Timmermans defends green recovery costs as EU returns to work

World Wildlife Fund warns EU on complicity in Amazon fires; Norway's Arctic drilling plan branded risky by experts

(Stephen Rae is the former Group Chief Editor of INM, Ireland’s largest online and print media group. He serves on the board of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and was previously on the board of the World Editors Forum. He was appointed by the European Commission to its High Level Expert Group on Online Disinformation.)

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — The EU eased back to work this week after a tumultuous August that saw the union lose its formidable trade commissioner, Phil Hogan to a golfing scandal, and as its top environmental leaders pledged to spend more on a green recovery.

It has left the Commission bruised, although it’s clear that President Ursula von der Leyen is showing no regrets over Hogan's resignation and has strongly intimated to the Irish Government she would like a woman to replace the respected negotiator. Hogan stepped down over so-called “Golfgate,” after he became embroiled in controversy over attending an Irish parliamentary golf outing in breach of quarantine guidelines. It is highly unlikely Ireland will retain the trade portfolio — bad news for the small country which will feel the harshest effects of a likely no-deal Brexit.

Von der Leyen’s college of commissioners met Wednesday in Brussels, where the three executive vice presidents set out their goals ahead of von der Leyen making her State of the European Union address later this month. The agenda was broken into three broad areas: green, digital and economic recovery. One of the EVPs is commissioner for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, who is adamant that the bloc’s proposed higher climate objectives “makes even more sense now” in the wake of Covid-19. 

Speaking earlier this week, Timmermans pledged that Europe will continue in its quest toward climate neutrality by 2050 and added that “very soon we will propose new emissions targets for 2030.”  Timmermans announced new policy proposals will be brought forward in the coming months, including an offshore energy plan to increase the use of renewable energy systems such as offshore wind. 

These proposals will be published in conjunction with an impact assessment on the economic costs and benefits of increasing the bloc’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a 40% decrease on 1990 levels to 50% or 55%. 

These proposals will come on the back of a letter published on July 13 by six eastern EU countries who warned that “the impact assessment should be realistic.” 

The environment ministers of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia added: “We are experiencing a global pandemic that will not end soon and there might be others to come. This is no longer business as usual, so neither the IA (impact assessment) should be.” 

Timmermans was critical of their appraisal, saying: “The cost of climate action may be high but it is dwarfed by the cost of inaction.” He was keen to stress the importance of the EU Green Deal and said it was “Europe’s new growth strategy.” and that economic growth and environmental policies “go hand in hand.” 

Following on from the summit of EU leaders in July and their approval of a long-term EU budget and post-Covid recovery plan, the EU plans to spend €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) on rebuilding the economy, but with 30% of that earmarked for climate action. Timmermans stressed that the funds must be spent “responsibly.” 

His refrain through the pandemic has been the mistakes of the previous financial crisis in which money was spent on the present rather than protecting the future — and he returned to that theme this week. The money would be “borrowed from the next generation,” and “spending it on their future instead of on our past is a moral imperative and a matter of economic good sense,” he chided. 

Timmermans warned that “it’s just bad economics, why spend money to keep things as they are when you know you will require money again to change them in the near future?”

As reported in Callaway Climate Insights last week, the Dutchman said one of the major changes to the current assessment of climate goals is that “the increased target in the range of 50 to 55% is doable” and that it can “underpin sustainable economic growth.” He urged member states to agree that “increasing our ambition, especially now, makes sense” and that “holding off now because we cannot afford it for the moment is the surest way to not being able to afford it in the future either.”

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A leading director of the World Wildlife Fund has urged the EU to reassess its involvement in the Amazon fires, amid comments that the bloc must face “responsibility” for soy trade. 

A director of the WWF’s EU office, Ester Asin, warned that Europe needs to introduce a “strong law” for European consumers to be “confident” that the production of their food “does not fuel the horrendous fires we witness every year in the Amazon.” 

Asin argued that as a result of the EU’s increasing demand for imported soy to feed the bloc’s livestock, it is contributing to “long-term destruction in the Amazon” and added: “It doesn’t directly strike the match to start the fires, but Europe does hold sway over how many matches are in the box.” 

The author detailed that once sections of the Amazon have been burnt, cattle are moved onto the land to graze and following a number of years, the owner of the livestock can claim tenure and legally sell off the land to “big agribusinesses who can convert the land to soy production.” 

This practice has resulted in “far-reaching consequences” for the “planet’s irreplaceable biodiversity,” as well as people’s homes, lives, water supplies and “the entire world” as “fires fuel climate change.” 

Although currently there is an Amazon soy moratorium in place, which prevents soy grown on these news farms to access markets. The Brazilian government has openly favored its cessation and the “renewed expansion of Amazon soy farms,” which the author described as “fueled in part by EU market demand.” 

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A controversial plan by Norway to drill for oil in untouched Arctic areas has been branded as one that threatens the area’s ecosystem and could result in rising military tensions with Russia. 

Following a public consultation into the Norwegian expedition and exploration of nine oilfields in the Arctic, experts have labeled the move risky. They believe that the exploration could pose environmental and political risks, potentially fueling tensions between the country and other nations involved in a 100-year old treaty. 

Ilan Kelman, a professor of risk, resilience and global health at UCL and Agder University in Norway, believes that the potential mission could “cause extensive damage” to the area, because “the Arctic is a very harsh place,” as reported by the Guardian. 

Norway announced plans to explore the “ice edge,” an area south of Svalbard in June, something that Helge Ryggvik, oil historian at the University of Oslo, believes is pushing the limits. “In the recent ice-edge compromise, which redrew the zone, Norway is approaching the absolute limit of where oil exploration would be accepted by other nations.”

Above, more bikes, fewer taxis in Strasbourg, France, seat of the European Union. Photo: TeaMeister/flickr.