The decisive decade to fight climate change. Is the EU doing enough?

„The problem is that the speed at which we reduce our emissions in Europe actually is not in line with the Paris Agreement, so it does not guarantee to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees”, underlines Michael Bloss, member of the European Parliament from the Greens/EFA group.

 

The interview with is also available as a podcast on our websiteSpotifySoundcloudApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.

 

Joanna Jakubowska, EURACTIV.pl: The European Green Deal described by Ursula Von der Leyen as Europe’s “new growth strategy” aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, but also safeguard biodiversity, establish a circular economy and eliminate pollution, while at the same time boosting the competitiveness of European industry and ensuring a just transition. It was December 2019 when the EU Green Deal was officially presented and for me personally it was a huge moment, full of excitement.  

So I’m curious whether for you it was also a “the man on the moon” moment and how do you feel about the adopted targets after two years?

Michael Bloss***: The Green Deal has a lot of goals. It’s really nice how it sounds, but if you look into the depth of it, we are not there yet and one of half year has already passed. It was presented in the time when the young people’s climate protest reached its peak. Those young people really wanted to have some change, they were afraid of the climate crisis. The threat of the climate crisis is still there. We are getting into the nitty-gritty deals, but actually, if you look at what happened the last days you see that there was an agreement on agriculture policy that is not at all in line with what is needed in terms of climate protection. It actually does not reduce any emissions as such, so it is really weak.

We have the Climate Law that improves the targets but the scientific analyses tell us that its implementation would still not prevent the temperature rise between 2-3 degrees. According to the Paris Agreement, the temperature rise should be kept much below 2 degrees, actually 1,5 a degree. So there is still a lot of work to be done. It becomes clear how difficult a thing it is. It also becomes clear that we have political barriers – some political forces just do not feel pressure to reach the pace of changes that are needed for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. We are still at the very beginning of the process.

On the 24th of June, the European Climate Law was adopted by the European Parliament and later on also by the Council. It is an important moment for everyone who follows the path of the European Green Deal, but the Greens were not really excited.  Could you explain firstly, what is the meaning of the Climate Law and secondly why the Greens voted against it?

The Climate Law is quite a central piece of legislation. Basically, the European Union (as such) is a member of the Paris Agreement and the Climate Law should go in line with the Paris Agreement. That means have to clarify how much greenhouse gases emission is going to be reduced in the 10 years’ time, and it also has to determine the way for the European Union to become climate neutral by 2050. That’s good, now we have this as a law – those goals had been already stated in the Paris Agreement, now it is also adopted as EU law.

Scientists are able to calculate how much CO2 we can still emit [so as not to exceed a certain level of temperature rise]. The problem is that the speed at which we reduce our emissions in Europe actually is not in line with the Paris Agreement, so it does not guarantee to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees. This is very problematic for us. Now, in 2021, we insist on nothing more than adopting something that is actually in line with the Paris Agreement. We agreed on the Paris Agreement in 2015 and now we should really care about its implementation.

As I said, the implementation of the EU Climate Law will bring us to a temperature rise between 2-3 degrees. The new, more ambitious target now has to be confirmed by all of the member states in different types of European legislation, so that is also good. We hope we manage to improve and reform a lot of pieces of European legislation. We will fight for even raising the current target for the Climate Law because we have already a track record in Europe that the current targets can be overfulfilled. So we hope that we can overfulfill the target stated in the Climate Law. We have framework legislation for the climate issues, which states the targets and paves the way to establish a new target for 2040 to the end of 2023. It also mentions plans to establish a scientific body that will advise the European Commission and the European Parliament on what to improve to be more in line with science. This is positive and definitely what we want. We want to adhere to what science does tell us. This is necessary if we want to stop the global warming that may bring us into deadly temperature rise situations.

The Greens in the European Parliament and you personally have been working hard on making the Climate Law ambitious. Let’s be honest – what went wrong?

We in the European Parliament had actually achieved a really good deal. We wanted to adopt a target of 60 percent greenhouse gas reduction until 2030, a number which would be in line with the Paris Agreement. However, what happened later – and that’s the complexity of European politics and law-making – is that we had another deal by the European Council, which heads of state and government unanimously adopted in early December last year.

Normally the European Council should not intervene in legislative processes. The treaties oblige them to only give guidelines and not come up with kind of very concrete numbers. But what happened was a completely different thing. The heads of state reached their agreement, which was less ambitious than the one by the Parliament. In the law-making process, the EP has to negotiate with the member states.

We had six rounds of negotiations with the EU Council on the final deal and the member states did not move for an inch from their positions. I found it really frustrating. In the legislative processes, each party should be ready for compromise. The EP did make a step towards the Council’s expectations, while the member states refused to give any way to the Parliament. They defended their positions, pressured by the governments at home. Some groups in the EP could not stand the pressure, so in the end, we just yielded to the member states and gave them what they wanted to have. The deal was not the package we needed. Now we are going to have a lot more legislation coming up with the Fit for 55 package. The European Council did not prepare any detailed prescriptions for these laws, which gives us much more freedom and we hope this time we have real negotiations with the member states more willing to compromise.

