The Climate Conferences - The European Union’s obligation to achieve results in the face of climate change

Impulse, will, contradictions : Europe in the middle of the road (session 2)

Jim Cloos, Clara de la Torre, Carole Dieschbourg, Michèle Rivasi, Pierre Larrouturou, Philippe Lamberts, Pierre Calame, février 2021

In the face of global warming, how can we move towards an obligation of result? This is what is at stake in this series of public debates, which will enable us to become familiar with the idea of an obligation to achieve results, to explore the various possible ways of meeting this obligation and to question the public authorities on how to assume their responsibilities in this respect.

In order to move towards an obligation of result on the part of States and citizens, there is no escaping the need for fossil fuel rationing at European and national level. It remains to be seen how rationing can be implemented in a spirit of social justice:

  • Does the European strategy effectively take into account the totality of society’s carbon footprint or only the emissions on European soil ? How can we take real responsibility for our footprint ?

  • The Green Deal sets ambitious emission reduction targets and the European Parliament wants to be even more ambitious: how can we take these targets seriously so that the Union has a real obligation to achieve results and how can we distribute this obligation among the Member States?

  • The targets set imply an emissions ceiling that is reduced year by year. What is the annual reduction percentage and how can we manage this rationing - because it is a rationing - in a spirit of efficiency and social justice?

  • Our cycle of debates ends in synthesis on 8 April. Joe Biden has convened a global summit on 22 April. Legal actions (see the Affaire du Siècle in France) are increasingly driving home the need for public authorities to respect the targets they have set themselves. The EU claims to be a world leader in the fight against climate change. How can we ensure that, in the face of the Americans and the Chinese, the EU has a renewed vision of the responsibility of public and private players with regard to greenhouse gases, and a proposal for an obligation to achieve results?

This second session brought together a panel of six highly competent speakers. Jim Cloos, recently retired from his role as Director General of the Council of the European Union, put the dialogue between Member States on global warming into a long historical perspective. Clara De la Torre, Deputy Director General of DG CLIMA at the European Commission, spoke about the most recent progress in the development of the new Pact. Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, described her country’s commitment. Three MEPs, Michèle Rivasi, member of the Green Group, Pierre Larrouturou, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and Philippe Lamberts, co-chair of the Green Group in the European Parliament, shared their analysis of the scope and contradictions of current European action on the climate challenge.

A constructive dialogue

We can only be struck by the excellent welcome given by the speakers to the citizens’ initiative of the Climate Forum. They all stressed that civil society’s encouragement and pressure had made a decisive contribution to all the European institutions making the fight against global warming a major priority of the current legislature. Without this commitment from society as a whole to change the way society lives, it would be impossible for the European institutions to fulfil their responsibility for the climate.

I was also struck by the seriousness with which everyone listened to each other. Not unanimity and lack of mutual criticism, but respect for the respective roles of the European institutions, all of which are now faced with major contradictions: contradictions between the Member States; contradictions between policies that have been juxtaposed from decade to decade; contradictions between the stated objectives, the good faith of which has not been questioned, and the means actually deployed to achieve them. This mixture of rigour and mutual benevolence suggests that considerable progress could be made around the requirements of the obligation to achieve results if dialogue were to continue on this subject between the European institutions and with society as a whole.

The European Union is the right level at which to raise climate ambition

There is no doubt that the European Union is the right scale for our societies to define and implement an obligation to achieve results in relation to global warming, to assume society’s responsibilities with regard to its impact on the climate and the biosphere. This is for two reasons :

A new political will to act in the face of climate change

All the speakers recognised the gradual awareness of the European Union institutions of the climate issue and the need to implement policies that are commensurate with this challenge. This has been the case over the long term, as Jim Cloos pointed out, since the 20/20/20 initiative of December 2008, which set the ambition of a 20 % reduction in emissions by 2020, a 20 % share of renewable energies and a 20 % increase in energy efficiency. This ambition, which, on the eve of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, seemed audacious, is, in retrospect, out of scale with the scale of the transformations that need to be accomplished to preserve the climate. Ambition was raised in 2014 to increase the greenhouse gas emissions reduction target to 30 % by 2030, instead of 20 %. And above all, at the end of 2020, an important European Council radically re-evaluated this ambition, and the means put at its service, by setting this time an objective of carbon neutrality in 2050 and a 55 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, by allocating 30 % of the 1500 billion euro recovery plan to this objective . Unanimity in ambition despite the profound differences of interest between the Member States, at the end of a real marathon and despite the fact that energy remains in theory a national competence. Jim Cloos summed it up in his concluding remarks: «  Europe’s response will not always live up to your expectations but the political will is there ".

