The Way Forward for the EU Green Deal and Green Ambitions in Europe

Gustave Courbet: The Gust of Wind // Public domain

The EU’s Green Deal is a package of policy proposals introduced in 2019 by the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The aim of the package, which President von der Leyen described as “Europe’s man on the Moon moment” is making Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, decoupling economic growth from resource use, while ensuring that “no person and no place is left behind in the transition.”

However, with the next European Parliament elections approaching next year, von der Leyen’s Green Deal is facing pushback from her own European political grouping, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), as well as from many reluctant Member States. Meanwhile Frans Timmermans, the Executive Vice President of the Commission who was in charge of the implementation of the Green Deal, resigned from his position due to national political concerns. These political intrigues are threatening to put a halt to the bloc’s efforts to cut planet-warming emissions just after extreme heatwaves swept across Europe this summer.

What are the prospects of the Green Deal and the EU’s green ambitions? Can there be a Green Deal without Ursula von der Leyen, and, more importantly, without a supportive public? What has the Green Deal achieved so far, and what is still to be decided? In this article I will overview the prospects for the coming years in light of recent political events in Brussels and across the continent.

The Green Deal

The European Green Deal is a multifaceted policy initiative package, which offers measures to drastically limit the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and initiate a green transition. Its accompanying European Climate Law made the target of a 55% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 emission levels legally binding, and the “Fit for 55” package, the EU’s shorter term package prepares the bloc for the transition by detailing measures to ensure that this target is met.

The set of initiatives contains some very ambitious and controversial measures. The Renewable Energy Directive sets out to propel the European Union toward a greener energy future by significantly increasing the share of renewable energy sources in the overall energy mix. Simultaneously, the plan for a combustion engine ban sets out the course to phase out internal combustion engines and pave the way for electric transportation.

The Nature Restoration Law seeks to protect and restore Europe’s degrading ecosystems, striving to halt biodiversity loss, preserve natural habitats and enhance natural carbon sinks. Together, these initiatives form a comprehensive strategy aimed at steering the European Union toward a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future. This all sounds great in theory, but making it all come true is a delicate matter.

What the EU has set out to do is arguably quite ambitious – although environmental groups argue that still not ambitious enough to maintain under 1.5 degrees of warming, as set out in the Paris agreement to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. It requires significant changes in the coming years and decades to the lifestyle that citizens of Europe are used to.

The target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 demands considerable changes across various sectors, from energy and transportation to agriculture and industry. Gaining the required support for the policy changes can be a cumbersome task, often resulting in protracted negotiations and compromises. The Green Deal’s success hinges not only on overcoming these hardships but also on fostering collaboration, innovation, and social inclusion to build a sustainable and equitable future.

Political and Practical Challenges

Practical Challenges

Building a sustainable economy carries tremendous opportunities.

“Making our cities and industries more energy-efficient will protect them against volatile energy costs and geopolitical uncertainty, while investing in green technologies will create millions of high-paying jobs and drive economic prosperity” as Burkhard Jung, the president of Eurocities and the mayor of Leipzig explained in a recent opinion piece.

But as policymakers and citizens are considering taking that leap of faith, the Green Deal faces both practical and political challenges.

On the one hand, installing new technologies and modernising infrastructures requires (in some cases) enormous upfront investments. The energy crisis has prompted an explosive growth in demand for solar panels, and while the rise in solar power means most EU countries will hit their 2030 solar energy targets ahead of time, this makes grid improvements and the rapid rollout of storage technologies crucial.

Due to the intermittent nature of solar energy, it is crucial that the energy generated during sunny hours can be stored for when the sun is not shining – which is also the time when demand for energy tends to grow. But grid developments in many countries are lagging behind solar panel installations.

Earlier this year the Czech energy company had to temporarily stop hundreds of solar panels after they generated more power than the grid could handle. There is also the question of how and for how much should households be selling the surplus of the generated energy back to the grid. To incentivise the installation of more solar panels, governments need to come up with a system that ensures that citizens’ investments in the technology pay off on a foreseeable timescale.

Another key area of the energy transition that is far from reaching its potential is wind energy. Denmark, Ireland, and Germany, led the switch to wind power and are still powerhouses in the industry, with others, such as Sweden and Finland soon catching up. Innovation in floating wind turbines that are not fixed to the seabed has also opened up opportunities for wind power in Southern Member States, including Portugal, Spain and Greece.

However, other countries, such as the Baltic and Eastern Member States have a high potential but lack concrete policies and the industrial presence to make it a reality. Because of the slow deployment of the turbines, the EU is currently set to miss its 2030 wind energy targets, which is probably why in her State of the Union address last month Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the EU’s new Wind Power Package.

