New EU chief flags climate policy as Europe’s ‘new growth strategy’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reacts before the vote of Members of the European Parliament on her college of commissioners at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 27 November 2019. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, cited climate policy as the most pressing issue facing her new executive team, which was officially confirmed by a vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday (27 November).

EU lawmakers confirmed von der Leyen as European Commission president along with her new team of 26 Commissioners, with 461 voting in favour, 157 against and 89 abstentions.

And the climate crisis featured at the top of her address to MEPs.

“We don’t have a moment to waste any more on fighting climate change,” von der Leyen told the assembly shortly before the vote in a speech delivered in English, French and German.

“If there is one area where the world needs our leadership, it is on protecting our climate. This is an existential issue for Europe – and for the world,” said the 61-year old former German defence minister, citing forest fires in Portugal and the recent floods in Venice as compelling reasons to move forward as quickly as possible.

Green Deal branded as ‘hallmark’ of new European Commission

“I want the European Green Deal to become Europe’s hallmark,” said European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, as she tasked her second-in-command with overseeing Europe’s goal of achieving climate neutrality by mid-century.

But for von der Leyen, climate policy is about much more than protecting the environment or tackling air pollution. It’s also chiefly an economic policy.

“The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy,” she said. “The faster Europe moves, the greater the advantage will be for our citizens, our competitiveness and our prosperity.”

The European Commission last year calculated that the EU’s GDP will increase by 2% by 2050 if the bloc slashes its emissions to a net-zero level. And the EU’s fossil fuel import bill could be cut by €2-3 trillion over the 20 years leading up to 2050, the EU executive said in its long-term energy and climate strategy published in November last year.

But von der Leyen also warned that climate policies “will need massive investment” and that green initiatives would have to be “inclusive” – a gesture to member states such as Poland that still rely on coal for jobs, energy and growth.

“We will support people and businesses with a targeted just transition mechanism,” she said in a nod to countries like Poland, which have requested additional funding to phase out its highly polluting coal power sector.

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Industrial strategy

Von der Leyen’s second in command, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, is expected to outline the Commission’s new environmental priorities in a European Green Deal, expected on 11 December.

The centrepiece of the European Green Deal will be a climate law that von der Leyen said will be tabled within the first 100 days of the new Commission taking office. And the ambition has already been spelled out: the bill will contain a legal requirement for Europe to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“At the core of it will be an industrial strategy that enables our businesses – big and small – to innovate and to develop new technologies while creating new markets. We will be global standard setters. This is our competitive advantage. And the best way to ensure a level-playing field,” von der Leyen said.

She also added that any new EU trade deals would include clauses protecting the environment, and that the European Investment Bank would become the bloc’s climate transition bank.

“It is a generational transition towards climate neutrality by mid-century. But this transition must be just and inclusive – or it will not happen at all,” she warned.

55% carbon reduction target

Von der Leyen has pledged to increase the EU’s climate target from a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 to a 50-55% cut by the same date – the higher target being subject to a cost-benefit analysis due in 2021.

Yesterday, a leading group of businesses, including Unilever, Coca Cola, Interface and Signify, backed that objective, saying “a higher target of at least 55% by 2030 will help” ramp up investments into the low-carbon economy.

“A minimum of 55% reductions for 2030 is both necessary to remain in line with the 2050 climate neutrality goal, and feasible from a technical and economic point of view, with early action being more cost-effective than delay,” said the European Corporate Leaders Group, convened by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Wendel Trio, from Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, said von der Leyen’s ability to propose a higher carbon reduction target “will be a key benchmark” to gauge the early success of the new Commission.

“It will prove that von der Leyen means business when she says that climate change is her utmost priority,” Trio said.

“On the other hand, delaying the proposal could put the EU in the back seat of global climate negotiations and undermine its role in shaping the discussions on the increase of the targets next year,” Trio said.

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Read Ursula von der Leyen’s full speech here.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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