Juncker: a potential climate champion for Europe?

Jean-Claude Juncker has his eye fixed on Europe’s economy, but climate looms large on the EU agenda

Pic: European People's Party/Flickr

Pic: European People’s Party/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo

Jean-Claude Juncker, the likely head of the next European Commission, is not known as a climate champion.

But he could soon be under pressure to become one. If he wins the role, he will become Europe’s most important figure during the most influential years yet for climate policy in the region.

From December he will lead Europe as it prepares to sign a UN climate treaty in Paris in 2015. He will have to oversee the implemention of whatever agreement diplomats arrive at.

And he will have to find a solution to Europe’s energy security problems, a task given a new urgency by the dispute between Russia and Ukraine and looming gas shortages.

It’s a series of challenges he appears to relish, judging by his campaign trail comments at an April meeting in Utrecht.

“In the future Europe needs to be big on the big things – like economic and monetary policy, climate change, international trade and migration and not get lost in the small things,” he said.


President of the Commission is a powerful role, with authority over 24,000 bureaucrats drafting and implementing a variety of policies dealing with trade, tax, the environment and foreign affairs.

Whoever takes it on will help carve the way for Europe’s climate agenda over the next five years, alongside input from the EU’s member states.

If Juncker is elected, his first task will be to choose the officials responsible for leading the EU’s main departments – called Commissioners.

Chosen from a shortlist nominated by member states, his selections for the climate and energy portfolios will determine the direction and the ambition that the Commission shows on these issues as Europe heads towards crux point on its renewables and efficiency goals.

He will also oversee how the Commission is structured, and provide the overall vision for European policy during his tenure.

“There is a role in setting the strategic direction for the Brussels institutions and that framing the climate challenge in terms that makes sense for Europe,” said Chris Dodwell, who was head of the UK’s international climate policy from 2008-2011 and is now Director of International Projects at environmental consultancy Ricardo-AEA.

For instance, Juncker will have to frame debates on the fringe of the climate debate in a way that contributes towards Europe’s drive to cut emissions by 80-95% by 2050.

These include regulations for shale gas, industrial policy, scaling up energy efficiency, and whether there is future for unabated coal, said Dodwell.

The gossip in Brussels is that the Commission could face an overhaul in its structure soon including a possible merging of the climate and energy Commissions, which could help to create this more integrated approach.

“There are a lot of issues where it might be good to think of climate and energy together,” said Manon Dufour, a European climate policy analyst at E3G, adding that the Climate Commission could also benefit from closer ties with those working on digital and innovation policy.

Back in Luxembourg…

Does Juncker have the motivation to resolve all this in a climate-friendly fashion?

Unlike Barroso, the current president, and former Prime Minister of Portugal, he would not arrive in the role with a reputation for being green.

A veteran politician, Juncker’s focus is money. His manifesto states that his number one priority is growing the economy and creating jobs.

In Luxembourg, where he was prime minister for almost 20 years, per capita emissions are the highest in Europe, and the country’s wealthy residents owe their money largely to the banking and the carbon-intensive steel industries.

According to the country’s submission to the UN in 2012, GHG emissions rose 21.3% in the past decade, having dropped sharply between 1990-2000.

Last year the European Environment Agency warned the country it needed to acquire a “large number” of carbon credits to achieve compliance with the Kyoto Protocol.

Juncker’s record alarms some members of the European Parliament, including Green Party MEP Bas Eickhout, who says: “Clearly, Juncker has a total clean record on this, which is not positive. No link or relation with sustainability, scarcity of resource etc at all. He just isn’t aware of that.”

Climate is yet to be effectively streamlined across all government departments, says Martina Holbach from Greenpeace Luxembourg.

“There’s still a lot to do when it comes to assuring coherence between the different ministries to ensure that climate and energy issues are coherently treated in all ministries.”

But he is no sceptic. Juncker has supported environmental policies in the past, including the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, despite corporate hostility from Luxembourg-based steel company Arcelor, who opposed an emissions cap.

“The crucial thing is that he stood up and won the political battle to introduce climate legislation,” says Sanjeev Kumar, founder of Brussels-based Change Partnership.

“For someone who’s involved in climate policy making, these are the kinds of skill sets we need to see transferred across.”

During the Lisbon Process in 2005 – a plan to improve the EU’s economy – the Luxembourg presidency led by Juncker was credited with greening the process, inserting initiatives at the last minute to promote energy efficiency and link economic policies with the Kyoto agreement.

Strong Europe

But looking into Juncker’s history can only go so far in lighting the way forward. Luxembourg is a tiny country with a population of around 500,000, and being Commission president comes with its own challenges.

In his manifesto for Commission president, Juncker has placed energy as his second priority, committing to forging a new European Energy Union, diversifying energy sources and making the EU the “world number one in renewable energies”.

But in some ways, Juncker’s personal ranking of the climate issue is less relevant than his style of politics. The EU’s climate-heavy calendar and external pressure around Russia will ensure that climate is a priority over the next five years regardless of what Juncker thinks.

And Juncker’s calls for a strong, centralised Europe could be just what the Commission needs when it comes to climate and energy policy, says Kumar.

“Stronger coordination, direction, equal oversight by the Commission and the European institutions is exactly what we need to address climate change,” he says. “I don’t think anyone who proposes having a much weaker centralised approach is going to help us build a robust decarbonisation policy.”

Building strong, workable legislation at the European level could help overcome obstacles from individual member states set against stronger climate action.

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As a renowned consensus builder able to force through issues, he would be an improvement on Barroso, says Kumar, who tended to produce legislation based on the “lowest common denominator for everybody, rather than try to do the right thing.”

With almost unanimous support to become the Europe’s next Commission chief, the appointment of this veteran Luxembourg politician is virtually a done deal.

This means that very soon the world will be tracking how he manages to link up climate and the economy as the international community marches on towards Paris, where a global deal to reduce emissions will be struck.

Despite its internal strife, the EU is regarded as a considerable force within the UN negotiating process both as a counterweight to US-China pressure, and as a force for ambitious climate policies.

For 2015 to be a year when the world finally agrees on a way to address rising greenhouse gas emissions, the EC President needs to be on his game, says Dodwell.

“What I want is for him to be going through the stages of enlightenment pretty quickly to ensure Europe is in as strong a position as possible for the international negotiations in 2015.”

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