Franciscus Cornelis Gerardus Maria Timmermans, executive vice-president for the European Green Deal in the European Commission. (Photo courtesy of the European Commission)
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged every continent and put unprecedented strain on our economies.
Yet, while we continue to focus on fighting COVID-19 and its consequences for the global economy, the clock has not stopped ticking on the other global crises: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, pollution, and the over-exploitation of resources.
These crises are interrelated. Climate change accelerates the destruction of nature through droughts, flooding, and wildfires. Biodiversity loss and unsustainable use of nature are in turn key drivers of climate change.
Logically the solutions must also be interrelated. Healthy ecosystems help us mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The EU Green Deal
About one year ago, when the world still looked very different from today, we presented the European Green Deal. It was conceived as Europe's new growth strategy, a strategy to bring together environmental, economic, and social sustainability.
And with the impact of the current crisis, the green transition that we had already planned for with the European Green Deal also became our roadmap for recovery in Europe.
It will focus on sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, on greening our cities and countryside, on green products and services, on sustainable agriculture and food, on clean transport, and on innovation in clean tech. It will put us on the right path to a sustainable future.
We are leaving behind the slash-and-burn carbon economy, and moving to a clean, innovative, inclusive, and circular economy that allows us to restore biodiversity and cut pollution while creating growth, jobs, prosperity, and health.
I passionately believe that we now all have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to embrace a green transition to build back better. This is our collective road to recovery, for the people and the planet. And while we are unlocking huge amounts of money, we can only spend it once.
I’m often met with the criticism that the path we’ve chosen will only hurt us, that acting for climate and the environment will mean our economies are going to suffer – and that especially now, in the deepest economic recession in generations, we should hold off. I refuse to accept this trade-off.
The transition to climate neutrality will require occasionally hard decisions from all of us. But the most important thing we are seeing right now is: it can be done.
Since 1990, the EU’s combined GDP has grown by over 60 percent while net greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by a quarter. Moving ahead on climate action does not mean a return to the past, as some will have you believe. It is in every sense of the word a leap to the future.
In fact, it would be an economic disaster NOT to act on climate and environment. Over half of the global GDP depends on nature and the services it provides. When we look at the costs of non-action, it becomes clear we cannot afford NOT to invest in a green transition.
The Green Deal is a comprehensive plan, consisting of a just transition mechanism, a climate law, a farm to fork strategy, a biodiversity strategy, a hydrogen strategy, an offshore wind strategy, and a circular economy action plan, and more is to come.
Our policies and strategies are led by the ambitious goal of becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050. We are in the process of enshrining this target into law and we have submitted our long-term strategy on how to reach it to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But, at the same time we challenge everyone to beat us to it, because in a race to zero we are all winners at the end.
We have also just proposed a new intermediate target to step up our ambition for 2030. This means we now aim to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent in 2030.
Setting an ambitious target in time is important. It gives industry adequate time to adapt – especially now that they are so in need of certainty. It will avoid locking ourselves into carbon-intensive industries now, causing stranded assets down the line and only spurring further damage to our climate while we wait and don’t act.
How to Get There
Some people may wonder how we hope to achieve all these objectives. Ambitions are nice and announcements are important to provide clarity about the long-term direction of travel. But at some point, you have to start paving the way as well.
We are in the final stages of negotiations on the next EU budget for 2021-2027 and a financial package to jump-start the recovery from COVID-19 called Next Generation EU.
The combined package of a record €1.8 trillion will put us in a strong position to tackle today's realities and tomorrow's challenges.
Within this budget, climate action is an integral part of how we spend every single euro. Across the board, 30 percent of EU funds will be dedicated to fighting climate change -- the highest share ever. And none of the other funds should go against it. So we have the ‘do-no-harm-principle’ as a key element in everything we do.
Within the recovery, specific ‘flagship’ projects will boost investment in clean technologies such as hydrogen and renewable energy, and building renovations, accelerate the rollout of sustainable green transport and infrastructure, and speed up our transition to a circular economy.
We are backing up this financial firepower with important regulatory changes.
