EU climate plan unveiled: ‘All of us will have to adapt’

Opportunities for ‘carbon farming’ in Ireland cited by Commission vice president

 First Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans holds a press conference on EU strategy on adaptation to climate change in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

First Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans holds a press conference on EU strategy on adaptation to climate change in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

 

The European Commission has unveiled a wide-ranging package of proposals including higher tax on dirty fuel, tougher pollution standards, and plans for a continent-wide electric car network in a bid to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The so-called “Fit for 55” package, named for the EU’s legal commitment to cut emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, is a crucial piece of the bloc’s ambitions to overhaul its economy in the coming decades.

“Our current fossil fuel economy has reached its limits,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. “We have to move on to a new model, one that is powered by innovation, that has clean energy, that is moving towards a circular economy.”

“When it comes to climate change, doing less, or doing nothing, literally means changing everything. And the hurricanes we’ve seen over the last few weeks are only a very small window into what our future could look like.”

The EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans said that renewable energy had become the cheapest option in many places, and that shifting to a green economy would create jobs, growth, and trade.

“There is no time to waste. People are dying in northwest Canada because it’s 50 degrees Celsius,” Mr Timmermans said.

The plan includes proposals to tighten and extend the bloc’s carbon capping and trading system, to set limits on emissions from buildings and road transport, as well as overhaul the taxation of fuels to make the dirtiest fuels the most costly.

“We’re going to ask a lot of our citizens. We’re also going to ask a lot of our industries,” Mr Timmermans told The Irish Times. “But we do it for good cause. We do it to give humanity a fighting chance to not be engaged in wars over water and food.”

“All of us will have to adapt parts of our lives to address the climate crisis.”

For Ireland, one hot button issue will be how the reforms may affect agriculture and rural areas. Here, Mr Timmermans sees the new proposals as a neat fit with the new Common Agricultural Policy, which will pay farmers to maintain natural resources and keep carbon in the ground.

“The Irish Government is very much on the ball here,” said Mr Timmermans, a 60-year-old polyglot who served in two Dutch governments for the Labour Party before moving on to Brussels.

“I believe there is a huge opportunity in creating nature-based solutions for the climate crisis also in a place like Ireland, because the right conservation of grasslands, peat lands, the improvement of forestry and additional forestry, planting trees and taking good care of natural environment offers a huge opportunity for carbon farming for the farmers.”

He warned against the practice of planting trees on peatland, which can actually worsen carbon emissions and biodiversity, particularly when the trees were fast-growing conifer plantations. But done right, farmers would have access to a new source of income, he said.

“I think we need to use the reformed agricultural policy to put our farmers in a position to be part of that. So, to also not have their income only through the production of what they traditionally produce, but also to be the custodians of our natural environment, and look for opportunities in the carbon farming sector.”

Cost concerns

A battle lies ahead to adopt the package, as each EU member state has its own concerns. Countries like Poland are overwhelmingly dependent on coal for energy, and fear rising costs and unemployment in the coal industry. Other countries are insistent that nuclear energy or gas will be needed as “transition” fuels, but how “green” to classify these sources of energy is controversial.

In manufacturing powerhouse Germany, there are concerns over whether its industrial backbone of family firms can transition to producing electric cars rather than internal combustion engines, and whether stricter standards for EU factories will simply cause production to shift offshore.

“This is part of any industrial revolution, you have to adapt,” Mr Timmermans said. “We have calculated that the new economy has the potential to deliver two million jobs. The transition will be difficult, but after the transition there is a huge opportunity for all these firms.”

“I believe that the transition to electric vehicles is going much faster than anybody had ever anticipated... Our challenge will be upskilling and re-skilling Europeans to take these jobs.”

As extreme weather events increasingly become part of people’s daily lives, and with the passing of grim milestones in temperature rises and the collapse of polar ice, there is a sense of urgency in Brussels to seize the moment. The United States has also set a carbon emission reduction target for 2030, and other administrations around the world are moving in the same direction.

“The fact that we have the Biden administration us is a huge difference for the international aspect of this issue,” Mr Timmermans said.

“The fact that we have put our ambitions into law is observed around the world and some others are following suit, Canada, Japan and others, Korea’s looking in the same direction. They do this because they think it’s in their interest to do it.”

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