European notebook: Ripple effects from the Petersberg Summit

Stephen Rae reports (virtually) from the international climate conference, which took on greater importance in the shadow of the global pandemic.

  • EU President Ursula von der Leyen calls the Green Deal the'motor for the recovery.'

  • Angela Merkel: Green Deal must be the force behind Covid-19 recovery plans.

  • Absent the U.S., China was the big external player at the conference.

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — All eyes were on Berlin this week, where the annual Petersberg Climate Dialogue took place — virtually, of course.

The international conference took on additional importance given that COP26, which had been scheduled for Scotland in November, has been postponed into 2021. The annual Petersberg summit, organized by the German government, is typically the first international climate conference of the year.

Irrespective of the fact that meetings were by video and that all focus is on combating Covid-19, the conference felt underwhelming.

That may have had something to do with the fact that while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was committing to raising the European Union’s 2030 climate target to between 50% and 55%, her government was bailing out fossil fuel industries like no other.

There was also the fact that Germany still had not presented its national climate plan for the Tuesday deadline of a meeting of EU energy ministers. The plan is now four months overdue.

Missing from the conference was the U.S. (Don’t mention disinfectant).

There were, however, representatives of China, Russia, India and Japan along with politicians from the tiny island nations which face the most immediate threats from climate change.

A new initiative this year was the exchange between NGOs, scientists, cities, corporates and trade unions.

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Angela Merkel is Europe’s effective leader. So while Ursula von der Leyen may be president of the European Commission, most politicians take their cue from Merkel. After all, von der Leyen, who has struggled with exerting her considerable executive authority and fumbled when speaking about helping pandemic-struck Italy, was only a few months ago Merkel’s under-pressure defense minister.

Of course, von der Leyen is new to the job and she has time to grow into the role, but right now comparisons to her charming and politically skilled predecessor Jean Claude Juncker don’t reflect well.

So when von der Leyen spoke this week about the Green Deal being Europe’s “motor for the recovery” many were looking over her shoulder at what Merkel was saying and doing.

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The German chancellor gave her address to the Petersberg conference a few hours after von der Leyen. Merkel re-affirmed Germany’s commitment to climate protection despite the enormous social and economic challenges posed by the pandemic

She insisted the European Green Deal — which commits to zero carbon by 2050 — must be the driving force behind the continent’s Covid-19 recovery plan. Importantly, she also asserted her support for raising the EU’s emissions reduction target for 2030 from 40% to 50% — or even 55%.

The world must “keep a close eye on climate protection” as it faces the economic fallout of the virus, she asserted.

“We need a financial market that provides cheap capital for climate-friendly investments,” Merkel stated. She called for climate action to be included as part of economic reconstruction plans after the worst of the pandemic passes, including investments in new technologies, including renewable energy.

Chancellor Merkel described carbon pricing as an important instrument for achieving climate goals, encouraging “as many countries as possible” to implement pricing. She also called for an extension of the Emissions Trading System to new sectors, just as Germany is doing in the heating and transport areas.

Germany would stick to its agenda of phasing out coal-fired power plants and invest in sustainable energy sources.

“Let me be clear. There will be a difficult debate about the allocation of funds,” said the chancellor of the trillion-euro recovery fund EU leaders have asked the Commission to draw up.

“But it is important that recovery programmes always keep an eye on the climate, we must not sideline climate but invest in climate technologies.”

. . . . 

The European adage of “action not words” will have come to mind for many green campaigners during the chancellor’s contribution.

A study released this week showed that Germany is the EU state with the most environmentally damaging rescue packages. Compiled by consultants Vivid Economics and Financing for Biodiversity (F4B) showed that compared to France, Spain and Italy, the Germans lack clear measures to support sustainable and resilient growth.

The report pointed to Germany’s heavy industry and its massive emissions which are receiving generous support from the state amidst the negative effects of the pandemic.

Also coming in for criticism in the study were the U.S. and China’s bailout programmes —  which are by far the most focused on fossil fuels.

Germany is also among just four EU member states who have failed to submit National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs), which were due in December.

This is troubling given that Merkel’s government takes over the presidency of the European Union on July 1 next from Croatia.

At a video conference of energy ministers Tuesday, Croatian minister and chair Tomislav Coric confirmed the four no-shows. It is unlikely the four will have the NECPs ready for adoption at the next Energy Council in June. “It will not be possible. That is obvious right now,” said Coric.

“Regarding the Green Deal initiative, the majority of ministers backed Commission plans to continue hard work in particular on smart sector integration, the offshore wind strategy and the renovation wave,” Coric reflected.