We are now preparing a raft of legislative proposals for next year to create the necessary legal framework.
One of the most powerful tools we have in bringing down emissions in Europe is our Emissions Trading System (ETS).
Right now, the EU ETS is helping us surpass our targets. The system currently covers 45 percent of all EU emissions. The latest data show a drop in emissions there of 30 percent compared to 2005.
We will come forward with a proposal next year to expand the ETS to cover also other sectors such as buildings, transport, and potentially shipping.
At its inception, the ETS had many doubters and critics, but it has proven to be effective and very resilient, and has been successfully replicated beyond the EU’s borders.
Cooperation with China
In the field of climate change and environment, there is great potential for China and the EU to cooperate, make joint progress, and take global leadership.
On biodiversity, we need to grasp the opportunity to put nature on a path to recovery at the COP15 in Kunming next year. This is a must – for human health and well-being, food security, economic development, and societal stability. A global agreement with the right level of ambition in Kunming would be a great success for China and show the world the necessary leadership.
As its host, China has a key role in getting other countries on board for ambitious, measurable and time-bound targets, with more stringent monitoring and review. The EU is ready and willing to support an ambitious outcome.
I am also encouraged by China’s intention to reach an emissions peak before 2030 and President Xi’s commitment to reaching carbon neutrality before 2060.
This puts China among the net-zero global leaders in climate action and would revolutionise the Chinese economy.
You can already see the potential -- the promotion of green vehicles and the rapid development of green transport infrastructure in China is really impressive, just like the rapid development of renewable energy in the country over the last years.
We look forward to discussing the details of the 2060 ambition in the newly established EU-China High level Environment and Climate Dialogue and working together to ensure the success of COP26 by submitting improved Nationally-Determined Contributions and Long Term Strategies in line with the Paris Agreement.
I am also excited to see China advance its plans for a national ETS. Do not expect it to be perfect from the beginning. It will improve over time, that’s our experience, and launching it now will make the most of the potential to support the transition. Of course, in the EU we are more than willing to provide China with any support, expertise, or experience we have. Whatever China would like us to share we are ready to share.
Launching a Chinese ETS will be essential for China’s credibility as a global climate leader. It sends an important signal to all in China and to the outside world that China is serious about climate action. And, like the European ETS has done for us, it will equip China with a strong tool to monitor and manage its emissions in the future.
However, I also have to note here that China is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and that emissions keep increasing. As such, there is a particularly steep path to climb towards climate neutrality. In my view, achieving an emissions peak as soon as possible would be the best way for a balanced trajectory towards zero emissions.
I have huge respect for China’s capabilities and determination. We have seen so much happening, also in the past. And in this context I will also say that the increase in the licensing of new coal power plant projects over the past year is very worrisome to many parties of the UNFCCC, including to the EU. It runs against economic sense, and makes all our work more difficult, also that of China.
Many economists, including in China, agree that those investments are the stranded assets of tomorrow. To invest in the future we should shift our investments toward renewable energies and clean industries.
Moving forward, I hope that we can embrace the opportunity for a greener future and work together. There is huge potential for us to cooperate, to innovate, to share experiences and ideas, and scale up our ambitions to drive an inclusive global green recovery.
A green transition brings with it many other benefits beyond merely bringing down emissions. Biodiversity loss puts food security and nutrition at risk. Restoring biodiversity will ensure healthy and nutritious diets, keep jobs in rural areas, and increase agricultural productivity. Tackling air pollution will help prevent premature deaths and improve our overall health and living conditions, especially in cities. And, most importantly, tackling climate change will ensure that we ourselves, our children and grandchildren, can be sure of a healthy, sustainable future on this planet. Because the planet itself will do fine without us.
It is with these goals in sight that the European Union will continue to push for global ambition on climate change. As we prepare for COP26 next year, I hope to find China at our side. And I think I will find China at our side.
(The original lecture, given at Tsinghua University on 26 November 2020, was edited for length and clarity.)
FRANCISCUS CORNELIS GERARDUS MARIA TIMMERMANS is the executive vice-president for the European Green Deal in the European Commission.