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Ursula von der Leyen must take on Europe’s biggest #Climate rebel: Germany

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Ursula von der Leyen won’t assume the European Commission presidency for another four months, but the battle that will define her tenure is already underway. After years of sluggish European progress on climate change, Von der Leyen has committed herself to a bold new ‘Green Deal’, with the goal of securing carbon neutrality by 2050. She only secured her wafer-thin Parliamentary majority after convincing skeptical left-wing MEPS of her carbon credentials.

But now, after all the promises, she needs to deliver. That means going out and securing support from all the EU’s members, including one particularly rebellious central European state. And for once, we’re not talking about one of the poorer members which have been pilloried for their regressive environmental policies.

This time, it’s her own home country.

Climate hypocrisy

Germany has talked a good game on climate change. Angela Merkel has even been dubbed the climate chancellor, both for her bullish rhetoric on carbon emissions and the key role she played in brokering the UN’s inaugural climate deals while serving as German environment minister in the 1990s. But faced with the lobbying might of German carmakers, Merkel and her ministers have consistently failed to match words with actions.

Despite spending an estimated €500 billion to revamp its energy matrix by getting out of nuclear energy and supposedly coal, it is ironic that Germany remains the biggest coal burner in Europe. Merkel even admits that coal “will remain a pillar of German energy supply for a prolonged time span.” Her government is committed to achieving a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels), yet at present that target is a long way off. When it should be plummeting, Germany’s output of polluting gases has plateaued.

Worse than that, though, Germany has actively tried to thwart some of the EU’s flagship environmental policies. In 2006, just a year into her chancellorship, Merkel decided to dole out pollution permits to her industrial powerhouses, flooring the price of the EU’s emissions trading system. She’s has since ignored warnings about the pollution emanating from the automakers’ diesel engines, and tried to block a new fuel economy standard for European cars. When the EU proposed increasing the share of renewables in its energy mix to 35%, Germany argued furiously that it should go no higher than 30%.

Condemning greenhouse gases, but preaching Nord Stream 2

Perhaps the most dangerous example of German intransigence is Nord Stream 2, the new pipeline which will convey natural gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing transit states such as Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The plans have been met with vehement protest from these countries, not only because they stand to be cut out of the loop. Many believe that, once Nord Stream 2 is built, Russia will turn off the taps on its former satellites and ramp up its campaign of military provocation.

Still Germany stands firm, prioritizing its own energy needs over the rest of Europe, even though using natural gas – a fossil fuel, for all its claims of cleanliness – won’t help its climate track record and the emissions reductions deadlines Berlin is already set to miss by a wide margin. Nor is the carbon dioxide the only greenhouse gas European environmentalists are worried about; the production system managed by Russia’s Gazprom, which is behind the Nord Stream 2 project, has a notoriously high “fugitive emissions” rate for methane that makes its natural gas no cleaner than coal. As a 2017 Atlantic Council/Free Russia report points out, Gazprom itself has been dismissive of both renewable energy technologies and European energy transitions.

German officials, for their part, flatly deny that the pipeline will undermine gas diversification in Europe or pose a threat to Ukraine. They have even tried to prevent the EU from extending its gas liberalization rules to Nord Stream 2, which would give Brussels a measure of control over Russian energy giant Gazprom. The decision has caused a split between Germany and France, a gap at the heart of Europe which Vladimir Putin is happy to exploit.

Building a closer, cleaner Europe

Von der Leyen has set herself firmly against such division, pledging to promote a stronger, closer Europe. In fact, she was nominated for her ability to repair relations between Paris and Berlin. She’s also known for her uncompromising attitude towards the Kremlin’s divisive tactics. But will she be able to stand up to Germany – and her former boss?

It won’t be easy. Von der Leyen has long been a Merkel ally, and the German chancellor is a key figure in her own European People’s Party. The EPP, the biggest voting bloc in the European Parliament, is already suspicious of Von der Leyen because she reportedly failed to consult them over her climate plans. Yet Von der Leyen is pitched herself as a candidate capable of bold, disruptive action, and she does have a clear mandate to take on Europe’s biggest powerbrokers.

While she might jeopardise the support of conservative Parliamentarians by taking on Germany, Von der Leyen owes her election victory as much to progressive blocs such as the Socialists and Renew Europe as to the EPP. These blocs will expect her to repay their faith. A bold stand in relation to Berlin might also win the support of the powerful Green bloc, which voted against Von der Leyen because they believe her environmental strategy doesn’t go far enough.

