EU takes stock after climate deal disappointment

Romania's environment minister, Gratiela Gavrilescu, presides over the final meeting under her country's presidency. [Photo: Council]

EU environment ministers met on Wednesday (26 June) to take stock of how a landmark climate deal fell short of a final agreement last week. Signs now suggest that the European Council will stick to its end-of-year deadline and Poland will finally get on board.

Twenty-four member states swung behind a climate agreement for 2050 last Thursday (20 June) but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland stopped short of backing a plan that needs unanimous support.

A “vast majority” of countries now agree that the EU economy should slash emissions to a net-zero level by 2050, in order to keep up the bloc’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. But the unwilling four were left unconvinced by the deadline.

EU climate deal falls at summit, four countries wield the axe

The European Council failed to agree on Thursday (20 June) on a landmark climate strategy for 2050 as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland baulked at the mention of a specific date, despite the efforts of France and Germany to convince them.

At an environment council in Luxembourg on Wednesday, the climate plan was on the agenda and the four hold-outs explained why they were not able to give their blessing last week.

Poland, labelled by EU diplomats as “the ringleader” of the four countries, said at the meeting that it is “ready to work intensively in the coming months” to ensure a deal can be brokered by the end of the year.

In the Council conclusions from last week, member states agreed to finish all their preparatory work in 2019 so that an agreement can be reached in “early 2020”. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters after last week’s summit that he had vetoed the deal to “protect Poland’s businesses and citizens”. Some of the country’s media reported that Morawiecki had saved them from a German-led scheme to sell clean energy tech.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday (28 June) in Osaka at the G20 that the climate neutrality plan is “good for the planet, it is good for business”.

But at the Luxembourg meeting, Poland’s representative also suggested that a “compensation mechanism” must be established to help out countries hit by the “deep economic and social changes”. That is likely to be the proposed ‘Just Transition Fund’.

EU's 'just transition fund' gesture muddies budget waters

Europe’s fossil fuel-dependent regions could benefit from an additional €5 billion under the next EU budget, thanks to a proposal endorsed by the European Parliament. But it could complicate already complex talks with the Council, which is eager to cut future spending.

MEPs want nearly €5 billion of the EU’s next multiannual financial framework (MFF) to be allocated to the fund. MFF talks are still ongoing, so the Poles will be keen to use their leverage during the negotiations.

On Thursday (27 June), undersecretary of state for energy Tomasz Dąbrowski said at an event in London that “we will probably subscribe to this target [net-zero emissions by 2050], it’s just we need to know what the cost will be, and in what way we can mitigate the social impact of the whole transformation”.

Dąbrowski added that his services estimate that Poland will need €900bn to ditch coal completely from its energy system without massive disruptions. “If you compare these two numbers [the €5bn transition fund and €900bn], you see a huge gap.”

Poland’s excuses were mirrored at the Luxembourg meeting by the Czech Republic, which has also looked to highlight the massive endeavour that will be required by the 2050 strategy.

A €26bn war chest will also be available over the next decade for modernisation efforts. The money will be sourced by selling carbon permits from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland will all be eligible to draw from it.

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Hungary also insisted at the Luxembourg meeting that the climate debate must continue at the highest level. Heads of state and government will next meet in October, a month after a UN summit in New York that was touted as the EU’s moment to shine.

Budapest was expected to support the climate push after announcing before the Council summit that it was in favour of carbon neutrality by 2050. Its one caveat, though, was that the energy transition should be based on nuclear power.

That stance was reflected in its environment council contribution, which insisted that “technological neutrality” must be taken into account. Nuclear power is currently on course to be excluded from the EU’s green investment label scheme.

Nuclear power excluded from EU's green investment label

The European Parliament voted on a proposed classification for sustainable assets on Thursday (28 March), voting to exclude nuclear power from receiving a green stamp of approval on financial markets.

Estonia, the other hold-out, revealed that it does indeed support the principle of climate neutrality and agreed with countries like France, the Netherlands and Spain that the 2050 plan is an opportunity “not a burden”.

Work is currently ongoing in Tallinn to analyse how the plan can actually be implemented. Commission sources told EURACTIV that the Luxembourg meeting was a positive course correction in that regard after last week’s disappointment.

EU climate chief Miguel Arias Cañete told ministers that the Commission will now prepare the enabling framework around the plan, in order to show other countries how climate neutrality can be achieved.

Many of the 24 countries now converted to the 2050 cause reiterated arguments that have already been made about climate damages – an eventual boost to GDP and jobs, as well as reduced health costs and improved air quality.

EU climate plan teases €200bn in health savings per year

Europe stands to avoid €200 billion in healthcare costs every year and significantly reduce premature deaths if the EU ends up adopting an ambitious climate change policy for 2050, according to the European Commission’s long-term strategy.

Portugal also mentioned risks like desertification, forest fires and coastal erosion. Spain is currently battling a massive blaze in the northeast of the country, with 500 firefighters dispatched to the area.

Strong winds and high temperatures have fanned flames that have burned through 5,000 hectares and could destroy a total of 20,000. Hundreds of farm animals have reportedly died in the inferno so far.

Europe’s 2019 wildfires already exceed last year’s blazes

Wildfires have burned more land in Europe in the first part of 2019 than in the whole of 2018, according to data by the European Union’s joint research centre (JRC).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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