The EU Green Week is coming, from May 31 to June 4, so it seems appropriate to talk about Europe’s unique role in climate change. Europe is divided along geopolitical and economic lines, between the haves and have-nots, between the more and the less advanced economies, which raise issues in addressing climate change that are very similar to those the rest of the world is facing. How Europe will move, what results will be achieved, could provide a model for political leaders around the world of how best to tackle the climate emergency.

Broadly speaking, there are two Europes: One, Western Europe, is ecologically conscious and industrially advanced, almost post-industrial. The other, Eastern Europe is some fifty years behind, still wedded to a  19th-century industrial model based on coal and oil. Now that the pandemic is (nearly) coming under control, these two Europes are set to clash over how to address the climate emergency.

The idea is to increase the Paris Climate Agreement 2030 targets by 15 points, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 40% to 55%. This proposal emerged last year and was tabled by the European Commission last September:

That’s a political target everyone in Europe can agree on. This weekend, European political leaders, heads of governments meeting in the European Council, confirmed their support for the Commission’s objective of raising the cut in CO2 emissions by 15 points and instructed the European Commission to present a package of legislative proposals.

Europe’s Preferred Way to Address the Climate Emergency: The Power of Regulations

The European Council’s instruction to the Commission should surprise no one. It’s the way things are usually done in Europe, taking the regulatory route.  A route that is slow and full of unexpected bumps and curves but (so far) it has tended to give results.

But it’s not just rules and regulations, it’s also funding. So there’s a lot of talk now in Europe about the European Green Deal, labeled by EC President von der Leyen “Europe’s man on the moon moment”. The Green Deal is an ambitious  €1 trillion plan to finance the “transition” to carbon neutrality that involves complex subsidies and targeted investments – some say it’s not ambitious enough, and would probably require more than double the amount:

But perhaps what is more remarkable, and very “European”, is something called “climate law”, a legally binding set of rules designed to make it impossible for EU member states to backtrack on their commitment to addressing the climate emergency even after a change in government. The climate law was provisionally agreed to by the European Council and European Parliament on 5 May this year. So we’re not quite yet there, but close.

Historically, changes have been achieved internally to the EU but also externally as brilliantly explained by Professor Anu Bradford in her bestselling book, The Brussels Effect: The rest of the world tends to follow – largely pushed to do so by economic considerations since, for businesses in most countries, the EU remains a major export market.

Moreover, regulations are likely to play an ever-increasing role in tackling the climate emergency. Last week’s landmark decision by a Netherlands court against oil giant Shell, forcing it to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement targets shows that governments are no longer going to be the sole agents of change – that businesses, especially big corporations, are equally important agents of change. They have a key role, they should play it and courts around the world are likely to increasingly see to it that they do so.

There is also a “spillover effect” on EU neighboring countries, notably in Switzerland, Norway and now in the post-Brexit U.K. That effect can also occur whenever the EU manages to bring its diplomatic act together and actually push forward its own foreign policy. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. This past week, with the unfolding of the Belarus scandal, we have been reminded that when the 27 can agree on a specific foreign policy move, they are able to put forward concrete action.

In fact, the Belarus case was so outlandish that even the fractious 27 were easily united in a common cause: Nobody (except Russia) could accept the hijacking of a Ryanair plane on the Vilnius-Athens line on Minsk, the country’s capital, to allow the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a critical blogger against the regime. The European Council reacted by imposing a no-fly area and freezing € 3 billion of aid to Belarus. The U.K. immediately followed suit and the U.S. shortly thereafter.

However, this is a (relatively) rare example of EU political muscle-flexing. Belarus is a small country and Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator” is a permanent “thorn in the side of democracies”. It is a special human rights and security case, an affront to international norms. But it’s not clear whether sanctions and other diplomatic pressuring could help spread climate policies. It is hard to see how climate regulations adopted by the EU would be respected further east, particularly in an autocratic petro-state like Russia.

In any case, we’re not there yet, there’s no European package of climate measures that has been developed and proved to work.