One can’t expect Von der Leyen to block Nord Stream 2 overnight or stop Germany from burning coal any time soon, but by pushing Germany to prioritize the EU’s collective interests over its own, and by embracing a more progressive environmental agenda in line with its neighbors, Von der Leyen can deliver on her mandate to build a cleaner, greener, and more united Europe.

Environment

Commission launches Knowledge Centre to reverse biodiversity loss and protect Europe's ecosystems

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In the framework of the EU Green Week, the European Commission launches a new Knowledge Centre for Biodiversity: a one-stop shop for science-based evidence to restore and protect the natural ecosystems that provide us with food, medicines, materials, recreation, and wellbeing. The Knowledge Centre will make the latest knowledge about biodiversity available to strengthen the impact of EU policies.

It will also help to monitor the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which aims to put Europe's biodiversity on a path to recovery by the end of the decade. Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, said: “Only what gets measured gets done. If we want to deliver on the EU Biodiversity Strategy, we need to better connect all the dots, and for this we need sound data. Be it on the status of pollinators, environmental impact of pesticides, the value of nature for business or the economic rationale of nature-based solutions. We also need to make full use of the digital transformation, Earth observation and citizen science. The new knowledge centre will bring all this together, improving the way we generate and manage biodiversity knowledge, for use across policy areas.”

Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, responsible for the Joint Research Centre,  added:  “Science has a crucial role to play in conserving our biodiversity. Led by our own scientists at the Joint Research Centre, the new Knowledge Centre for Biodiversity will help the European and global research community and policymakers to harvest and make sense of the vast array of information available, streamlining it into effective policies that protect Europe's ecosystems and the services they provide for European citizens.”

In addition, the first ever EU-wide ecosystem assessment has arrived,  which finds that a wealth of biodiversity data exists that could help in taking the right action to alleviate pressures on our ecosystems, but much of it remains unused. The assessment shows that we are becoming more and more dependent on our ecosystems, which themselves remain under high pressure from the impacts of climate change and human activities. The Knowledge Centre for Biodiversity will directly address challenges uncovered by the assessment. More information is available here.

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Agriculture

Commission welcomes Council agreement on future Common Agricultural Policy

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On 20 October, the Council agreed on its negotiating position, the so-called general approach, on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals. The Commission welcomes this agreement, a decisive step towards entering the negotiation phase with the co-legislators.

Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said: “I welcome the progress made and the general approach on the Common Agricultural Policy reached over the night. This is an important step for our farmers and our farming community. I am grateful for member states' constructive cooperation and I trust this agreement will help ensure that European agriculture can continue to provide economic, environmental and social benefits for our farmers and citizens in future.”

The European Parliament is also voting on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals during the Plenary session, with voting sessions scheduled until today (23 October). Once the European Parliament agrees on a position for all three CAP reports, the co-legislators will be able to enter into the negotiation phase, with a view to reach an overall agreement.

The Commission presented its CAP reform proposals in June 2018, aiming at a more flexible, performance and results-based approach, while setting higher environmental and climate action ambitions. Following the adoption of the Farm to fork and biodiversity strategies, the Commission presented the CAP reform's compatibility with the Green Deal's ambition.

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Environment

Renovation Wave: Doubling the renovation rate to cut emissions, boost recovery and reduce energy poverty

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The European Commission has published its Renovation Wave Strategy to improve the energy performance of buildings. The Commission aims to at least double renovation rates in the next ten years and make sure renovations lead to higher energy and resource efficiency. This will enhance the quality of life for people living in and using the buildings, reduce Europe's greenhouse gas emissions, foster digitalisation and improve the reuse and recycling of materials. By 2030, 35 million buildings could be renovated and up to 160,000 additional green jobs created in the construction sector.

Buildings are responsible for about 40% of the EU's energy consumption, and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. But only 1% of buildings undergo energy efficient renovation every year, so effective action is crucial to making Europe climate-neutral by 2050. With nearly 34 million Europeans unable to afford keeping their homes heated, public policies to promote energy efficient renovation are also a response to energy poverty, support the health and wellbeing of people and help reduce their energy bills. The Commission has also published today a Recommendation for member states on tackling energy poverty.

