trump reason again and again. To stop global warming, we must become CO2 neutral worldwide.

The European Union’s ambitious Green Deal sets environmental standards, making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and decoupling economic growth from resource use. With this strategy towards climate neutrality, the European Climate Law setting binding EU climate targets for 2030 and 2050 and with further legislation to implement it, the EU is well-equipped with the regulatory framework to tackle climate change. Some 90% of the relevant legal decisions regarding the Green Deal are already in place. Among which a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to protect the competitiveness of European Industry, the reform of the Emissions Trading System to also cover aviation and shipping or the regulation on zero emission mobility for new cars and vans. Moreover, the proposed Net Zero Industry Act will establish a simple and predictable legal framework to benefit climate-neutral sectors such as batteries, solar cells, hydrogen and wind turbines. In this context, with the European alliance on batteries, the Union will be boosting its autonomy from 3% in 2016 to up to 90% in 2030. Yet, implementing far-reaching decisions in times of economic uncertainty will be the hard part.

The question is justified whether member states and their regional and local authorities are ready and willing to speed up the transformation. Many civil society groups are voicing concerns and demanding action instead of words. And will the European Green Deal establish another Brussels effect by setting international standards? So far, a unified European approach to implementation is difficult to discern. Instead, we see various country-by-country efforts, leading to unequal national climate and energy plans and beggar-thy-neighbour politics. This is hardly surprising given the diverse national energy mixes and the unique circumstances and historical backgrounds that every EU member state faces. Yet, it is oddly inadequate for a crisis of this magnitude.

We can no longer find refuge in explanations that already held insufficient explanatory power in the past and had to serve as an excuse for inaction. One climate policy is needed to realise Europe’s full potential and show international leadership in combating climate change instead of fragmentation of climate competencies. Boosting CO2-neutral and renewable energy, reducing independence and starting joint energy procurement is but the first step in this direction; sooner rather than later, Europe will need an even closer coordinated, long-term approach. Furthermore, the transition towards climate neutrality by 2050 can only work if it happens in a fair and socially viable manner. Let us not forget that more than 10% of Europeans suffer from energy poverty! A number that is only to increase with Russia’s war in Ukraine and rising prices. Grafting a European transformation policy needs to pay special attention to this fact. The EU set up the Social Climate Fund and its climate policies and supports regions transitioning with the Just Transition Fund to ease the burden for low-income groups. The social dimensions of the green agenda and financial assistance for the more vulnerable parts of society are essential for sustainable and broad public support and a stable political environment.

However, much more must be done to lift millions of Europeans from energy and food poverty and secure a socially just transformation. Otherwise, a positive narrative and absolute necessity will morph into widespread rejection. Although achieving the above-outlined green transition in only two decades seems ambitious, the goals can still be met with enough political will if we implement our decisions vigorously. However, even if we meet the goals we have defined for ourselves, the world from yesterday is gone. The green transformation must also include our habits, from long-distance travel to energy use, energy efficiency to saving. Progress has been made in all areas of the Green Deal—reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reversing biodiversity loss and advancing the circular economy. However, Europe needs to show leadership and prove to the world that despite the pandemic and Russia´s war in Ukraine, it continues to pursue a socially just path towards climate neutrality by reinventing its social market economy model.