These large-scale upfront investments are also missing in other areas, due to a mix of complacency and shortsightedness. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken up these concerns. Germany, which used to rely on Russian natural gas, as well as oil and coal, faced an acute energy crisis following the EU sanctions on Russia. The German renewable sector fell short of the demand, and the country faced a dilemma: either they delay the closure of their three remaining nuclear reactors, which were scheduled to close down by the end of 2022, or they could choose the easier option and reactivate coal-fired power plants –  and miss completely their emission targets. The dilemma was caused by the urgency of the war, but it uncovered a decades-long blunder in German energy policy.

In the early 2000s, Germany decided to phase out nuclear entirely by 2022, however, no adequate plans were made to replace nuclear with other sustainable energy sources. The deployment of renewables was not fast enough, and reliance on Russian gas turned out to be unsustainable, exactly at the moment when Germany phased out nuclear entirely.

The war also exposed the investment shortfalls in Hungary. A long-standing flagship policy of the Fidesz-KDNP governments is the “utility price reduction” policy. The policy sharply reduced energy prices for consumers when it was first introduced in 2013.

However, this led to reckless consumption and a lack of investments in modernising energy inefficient buildings. The utility price cap put a heavy burden on state finances as global energy prices skyrocketed in 2022, and the government responded by capping the reduction for higher-usage households, leaving them to scramble for efficiency gains and cope with the sudden soar in prices.

Furthermore, in the renewable-energy sector the lack of workforce is now a key limiting factor that could hold back Europe’s transition to green energy. This skill shortage in the workforce – the people that are going to install the solar panels, manage the wind turbines and maintain the green-hydrogen grid needed for the energy transition – has been described as the Achilles heel of the Green Deal.

Europe, similarly to how the US did in its green subsidies package, should invest in these skills. Investing in this sector would also lead to its entrenchment and acceptance – once there is a sizable skilled workforce in the renewable sector, a newly elected political elite with anti-environmental sentiments could not so easily pull the plug on renewables, as it could no longer claim to be acting in the interest of protecting people’s jobs.

Political challenges

Securing the political backing for large scale investments is tricky, and most major initiatives face backlash from certain actors: workers in the fossil fuel industries, citizens affected by pricing policies, industrial actors, and many others. The plans are increasingly affecting voters’ day-to-day lives, making them harder to implement as more people worry that they lose out due to the changes.

The most well-known example is the Gilets Jaunes protest in France, which erupted in response to fuel tax hikes aimed at curbing emissions. Although initially President Macron seemed intent to deliver on his green campaign promises, even in the face of pushback, he eventually cancelled the fuel tax that caused the initial stir, and, earlier this year has called for a ‘pause’ on EU environmental regulation.

At the same time, France also stalled the acceptance of the Renewable Energy Directive, a key piece of the EU’s Fit for 55 package that aims to increase the share of renewables in the EU’s energy mix to 42.5 percent. The move came as France was trying to extract concessions for nuclear energy, the largest source of energy in the country since the 1980s.

France’s holdup evoked parallels with an earlier German push to block another key EU legislation, the Combustion Engine Ban. The ban would prevent all new CO2 emitting cars from entering the European market after 2035. Germany wanted to include a loophole for e-fuels – a type of carbon neutral, but energy-costly fuel – and, after weeks of tense negotiations, they did win partial concessions from the Commission. These hurdles coming from countries which are viewed as ‘leaders’ in the EU is not a good look, and sets a bad example for other Member States that are less eager about their green goals.

Meanwhile the European Parliament, which is traditionally more progressive on green issues, saw von der Leyen’s own party, the centre-right EPP attack another key piece of legislation of the Green Deal. The Nature Restoration Law, which sets binding targets to restore degraded ecosystems, and aims to boost Europe’s natural carbon sinks, is unpopular among farmers, as it sets limits on usable land and unsustainable farming practices.

According to the EPP, the Nature Restoration Law is “poorly worded” and risks increasing food prices and causing instability for those in the forestry, farming and fishing industries. Opponents of the EPP view this manoeuvre as a political stunt before the European elections. Although the group narrowly failed to scrap the law, by eliminating all restoration targets for wetlands, it was able to considerably undermine it. The EPP is also seeking to water down other environmental bills, such as the Pesticide Reduction Act.

Despite these disappointing developments, President von der Leyen’s State of the Union address gave a glimmer of hope. In her speech, von der Leyen did not treat environmental issues as a separate topic, but rather as a connecting thread behind all other concerns of the EU. “Climate mainstreaming,” an approach that has officially been embraced by the EU nearly a decade ago, requires initiatives in all policy areas to consider environmental concerns in their design, implementation and evaluation phases. However, up to this moment we have rarely seen an EU politician truly treat the climate as an overriding concern for all policy areas, even rhetorically.