European Green Deal Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans said: “We want everyone in Europe to have a home they can light, heat, or cool without breaking the bank or breaking the planet. The Renovation Wave will improve the places where we work, live and study, while reducing our impact on the environment and providing jobs for thousands of Europeans. We need better buildings if we want to build back better.”

Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said: “The green recovery starts at home. With the Renovation Wave we will tackle the many barriers that today make renovation complex, expensive and time consuming, holding back much needed action. We will propose better ways to measure renovation benefits, minimum energy performance standards, more EU funding and technical assistance encourage green mortgages and support more renewables in heating and cooling. This will be a game changer for home-owners, tenants and public authorities.”

The strategy will prioritize action in three areas: decarbonization of heating and cooling; tackling energy poverty and worst-performing buildings; and renovation of public buildings such as schools, hospitals and administrative buildings. The Commission proposes to break down existing barriers throughout the renovation chain – from the conception of a project to its funding and completion - with a set of policy measures, funding tools and technical assistance instruments.

The strategy will include the following lead actions:

  • Stronger regulations, standards and information on the energy performance of buildings to set better incentives for public and private sector renovations, including a phased introduction of mandatory minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings, updated rules for Energy Performance Certificates, and a possible extension of building renovation requirements for the public sector;
  • ensuring accessible and well-targeted funding, including through the ‘Renovate' and ‘Power Up' Flagships in the Recovery and Resilience Facility under NextGenerationEU, simplified rules for combining different funding streams, and multiple incentives for private financing;
  • increasing capacity to prepare and implement renovation projects, from technical assistance to national and local authorities through to training and skills development for workers in new green jobs;
  • expanding the market for sustainable construction products and services, including the integration of new materials and nature-based solutions, and revised legislation on marketing of construction products and material reuse and recovery targets;
  • creating a New European Bauhaus, an interdisciplinary project co-steered by an advisory board of external experts including scientists, architects, designers, artists, planners and civil society. From now until summer 2021 the Commission will conduct a broad participatory co-creation process, and will then set up of a network of five founding Bauhaus in 2022 in different EU countries, and;
  • developing neighbourhood-based approaches for local communities to integrate renewable and digital solutions and create zero-energy districts, where consumers become prosumers selling energy to the grid. The strategy also includes an Affordable Housing Initiative for 100 districts.

The review of the Renewable Energy Directive in June 2021 will consider strengthening the renewable heating and cooling target and introducing a minimum renewable energy level in buildings. The Commission will also examine how the EU budget resources alongside the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) revenues could be used to fund national energy efficiency and savings schemes targeting lower income populations. The Ecodesign Framework will be further developed to provide efficient products for use in buildings and promote their use.

The Renovation Wave is not only about making the existing buildings more energy efficient and climate neutral. It can trigger a large-scale transformation of our cities and built environment. It can be an opportunity to start a forward-looking process to match sustainability with style. As announced by President von der Leyen, the Commission will launch the New European Bauhaus to nurture a new European aesthetic that combines performance with inventiveness. We want to make liveable environments accessible to everyone, and again marry the affordable with the artistic, in a newly sustainable future.

Background

The COVID-19 crisis has turned the spotlight on our buildings, their importance in our daily lives and their fragilities. Throughout the pandemic, the home has been the focal point of daily life for millions of Europeans: an office for those teleworking, a make-shift nursery or classroom for children and pupils, for many a hub for online shopping or entertainment.

Investing in buildings can inject a much-needed stimulus into the construction sector and the macro-economy. Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and investments rooted in often local supply chains, generate demand for highly energy-efficient equipment, increase climate resilience and bring long-term value to properties.

To achieve the at least 55% emissions reduction target for 2030, proposed by the Commission in September 2020, the EU must reduce buildings' greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, their energy consumption by 14%, and the energy consumption of heating and cooling by 18%.

European policy and funding has already had a positive impact on the energy efficiency of new buildings, which now consume only half the energy of those built over 20 years ago. However, 85% of buildings in the EU were built over 20 years ago, and 85-95% are expected to still be standing in 2050. The Renovation Wave is needed to bring them up to similar standards.

More information

Renovation Wave Strategy

Annex and Staff Working Document on the Renovation Wave Strategy

Memo (Q&A) on the Renovation Wave Strategy

Factsheet on the Renovation Wave Strategy

Factsheet on the New European Bauhaus

Energy poverty recommendation

Annex and Staff Working Document on the Energy Poverty Recommendation

Renovation Wave webpage

Energy Poverty webpage

 

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