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Can a 'green czar' turn the tide on climate change?

The new climate effort will also require revamping the way the EU uses and produces energy.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 29 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 29 Sep 2019, 10:12 PM

Before millions marched across the globe to demand action on climate change over the past two weekends, the new European Commission had already taken on the daunting task of making the European Union the global leader in the fight against environmental warming, even putting a "super vice-president" in charge.
But even with sweeping powers Dutchman Frans Timmermans faces the challenge of his long political life in actually bringing an unwieldy bureaucracy to bear and affect real change. As part of the executive arm of the bloc, the EC sets an agenda and coordinates action between governments of member states.
The vast task also requires him to supervise the work of other commissioners that handle energy, fishing, agriculture, transport and food safety. With the formal title of executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, he will attempt to help the EU meet its pledged goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
New Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has given her team 100 days after assuming office on November 1 to come up with a blueprint to meet the deadline. Among the short-term measures she wants are expanding the carbon emissions trading system to shipping, reducing allowances in the aviation sector and a carbon border tax that would place an import tariff on goods with greenhouse-gas intensive processes.
"I want the European Green Deal to become Europe's hallmark," said von der Leyen. "At the heart of it is our commitment to becoming the world's first climate-neutral continent."
The new climate effort will also require revamping the way the EU uses and produces energy as well as boosting private investment and greater support for clean technologies. Timmermans will also be in charge of a transition fund designed to help countries shift away from fossil fuels.
The job will also require him to hold members accountable in implementing existing climate legislation including carbon market reform and individual nation's efforts in sectors such as transport, buildings and agriculture.
As always in the EU, he will have to balance the needs of member countries. Some want faster climate action while others are concerned about remaining competitive in the global economy.
Germany and France are pushing for aggressive action. Last week, Germany announced its own 54 billion euro package designed to boost its national emissions trading system and incentives for mass transit. It promised to raise public spending on mass transit systems to 1 billion euros annually from 2021.
Its Green party has been around for three decades but only recently became a significant player in Germany's government as more voters, particularly the young, set climate change as their No 1 priority in government policy.
France has rolled out another grand plan on the environment that includes various measures in urban planning, industry, farming, tourism and natural zones. But the limit of aggressive measures was made clear last year when an environmentally driven fuel tax increase provoked prolonged protests by the "yellow vest" movement that turned violent. France dropped the measure and has not proposed it in next year's budget as well.
It is just a taste of the complexity of the task ahead for Timmermans. Himself a leading candidate for the position that went to von der Leyen, the veteran EU politician already has a fraught relationship with the governments of Poland, Hungary and Romania after clashes over the rule of law. Those counties helped block his bid for the EC's top job.
Under the new administration, he will be the second-most powerful executive on the commission in a setup that gives him consolidated power over climate policy, eliminating the previous arrangement that saw commissioners jostling in turf battles.
Before being named the "green czar", Timmermans already voiced concern about people and groups who opposed attempts by the EU and national governments to drop single-use plastics or require cars with lower emissions. "This is the game of those who deny climate change or who deny the need for sustainability," he said. "They say: 'They are going to take everything away from us. They are going to take our cars away from us, they are going to take our steaks from us, they are going to take all the things that make life nice away from us. So let's not go there.'
"It is a false contradiction," said Timmermans. "If we put our policies in the right order, we have a sustainable society without lowering but even increasing our levels of wellbeing. Is wellbeing only economic growth? Only salaries? Or is wellbeing also being able to breathe clean air and drink clean water?"
Pascal Canfin, the head of the environment commission in the European Parliament, says the new role makes Timmermans "one of the main politicians in the world with a lot of power in his hands - he understands very well that he has an exceptional political window. He has the means to succeed."
But as extraordinary weather events continue to rise in strength and frequency, some question how much will be done in the real world and even whether it is already too late.
They wonder if even a hard-headed Dutchman with sweeping power can literally turn the tide.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan

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