Executive Vice President Timmermans' remarks at the Conference on the first European Climate Law - EU monitor

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Dinsdag 19 januari 2021

Executive Vice President Timmermans' remarks at the Conference on the first European Climate Law

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC) i, gepubliceerd op woensdag 29 januari 2020.

Remarks by Executive Vice President Timmermans, in charge of the European Green Deal, at the Conference on the first European Climate Law, in Brussels

Opening remarks

Good morning everyone and welcome to what I hope is going to be an exciting day. I am certainly looking forward to hearing the conclusions this afternoon because we can certainly use all the help we can get and if this is to be a success, it can only happen if it is inclusive if we are all part of it and if we can agree on the track to follow.

We promised to do a lot in the first 100 days of this Commission and part of that will be the introduction of the European climate law, so that we can enshrine into law our objective to become climate neutral by 2050. You have seen the presentation of the Green Deal Communication, you have probably also followed the Green Deal Investment Plan and the Just Transition Mechanism, which we introduced a couple of weeks ago. As you can see we are not wasting any time, and by the way, a big thank you to everyone in the services of the Commission who has contributed to this, we are putting people under tremendous pressure but we will make sure that what we deliver continues to be of high quality, and I have to thank my colleagues for that.

Today, we are here to listen to you, to hear your views on the next step for the European Green Deal, which is the climate law. It has to be ‘your' Green Deal, it has to be ‘our' Green Deal, so consultation and debate will be, and remain, not just today, essential.

Let me just remind us of why this is so important: I think that the scientific evidence is clearer day by day how quickly and disastrous the consequences of unrestrained climate change are affecting us. We are increasingly seeing warnings of risks turning into haunting manifestation of disaster across the globe. Just look at Australia, wildfires have killed approximately one billion animals, one billion! Double the population of the European Union. I want to make clear that this is not me conducting project fear; I am just reporting what is actually happening. It is urgent, it is essential; it is undeniable that we need to take action. The risks will only increase, as the earth gets hotter and the climate gets more disturbed.

Climate is changing. We are in a crisis. We saw a record number of cyclones in the Indian ocean last year, the wettest twelve months on record in the United States, the planet's hottest August on record and it is happening close to our home. Last year temperature records were broken in European countries from Spain to Slovakia, with France recording its highest ever temperature of 45.9°C. In Southern Germany the June heat wave hit just after storms with heavy rain and flooded streets and cellars and forced the Munich airport to suspend its operation temporarily. Everyone in Spain is now very familiar with the phenomenon of Gotta Fría, which used to happen on an average of once every 50 years and now seems to happen almost every year and even more than once. In November nine people died as storms swept parts of France, Greece and Italy with flush floods, landslides and the collapse of an overpass.

I can go on and on with this. I do think it is good to remind ourselves of this but without giving in to paralysis because it's happening and we can't stop it, we can do something about it and this is the most important thing.

The question is, what can we do? As institutions, as individuals, as politicians, as business people, as scientists. What can we do? When I do interviews very often I am very often confronted with a dilemma: “So what is your choice? Do you choose to do something for the climate or do you choose jobs? Do you have any idea what this costs?” And I think it is our duty collectively to explain that choosing to do something against the climate crisis is choosing for jobs, for future jobs. Saying that choosing to invest in this is much smarter than not choosing to invest and spending more money not on investment but on mitigating and on addressing the challenges, which is money that will be spent but which does not bring any revenues, that is not an investment. I think, in our public communication we will have to concentrate on that: to detect the false contradictions and to help people understand that doing nothing does not mean that everything stays the same. That is the biggest trap in public communication: Believing that by doing nothing everything will stay the same. By doing nothing, the problem will get much worse but on the other side by acting we can actually tackle the problem.

