Opinion and Editorial

Europe's green credentials will be tested

Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)
Filed on November 30, 2019 | Last updated on November 30, 2019 at 09.26 pm

Timmermans will perhaps have to be as heroic as the Dutch boy in the tale by Hans Brinker who saves his town by plugging his finger in a leaking dike, holding back the waters in time for residents to react.

With climate change set as the top priority in her five-year tenure, Ursula von der Leyen took the reins as president of the European Commission last week amid a backdrop so dramatic it could have been scripted in a Hollywood movie.

High tides had just devastated Venice, the Arno River was threatening Florence, and scientists announced that more than 1,000 glaciers have now disappeared from the Alps. As she was sworn into office von der Leyen told the European Parliament that climate change was an 'existential' challenge. "We don't have a moment to waste anymore," she said.

The newly seated EU parliament responded by declaring a "climate emergency" in Europe and globally ahead of a UN climate change conference set for Madrid from December 2 to 13. The goal is to limit additional global warming to under 1.5 °C.

Girding for the battle, von der Leyen wants a ?1 trillion climate-related war chest and has named one of the EU's most able administrators, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, as Green Czar, with sweeping powers to ensure compliance in projects and funding.

Most of the massive sum would come from the EU budget, with the rest from the European Investment Bank (EIB), EU member states and the private sector.

The parliament also mandated a strategy to reach climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, and a target of 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of the European Green Deal.

Von der Leyen said that the transition to climate neutrality has to be achieved in a sustainable way, keeping onboard workers, regions and governments that still rely on coal for jobs, energy needs, and economic growth. "It must be inclusive or it will not happen at all," she said.

The EU legislature and leadership from a range of political persuasions are in rare consonance with the people of Europe. A study released by the EIB last week shows almost half of all Europeans fear climate change more than losing a job or a terrorist attack. Some 47 per cent view climate change as the number one threat to their everyday life.

For a continent that thrives on culture perhaps more than any other on the planet, the image of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice awash in knee-deep seawater was shocking, forcing even more residents to consider the enormous possible effects of climate change.

Mario Piana, an architect in charge of the basilica, said "St Mark's is like a person who has been exposed to radiation - on day one, nothing seems to be the matter, but then the hair, the teeth begin to fall out."

Venice also serves as a potent metaphor for the powerlessness of man in the face of profound natural forces, showing that simply throwing money at a problem will not always solve it. Following destructive flooding in the historic canal city 50 years ago, the European and world engineering and art communities formulated a sea barrier project designed to hold back future devastating tides.

Sixteen years after construction work began on the MOSE barrier and after an expenditure of ?6 billion, the project has failed to have any discernible effect when most needed, starkly demonstrating the limits of our alleged cleverness. A major corruption scandal stopped work on the barrier in 2014 and technical problems have surfaced. Even as the ambitious project is apparently 93 per cent finished, Venetians are furious as they bail water from their shops and landmarks.

As he assumes his duties with the title Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Timmermans will have to marshal his forces and organise an administration that is able to forestall corruption and waste. But unlike the MOSE barrier, the effort is intended to address the root cause of the problem rather than building defenses again the impact.

A leaked internal memo tasks him with "mainstreaming sustainability". The commission will also fight "incoherent legislation that reduces the effectiveness in delivering the Green Deal," said the document.

Timmermans and his administration will also be empowered to "screen and benchmark green budgeting practices" both at EU and national levels, with an action plan on green financing expected by June 2020. The brief extends to all forms of transport, energy generation, and a range of agricultural practices in an effort to significantly lower carbon emissions. The commission also intends to review all legislation on air and water quality, as well as the manufacture and use of chemicals, with a view to "eliminating all sources of pollution." But with 27 national policies and a range of economies and cultures at play, the task could be as complex as the weather itself.

Timmermans will perhaps have to be as heroic as the Dutch boy in the tale by Hans Brinker who saves his town by plugging his finger in a leaking dike, holding back the waters in time for residents to react.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com

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