Clara de la Torre presented the state of progress of the «  legislative package  » which will bring together all the means the European Union wants to use to achieve this objective. She emphasised that this « legislative package » would affect a large number of areas, such as the reform of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), car emission standards, infrastructure design, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, etc…

Philippe Lamberts confirmed the profound change in atmosphere that had taken place between the Commission chaired by Jean-Claude Juncker and the new Commission chaired by Ursula von der Leyen. This change manifests itself in two ways ; on the one hand, the current discussion would have been impossible even a year and a half ago ; on the other hand, neoliberal globalisation, which had been the doxa of Europe for several decades, is now on the defensive. This context, with the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement, is favourable to ambitious initiatives. The fact that the Covid pandemic has not caused the ambition of the new Green Pact to be abandoned is a sign of the realisation that we must, as Pierre Larrouturou says, tackle the climate issue «  for real and not for laughs  » as has been the case until now.

A gap remains between ambition and means

This strong political will only makes it all the more glaring that the European Union is having difficulty living up to this vital ambition.

The first reflection of this difficulty is that the new Green Pact remains locked into the logic of sovereignty that has governed climate negotiations for the past thirty years: the Commission is not in a position to assess the total carbon footprint of European society, as the High Climate Council has done for French society. At most, it can say that the rate of reduction of this footprint is «  probably comparable to the rate of reduction of national emissions ", but this tells us nothing about the effort to be made to effectively reduce the total footprint of European society to a level compatible with the fight against global warming.

Similarly, the new Green Pact has not imposed any real obligation of result, let alone an obligation to reduce the carbon footprint of society year after year. The existence of an ambitious reduction target by 2030 (55 % of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe) says nothing about the capacity of the « legislative package » currently being prepared to achieve this objective. Admittedly, this Green Pact is « for real », but its logic remains the same as all the climate laws and low-carbon strategies adopted since 1992, none of which has been equal to the challenge.

The « border carbon adjustment » to encourage Europe’s trading partners to set up international production channels that emit less greenhouse gas remains completely unclear, whether it is a question of the concrete requirements that will be formulated or the compatibility of this mechanism with the World Trade Organisation.

As for the actual responsibility of political, administrative or economic actors to achieve the desired results, not a word is said. We know that in the current state of the law, the condemnation of these actors for « climate inaction » remains purely symbolic.

The difficulty of adopting a coherent approach between the various European policies

Another symptom of the fact that the European Union remains in the middle of the road is the current contradictions between the various European policies, as highlighted by Carole Dieschbourg and Michèle Rivasi. The history of a society and its governance is always the history of public policies that are put in place at different times, give rise to institutions and interest groups or ideologies associated with each of these times, the existence of these ideologies and interest groups then contributing to the perpetuation of policies even though their initial raison d’être has disappeared. And when societies change rapidly, a second paradox arises: when new arrangements or treaties take many years or even decades to negotiate, it is likely that by the time they are completed they no longer correspond to the needs of society. The MEPs who spoke at the session gave various examples of this layering of contradictory policies.

The unification of the European market was, at the time of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the very condition for the construction of the European Union, since the attempt at political union had failed with the European Defence Initiative. This initial « raison d’être » of Europe led to the doxa of free trade which continues to prevail in the European institutions even when its perverse effects, in terms of impact on the biosphere or in terms of social inequalities, become obvious and even when the United States under the presidency of Trump suddenly takes this doxa by surprise.

Similarly, the Common Agricultural Policy, adopted in the 1960s and whose primary objective had been the self-sufficiency of Europe in food, gave rise to a doctrine of productivist modernisation of agriculture that has not yet been seriously overturned despite its contradictions with climate action.

The Energy Charter Treaty, ECT, adopted in 1998, was intended to harmonise the international energy market and promote investment in energy production, and becomes an obstacle when states decide to close down thermal power stations in order to preserve the climate.

As for the major bilateral agreements, for example the agreement on Mercosur, it ends up being a success, as Michèle Rivasi points out, at a time when its contradictions with the Green Pact are obvious and when deforestation for the production of agricultural goods for Europe is recognised as a significant component of the carbon footprint of companies.

The change of economic model is not yet underway

All the speakers emphasised the fact that the change in development model, which is a prerequisite for achieving the stated objectives, requires not only resolute public action but also, and above all, the commitment of other players: citizens, in favour of a more frugal lifestyle (as Jim Cloos points out, it is not enough to act on supply, it is also necessary to act on demand), companies, in a desire to set up sustainable production channels, or financial institutions and savers. But the conditions under which they could commit themselves are a blind spot in the new Green Pact. And it will not be enough, as Clara de la Torre suggests, to invite these different actors to sign a climate pact to achieve this.

Three conditions for success emerged during the session :

The Pact calls for multi-level governance

Carole Dieschbourg also emphasised the fact that the new Green Pact must be implemented at all territorial levels and in particular at the level of local authority climate plans. Its implementation should therefore be inspired by the principles set out for the development of European policies: multi-level governance, proportionality, active subsidiarity. The way in which the European recovery plan, and in particular the 30 % devoted to the ecological transition, translates these three principles will be one of the conditions for its success.

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