How Fighting Climate Change Gave the EU a New Reason to Exist

(Bloomberg) -- On her first day as head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen stood in front of world leaders at the UN climate conference in Madrid and promised to make Europe the world’s first carbon neutral continent within the next 30 years. “The European Green Deal is Europe's new growth strategy,” she said.

That made Paul Polman smile. A former chief executive of Unilever, Polman, 63, is part of a network of climate activists who in 2017 began lobbying the highest levels of European Union leadership to make climate change a major policy focus. “Momentum is building faster than we thought,” he said in an interview a few weeks after the conference. “We can still make these transformations work if we want to.”

How Fighting Climate Change Gave the EU a New Reason to Exist

In her speech, von der Leyen argued that the plan would not only position Europe at the forefront of the fight to limit global warming, it would also drive a new wave of economic development and help bind the continent together. She’s since described the proposal as a moonshot, but it’s considerably more than that. The EU would need to mobilize as much as 260 billion euros ($283 billion) annually over the next decade to build green infrastructure. That’s not an Apollo program—that’s one Apollo program per year, and it’s just part of what the Green Deal will entail.

Three years ago, this would have all seemed far-fetched at best. Progressive politics was in a world-wide slump. Donald Trump was taking office as president in the U.S. Britain had just voted to quit the EU, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was limping into a re-election campaign, wounded by her decision to help the refugees flooding into Europe from the wars in the Middle East. Climate policy risked being swept up in the backlash against immigrants and bureaucrats. “I was afraid that people would think we wanted to attack their way of life, take their cars, impose eco taxes, and limit their access to consumer products,” says Laurence Tubiana, another member of the activist network who also helped broker the Paris Climate Accord in 2015.

How Fighting Climate Change Gave the EU a New Reason to Exist

This was not their first attempt at influencing European policy. The group coalesced over three decades, made up of those who were frustrated at world leaders’ lack of progress against climate change. Some—like Tubiana, who now runs the European Climate Foundation, and Teresa Ribera, who in January became deputy prime minister of Spain—are public figures. Others, like Polman, had distinguished careers in the private sector. They even had high-level allies in countries that oppose efforts to fight climate change and were already at work connecting scientists and policy experts with heads of state, central bankers, and even religious and military leaders.

How Fighting Climate Change Gave the EU a New Reason to Exist

This time, however, they had momentum behind them. The Davos crowd had started to draw attention to the looming climate catastrophe, and powerful individuals such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and Pope Francis had started to speak out. With EU parliamentary elections coming up in 2019, there was no time to waste. A quirk in the European political calendar meant that a new parliament, a new European Commission and a new European Central Bank chief would be taking over almost at the same time—a total political reset.

So in 2017 the network started to move. With Tubiana at its helm and Polman on its board, the European Climate Foundation ran private polls to reinforce the idea that environmental issues figure near the top of younger voters’ concerns. The activists then took those numbers to members of the European Parliament. Climate policy could address not just global warming, but also a whole raft of challenges that establishment parties had been wrestling with, from unemployment to disenchantment with the European project. “We needed to find a project that united European citizens around something that wasn’t a bureaucratic construction, a true common political project,” Tubiana says. “That was climate.”

There was a political logic to putting climate at the heart of political parties’ campaigns for the May 2019 elections. Polls in the run up to the vote showed that populists were set for significant gains and the next commission president might need the backing of most mainstream parties to win a confidence vote and take office.

Together with the think tanks Agora Energiewende in Germany and Forum Energii in Poland, the informal network kept the pressure on policy makers. They met with all EU parties about the need to toughen existing climate goals and win their support for a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which had already been proposed by the European Commission in 2018. The Greens, of course, were on board. The Socialists already had a robust climate agenda, and the Liberals were heading in that direction. The last hurdle was the European People’s Party, the conservatives that constitute parliament’s largest bloc. Their 2014 manifesto had included only a brief mention of environmental issues, but for 2019, climate change was among its list of the top threats.

“The different families had worked for a year on making this the focus of their identity in contrast to the extremists,” Ribera says. Without that focus, von der Leyen “might not have got past the confidence vote,” she adds.

By the time the 2019 campaign began, thousands of teenagers led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg were calling for climate action in marches in Europe’s main cities. EU policy makers realized that existing policies to reduce emissions weren’t enough to keep the region in sync with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. They saw investment flowing between the U.S. and China with Europe cut out.

Even with overwhelming support from European citizens, the Green Deal is facing an uncertain future. Attracting the scale of investment needed to overhaul everything from agriculture to transportation will pose the biggest challenge, as Europe’s economic growth lags far behind major world economies such as China and India.

How Fighting Climate Change Gave the EU a New Reason to Exist

"We have the science, we have the technology, we can certainly find the money,” EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, the bloc’s climate czar, said at a conference in January. “It sounds daunting, but I was in Davos last week and I hear what people are talking about, the size of investments they are thinking about.”

That same month the European Commission unveiled a 1 trillion-euro plan designed to be the investment pillar of the Green Deal. It envisions earmarking around 500 billion euros from the EU budget for the clean shift over the next decade, while separately leveraging 280 billion euros of private and public investment and establishing a funding mechanism with another 143 billion euros, also from public and private sources, to help regions facing the most costly clean-ups.

That may help to placate poorer member states concerned about the dizzying costs of the Green Deal, but won’t prevent the inevitable wrangling about how to share the burden of emission cuts. Poland has already declared it won’t abide by the 2050 deadline to eliminate carbon emissions, an issue EU leaders will return to at their summit in June. Germany also warned the commission against tightening emissions targets for cars, effectively seeking a waiver for auto makers, according to newspaper Die Zeit.

While European legislators wrangle over the details, global temperatures keep rising and greenhouse-gas emissions remain at their highest level ever. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is expected to miss its emissions-reduction targets. As Trump prepares to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, his climate skepticism is giving cover to other leaders such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Australia’s Scott Morrison.

But Tubiana and the other activists are more optimistic than ever. They argue that public opinion around the world may have reached a tipping point. The EU’s commitment to eliminate emissions by 2050, they say, is the start of a broader shift with the power to bend the emissions curve from its current, dangerous trajectory. “It’s all about momentum,” Tubiana says. “There are magical moments when everything lines up. We’re living one of these moments at a European level.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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