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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.

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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.

Electricity interconnectivity

Commission approves €30.5 billion French scheme to support production of electricity from renewable energy sources

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a French aid scheme to support renewable electricity production. The measure will help France achieve its renewable energy targets without unduly distorting competition and will contribute to the European objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “This aid measure will stimulate development of key renewable energy sources, and support a transition to an environmentally sustainable energy supply, in line with the EU Green Deal objectives. The selection of the beneficiaries through a competitive bidding process will ensure the best value for taxpayers' money while maintaining competition in the French energy market.” 

The French scheme

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France notified the Commission of its intention to introduce a new scheme to support electricity produced from renewable energy sources, namely to onshore operators of solar, onshore wind and hydroelectric installations. The scheme grants support to these operators awarded via competitive tenders. In particular, the measure includes seven types of tenders for a total of 34 GW of new renewables capacity that will be organized between 2021 and 2026: (i) solar on the ground, (ii) solar on buildings, (iii) onshore wind, (iv) hydroelectric installations, (v) innovative solar, (vi) self-consumption and (vii) a technology-neutral tender. The support takes the form of a premium on top of the electricity market price. The measure has a provisional total budget of around €30.5 billion. The scheme is open until 2026 and aid can be paid out for a maximum period of 20 years after the new renewable installation is connected to the grid.

Commission's assessment

The Commission assessed the measure under EU state aid rules, in particular the 2014 Guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy.

The Commission found that the aid is necessary to further develop the renewable energy generation to meet France's environmental goals. It also has an incentive effect, as the projects would otherwise not take place in the absence of public support. Furthermore, the aid is proportionate and limited to the minimum necessary, as the level of aid will be set through competitive tenders. In addition, the Commission found that the positive effects of the measure, in particular, the positive environmental effects outweigh any possible negative effects in terms of distortions to competition. Finally, France also committed to carry out an ex-post evaluation to assess the features and implementation of the renewables scheme.

On this basis, the Commission concluded that the French scheme is in line with EU State aid rules, as it will facilitate the development of renewable electricity production from various technologies in France and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the European Green Deal and without unduly distorting competition.

Background

The Commission's 2014 Guidelines on State Aid for Environmental Protection and Energy allow member states to support the production of electricity from renewable energy sources, subject to certain conditions. These rules aim to help member states meet the EU's ambitious energy and climate targets at the least possible cost for taxpayers and without undue distortions of competition in the Single Market.

The Renewable Energy Directive of 2018 established an EU-wide binding renewable energy target of 32% by 2030. With the European Green Deal Communication in 2019, the Commission reinforced its climate ambitions, setting an objective of no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050. The recently adopted European Climate Law, which enshrines the 2050 climate neutrality objective and introduces the intermediate target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, set the ground for the fit for 55' legislative proposals adopted by the Commission on 14 July 2021. Among these proposals, the Commission has presented an amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive, which sets an increased target to produce 40% of EU energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.50272 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the Competition Weekly e-News.

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Plastic waste

Plastic waste and recycling in the EU: Facts and figures

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Nearly a third of plastic waste in Europe is recycled. Find out more facts and figures on plastic waste and its recycling in the EU with this infographic, Society.

Infographic about plastic waste and recycling in Europe
Find out the facts about plastic waste and recycling in the EU  

The production of plastic has grown exponentially in just a few decades - from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 359 million tonnes in 2018 worldwide – and with it the amount of plastic waste. After a sharp drop in production in the first half of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production recovered again in the second half of the year.

The EU is already taking measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste, but what happens to the waste that is generated despite all efforts? And how can plastic recycling rates be increased?

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Plastic waste treatment in Europe

In Europe, energy recovery is the most used way to dispose of plastic waste, followed by recycling. Some 25% of all the generated plastic waste is landfilled.

Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU. Reasons for export include the lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally.

Previously, a significant share of the exported plastic waste was shipped to China, but recent restrictions on imports of plastic waste in China is likely to further decrease EU exports. This poses the risk of increased incineration and landfilling of plastic waste in Europe. Meanwhile, the EU is trying to find circular and climate-friendly ways of managing its plastic waste.

The low share of plastic recycling in the EU means significant losses for the economy as well as for the environment. It is estimated that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle.

Globally, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic pumped more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2019. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes, a part of which could be avoided through better recycling.

Read more about waste management in the EU.

Problems with plastic recycling

The main issues complicating plastic recycling are the quality and price of the recycled product, compared with their unrecycled counterpart. Plastic processors require large quantities of recycled plastic, manufactured to strictly controlled specifications and at a competitive price.

However, since plastics are easily customised to the needs - functional or esthetic - of each manufacturer, the diversity of the raw material complicates the recycling process, making it costly and affecting the quality  of the end product. As a consequence, the demand for recycled plastics is growing rapidly, though in 2018 it accounted for only 6% of plastics demand in Europe.

Find out more about EU plans to reach a circular economy by 2050, including plastic reduction.

EU solutions to increase recycling rates

In May 2018, the European Commission put forward a proposal to address the issue of plastic marine litter. It includes an EU ban on the production of the top 10 single-use plastics that are found on European beaches from 3 July 2021.

As part of the Green Deal, 55% of plastic packaging waste should be recycled by 2030. This would imply better design for recyclability, but MEPs believe measures to stimulate the market for recycled plastic are also needed.

These measures could include:

  • Creating quality standards for secondary plastics;
  • encouraging certification in order to increase the trust of both industry and consumers;
  • introducing mandatory rules on minimum recycled content in certain products, and;
  • encouraging EU countries to consider reducing VAT on recycled products.


The European Parliament also backed the restriction of light-weight plastic bags in the EU in 2015.

In addition MEPs called on the Commission to take action against micro plastics.

Read more about the EU strategy to reduce plastic waste.

Find out more 

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Environment

Water management: Commission consults to update lists of pollutants affecting surface and ground water

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The Commission has launched an online public consultation to seek views on the upcoming review of the lists of pollutants occurring in surface and ground waters, as well as on corresponding regulatory standards. This initiative is particularly important for implementing the recently adopted Zero Pollution Action Plan as part of the European Green Deal, and wider efforts to secure the more efficient and safer use of water.

Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “All Europeans should benefit from clean water. Ensuring good quality of surface and groundwater in Europe is paramount for human health and for the environment. Pollution caused by pesticides, manmade chemicals or from residues of pharmaceuticals must be avoided as much as possible. We want to hear your views on how this can best be achieved.”

A recent evaluation (‘fitness check') in December 2019, found EU water legislation to be broadly fit for purpose. However, improvement is needed on aspects such as investment, implementing rules, integrating water objectives into other policies, administrative simplification and digitalisation. This revision aims to address some of the shortcomings in relation to chemical pollution and the legal obligation to regularly review the lists of pollutants, as well as to help accelerate implementation. The public consultation is open for feedback until 1 November 2021. More information is in this news release.

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