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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

Climate Diplomacy: EVP Timmermans and HR/VP Borrell welcome the US return to the Paris Agreement and engage with Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry

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Following the inauguration of President Biden, the EU is immediately engaging with the new US Administration on tackling the climate crisis. In a bilateral videoconference on 21 January, Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, will discuss the preparation of the COP26 climate summit with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Executive Vice-President Timmermans and High-Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell issued a Joint Statement, welcoming the decision by President Biden for the United States to re-join the Paris Agreement: “We are looking forward to having the United States again at our side in leading global efforts to combat the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and it can only be tackled by combining all our forces. Climate action is our collective global responsibility. COP26 in Glasgow this November will be a crucial moment to increase global ambition, and we will use the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings to build towards this. We are convinced that if all countries join a global race to zero emissions, the whole planet will win.”

The EU submitted a new Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC Secretariat in December 2020, as part of its implementation of the Paris Agreement. The EU has committed to a 55% net reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, as a stepping stone to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. The Joint Statement is available online here.

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United States re-joining the Paris Agreement - Statement by Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans and High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell

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"The European Union welcomes the decision by President Biden for the United States to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change. We are looking forward to having the United States again at our side in leading global efforts to combat the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and it can only be tackled by combining all our forces. Climate action is our collective global responsibility.

"The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November will be a crucial moment to increase global ambition, and we will use the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings to build towards this. We are convinced that if all countries join a global race to zero emissions, the whole planet will win."

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Reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement

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“To drive systemic change towards true circularity, regulation and action must be based on science and facts. Reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 calls for a revision in the way we use energy and natural resources and how we are able to create a circular economy today – as businesses, as governments, as individuals,” writes Finnish food packaging producer Huhtamaki President and CEO Charles Héaulmé.

“This will not happen on its own. Innovation, investment and political commitment are key for making circular economy a reality. We must also foster a new culture of cooperation, where the best solutions lead the way.

Charles Héaulmé, President and CEO of the Finnish food packaging producer Huhtamaki

Charles Héaulmé, President and CEO of the Finnish food packaging producer Huhtamaki

For industry, designing for circularity remains a serious challenge, especially where structural gaps – such as the lack of common infrastructures – exist. This is particularly true for the packaging sector and dealing with these gaps must begin with an acknowledgment of the need for a systemic transition from a linear to a circular approach, where products are not just recyclable but they are actually recycled. As this paradigm shift affects all sectors and policy domains, we must join forces to develop and provide the most effective solutions together – in Europe, and on a global level.

This is no easy task. To succeed, we must ensure that what we do is based on science and facts. A good example is the issue of plastic waste, which is a serious environmental problem worldwide. Plastic is crucial for so many essential products and applications, such as in medicine, but its longevity brings about challenges at the waste disposal stage. As a result, we are seeing many governments tackle the situation by implementing rapid bans for certain single-use products that contain plastic.

But in reality, plastic is crucial to our world when used in the right way: what we are dealing with are the very visible failures in the end-of-life management of products made from plastic. These would be better handled through a combined effort of material innovation and efficient end-of-life management. So instead of concentrating on the life span of a product, we should be paying closer attention to what these products are made of – and how the materials themselves can be recycled and then reused. We should also not be afraid to recognize that what works in one country or region of the world might not immediately work in another. There are differences between nations reflecting size, population density, actual infrastructures and levels of economic development.

This focus on materials is, we firmly believe, a crucial part of the equation for systemic change. For businesses, innovation is the key to unlocking the competitive sustainable solutions needed to create a circular economy for the materials used to make packaging, reduce our carbon footprint and ensure resource efficiency.

While we must be bold in our vision and set clear goals on where we want to go, we must also remember that much innovation is incremental and disruptive innovation often requires significant time and investment. When seeking the most environmentally ambitious and viable solutions, we must take into account the entire life cycle of products and create circular business models that ensure the optimal use of our global resources while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction.

At the outset, we see four key elements to driving the necessary change:

An infrastructure revolution
We need to understand where gaps exist in each country’s current infrastructure related to circularity – such as waste labelling and collection, and end-of-life management – then introduce policies and mechanisms to bridge these gaps and provide waste management and recycling systems that meet the needs of the 21st  century. Material charges can prove to be good incentives, but we should also look at enhanced producer responsibility and new forms of ownership of materials.

Empowering transformative innovation

We must ensure that policies support continued innovation and competitive sustainability by creating a framework which provides incentives for innovation that will help us to deliver the Green Deal. Instead of picking the winners, policymakers should set clear directions to drive efficiencies and lower carbon. By using Life Cycle Thinking to assess the true impact of regulatory and legislative proposals, policymakers can also help embed outcome-focused policy design.

Incentivizing consumers to change

Circular business models should incentivize consumers to reuse, repair and recycle – for example, by ensuring that doing so offers them better quality products and services. In addition, education and inspiration are powerful tools that policymakers and business alike should use to end littering and pollution.

Science-led policy making

By ensuring facts and evidence are the foundation for consumer-behaviour, decision-making and regulation, we are far more likely to deliver the best environmental outcomes. We firmly believe we need enabling regulation founded on scientific evidence and facts, which supports and stimulates innovation

If we are to succeed, we need to be pragmatic and work together, agnostic of technology, material or sector. No one organization can do this alone. We must work with one another across the value chain and look at what actions are required in each region or country to enable efficient material use and to ensure that end-of-life solutions are not only attainable but more importantly, sustainable. We should create general conditions for circular businesses to flourish so that looking at each industry individually and creating rules per sector – whether for packaging, car parts or electronics, for example – becomes unnecessary.

The issue is not about single- or multi-use, but about raw materials. To deliver a truly systemic shift, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture. We need to base ourselves on the science and the expertise of those that, working together, can make a difference.

Now is the time for change. Industry and policymakers must come together to build the platforms that enable both value-chain and cross-value-chain working; and which are themselves linked to the organizations and mechanisms which policymakers have established. By using science, innovation and investment in a public-private partnership we can deliver the best solutions for people and the planet, starting today.

Charles Héaulmé
President and CEO
Huhtamaki

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