Green Talking Heads

Fit for Climate

Bas Eickhout

Member of the European Parliament - Greens/EFA

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Fit for Climate

Climate campaigner Rheanna Johnston is in conversation with Bas Eickhout, a member GroenLinks and the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, to discuss the latest battleground in the fight against the climate crisis: the Fit-for-2030 file.

A big set of legislation on climate and energy policy for the EU also known as the Fit-for-2030 and most annoyingly the Fit-for-55 (the 55% comes from the EU’s new 2030 emissions reductions target, but Greens were calling for more in line with the science!).

‘I’ve been working on environmental issues, really, all my life,’ Eickhout begins. He tells the story of how he went to university for environmental studies and was ultimately drawn to climate science.

In fact, he was mostly doing climate modelling until 2009, when he became a parliamentarian. He explains that it became clear to him that the problem wasn’t at the scientific level, but at the political level. He realised that he needed to at least try to affect change in that arena. “I can always get old and complain afterwards,” he jokes.

‘This is the decade where it all needs to happen’

Bas Eickhout clearly lays out that this decade is the most crucial decade for climate action. Not only do we need to ensure that certain industries phase out fossil fuels, we also need to make sure that others are on track to do so in the near future. Due to other, disappointing, pieces of the European Green Deal so far, the overhaul that this first real legislative package can offer is also seen as a way to save the deal from being entirely watered down:

“Until now, we’ve seen a lot of communications strategies, all kind of ambitions, which is great. You know, it’s great reading. But this is now the legislative package. Now it needs to happen with legislation and putting standards, getting a carbon price for pollution, that needs to happen. (…) I mean, we need to get rid of coal, there are really actions that need to be taken. And it’s fighting. It’s really fighting. There’s a lot of resistance, a lot of fossil industry getting nervous and are pushing back, [and] a lot of countries getting nervous realizing, wow, this is really a big effort.”

According to Eickhout, this is exactly the moment for a Green pushback:

“If we don’t do it, we miss this decade, and then then we have really big problems with our climate system. It’s a make or break moment for the Green Deal.”

The key elements of the package

Bas Eickhout explains why carbon pricing is one of the strongest instruments that can be implemented at the EU level, and why it has been chosen over a carbon tax.

“Climate neutrality, you only achieve that when there is ambition at the National Capital level at the regional level and at the European level, we need action on all levels. And, and in Brussels, the strongest instrument you have is of course, a pricing instrument, this emission trading, so it’s the entire European industry falls under it.”

The Emissions Trading System (ETS), also called a cap-and-trade system, is essentially a carbon pricing scheme that covers the European industry and energy sectors. It uses trading among actors in the scheme to set a price on pollution, while also simultaneously setting a clear cap for the amount of pollution permitted.

This scheme allows trading among actors of a set number of allowances for emissions. These allowances essentially function as a unit of emissions of which a set number are initially distributed to actors in the scheme. The actors, or emitters, can then trade among themselves – buying more allowances if they cannot reduce emissions quickly, or selling them if they can quickly reduce emissions, effectively creating a price on pollution. The number of allowances available in the scheme is reduced each year by lawmakers, so that this creates a ceiling that goes down over time for how much industry can pollute.

The essential question here is to ensure that the ceiling of allowances goes down quick enough to meet our climate targets, and that the price of polluting is high enough that industries are forced to innovate rather than simply buy new allowances. Conversely, a direct carbon tax, which simply puts a direct price on every unit of pollution, can be a good solution as well but would be nearly impossible to implement in the EU, as it would require every country to agree with it.

Eickhout also explains why the Greens are critical about the expansion of the ETS into the public transport and building sectors. In contrast to the other industries, they have an immediate impact on consumers. Under the carbon pricing scheme, high polluters are likely to pass down some of the cost of paying for their pollution to consumers – while small increases in cement prices may not be immediately felt, even a small increase in heating prices can make a big difference. This means lower income households will be hit hardest as they will struggle most to find suitable and affordable alternatives for things like heating our homes or driving to work. Without adequate social measures, this has the potential for creating an instrument that is just augmenting the social inequality that we are already having in Europe.

The ETS therefore can’t be a ‘silver bullet solution’, as Rheanna Johnston rightly highlights. Other policies that drive investment, innovation, and support a Just Transition to decarbonize need to accompany the ETS for it to be successful. For instance, Bas points out that it was primarily the success of the Renewable Energy Directive which set strict targets for the build out of renewables that has made renewable energies competitive with fossil fuels. Carbon pricing is only one tool in the toolbox we need to solve the climate crisis.

The Emissions Trading System for Carbon Pricing

This piece builds on the CO2 standards that we already have for cars in the EU – which sets limits for the permitted level of CO2 emissions for the car industry – but goes much further, by pushing for net-zero emissions in cars:

“This is the moment where we say we have to go to zero, just zero emission targets, no more CO2 from a car. And that (…) boils down to the end of the combustion engine for new cars.”

Phasing out the combustion engine will mean cleaner cities in terms of air pollution and noise. Greens are calling for this phase out to be implemented by making car and van production fully electric by 2030. This will also mean that we need the infrastructure necessary to charge these cars. That’s why another piece of legislation that the Greens want, includes an obligation for member states to deliver on their infrastructure for charging.

The electricity also needs to be clean, however, because, as Eickhout puts it ‘an electric car running on coal doesn’t really make it better.’ Indeed, just replacing a combustion engine by an electric one will not solve the whole problem. We will also need transport policies that reduce the total level of transport and promote other means of transport aside from the car – such as biking and public transport.

Eickhout and Johnston also explored the fear that certain industries have around change, and how that might impact jobs. Eickhout emphasised the importance of social policies to ensure a just transition:

“Of course, this is a transition. And indeed, some industry will change. And that means people need to change also the way of working. This is why policies are so important, to provide that certainty of how it will change and when it will change. And then to make sure you put social policies in place so that this transition is a socially just transition.”

Three key demands from Bas Eickhout

The Fit for Climateis the first real legislative package that can start to set us on the right path in this coming decade. But it is also part of a complex ecology of policies that are each, on their own, being fought for by different interests. Eickhout leaves us with three key demands for the Fit for Climate:

  1. needing the general level of ambition to be high;
  2. putting energy efficiency first;
  3. and making sure we don’t create new problems by approaching the topic holistically.

Green MEPs like Bas Eickhout who know the science are trying to ensure that all of the pieces necessary to tackle the climate crisis are there – and that we don’t lose heart in the process. He admits, ‘sometimes you get a bit depressed, right?’, but is quick to emphasise the importance protests and public pressure:

“I can understand people think I can’t influence this. This is so big. But really, this Green Deal and this agenda would have never been on our table without (…) the public pressure on climate. It moved politicians. You know, don’t underestimate the impact you have. (…) Keep the pressure up, keep organizing yourself, you’re not alone and your voices are being heard.”

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