This article is part of our special report Transition to green economy.
When world leaders in Paris last December agreed on a landmark deal to cap global warming, it was hailed as the starting gun on an irreversible path to a low-carbon economy.
But keeping global warming to below two degrees will require nothing less than the complete overhaul of the extraction and consumption-led culture that has held sway since the Industrial Revolution.
“Look at us now,” the EU’s Energy Union chief Maroš Šefčovič told delegates at the Transition to the Green Economy conference in Bratislava last week.
“The transition to a green economy is omnipresent in our diplomacy, in our popular culture, in our evolving industries, led by innovative technologies,” he said. “What started as a pioneer movement has successfully won the hearts and minds of millions across the world.”
But once the party at the UN Climate Change Conference was over, it was time for policymakers to look closely at the magnitude of the undertaking the 195 countries had made.
Shifting from an infrastructure and economy based on the traditional 20th-century model to a new green society demands massive investment and huge disruption.
“For some of us,” said Šefčovič, “this new economy triggers the imagination and sense of adventure, for others it might seem intimidating.”
“But trust me – it is the only way forward. And it’s the only way for Europe to be a global growth engine.”
That goal appears a long way off after years of recession – which has helped lower emissions – and in a world where so much can be influenced by fluctuating oil prices, and which still relies heavily on fossil fuels.
“We need to talk about transformation not transition,” said Cristiana Pasca Palmer, the Romanian government’s environment chief, who was at the conference.
This transformation cuts across a huge range of emission creating sectors, such as transport, agriculture, energy and even financial services, and will need policy action at every level – from the United Nations to the local binman.
Renewables need to be integrated into existing grids interconnected across Europe – the Energy Union. The ultimate goal is that they will replace gas, which has been identified as the lower carbon ‘bridge’ fuel by the European Commission.
Initiatives are needed in areas as diverse as landfill, building renovation, traffic light systems, municipal public procurement and social programs to soften the blow to those who will lose their jobs as polluting industries shut down.
This year, 8 August was Earth Overshoot Day. Earth Overshoot Day is the point at which humanity’s consumption of the planet’s resources goes beyond what it can regenerate naturally.
If we stay on this track – using annually the yearly resources of 1.4 planets – we will run out of these finite resources.
Šefčovič told delegates that the consequences of failure to address climate change were already being felt in Europe and beyond.
“In the last decade there have been too many weather-related disasters. So many hurricanes in the USA, typhoons in Asia and in Europe such devastating floods in almost every member state,” he said.
“We have finally realised that climate change is here and poses an imminent danger.”
The European Union must now bring forward a wave of legislation designed to drive the transition to the new green economy.
The European Commission will propose the bills, which will be debated by the European Parliament and member states before ultimately becoming law.
For the next six months, Slovakia will hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union, putting it in the driving seat on two key initiatives.
Slovak diplomats will strive to get the agreement of all 28 to formally ratify the Paris Agreement at the same time.
And they will drive efforts to reach a by no means certain consensus on the controversial Circular Economy package of waste and recycling rules.
The package was withdrawn by the executive, when the Juncker Commission took over, before being re-tabled a year later, with a greater focus on creating effective markets, better product design but weaker landfill targets.
The EU’s 2030 climate and energy goals, which push for emissions cuts and increases in energy efficiency and renewables need to be translated into EU legislation. The targets were the bedrock of the EU’s negotiating position in Paris.
The EU’s Emissions Trading System – the world’s largest carbon market – needs reform. Current carbon prices are so low that there is no incentive for investors to turn their back on fossil fuels.
Sectors that are not covered by the ETS – such as transport and agriculture – are also in the sights of EU regulators. Transport, for example, represents a quarter of all the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Even when the expected legislation follows the recent Commission communication on non-ETS sectors, there is still a huge amount of work to do.
The European Parliament and Council must back each of these policies, which then must be implemented properly at national level.
And each piece of regulation will face stiff resistance from those with vested interests in maintaining the unsustainable status quo.
Accusations that green laws harm Europe’s international competitiveness can be damaging and sap political will.
That is why the European Commission is so keen to win the economic argument – a stance that has led to accusations that it favours business over the environment.
“The energy transition makes a very strong business case,” said Šefčovič, who said 9 million Europeans were working in green industries. That number is expected to double by 2030.
“This transition is still disruptive,” he said, “not in the sense of slowing down our economic output but in the sense of transforming it, innovating it and smartening it.
Private investment has stultified since the financial crisis. Convincing investors sitting on huge piles of ‘dry powder’ to loosen the purse strings is vital to get projects going, build confidence and mainstream the green economy.
The Junker Plan, offering public money as risk guarantees to private investors, has encouraged green projects and plans to expand it further are expected to be announced in this week’s State of the Union speech in Strasbourg.
The European Commission can only do so much. It is dependent on global, European, national and local leaders. It needs the private sector to literally buy into the vision, and the willingness of citizens to change their behaviour.
Political will, burgeoning since the Paris Agreement – recently signed by the world’s two largest emitters the US and China – must be sustained.
“This transition requires each and every one of us to roll up our sleeves,” Šefčovič said.
This week’s Special Report will investigate some of the many challenges faced by citizens, politicians and industry in making the change to a climate-safe economy.