Why a European Climate Policy is So Hard to Achieve

The problem starts upstream, within the EU itself: There’s no agreement on how to do reach climate targets. Divergences range from questions of method to plain old politics – or both together. The scenario is rooted in the East-West divisions of Europe, with the Visegrad group of countries stubbornly refusing to give up its coal and fuels-based economic model.

This is not surprising. The climate issue has always acted as a detonator, accentuating internal discrepancies within the 27 EU member countries, and now breaking apart the harmony that the pandemic had briefly brought about. A harmony, to tell the truth, that had already shown cracks during the quarrels that had exploded over The Next Generation EU, the €750 billion temporary plan for Europe to recover from the pandemic. But as is often the case with European matters, the recovery plan is now finally on its way: At the time of writing, 22 out of 27 member states of the European Union have completed ratification and notified the approval to the EU institutions. Five others (Hungary, Holland, Romania, Austria and Poland) have finished the parliamentary process and need only to notify the decision.

Unsurprisingly, the climate question is expected to cause long debates in Brussels before any resolution is in sight. Basically, EU leaders can’t agree on how to reach the 55% cut-in-emissions target, as each EU member state claims specific needs and insists on following its own national strategies to achieve climate goals.

In fact, there are already 27 different national energy and climate plans with the EU to achieve the 40% target, and the additional 15 points cut in emissions will only make things more difficult. The trick is to harmonize them into a single text everyone could agree on. The problem is that no country wants to dilute its own text. Compromise is viewed as a political defeat and an unacceptable attack on national sovereignty.

The disagreement of method reflects a deeper political or rather geopolitical rift. The “green” policies of the EU, and in particular of the von der Leyen Commission, are indigestible in Eastern countries such as Poland and Hungary themselves, bent on defending their polluting industries. They don’t want to hear of restrictions on their industries. On the other hand, they know that their obstructionism cannot go on forever and that the European Commission has the power to monitor regulations and force compliance.

The ecological gap is however an economic one: Considering the difference in wealth, the Eastern bloc indeed needs to defend the income of its working population. This is perceived as a moral right by everyone.

This is likely to put the EU Commission in a difficult position. Its proposals will have to take into consideration ways to calibrate environmental commitment obligations on the basis of the gross domestic product of individual countries. And it will have to consider more controversial measures such as the expansion of the EU Ets, the European emissions trading system that works on the cap-and-trade principle and (in theory) serves to set maximum ceilings on CO2.

A reformed and stronger EU Ets might be the solution that will bring everyone to the table. One idea is to extend the Ets to cover (and therefore, limit) the transport industry – since 2012, the EU Ets already covers aviation.

The carbon market, for some observers, is the most promising solution, one that could eventually be followed by the whole world. Countries that need to develop along classic industrial lines to provide income to their populations can do so for a limited time by buying carbon emission allowances in the carbon market. And, the theory goes, as the cost of carbon allowances increases, they will be encouraged to reign in their emissions and invest in greener methods of production.

The trick to make carbon markets effective is to have rising prices for carbon emission allowances, not an easy objective to achieve, as the European experience with Ets has shown. The EU solution has been to create a “reserve” to control the price:

If this package of measures can be shown to work for Europe, reigning in the level of pollution in Eastern Europe while protecting the standard of living of coal miners and other workers in polluting industries, it could work for the rest of the world too.

For now, the European Council has suspended judgment, awaiting the proposal of the executive von der Leyen before reopening the discussion in the summer. The climate of discussions, just to remain in the spirit of the theme, could become boiling hot.

Whether all this will result in concrete steps forward remains to be seen. But how this story unfolds will tell us a lot about how well the proposed World Commission for Sustainability (CSW – a Commission for a Sustainable World) might work. Designed to help governments around the world achieve the sustainability targets of the UN 2030 Agenda, the CSW is modeled after the European Commission, but on a world scale. A modus operandi that could help solve not only the climate emergency but achieve sustainability, broadly writ, for the whole world.

This article originally appeared on Impakter, and has been republished with permission.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.


Claude Forthomme

Senior Editor at Impakter


Impakter is an online magazine with a mission to create an open dialogue between millennials and key decision-makers with a platform dedicated to impactful start-ups and sustainable consumer goods.