It will be Europe’s “man on the moon moment,” proclaimed the continent’s top politician earlier this month. A bold climate-correcting policy that puts environmentalism at the very heart of the bloc’s future. From the buildings we inhabit, the vehicles we drive, how our food is produced, and even the quality of the air we breathe, every facet of European life is set to change. Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, hopes her bold “Green New Deal” will spur the world into a spree of decarbonization. It’s a heady ambition; but at both home and abroad, many remain unconvinced.    

Specific Goals Of Von Der Leyen’s Plan

Perhaps the single largest policy overhaul in the EU’s history, Von der Leyen’s scheme sets a lofty target: continent-wide carbon-neutrality in Europe by 2050. By 2030, a little over a decade from now, Von der Leyen hopes to see current emissions slashed by half. Europe’s transport network will be remodeled, as will member states’ recycling programs, with specific standards replacing existing unregulated targets. The EU’s agriculture and fisheries budgets will also be reformed, with up to 40% of funding dedicated to decarbonization. Europe’s toxic air nightmare will be addressed too, with the imposition of strict new air quality requirements.

Environmental groups have applauded the scope of Von der Leyen’s vision, but not all are convinced. Eastern Europe, desperate to share in their westerly neighbors’ wealth, have been forced to sacrifice environmental standards in the pursuit of post-Soviet prosperity. In Poland, some 80% of electricity comes from coal-fired power stations. In Romania, a mere 14% of waste is recycled, far behind Germany’s two-thirds. Further examples are illustrated by Bulgaria and Estonia, which are saddled with sooty economies, both of which well above the world average in terms of carbon-intensiveness.

Poorer EU Nations Are Worried About Being Left Behind

These nations simply cannot afford to commit to environmental pledges in the way Western Europe can, critics say. In an effort to head off this geographical imbalance, Von der Leyen has proposed a €100 billion inducement for reluctant nations. It’s a sizeable sum, undoubtedly, but the shift toward carbon-neutrality carries grave economic risks. The coal industry alone puts a quarter of a million Europeans to work, mostly in Eastern states. Unnerved at the prospect of mass unemployment, Poland broke ranks last week, refusing to endorse the deal. 

Additionally, Brussels may have to wrestle with a north-south divide too, experts warn. To fund the continent’s eco push, Von der Leyen hopes to stimulate investment in green-minded industries and technology⁠—but not all of Europe is furnished with the financial infrastructure to accommodate such a move. 

“While Germany has a strong state-owned development bank, KfW, significant links between science and industry and excellent vocational training, many of the southern member states do not,” explains Professor Mariana Mazzucato of University College London.

How To Define ‘Greenwashing’ And Put A Stop To It

The classification of low-carbon investments has caused further controversy. So-called “greenwashing”⁠—the act of marketing a product or service as eco-friendly without any independent verification⁠—must be stamped out, EU leaders agree. However, member states disagree on the details. With its negligible production of CO2, the atomic energy sector should be deemed green, France, the Czech Republic, and a number of other nations have argued. Brussels disagreed. Eventually, however, an accommodation was reached, with nuclear power to be recognized as helping the transition towards carbon-neutrality, though not strictly speaking environmentally-friendly itself. 

International Partners Will Be Hard To Convince

Such a tidy compromise will be harder to agree on with Von der Leyen’s international detractors. Under her proposals, no new trade deals will be signed with states failing to fulfill their green commitments. It’s a strident policy that could have seismic consequences. The EU’s largest commercial partner, Donald Trump’s United States, is set to leave the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change, and China, number two on the bloc’s trading list, is lagging environmentally.   

Nations attempting to honor their eco-pledges, but still struggling with emissions will be subject to a cross-border levy, Von der Leyen’s Green New Deal says. It will, in effect, be a tax on excess carbon production, with importers charged a heightened fee for bringing less green shipments into the EU. More controversial even that her plan to sideline some of Europe’s most lucrative trading partners, Von der Leyen claims the carbon levy is necessary to prevent local businesses being undercut by less expensive (but dirtier) imports of energy-intensive products, like steel.

This justification has fallen flat with many in the developing world. Collectively the planet’s second largest economy, the EU can afford its pursuit of carbon-neutrality. Its poorer partners are less able to indulge in environmental high-mindedness. By erecting trade barriers⁠—however theoretically ethical⁠—Europe edges closer to its protectionist past, and even runs the risk of acting like a “colonist”, says the likes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo.

The Plan Is For The Best

Regardless of these criticisms, Von der Leyen understands that the EU, despite producing just one-tenth of the planet’s greenhouse gases, must lead the world’s war on global warming. By adopting a radical new approach, Europeans can prove that decarbonization need not be financial folly. The climate crisis took shape amid their continent’s breakneck 18th century industrialization. There, a quarter millennia later, they hope it can be brought under control.   

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