This is in my view today the biggest challenge: it is increasingly no longer needed to fight climate deniers. I think climate deniers themselves by now have understood that they are on the wrong track and that they are not very convincing. I have already seen the first climate deniers moving to climate desperation, saying “Why? Let it be, it is too late. Let's live it out for a couple of years, let's see what happens”. We saw some of this also last week in Davos. Especially one speech of somebody who is 72 years old and is a billionaire. The issue is that in the first generation, it is not going to have severe consequences before the end of their natural lives, if they have a lot of money they can move to places where they will be less affected by the consequences. But as a dad of two millennials, and two children that are part of generation Z, we are thinking of these generations and we are thinking ahead and they are saying: We ned to act because you are playing with our future.

I will not be cornered by people who say: “because you point to the urgency you are a pessimist and you are all doom and gloom, you should be optimistic”. No, I think there is no optimism in denying it, there is no optimism in saying, “we will all be ok” by doing nothing. People are too smart to buy that. It is like a way of numbing your senses, but it is just like with alcohol: sooner or later you wake up and you have a terrible headache and you have to confront reality. You can't drown your problems in alcohol. And you can't drown these problems by denying them. They will come back even stronger.

In this context, what do we need to do? There is so much we need to do and there will be ample opportunities to talk about everything we need to do but my fundamental point is: we can do this! We have the science, we have the technology, we can certainly find the money. The Commission is talking about a sum between 260 and 300 billion Euros yearly to invest in this, to make this transition happen. It sounds daunting but I was in Davos last week and I hear what people are talking about, the size of investments they are thinking about anyway and even if you just look at the size of investment that is still being done in fossil fuels. If you reorient that or at least part of it into this direction, we can find the money.

I repeat: the technology, the science, the money is not the problem, so why is it difficult? I think the essential issue is one of governance. How do you organise this? Like in any transition, especially a transition that is dual or even triple for Europe. We have the transition because of the climate crisis. Mother earth is telling us “I can't go on like this and I will let you feel it if you go on like this”. We have an industrial revolution that is the first in human history that affects every being on this planet. This never happened before. And as Europeans we also have a demographic challenge combined with the two other challenges that changes Europe's position in the world. When my parents were born, Europe accounted for 23-24% of the world's population, Africa 5%; in a couple of years time it will be exactly the opposite. That has huge geopolitical consequences for us and for everyone. These three challenges combined, will dictate the policy choices we make. I believe that this is like any other tectonic transformation humanity has gone through. It's a challenge to everyone and to every institution. If we deny as political and public institution, that we will have to adapt to this or become obsolete, we will help political forces across Europe and in the world who thrive on creating this feeling ‘we are anti-establishment'.

This is something we need to do, and we need to do it well. And if our premise is, and that is the premise I want to work on, we want to leave no one behind, we need to organise it at all levels. Again I repeat, doing nothing does not mean nothing will happen. The industrial revolution will happen. Mother earth will continue to tell us it is enough. If we do nothing, we are no longer in control of either development. But if we act and get together we can bring some control into this.

Why is the climate law so important? The climate law, in my view, in simple words is important because it will discipline everyone in this process, especially on the political side, to take the necessary steps, to deliver on this promise to become climate neutral by 2050. And it will give the institutions that need to coordinate this also the legal possibility to act when those who made promises don't deliver on the promises. So it is an exercise in discipline in this transformational age.

I say this as a historian with a keen interest in studying earlier times of fundamental transformation, whether it is the introduction of coal as a basis of the economy, when we went from horses to steam engines and then went from steam engines to combustion engines, now we are going from combustion engines to other forms of energy. Transforming a society that is entirely based on carbon, to a society that no longer needs carbon as a basis for it's functioning, is of a tectonic nature. This happens at a time when digitalisation is revolutionising all sorts of structures. If we do not understand that this is not just an economic change, this is not just a change in how we produce and live, this will affect every single institution upon which society is based and that helps society function as it does. And if we do not understand that we have a collective responsibility in preparing all these institutions, to handle this and to leave no one behind and to take everyone on board, then we understand how epic this challenge is. And then we also understand that disciplining ourselves along this path to 2030, 2040, 2050, through a climate law, is essential to make sure we deliver on this and to make sure we can correct whenever necessary.

