What Has Europe’s Green New Deal Accomplished In Its First Year?

17:07 minutes

italy from space at night, with millions of lights shining
Credit: NASA/ISS

All the chaos of 2020—including the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential election—has largely pushed climate change out of the headlines. But just over a year ago, the Youth Climate Movement was at its peak. Millions of people were protesting government inaction in the face of rising global temperatures. 

Nearly everything about the world has changed since then. And while the incoming Biden Administration has said it will adopt parts of the “Green New Deal,” the U.S. has failed to capitalize on the momentum of last year’s Global Climate Strikes.

In Europe, however, the European Commission unveiled the “European Green New Deal in December of 2019. This 24-page document lays out a plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050.

Despite the pandemic, the commission has since made progress on many of its climate goals. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took pains in her European “State of the Union” address this past September to spell out how the European economy could emerge stronger from the global pandemic, with help from the Green Deal. 

“The mission of the European Green Deal involves much more than cutting emissions,” she said. “It is about building a stronger world to live in.” She added, “This is a plan for a true recovery. It is an investment plan for Europe.” 

On the one year anniversary of the announcement of the European Green Deal, guest host John Dankosky talks with Frederic Simon, energy and environmental editor for EUROACTIV and Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, as they reflect back on the progress the EU has made towards its ambitious climate goals.

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Segment Guests

Frédéric Simon

Frédéric Simon is energy and environmental editor for euroactive.com in Brussels, Belgium.

Richard Fuchs

Richard Fuchs is a senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward is policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of the London School of Economics and Political Science in London, United Kingdom.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. In all the chaos that was 2020– the pandemic and the US presidential election– largely pushed the issue of climate change from the headlines. It’s hard to believe, but just over one year ago the youth climate movement was at its peak, inspiring millions of people to protest government inaction in the face of rising global temperatures.

CROWD: Green jobs is the way. That’s why we’re [INAUDIBLE] today.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course, nearly everything about the world has changed since then. And while the Biden administration has said it will adopt parts of the Green New Deal, the US has failed to capitalize on the momentum of last year’s global climate strikes.

In Europe, however, things have gone a bit differently. One year ago today, the EU unveiled the European Green Deal, a 24-page document that lays out a plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. Joining me now to discuss that are my guests Frederic Simon is energy and environmental editor for EuroActive.com based in Brussels. Bob Ward is policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Welcome to Science Friday.


BOB WARD: Hi there, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s start with you Frederic, and maybe we can start with this movement that we referenced happening more than a year ago, the youth climate movement. It inspired these global protests. It seems to have taken hold in Europe in a way that it didn’t take hold quite here in the US. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the run up to this Green Deal proposal that happened one year ago.

FREDERIC SIMON: It really changed everything quite surprisingly, in fact, those protests. To be honest, even I didn’t take them too seriously to begin with. And then, well, they kept on going. Week after week, more and more young people started protesting, and the politicians noticed. And it happened there was an important election taking place in April of 2019.

And the timing was just perfect because all the politicians who were competing for the European elections– so these are the elections to the European parliament in Brussels– had to speak about green issues in a way that they didn’t have to do before. And the European Commission, when it came to power after the election, they felt that they were empowered, that they had a mandate from the people to do something about climate change and about the environment more generally. And that then became the European Green Deal.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Bob, do you do you see it the same way?

BOB WARD: Yes, absolutely. I think one thing that really strikes me is how much better the young student strikers were at expressing their views and the politicians. I mean, it was a perfect contrast between the very blunt messages that were coming from people like Greta Thunberg and the kind of rather circuitous language that politicians typically used. And I think they transformed it, and I think politicians in Europe were afraid of saying anything that might be perceived as disagreeing with the student strikers.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So, Frederic, let’s walk through the main points in the plan and let’s start with this idea of climate neutrality by 2050. Maybe you can walk us through what’s proposed.

FREDERIC SIMON: So climate neutrality, we’re talking about reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and we’re talking about all greenhouse gases, not just CO2s. There’s also methane, which is the second most important greenhouse gas, and its net emissions, meaning it also takes account of carbon removals from forestry, from the oceans, and maybe one day from new technologies like carbon capture and storage.

