Crunch time for the EU on climate action

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters hold a banner depicting the earth on the opening day of the UN Climate Change Conference COP23, in Bonn, Germany, 6 November 2017. [Philipp Guelland/ EPA]

The coming months will reveal whether the EU is willing to take the level of action necessary to protect those in Europe and around the world from the multiple crises that face it, argues Tara Connolly.

Tara Connolly is an energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe

As Europe returns to schools and (makeshift) offices after an extraordinary summer, a decisive autumn beckons – not only for the global pandemic, but also for that other forgotten crisis, climate change.

The climate movement had hoped that climate action would dominate the headlines in 2020 – with crucial political deadlines falling like the leaves this autumn. European 20-20-20 energy and climate targets, the revision of the EU’s 40% greenhouse gas emissions target, the flesh put on the skeleton of the Green Deal promises. Coronavirus has put paid to that hope.

Yet the climate crisis has emphatically not gone away. Hidden among the Covid headlines was yet another extraordinary summer for our climate – impacting especially the most vulnerable communities already struggling to cope with a pandemic.

Mumbai was hit by extensive flooding after a year’s worth of rain fell in one month – hitting slum dwellers, half of whom were already infected with Covid-19. Many communities in East Africa are facing a locust plague, threatening severe food shortages. Just weeks earlier they had been battered by heavy rains that killed almost 500. The Arctic has seen record ice melting, leading scientists to warn that the heating is outstripping even the direst predictions of their own climate models; while arctic wildfires have belched record emissions.

Closer to home, much of Europe baked, with more record-breaking heatwaves – Belgium experienced its hottest week ever. These contributed to widespread forest fires across the continent. The smoke is particularly unwelcome during a pandemic caused by a deadly respiratory pathogen. Communities across Europe also experienced significant storms and flooding. It is difficult to stay at home when your home has been washed away.

This autumn will reveal whether the EU is willing to take the level of action necessary to protect those living in Europe and around the world from the multiple crises facing us – including the climate crisis.

It is just two years since the IPCC warned that substantial emissions reductions must be achieved by 2030 to avoid devastating and irreversible impacts of temperature rises exceeding 1.5 degrees; a year after Commission President von der Leyen unveiled her plans for a European Green Deal, and nine months since the European Parliament declared a climate and ecological emergency.

The signs so far are not reassuring. Already we’ve seen the goals of the European Green Deal being superseded by massive bailouts for polluting industries, with few limits put on European recovery money for fossil fuels.

The Commission’s recently published Hydrogen Strategy didn’t rule out subsidising fossil fuel-derived hydrogen; and its Clean Hydrogen Alliance is a Monty Python-esque caricature of corporate capture.

Nevertheless, after this crisis-strewn summer, Europe has opportunities to live up to its soaring rhetoric with the necessary action at speed and scale. Here’s what to watch out for.

Any week now, the Commission is due to publish its long-delayed proposal for a higher 2030 greenhouse gas target, with EU leaders set to reach a deal by the end of the year. The likely level of 55%, however, would fall well short of our fair share of global emission reductions, and the global leadership the EU likes to proclaim.

The Commission will decide whether or not to include fossil fuel infrastructure such as LNG terminals in its proposed revision of the trans-European energy infrastructure regulation.

It must decide to end subsidies for all fossil fuel infrastructure (incredibly, this is still a matter of debate). And it must remove Europe’s fossil gas industry from their central role in the project selection process.

The European Parliament will adopt a position on building renovations this month ahead of the Commission’s launch of its Renovation Wave. Only massive funding of at least €75 billion a year in EU incentives can ensure a climate-neutral building sector by 2050 while eradicating the scourge of energy poverty, which has soared during Covid-19.

It is through decisions on these crucial issues in the next months, that we will learn if Europe’s Green Deal is the real deal.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having exhausted communities’ resources, Europeans need our leaders to take the decisive action necessary to ensure our communities are resilient, not to only this crisis, but to the coming crises, including the climate.

But, despite the pandemic, communities across Europe are still taking the energy transition into their own hands too – helped by new European energy democracy rules to drive energy efficiency and invest in local, community-owned renewable energy.

This is part of a growing movement of grassroots initiatives, that shows EU support can work, and that should inspire Europe and all of us to action.

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