Now, over to you, what do we put into a climate law? To what extent do we want to be prescriptive? How far will it go? Who are the subjects of the climate law, who can be held accountable under the climate law? These are all fundamental questions where I hope you can give us some guidance how we can best address this.

Again, as a dad of millennials and generation Z kids, I understand this is an epic challenge but it is also an incredible opportunity for Europe to lead. If we get this right, I can assure you that worldwide there will be huge interests in studying our idea for a climate law. I get questions about this from all parts of the world: ‘How are you going to do this?', ‘we'd like to see this', ‘we'd like to be part of this'. I think this gives Europe a unique opportunity to lead in the world. It gives, again speaking as a dad, new generations an ideal. Generation Z are no longer based on an ideological vision of the world but are filled with ideas for the future of the world, it gives them an idea to work on.

A climate neutral EU in 2050 is an idea people love to embrace. But people will be horribly disappointed if we do not start soon delivering concrete actions. And in that context I hope the climate law can be extremely useful, and I hope we do a good job at the Commission to draft a climate law that answers your requirements, that answers your hopes and that answers your expectations of the years to come.

Thank you very much and good luck today.


Closing remarks

In closing I would like to give you some of the thoughts I have collected about today and also thoughts from other meetings I have had on the Climate Law and Green Deal.

We can agree, perhaps, that our biggest challenge is to get the governance of this right. Because we seem to agree on the end goal we need to achieve. We also seem to agree globally on the measures in the different sectors that will be necessary to get us there. So then the ‘what' is not longer the real issue, it's the ‘how' that is the real issue. And if we agree that the ‘how' is the real issue then I believe that the way we organise ourselves is going to be of eminent importance. If you are part of this organisation, through the climate pact and other measures, I am sure we can come up with the optimal answers. The perfect answers don't exist but optimal answers perhaps we can achieve.

In this context I honestly believe the climate law will play a crucial role. The core issue is this: can the climate law contribute to giving us enough guidance, enough security to follow that path, and at the same time offer us enough flexibility to take different bifurcations or roads when external factors will show that perhaps we have made the wrong choice so we have to put more emphasis here… this development takes care of itself… this development needs more support.

The crucial contribution the climate law can make is to offer long-term predictability and security. That parties who will have to decide whether we achieve this, commit to something and are willing to say ‘I commit to this and if I deviate I am willing to be corrected'. I think this is one of the most important things, that especially investors need. Because the investors I have met so far, all of them say: ‘give us a good project, give us an idea'. It's not the fact that they don't have money they just don't want to take more risk that what is sellable to their constituents, which is logical. I honestly believe that the climate law can give that extra bit of security that some investors need to make this jump into the future.

This jump into the future is a challenge for all of us. If I talk to leaders of European industry, they know what to do but they struggle with how to do it. They know the transition needs to happen, they know that the end goal will be positive for them but the transition itself is a challenge and there I believe the Climate Law can be of help. If we can bring together all the stakeholders and make it possible for European industry to get access to credits that are affordable and that are sustainable then I believe this transition will go ahead.

Let me end on this notion which I am discovering actually on a daily basis: Since we are in such a deep transformational process, it's part of human experience that some things will not work out the way we plan them. They will be more difficult and slower and sometimes they will not succeed; other things will go much faster than anybody had anticipated. We see this for instance now in sustainable energy generation. In combination with the Green Deal as a roadmap, and the extra security provided by things such as the Climate Law, this will put us on the right track to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and to achieve a substantial reduction of emissions by 2030, which I hope will be in line with the expectations in the European Parliament.

Thank you so much for being here today. I count on your contribution, I count on your solidarity, you can count on mine. My team, led by Diederik Samsom is at your disposal if there are things you see that are not going well. It is nice if you tell us that things are going well, but it is better you tell us where the things are not going well so that perhaps we can have an opportunity to fix it.

This will continue to be a cooperative process, we are not just refocusing our economy, shifting it away from carbon to carbon neutral, we are also reinventing governance because it will be inclusive governance if it is to succeed and for that we need all of you.

Thank you.