In the context of the reduction goals by 2030 and 2050, the term “NET reduction” often appears – could you explain what does NET really stand for and why we should be seriously worried about it?

What we are concern with is how much greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Scientists can compute how much tones of greenhouse gases translates into a certain rise in temperatures. Our goal is to stay below 2 degrees. Bearing this target in mind, the emission to the atmosphere is calculated, as well as the absorption from the atmosphere.

NET means that we calculate what is emitted minus what is being absorbed from the atmosphere. So that would be actually a good way to calculate things. Now what we do with the NET target in the European Climate Law is the we actually recalculate what we emitted into the atmosphere and we reduce from this amount what is already stored in the ecosystem, like the CO2 that is stored in the plants and forests, etc. However, what we emit is not absorbed from the atmosphere at the same time.

We talk about what is already inside the ecosystem. So the 55 percent. NET target means the real target of 52.8 per. It is a calculation trick. This is what makes me even more disappointed with the final deal: it is not even 55 percent.

Having a long-term goal 2040 and 2050 as well is an absolute necessity, but to achieve it the EU has started working on the so-called “Fit for 55 Package”, which you have already mentioned. Could explain what exactly does this it contain?

Let me first clarify something. You mentioned several times the long-term goal, but the truth is that climate does not care about our long-term goal of achieving climate neutrality. Climate only cares about how much CO2 is emitted. There is a difference, We could go down to emitting only a little amount of CO2 in the next 5 years and then continue to emit these little amounts up to 2070 or 2100. Or we can continue to emit a lot up to 2045 and then go down and emit nothing anymore to 2050. The second scenario is much more harmful to the climate than the first one, so we should care more about the current emissions, not the year when we are climate neutral.

So it is good to have the goal, the destination, but it is more about the path. I wonder if the Fit for 55 package may be the document that will pave the way to climate neutrality. Could you tell us what does the package and if we are on the right path with this Fit for 55 package?

Basically, the Fit for 55 package is the implementation of the Climate Law. It means that in all of the different sectors – like energy and industry – where we do emit CO2, there will be new legislation. There is the ETS emission treading system under which industry has to pay for emitting CO2. The current price for 1 tone is around 50 euro.

The package also embraces the area of transport and cars. New cars will have to have a settled amount of CO2 they are allowed to emit. It is also about the heating of houses, which also leads to emitting CO2. Under Fit for 55, there will be new standards, regulations for the construction of houses, which means that the new houses will have to be almost like passive houses, so they should not need any heating anymore. It is about the land, the forests because they can absorb emissions, so the package touches upon how we grow our forests, how we make our land better absorbing CO2. The package is also about renewable energies and how much renewable we will use in the future. And it is about energy efficiency, mainly how much energy we are able to save in the future.

The Fit for 55 package will cover all these elements. Now it is important that we actually have the right policies in all of the different sectors, which will allow us to achieve the goals stated in the Paris agreement.

You have mentioned a lot of areas that are covered by the package. But I would like to discuss two elements in a more detailed way. The first one is the ETS – the Emissions Trading System. Could you explain what is it and why do we need the revision of the ETS?

The ETS is the system that covers the energy sector and the industry sector. If you are from this sector and you want to emit one tone of CO2 you have to buy a permit. The certificates are traded in the Emission Trading Scheme. This is the market for emission permits. Limiting their amounts or permits on the market we can limit the amount of CO2 that is emitted. Basically, the amount of permits constantly decreases. The price for one permit is currently around 50 euros. However, most of the industry gets the permits for free, whereas the energy sector has to pay for them.

Why is it important and why it needs to change? The biggest CO2 emitter in Europe is coal energy, so if we quickly reduced emissions from coal energy it would allow saving a lot because this is where the biggest potential is. So while the prices for coal energy get higher, because of the need to pay CO2 permits, renewable energies become a lot cheaper and they enter the market. We urgently need to create a favorable environment for renewable energies to be quickly deployed to the market in the EU, because they are cheaper than the other energy sources, they do not pollute our planet and we do not have to import anything to use them.

On the other hand, it is also the industry that has to introduce some change, but it takes a lot of money to change still plan and make it CO2 free – that’s a lot of investment. Also here we need to have a different system for all of these industries to make a transition, to become climate neutral.

You mentioned coal and the need for transition, but as we all know, Poland is a country that is highly dependent on coal. It is a difficult country to deal with when it comes to green transition. What will be the impact of the changes on ETS on countries such as Poland, and their citizens? Should we expect higher electricity prices?

It is quite interesting to look into Poland’s electricity prices because they are quite high due to a few factors. First of all, Polish coal is expensive – the prices in Poland sometimes are really the highest [in the EU] because coal is expensive. In Poland, you import a lot of coal from other countries like Russia, where it is expensive as well, and this allows you not to exploit your own resources. We see that gas prices are falling and also renewables make electricity much cheaper. Why? Because it is a one-time investment. You install solar on your roof and then it produces energy without any additional costs. With coal, you need to have a new input all the time, new coal.

If you used more renewable sources in Poland, that would actually make electricity prices cheaper. The problem is of political nature. I think it would be really good for you, Polish citizens, to use more renewable energies and to accelerate your departure from coal, because, as I said, it is really expensive for everyone.

