Becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral bloc by 2050 requires more than mobilising €1 trillion in sustainable investments over the next decade. If Europe wants to leave no one behind during the transition and have its “man on the moon moment” it will first need to persuade fossil-fuel-reliant countries across the bloc to abide with its climate neutrality goal with no ifs or buts.

During the first European Parliament plenary session of the year in Strasbourg, the European Commission presented to MEPs its legislative proposals on how the EU can shift to climate neutrality by 2050 and reach zero CO2 emissions, while also salvaging the regions which are heavily dependent on the coal industry.

Many countries have so far expressed their opposition to the energy transition plan, with Poland initially asking for an “exemption” to apply the climate neutrality policy as it will become the EU’s second largest source of carbon once the UK leaves the bloc.

As promised, the Poles were the big winners of the day, followed by Germany, which will get €2 billion and €877 million, respectively, from the Just Transition Fund (JTF). To get the money though, the two nations will have to present their transition plans and explicitly state how the funds will be allocated.

Despite doubts remaining by some MEPs who cited “a lack of ambition to tackle the climate emergency”, an overwhelming majority of MEPs voted on January 15 to support a resolution reflecting the parliament’s position on the green deal, as unveiled by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presents the Commission’s ‘European Green Deal’ plan next to Vice President Frans Timmermans during a mini plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels. EPA-EFE//OLIVIER HOSLET

Is the fresh money enough?

When the EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans introduced the Just Transition Mechanism, he presented the move as “a pledge that the EU stands with those facing a steeper path in the transition”. The €7.5 billion of fresh funds from the Commission that will be given to the Just Transition Fund (JTF) were, however, the mechanism’s beating heart and meant to prevent social disruption in the regions that would be most hit by the transition.

As a result, the funds themselves seem insufficient compared to the ultimate goal. The JTF is expected to mobilise €100 billion through private funds, national government contributions, and the European Investment Bank’s support. Many MEPs are openly doubting that the funds will reach those in need – the affected workers.

Others are wary of further deep cuts in the cohesion policy envelope as the negotiations for the 2021-2027 budget are still on the table and call for a territorially balanced distribution of funds.

Green Dreams

The EU had hoped to have its first so-called “climate law” by March to ensure that the energy transition is irreversible, but it has yet set a binding date for phasing out coal.

The proposed mechanism has left environmentalists’ opinions divided.

The Brussels-based association Wind Europe has welcomed the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan, the financial pillar of the green deal, and announced it will be “contributing even more intensely” in key areas such as re-skilling coal workers into wind jobs.

SolarPowerEurope added that it is crucial that investments are first directed towards Europe-leading renewable solutions and that no European regions or communities will be left behind in the transition.

Other groups are not convinced. Greenpeace said that for the deal to be successful, the EU budget needs to completely stop funding fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other destructive industries.

The fact that the Commission’s document excludes the transition of fund money for the construction of nuclear power plants has also pitted several of the EU’s members against each other. France, the Czech Republic, and Hungary defend nuclear energy, while Luxembourg, Austria, and others oppose to the idea. During a December summit, France, which relies heavily on nuclear power, led other countries in expressing their wish to keep nuclear energy as an option on the way to securing climate neutrality.

The European Environment Agency warned that the EU might miss its green targets if it does not drastically change its actions. It also said that even though Europe’s green policies have brought substantial benefits in recent years, the bloc is still falling far behind in key areas, such as biodiversity loss and resource use.

On one hand, the trends are positive as greenhouse gas emissions have declined by 22% in the last three decades. Air and water pollution has been reduced and renewable energy sources have increased to 17.5% since 2017.

The most concerning fact is, however, that over the last few years, energy demand has significantly increased. This has made it impossible for the EU to meet its 2020 target for energy efficiency.

As local communities are already experimenting with different ways of producing and consuming, everyone seems to agree that Europe needs to boost its research and innovation policies in order to reach its goals and make the transformation successful.

Though awareness about climate change seems to have raised, Europeans are still not entirely convinced that climate action should be a priority over their own countries’ fluid political situations.