The European Parliament votes on the Commission’s “Climate Law”. Its deputy boss Frans Timmermans also sees the current crisis as an opportunity.
Sunflowers, coal-fired power plants and wind turbines in Lower Saxony: the EU should become climate neutral Photo: Julian Stratenschulte / dpa
taz: Mr. Timmermans, the EU states have committed themselves to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. How many of the heads of government actually know what a gigantic task they have embarked on?
Frans Timmermans: The nice thing about our climate law and the impact assessment is that everyone can understand what needs to happen now. It will be a challenge for industry, but the challenge for citizens and mobility is even greater. The heads of government may not know all the details, but they do know the general direction and I am pleasantly surprised that all governments – including the Polish one – agree to the goal: the EU must be climate neutral by 2050.
For real? The Polish government has stated that it does not want to participate.
No, Poland said, “we are signing the overall target for the EU”, the minister emphasized again last week, “but whether we as Poland can do it, we don’t believe that”.
Can Poland then have access to the 17.5 billion euros from the Just Transition Fund if they do not want to support this transformation in their own country?
This fund is a vital tool to ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind. We know that this transition will not be easy, that it will be difficult for some and that we must help one another. I have always said this transformation will be fair or there will be no transformation. But we also have to make sure that we are all on the same path, which is why the European Heads of State or Government decided in July that half of the payments will be withheld if a member country has not yet committed itself to climate neutrality.
Frans Timmermans, 59, is Deputy Head of the European Commission and responsible for climate protection. The Dutchman was the top candidate of the Social Democrats for the 2019 EU election.
If you look at your impact assessment, it becomes clear how tough the EU’s path to climate neutrality will be: With the measures taken so far, we will only end up with 60 instead of 100 percent fewer emissions in 2050, three quarters of all buildings have to be renovated, politics has so far not the right concepts. How do you intend to go this way?
It’s difficult, but possible. Doing nothing would also be possible, but it is even more expensive than doing something. With the wave of renovations for buildings that we will present on October 14th, we will show that we can make rapid progress, we create jobs and growth. If we combine the recovery after the corona crisis and our “Next Generation EU” program with the climate goals, we can mobilize a lot of money and a lot of activity.
When you promote your “Green Deal” to governments, what is your best argument?
All analyzes say – and this is not disputed: the longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult it becomes. If we start quickly, we will be the first continent to benefit from it. We have to rebuild our economy anyway, also because of the digital industrial revolution, not just because of the crisis. And the EU countries have decided to mobilize a lot of money to fight the crisis, but that has to be done quickly. There are only a few years where we can use this money.
What is the main difficulty?
Most governments are very positive, but the skeptical ask: What does this mean for us specifically? How do we take our citizens with us? There is fear of higher prices and energy costs. We need answers to that.
Some of them are already in the impact assessment: In energy-intensive industries, you expect losses of up to 500,000 jobs, in coal it is half of all jobs. Households in particular are hit by higher energy prices. Not good prospects in the middle of the corona crisis.
On October 6th, the EU Parliament will vote on the climate law presented by the Commission. In it, the authority formulates the framework for measures to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. In mid-September, the agency of Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans published the “Impact Assessment” on the effects of this policy. More efforts are therefore required in terms of energy efficiency, less energy consumption, faster expansion of renewables and social cushioning from higher energy costs. Without countermeasures, the commission warns of job loss and energy poverty, but above all emphasizes the opportunities of change.
Corona doesn’t make it easier, but it doesn’t make it more difficult either. Because we are in a hurry because of the crisis. As before Corona, we no longer have the choice of either acting now or waiting. And if we have to invest massively now anyway, then we can do it well. This makes it a little easier. Second, that surprised me: although health and the workplace are big issues for most Europeans, the climate crisis is still an issue that moves people very much. We still have massive support for this policy.
But the regulations on emissions trading or burden sharing among EU countries have long been fiercely contested. It’s hard to imagine that you can make big leaps in less than a year.
I understand the skepticism. But you have to see it globally. China has announced CO by 20602-To want to be neutral, they need their emissions trading system. South Africa wants to achieve the goal of climate neutrality by 2050, which would have been unthinkable two years ago. And let’s see how the US looks after the election. If there is a change there, too, there will be a global dynamic that will also give tailwind to EU emissions trading. And what the 2030 target will mean for the efforts of the individual member states will be worked out over the next few months.
How helpful is Germany here?
Very helpful. I am very happy that the German EU Council Presidency is behind the target of minus 55 percent. The Chancellor has just spoken in plain language about this.
Germany does not always have the best reputation: the government was happy to announce new climate targets, but protected the auto industry against them.
You can no longer say one thing across the board and do the other specifically. It does not work anymore. In addition, the auto industry is no longer German or French, but rather pan-European and urgently needs restructuring everywhere.
But the real decisions are not made in Brussels, but in Berlin, Paris or Warsaw. How helpless is the Commission on these issues?
It helps us that the necessary change can no longer be ignored. All member states have to join in; the economy is now too networked in Europe for that, regardless of whether it is for cars, cement, steel or chemicals. There are European questions about how we network renewable energies, how to create a network for electromobility, how to produce green hydrogen. It is our job as the Commission to review national plans and, if in doubt, to address them if there are contradictions or if they are going in the wrong direction. But the countries have committed themselves to these goals. We can coordinate and not force, even if that would be easier. We have to convince with facts and good analysis and hope that everyone is marching in the same direction.
It can take forever.
But it can also happen very quickly. Take the subject of hydrogen. When we started formulating our strategy less than a year ago, many said: This is a long way off. Today this is one of the hottest topics, everyone has understood that we need planning at European level if we want to have 6 gigawatts of capacity for green hydrogen in Europe in four years and 40 gigawatts by 2030. This is also a huge opportunity for European industry in a competitive future market.
How great is the pressure from the industry for protective tariffs against eco-dumping if the EU becomes climate neutral?
The industry sees it clearly, for example with steel: We cannot continue like this, then we will lose in the competition with other locations. We need green steel to differentiate ourselves, for that we need green hydrogen. And we have to support our industry in this process. We are working on a “Carbon Border Adjustment” for industries such as steel and cement. They should embark on the path of climate neutrality, but that must then also be protected against competition from places where this development is not made. This rule has to be very precise so that it corresponds to the rules of the WTO trade organization and only affects very specific sectors. We will come up with this proposal next year.
It almost seems that the economy can do more with climate neutrality than politics.
In the meantime, politics has become more and more short-term and industry has become more and more long-term in its planning. The big companies make plans for the next 30, 40 or 50 years. Politicians think about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, maybe next year.
But politics first forced the economy to adopt this long-term approach – by setting the goal of climate neutrality in 2050.
Yes, the climate crisis, the corona crisis and the digital industrial revolution have meant that everyone now has to quickly make plans and implement them: How do we get to climate neutrality? We as the Commission are making these plans and it is not being said that all the Member States should applaud and say that we will do it. But something is different than it used to be: Nobody can hide anymore and nobody can say: Everything stays the same.
Then we’ll talk about the boys again. The activists of Fridays for Future say: climate neutrality in 2050 is too late. What the EU is doing is not enough to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, for that we would not have to be at minus 55, but at minus 80 percent in 2030.
I think we can still surprise these young people. They would be right if we as Europe do it alone and the rest of the world does not. But the whole world has woken up, in the coming years we will see progress in other parts of the world as well. With our example, we can take the world with us and still manage 1.5 degrees. It’s difficult, but doable.