So that is the objective. It’s been agreed at a political level already a year ago by unanimous decision from the European heads of states and governments except one country, Poland, which accepted that goal for the entire union but not for itself. It said, yes, we vote in favor of this, but we still need to look at whether this makes sense for us as a country. Apart from Poland, everybody subscribed to that, and there’s a European climate law now. It’s currently being discussed between the European parliament and the EU member states, and now they have to decide on the fine print and hopefully an agreement that can be reached relatively soon.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Bob, what do you see as the important points that are being debated right now around this plan?

BOB WARD: Well, the European Council is meeting on the 10th and 11th of December almost exactly a year after the Green Deal was presented. And what they’re discussing is not just this 2050 target for reaching net zero but a much more ambitious interim target of a 55% reduction in emissions– annual emissions by 2030 compared with 1990. So that really then makes this very clear that urgent action is needed.

And as Fredric said, not all the countries are completely comfortable with this, particularly those countries which are very reliant on fossil fuels. Poland has a very big coal mining industry, very reliant on coal. They are I think worrying, which is why the Green Deal includes a very important so-called just transition mechanism, which is designed to help in particular those member states those of the 27 member states, which are going to have the biggest difficulty and will need help in retraining and redeploying people like coal miners.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So retraining people, what else does that include because obviously that’s a huge economic shift if your country has been mining and burning coal for its entire history and now it’s being told it needs to completely transform itself. That’s more than just a small transition, Bob.

BOB WARD: Well, that’s completely right. But if you think about the economy in general, there are lots of industries that go out of business, and you can get huge political and social problems if you don’t do anything to help people who are put out of jobs. So Germany is leading the way in many respects in Europe on this in that it is already making the shift away from coal, and one of the things it’s doing is looking at those regions which have a lot of coal miners at the moment. They’re going to build new car manufacturing plants and try and retrain coal miners to become people who work in the auto plant. So that’s big economic planning, but that’s the kind of thing you’re going to need to deal with these kinds of issues.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Frederic, I want to get back to what’s being debated around the quicker pace of this. Not all the policies that are in the European Green Deal are exactly new, but this does accelerate some of the action that has already been proposed in many countries.

FREDERIC SIMON: Yeah, it’s a big mixed bag, let’s say, of different policies that were already existing except the level of ambition is much higher than it used to be. Like Bob said, the current target for 2030 is a 40% emissions reduction by 2030. Now we’re talking about 55%.

So we’re really not talking about the same order of magnitude in terms of the level of ambition at least when it comes to climate change. And that is something that is really new and to me was really surprising. It’s even more surprising because even the conservative right subscribed to this.

When you look at it, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, she’s from the German conservatives, CDU, and for many, many years the CDU was against taking bold new steps in terms of climate ambition. And all of a sudden following the European election, they change tack entirely. I think they saw that potentially a risk for them that they were going to be completely outflanked by the Green Party in Germany.

There was a Green Wave, and they realized they needed to do something. And all of a sudden, something that seemed unthinkable before for them, meaning to raise this target by as much as 15 percentage points more than what they had, suddenly became possible. And that is remarkable.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s remarkable, Bob, and that I think points out one of the biggest differences between Europe and the US here. In the US, there are still politicians in Congress debating whether or not climate change exists.

BOB WARD: Yeah, I’m afraid the Republican Party in the United States have just lost the plot on climate change a long time ago, and I think they’re going to have a real problem because the polling in the US is the same as in other parts of the world. Young Republicans care about the environment, want action on climate change. If you don’t take it seriously as a politician, you’re cutting off new generations of supporters.

But the critical difference in Europe is they now understand– and this was explicit when the Green Deal was introduced– that this is about an economic growth model. It’s not just about saving the environment. It’s about how to generate investment and jobs. So that is why it has been so firmly embraced across the board because there isn’t another growth model available at the moment.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Bob, how does this relate to the Paris Climate Agreement?

BOB WARD: Well, the Paris Climate Agreement, we’re coming up to the fifth anniversary this weekend. And that has set a goal for the whole world to try and limit emissions so that the rise in global temperature is well below two degrees– two Celsius degrees and with best efforts to try and limit it to 1 and 1/2 degrees. And remember global temperature is already one degree warmer than it was at pre-industrial time.

