The EU’s global climate leadership is at stake as a new political cycle begins amid increasingly polarised public opinion.
Climate-sceptic far right parties are surging in polls ahead of European Parliament elections 23-26 May, while on the streets, activists are demanding emergency measures to prevent climate chaos.
In the middle, the emerging consensus is to strengthen the EU’s 2050 target to net zero emissions. Yet the steps to get there remain highly contested. The goal raises tough questions about the future for coal mining and car making communities in Europe, and the sustainability of trade relations outside it.
“The burning item that leaders have to solve first is the question of climate neutrality by 2050 and the follow-up from that,” says Quentin Genard, head of the Brussels office at think-tank E3G. “It needs a lot to change. It is still unclear what kind of change it is going to trigger.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel softened her position toward 2050 climate neutrality last week. It has already been backed by the current commissioners and eight countries, but some eastern member states remain sceptical.
The bloc, which is viewed as a pace-setter on climate targets, is expected to boost its ambition in an updated contribution to the Paris Agreement next year. Whether leaders can reach a political agreement in time to announce it at UN chief Antonio Guterres’ September climate summit in New York is an open question.
This week’s parliamentary election and ensuing negotiations over lead jobs in the European Commission are critical. The new intake will determine how urgently and comprehensively any long-term strategy is put into practice.
“If we are serious about Paris and these long-term targets, it means that our current 2030 package is totally insufficient,” says Bas Eickhout, Dutch lawmaker and co-lead Commission president candidate for the European Greens. “Politically it is a bit taboo. The Commission doesn’t want to talk about it, they only want to talk about 2050.”
All of the lead candidates for Commission president put forward by parliamentary blocs had warm words on climate change at a webcast debate last Wednesday. National leaders may put forward other candidates later, but whoever emerges as frontrunner will need to win parliament’s endorsement.
“2050 to achieve an EU that is carbon neutral, that is our common goal,” declared Manfred Weber of the centre-right EPP grouping.
EPP is predicted to win the largest number of seats, giving the Bavarian the first crack at getting majority support for the top job. However the parliamentary maths are challenging. EPP and the centre-left S&D are losing ground to populist and liberal movements, which could leave Weber reliant on the far right for numbers.
His opponents were quick to question how deep Weber’s green streak ran. An analysis of EU lawmakers’ voting record by Climate Action Network Europe branded EPP “dinosaurs”. Only two months ago, EPP dismissed as “propaganda” calls to strengthen the EU 2030 climate package.
“There is just no trust in what Weber says,” according to Sanjeev Kumar of Change Partnership, a non-profit focused on climate politics. “Of all the names in the hat at the moment, Weber is the one that causes most concern… It would be the worst thing ever if Weber was to become European Commission president by doing a deal with the far right.”
If Weber misses out, it raises the prospect of a progressive coalition endorsing a liberal or centre-leftist for president, something S&D’s Frans Timmermans directly appealed for at the debate.
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Asked about recent school strikes and climate demonstrations, Timmermans said: “It is what I hear everywhere I go, every single day, ten times a day. Let’s make sure the next commission puts the climate crisis at the top of the agenda.”
Also in contention is Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager, who as EU competition commissioner took on tech giants Apple and Amazon over corporate tax avoidance. She has also ruled on the eligibility of various energy subsidy schemes, generally in ways that promoted a shift to cleaner sources.
One of the first jobs for the next president is to decide how to structure the Commission. There have to be as many commissioner jobs as member states. Within that restriction, there is scope to create strategic roles that cut across traditional portfolios. Jean-Claude Juncker created a vice president of the Energy Union, for example, to oversee 13 directorates responsible for various aspects of energy markets.
Currently climate sits in a joint portfolio with energy. But a comprehensive climate strategy would need to go beyond energy into agriculture, transport and other policy areas that are lagging behind.
One immediate concern, warns Kumar, is industrial policy, on which leaders have asked the Commission to set out a vision by the end of 2019.
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“You might start to see western countries invest far quicker in clean technology and take the jobs with them, which means you are leaving dependent economies stuck in a fossil fuel world,” he says. “Those who are trapped in the fossil fuel economy need to see a way out.”
He favours an approach based on regional regeneration rather than defending jobs in dying industries, citing Bilbao as a model: once a steel hub, the northern Spanish city is now a centre for tourism and services.
Suzana Carp, campaigner with think-tank Sandbag, says the next commission needs to pay more attention to cutting emissions from heavy industries like steel and cement.
That means tackling perverse incentives in the emissions trading system that hold back green innovation, she says. “In terms of long-term planning, I think the industry is keen to get on board but in the short term, it is still about money.”
Carp, who is on the list of candidates for the UK’s new centrist Change UK party, backs Vestager to take on the challenge of aligning industrial and climate policies. “It is all borderline state aid, when you have to do all this [industrial] planning,” she says. “I think [Vestager] would be well-placed to find a balance in this discussion.”
The next commission should also be more consistent about projecting its climate standards abroad, says E3G’s Genard.
In recent years, gas deals have proved an irresistible balm to geopolitical woes, despite their climate impact. Commissioners lobbied for public support to a controversial pipeline from Azerbaijan, in contravention of pledges to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Only last week, Energy Union chief Maroš Šefčovič opened an LNG terminal alongside US president Donald Trump.
“The long-term strategy really changes the EU’s economy but it also really changes the way the EU trades and cooperates with third parties,” says Genard. “If our cooperation is mostly based on gas with third parties, that clearly needs to evolve. That is an area where I expect the next commission to be much more strong.”
The Greens, with a predicted 55 out of 751 seats in parliament, are hoping to play a kingmaker role. They will push presidential candidates to make clear commitments on carbon market reform and other climate measures, Eickhout tells Climate Home News.
“In parliament you already see there is a majority of political parties at least saying they want to do more on climate,” he says. “It boils down to a European Commission that is willing to put the climate agenda upfront as a real priority.”