Tensions at the Greek-Turkish border and the coronavirus show why the European Union needs a climate law that binds member states to net zero emissions by 2050, the EU’s top official on climate action has said.
Frans Timmermans, a European commission vice-president who leads on the climate emergency, said the different crises facing Europe underscored the need for a climate law in order not to lose track of reducing emissions.
The long-awaited climate law unveiled on Wednesday is the centrepiece of the European Green Deal, a plan to transform Europe’s economy, promised by the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, within her first 100 days.
“It will be our compass for the next 30 years and it will guide us every step as we build a sustainable new growth model,” Von der Leyen said announcing the law.
Some political leaders have argued that the commission needs to focus on the protection of the EU’s external border, rather than the climate crisis – arguments that Timmermans rejected. “The focus this week should be completely on the happening in Syria, in Turkey and what is happening in Greece, should be on containing the coronavirus and solving it. That’s absolutely a priority,” he said. The climate law was “so important”, because “it allows you to focus on other things without losing track of what you need to do to reach climate neutrality”.
“Even if the Eye of Sauron is on something else for a bit, the trajectory to 2050 will be clear,” he said, in a reference to the dark forces in the Lord of the Rings. “Because we discipline ourselves with the climate law.”
Speaking to the Guardian and six other European newspapers shortly before the law was published, Timmermans said the proposal was revolutionary because all EU legislation would have to be in line with net zero emissions by the mid-century.
Even before the text was officially released, the climate activist Greta Thunberg and teenage school strike leaders across Europe gave a blistering verdict, accusing the commission of ignoring climate science.
Thunberg, who is meeting Von der Leyen, Timmermans and the rest of the commission’s top team, described the law as “surrender”. In an open letter, she said it failed to respect the goal of capping global heating at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – an aspiration the EU signed up to in the 2015 Paris agreement.
She repeated that message at a meeting with MEPs on the European parliament’s environment committee on Wednesday. “In November 2019 the European parliament declared a climate and environment emergency,” she said. “You stated that yes, the house is actually burning, this was no false alarm, but then you went back inside, finished your dinner and watched your movie and went to bed without even calling the fire department.
“When your house is on fire you don’t wait a few more years to start putting it out, and yet this is what the commission are proposing today.”
Earlier at a private meeting with EU commissioners the teenage activist was told by Timmermans that the movement she started was the reason the European Green Deal and climate law exists.
The climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a former vice-chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said the EU was aiming too low and its current targets on reducing emissions set in 2014 were not in line with the 1.5C goal.
An IPCC report in 2018 showed that going beyond 1.5C, even by half a degree, would significantly increase the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for millions of people.
Van Ypersele said the EU should be aiming for carbon neutrality one decade earlier. “If a region as technologically rich, as scientifically rich as the EU is only able to achieve that by 2050 how can you imagine that the rest of the world will do that by the same year? I don’t think it’s very likely.”
A dozen EU member states have also voiced reservations about Timmermans’ timetable for proposing an EU climate target for 2030, widely seen as a crucial goal if the world is not to exceed its carbon budget.
Timmermans plans to set out the EU’s 2030 goal in September, but the dozen countries argue this is too late to galvanise the rest of the world to make commitments at crucial UN climate talks in Glasgow at the end of the year.
The vice-president rejected these arguments, saying his officials needed the summer to do a thorough impact assessment of the 2030 goal. “If the commission were to come out with a not duly assessed number we would have months and months of discussion about a percentage and then the EU would not have a position either.”
He said the EU’s 2030 target would be in time for the EU to have a position at the Cop26 talks in Glasgow.
Timmermans also voiced confidence in the British government’s preparations for Cop26. Campaigners have been concerned about a shaky start, with the new Cop26 president – the business secretary, Alok Sharma – only appointed three weeks ago, after his predecessor was abruptly sacked. The UK has yet to set out a strategy or timetable for the cconference, widely seen as critical to getting the world back on track with the 2015 Paris goals.
“The UK has formidable capacities in this area,” he said, adding that Brexit had not created a rift between the EU and UK over climate goals. “Brexit weakens the EU, full stop. And, in my view, weakens the UK, full stop,” he said. “I don’t see any object of discord, or disagreement or confrontation between EU and United Kingdom on this issue, of making a success of Glasgow.”
But he is likely to face a tougher response from governments in central and eastern Europe that are wary of rapid action on the climate emergency, especially Poland, which generates 80% of its electricity from coal.
The climate law means governments failing to meet targets could be taken to the European court of justice and fined.
Timmermans said “the hardest, hardest thing we will have to do” is guaranteeing that the European Green Deal will benefit the whole of society.
He said he was angered by claims that tackling climate change was against the poor, while acknowledging that a failure to benefit everyone carried risks. “If we are not able to show that it is done in a fair way more and more people will say no, we will give food to extremist parties, who will try to demonstrate that this is only a plan for Tesla-driving tofu eaters.
“But the real victims of the climate crisis will be the poorest people in society. They have no other place to go.”