In order to get close to that 1 and 1/2 degree target, it means countries, particularly the rich countries, will have to try and get to net zero by about 2050. That’s the significance of the European Union’s target. It’s consistent with that goal. It’s also why Joe Biden is talking about that being the target for the United States and is also the target which the UK, which is now no longer a member of the European Union, has already put into its own domestic law. So that’s the significance, and we’ve had a huge boost in the last few months by the EU and other countries setting net zero targets including China, which is declared in September that it will try and reach net zero by 2060.

JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s a lot that’s in this deal that’s not meant to specifically address climate change though. We spoke with Richard Fuchs. He’s a senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

RICHARD FUCHS: The Green Deal is actually much more than just setting a carbon emission goal. It consists actually of a wide variety of policy frameworks that fit into this. So, for example, it’s also setting targets for reduction in pesticide use and fertilizer use in determining how much of agricultural production should come from organic production, setting afforestation targets, targets for nature conservation, rebuilding of natural watersheds, and so on. So it’s much more that what the Green Deal is about, and I think its sheer complexity and also the amount of these goals that they sometimes do not always go hand in hand with each other.

JOHN DANKOSKY: In an article in the Journal of Nature, Fuchs argues that these aggressive goals may result in environmental damage being off shored to other less prosperous regions.

RICHARD FUCHS: If you look how the European Green Deal is now formulated, it’s a purely domestic policy framework. It just tackles domestic targets. And if you want to achieve these domestic targets, let’s say, reducing fertilizer, this will come with the trade off that we probably have to outsource part of this food production to other world regions. If we want to use less fertilizer, this will immediately affect the yields also in parts of Europe and also pesticide use and restoration of riverbeds and so on.

I think our article was about this that we wanted to raise this awareness that we as a result probably have to outsource some of the local domestic production to other parts of the world, which probably produce not that environmentally friendly as we set the targets for ourselves, but this is probably the way it will behave if we don’t tackle these flaws.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s Richard Fuchs. He’s a senior research fellow at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

We’re talking with Frederic Simon. He’s an energy and environmental editor for EuroActive.com based in Brussels, and Bob Ward. He’s policy director Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science. Frederic, I’m wondering first if you could comment on what we heard from Mr. Fuchs about this idea of offshoring Europe setting these very aggressive goals but maybe some of the environmental damage is going to be caused elsewhere.

FREDERIC SIMON: Yes, that’s right. And this is what they call in jargon in Brussels carbon leakage, meaning the carbon emissions that we have in Europe, instead of being admitted here, they’re being emitted elsewhere. The fact is that at the moment there is no evidence that carbon leakage is happening at all.

What is happening, though, is that looking forward as the European Union adopts much more aggressive climate targets for 2030 and 2050, the risk of carbon leakage indeed could become much more real. And this is why one of the things that was mentioned and announced as part of the Green Deal is this idea of introducing a carbon border adjustment mechanism, something being called a carbon border tax, but, in fact, they call it an adjustment mechanism because it’s linked to the European emissions trading scheme, the carbon market. And so that will be an essential central element of the new climate legislation, I would say, architecture is. As Europe becomes much more aggressive in cutting emissions and needs to protect itself from carbon leakage and prevents green dumping.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Bob before we run out of time, I should ask, we’ve already talked a little bit about the differences between the US and the EU politically on these issues. One of the big policy debates in the US is whether or not to, quote unquote, listen to the scientists, people who actually study climate change. How much have scientists been involved in crafting this European Green Deal?

BOB WARD: Well, scientists have been involved in creating an environment in which policymakers are acting, and it’s been a very clear communication from the scientists about what the limits are. The emissions targets that the EU is embedding through this climate law is absolutely based on the analysis that’s been presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, another expert group. So it’s created an environment and made very clear that these are the limits, and if you want to be consistent with the goals, the international goals, that have been signed up to in the Paris Agreement, these are the emissions cuts you need.

The US I think will be moving that way because I think, I would hope, that the pandemic has shown what happens when you don’t listen to the scientists. You end up with chaos, and you end up with adverse outcomes for a lot of people. You need international cooperation to tackle the big global threats, infectious diseases and pandemics, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. The main message is we all have to act together to tackle the threat because if any one country is not acting, we are all exposed to the risks.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Frederic Simon is energy and environmental editor for EuroActive.com based in Brussels. Bob Ward is policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I want to thank you both for this primer on the European Green Deal. I really appreciate it.

BOB WARD: Thank you.


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