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A narrative that is consistently coming out of the European Commission’s Berlaymont Headquarters in Brussels is that member states must not return to “old habits” by providing bailouts which reward carbon-reliant industries.

So when von der Leyen spoke at the Petersberg Dialogue, she emphasized that with billions of euros of investment planned, Europe must not “fall back into old habits of environmental degradation” but should learn from the Covid-19 crisis.

While the pandemic can ultimately be managed, “climate change is far from being under control,” the commission president said a few hours in advance of Merkel’s address.

“By using the European Green Deal as our compass, we can turn the crisis of this pandemic into an opportunity to rebuild our economies differently and make them more resilient,” she emphasized. The Green Deal must be “our motor for the recovery.”

How will this be brought about?

“We can make our society and our planet healthier by investing in renewable energy, by driving clean cars, by renovating our houses and making them energy efficient. By buying sustainable food, reusing materials rather than throwing them away or producing low carbon steel.

“That is the essence of the European Green Deal.”

. . . . 

In his video address, UN Secretary General António Guterres said the Covid-19 crisis “had exposed the fragility of our societies and economies to shock.”

He called for “brave, visionary collective leadership” pointing out it was needed to “address the looming existential threat of climate disruption.”

“We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rebuild our world for the better,” he implored.

. . . .

In the absence of the U.S., it fell to China to be the external big player at the European conference.

Vice Minister for Ecology and Environment Huang Runqiu said, “life and work are quickly returning to normal” after the pandemic. “As a firm supporter of multilateralism, China will join other countries to promote a full, balanced and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

China, with India, are blamed as Asia’s big polluters. Internal pressure in China over smog and pollution has guided a central drive in recent years to more sustainable industrial output. From his Beijing office with the five-starred red flag prominently in the background, he said, “countries around the world should adhere to the green and low-carbon development plan while pursuing economic recovery.”

His contribution must have gone down well in the Great Hall of the People because on Wednesday Huang was promoted to environment minister, replacing Li Ganjie who became vice-party secretary of Shandong province. In his deputy role, Huang had taken charge of negotiations on a new global biodiversity treaty, set to be thrashed out in the city of Kunming later this year.

Of course, not being a Communist Party member, the higher-ranking position of Party Secretary in the ministry will be held by Sun Jinlong

. . . .

Germany’s commitment to 50% to 55% emission cuts was one of the tangible results of Petersberg — as earlier indications suggested the government was fudging.

Yet that is not enough for some in the European Parliament.

Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, who is leading talks on behalf of MEPs, told a local radio station that she wants to see a 65% target for 2030.

The move was lauded by Greenpeace.

But it is unlikely to win the backing of the majority of MEPs. The largest grouping in parliament the EPP said it was only ready to back a 50% target without a commitment from the U.S. and China to match stretched targets.

“The EPP (European People’s Party) wants to set CO2 emission targets to at least 50% by 2030 with an option to increase this to 55% if certain conditions are met,” vice chair of the grouping and Dutch MEP Esther deLange said.

In any event, the chair of the Environment Committee Pascal Canfin has already said that a 55% target is what he sees as being the ultimate compromise. In an interview last month he said, “There is no majority below because that would not be science based. And there is no majority beyond, because going above 55% would be too fast and disruptive for the industrial sectors concerned, for example, in countries like Poland.”

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The Petersberg Summit is marking its 10th anniversary this year.

It gains its name from the splendid Hotel Petersberg near the pre-Unification capital of Bonn and where the first conference was held in 2010.

Merkel convened the international dialogue following the spectacular failure of climate negotiations in Copenhagen the previous year.

The Hotel Petersberg — official guesthouse of the German government — has hosted many famous names down the years, including Neville Chamberlain in 1938, Nelson Mandela in 1990, Boris Yelstin the following year and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1965.

The hotel with its magnificent mountain views was also the venue for Formula One driver Michael Schumacher’s wedding.

At the end of World War II, the hotel became the seat of the Allied High Commission.

The victors must have enjoyed the views from the Petersberg over the city of Konigswinter on the right bank of the River Rhine and Bonn on the opposite side.

After the first PCD in 2009, the conference moved to Berlin. The capital is a more Bohemian setting with some interesting clubs from where to continue the day’s climate deliberations, but hardly as close to nature as Petersberg.

Above, the Hotel Petersberg lends its name to the Petersberg Summit, which is marking its 10th anniversary this year. Photo: Wolkenkratzer/Wikipedia.