Time to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, says European civil society

Met dank overgenomen van Kroatisch voorzitterschap Europese Unie 1e helft 2020 (Kroatisch voorzitterschap) i, gepubliceerd op maandag 15 juni 2020, 8:00.

As Europe slowly emerges from the coronavirus crisis, the climate emergency is starting to regain the place it deserves, coming back to the top of the EU i agenda.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which brings together civil society organisations from all Member States, developed this Opinion in response to a request by the Republic of Croatia's Presidency of the Council of the EU. The protection of the environment and the fight against climate change are the presidency's key issues.

Toni Vidan, rapporteur of the Opinion, emphasises that "the speed of transition will depend on the courage shown by decision makers. It is time to stimulate EU-level debate on improving financing for the increasing needs of the transition to a low-carbon economy. We need to support decentralised decarbonisation projects and ensure active involvement and ownership by citizens and local communities."

The EESC therefore welcomes the recent European Council conclusions and the announced European Green Deal i, with the joint objective of securing the transition to a low-carbon economy. This long-term plan sets the terms for Europe to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

The EESC also supports the resolution by the European Parliament to place the European Green Deal at the heart of the upcoming EU recovery and reconstruction package - a key policy underpinning the acceleration in the transition. The EESC underlines that the European Green Deal Investment Plan along with the Just Transition Fund (aimed at supporting workers and citizens in the regions most impacted by the transition) are the first steps in the right direction.

Co-rapporteur Dimitris Dimitriadis points out that "in order to achieve a just transition to a new green economy in a post-COVID reconstruction, the political, social and economic inclusion of all citizens, communities and SMEs is essential, leaving no-one behind."

One of the lessons of this pandemic, while the world ground to a halt, is that we need to shift away from the use of fossil fuels (gas, oil and coal) in global energy systems as soon as possible to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change Fossil fuels comprise 80% of current global primary energy demand and the energy system is the source of approximately two thirds of global CO2 emissions (according to the Sustainable Energy Division of the UN Economic Commission for Europe). Those who would benefit from a transition vastly outnumber those who benefit from continuity. In fact, just 1% of the global workforce is employed by the fossil fuel industry, and most of the industry’s profits end up in the hands of a small number of fossil fuel exporters, says a report of the World Economic Forum.

Europe and the world have a long way to go. Despite the fact that coal production and use has declined for decades in the EU, coal still provides about a quarter of EU power generation. And while EU-wide coal-and-lignite-based electricity generation in the second quarter of 2019 declined by 16%, gas-fired power production increased by 39% (according to the European Commission's new energy market report). Even though natural gas pollutes less than coal, switching from coal to gas still involves fossil fuels.

Governments directly or indirectly drive more than 70% of global energy investments. At this time of crisis, their actions matter more than ever. Stimulus programmes in energy industries should therefore be prioritised to support renewables and existing workforces, create new jobs and drive reductions in emissions.

If Europe gets it right, and shows the world that it is worth investing in renewable energies rather than fossil fuels, then the US and China might follow its example.

That is why Europe must develop an ambitious reconstruction plan that is in compliance with the Paris Agreement. A crucial part of this should be a climate action budget at least equal to the previously identified investment gap of around EUR 300 billion a year, and with a strong priority to support decentralised decarbonisation projects co-designed and co-owned by citizens, SMEs, energy communities, and local and regional public entities.

The Paris Agreement calls for action on both the causes and consequences of climate change. The causes of climate change are to be addressed through a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. mitigation) and its consequences through an equal emphasis on investment in climate resilience (i.e. adaptation). It is thus crucial to place equal emphasis on financing mitigation and adaptation and start an inclusive policy debate on the development of innovative financial mechanisms for adaptation actions and dedicated Just Adaptation Funds.

It is also essential to:

Remove barriers preventing the reallocation of public and private funds, primarily those of existing direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel sector, as well as fiscal and taxation barriers. The EESC supports the proposals for a carbon border adjustment mechanism and calls for measures eliminating barriers to energy-efficient and low greenhouse gas (GHG) emission products and promoting investments in renewable energy in trade agreements.

Increase available funds, launch a "European Climate Action Solidarity Corps" targeted youth programme and provide funds for cooperation between local governments and organised civil society in developing community-based and community-owned low-carbon energy and transport projects.

Our generation faces two major challenges - getting through the COVID pandemic crisis and refocusing on the climate emergency. After the forced stop, it is now time to accelerate the financing of the transition to a low-carbon economy in a socially just and cost-effective manner, as a renewed opportunity to build a more sustainable and resilient European economy.