In now-or-never urgency, world looks to EU to lead climate war

There is now an urgency in the mission as climate change becomes a real and present danger.

By Jon Van Housen, Mariella Radaelli

Published: Wed 27 Oct 2021, 12:11 AM

It’s the most important conference on climate change ever held. As leaders, scientists and activists gather in Glasgow, Scotland starting next week for the COP26 UN-sponsored forum, even sceptics are aware that extreme weather events are hitting with greater frequency globally.

And with all the previous and preliminary meetings laying the groundwork, COP26 is the time and place for real tangible action. There is now an urgency in the mission as climate change becomes a real and present danger. Glasgow is also the setting for the 27-member European Union to show its true strength as it leads the battle against climate change through its own measures, for example as a role model and ability to leverage others.

In the lead-up to COP26, the EU Parliament approved a common negotiating position for one of the bloc’s toughest ministers – Dutchman Frans Timmermans – to advocate as he leads the charge.

And make no mistake: The EU is leading the way as the world’s most prepared and determined centre of power in the fight against climate change. Before the pandemic hit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had already placed climate change as the No. 1 priority and marshalled the funding and players to back it up.

Central to the effort is a plan for trading in carbon emissions that has serious economic disincentives for any non-compliant producer globally. And it is underpinned with specific target goals that reach just five years into the future, not some theoretical horizon decades hence.

Similar to how its privacy and data protection laws affected the global internet, the EU’s carbon rules will impact manufacturers and energy consumers worldwide. As the wealthiest region in the world and the biggest trader in goods and services, if you want to do business internationally, you will have to meet EU rules. It can truly set the global standard.

Tasked by their own voters and consumers, European leaders and manufacturers are clear they intend to implement a bold move away from the old carbon-based paradigm for power and production. A measure of how deep that runs is an announcement last week by Volkswagen, the world’s biggest carmaker, that it will no longer build vehicles in Europe with internal combustion engines by 2035. Given the deep tradition and long history of the engines that powered the world for more than a century, it was a historic announcement.

And the EU knows it must step up now because other superpowers cannot or will not fully commit to firm action in the near future.

Although US President Joe Biden has re-engaged the international effort there is no clear program on how the US proposes to transform its own economy and move away from carbon-emitting production. And to get his budget through Congress, Biden appears to be scaling back even the cautious level of ambition in his clean energy program.

For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would stop funding new coal plants abroad but rolling blackouts in October have put Beijing’s timetable for ending the use of coal at home into question. Power outages in northeastern China plunged millions of homes into darkness and triggered factory shutdowns. Even the state-run Global Times newspaper termed the electricity cuts “unexpected” and “unprecedented”.

At the same time, near-panic about soaring gas, oil and electricity prices in Europe and elsewhere – though unrelated to the transition away from carbon – has put the need for renewable energy in the spotlight.

But even with its advantages, how can the EU ensure something tangible emerges from Glasgow by the time the summit ends on Nov. 12? The EU Parliament tasked Timmermans to be a “bridge-builder”, a job that includes bringing wealthy nations together with the less affluent, a strategy it said helped achieve real results at past climate negotiations.

In such a new global effort combining science, diplomacy and action, the learning curve has been steep. At one of the first real summits on climate change, held in Copenhagen in 2009, major greenhouse gas emitters arrived with few if any concrete proposals. When the conference was over, they mostly continued on as before.

By 2015, the threat seemed more immediate than before and the EU had learned how to better operate in the new diplomatic dynamic. At the landmark meeting in Paris, the EU helped form an informal group of developed and developing countries committed to supporting the common goal of a real transition to a green economy. The target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels was established, and developed countries pledged to help fund efforts by the poorest countries.

So the Paris Agreement was signed. But in the six years since, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb, even in the pandemic-stricken year of 2020. Wealthy nations also have not kept their promise to provide $100 billion a year to poor countries to help fund the green transition. The EU will need to exert real pressure on the US and others to deliver their share.

Discussion of the climate crisis was once considered a rather arcane debate over something that sceptics said was not even real, or perhaps just a theoretical calculation made by eccentrics and otherworldly scientists. It seemed far away for many, more akin to the periodic announcements on the behaviour of black holes in deep space.

Yet today, Germans and Belgians are continuing to rebuild following catastrophic floods last summer and another “bomb cyclone” threatens the western US at the very moment final preparations are underway in Glasgow for COP26.

The challenge is real and the EU says it is equally serious about getting real plans in place. Considered hobbled at times by the self-interest of member nations, the EU knows it must now lead and force others to follow. The time has come for a shared solution to a shared global threat.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan

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