I think we can already observe the deployment of renewable accelerating in Poland.

You have great potential, I know that there is a lot of projects for offshore wind, but we can also discuss solar rooftop. If you look into Poland there is a lot of possibilities, also for solar. If Poland decides to seize this opportunity I think it will be a really big boost for the whole economy and you will not so much dependent anymore on imports coming from Russia.

Let’s move to the second element that I wanted to discuss. It is called the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). Could you explain what is it and how will it solve the problem of so-called “carbon leakage”?

Carbon leakage means that if we had very high prices for CO2 emission then companies would just move the production – of steel or chemical products, for instance – outside the European Union and then ship the products back to the EU – that’s not what we want. We want to keep industry in Europe and we want to make the industry in Europe green. We need to somehow figure out how to stop businesses from moving away, but at the same time give them an incentive to change.

Currently, as I said, they get emission permits for free, so they do not really have a price signal that would tell them “you have to change”. We can act from the outside and introduce something like a tariff. We can import steel and then a tariff is a charge for a ton of steel according to the CO2 footprint. Steel from China with a high CO2 footprint is charged with a high price, so when it enters the European market there is no disadvantage for European steel. So in this way we balance out, we protect the European industry to the outside world and help them in their decision to make their products greener.

I think that the mentioned tool is crucial, because the industry, especially the energy-intensive industry, is the most difficult wants to transform. The transition of the industry sector costs a lot of money, but it still needs to be done. But I think it is not the only thing that we can do. It is necessary to protect our industry from the outside world with the tools like the carbon border tax and the adjustment mechanism, but also it needs support through the tools such as guaranteed prices for renewable products – for example, a guarantee for the steel companies that they will be guaranteed a certain amount of money one tone of CO2-free steel. This is another incentive we need to have, we call it “climate contracts”.

We are talking about, as you said, the outside world, so there are also rules that need to be obeyed, for example, the World Trade Organization provisions. Does the CBAM comply with WTO rules?

The World Trade Organization states that we are not allowed to basically have double protection mechanism for one product. If we protect the product with CBAM, we cannot protect it at the same time with free allowances. This is the main requirement. The idea is that free allowances are being phased out and replaced with CBAM, in a way that there is no double protection. So the mechanism should comply with WTO  rules. I am quite optimistic that it is going to work.

Is there anything that could harm the achievements of the Fit for 55 goals and make it impossible for the EU to achieve NET neutrality by the mid-century?

There are a lot of things that could potentially harm our efforts. One doubtful issue is the question of our forests. In Poland, like in Germany, forests are under a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, a lot of trees are dying, for instance, due to diseases. What we are trying to do is to build up our forests, which is necessary to achieve the 55 percent reduction of emission. We are not yet even sure if it is doable to keep our forests and trees, that’s the thing.

The second thing is whether we get as many renewables as we need to have? The last thing is the question of the transition from coal to gas. In the end, gas is also a fossil source of energy. We built a lot of gas power plans and soon they are going to get out of service because we want to become fully carbon-neutral. So there will be investments which will turn out to be a waste of money. Therefore, we should focus on the transition from coal to renewable energies as much as possible.

Currently, we see the gas lobby advocating that we should have a lot of blue hydrogen, which is produced from fossil gas and used for instance for heating houses or running vehicles. I think these all are false solutions. If we decide to stay will fossil gas, we will have a lot of methane leakage that is really problematic for the climate. We also do not fully understand how blue hydrogen should be produced – that is, how to store CO2 in the ground.

So there is a lot of problem with gas. In the industry sector, a lot of people say “okay, so the next thing is gas” and we as the Greens answer “no, the next thing is that first, we need to save energy consumption, so that we are more energy-efficient, and second – we need to build renewables.” If we take the wrong path, we don’t know where we will be on track.

Let’s end our interview with Barack Obama’s words: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”. Do you think that the EU – not only politicians but also the industry, business, cities, citizens, and all other state and non-state actors – are doing something about it, and are we on the right path to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal?

What is really amazing in terms of the global fight for the climate is how young people went to the streets in millions and managed to bring about a real change in governments’ policies. They set their agenda and it is thanks to their efforts that now we are discussing how we are going to become climate neutral. This is really astonishing. This young generation is growing up and will soon gain more influence on the global actions, they will become the decision-makers and I truly believe they succeed.

The policies currently on the table are not yet what we want to see, but we still can change them in the future and I believe we will do that. Yes, we are the last generation and we are just one generation. I have a daughter that in 2050 will be only 30 years old, so three decades is actually not a lot of time. But the next 30 years will be absolutely crucial for climate and I believe at some point we will prove faster in our actions than we think we can be. People will come up with new solutions, there will be creative minds inventing new technologies, there will be discussions about how we change our patterns of consumption and this all together gives me hope that we will make it.

After all, is the question of survival, but we as human beings are good at surviving, so I hope this time we succeed as well.

 

***Michael Bloss, a Member of the European Parliament, the coordinator of the Climate Core Group, and shadow rapporteur for the Industrial Strategy and the European Climate Law for the Greens/EFA Group.