What Is at Stake at the Next European Election?

The European Parliamentary elections next June could determine the fate of the Green Deal. The next Commission and Parliament will play a key role in implementing the Green Deal, especially in reaching its 2030 targets, as they will be in power until 2029, and during this time they will have to make important decisions. According to the forecasts issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global warming to around 1.5°C (the target of the Paris Agreement) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest and to fall by 43 percent by 2030. The EU’s actions in this current decade will be decisive.

The elections, introduced in 1979 to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU, take place every five years on four consecutive days in all of the Member States. The Members of the European Parliament are directly elected by EU citizens, and they in turn influence the choice of the President of the European Commission through the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, wherein each major European political party nominates its candidate for the role of Commission President before the EP elections. The Spitzenkandidat of the largest party would then have a mandate to assume the Commission Presidency.

The system was first used in 2014, however, in the following election the Spitzenkandidat of the winning party group, Manfred Weber, was not chosen for the position, which went instead to Ursula von der Leyen. It is likely that the Spitzenkandidaten system will be used again, but we do not know who the major parties are going to put forward, and Von der Leyen has not yet announced her intentions concerning rerunning for the presidency. This makes the future of the Green Deal, tied intimately to von der Leyen as her flagship policy, uncertain.

Moreover, the politician who “embodied” the Green Deal recently left Brussels: Commission climate chief Frans Timmermans returned to Dutch politics for November’s general election as the lead candidate for the alliance of the Labour Party and the Greens. The “father of the Green Deal” has decided to abandon his position as Vice President of the Commission to help his party in the upcoming national election, where current polls show the Labour-Green alliance closely behind the incumbent Mark Rutte’s VVD and a new party, the Christian Democratic New Social Contract.

Timmermans’ decision to leave his position to strengthen social democratism and green politics in his home country is a wise one, but it might spell trouble for the Green Deal. Timmermans’ Commissioner tasks will be divided between his fellow Commissioner, the Slovakian Maroš Šefčovič and the conservative Dutch nominee to replace Timmermans, Wopke Hoekstra. The two politicians faced tough questioning at an EP hearing in the beginning of October, where especially left-leaning MEPs raised concerns on their nominations to the EU’s top environmental positions, but eventually they won the necessary support from the Parliament.

Meanwhile, rising prices and inflation, concerns about energy security, and the war in Ukraine might reshuffle the priorities of European voters. In 2019 European citizens ranked climate change as the number 1 most important issue that the EU faces, but by now it is perceived to be only the fourth most important one, after the rising cost of living, the energy supply, and the international situation. The heightened attention that environmental issues received in 2019 favoured green parties, and paved the way for the creation of the Green Deal. The shift in priorities could lead to a more conservative Parliament that focuses on other issues, such as the cost of living.

As mentioned before, the implementation of the Green Deal would require major shifts in the economies of the Member States, and in the short term, it will negatively affect the livelihoods of certain groups. Whether the new Parliament and Commission would decide to push for a green transition as much as the current one does will depend on what issues voters prioritise in the election, and how entrenched the green policies will be by the time the new EU leaders take their seats. According to the European Green Deal Barometer, (the Institute for European Environmental Policy’s annual survey with hundreds of experts) 61% of respondents are “cautiously optimistic” about the Green Deal’s resilience following the 2024 elections.

Some recent events might push voters towards green parties again. The effects of climate change have been fiercer than before in Europe in the past few years. Protracted heat waves, forest fires and floods have made it clearer than ever before for the citizens of Europe that climate change is not a thing of the distant future, it is happening here and now. Moreover, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy independence has rapidly climbed to the top of priority lists. A campaign built on achieving energy autonomy through the use of renewables could be a popular one.

The reality of the EP elections shouldn’t be overlooked either; they are “second-order” compared to national elections, meaning that they are seen as less important for voters, parties and the media. As a result, turnout tends to be lower than in national elections (although the most recent election saw an increase in turnout, and a recent EU survey indicates that turnout in 2024 could be higher still), and voters are more prone to vote for protest parties, or fringe parties, rather than the mainstream parties they would vote for in a national election. This way, second-order elections are often used by voters to punish or reward the current governing parties. This may favor the Green parties (as it did in 2019), but it could also boost the popularity of Eurosceptics and far-right parties, who oppose the green transition.

Election polls currently forecast the decreasing popularity of the Greens, and significant wins for the European Conservatives and Reformists, as well as new, unaffiliated parties. But with 7 months to go there is still time to turn the tide – for better or for worse.

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Sara Kende
Republikon Institute