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New green deal, same old climate change

The EU vs Climate Change n.1

If you're one of those people who have the patience to scroll down on newspapers hoping to find something not about Covid or Trump, you have probably read about the "European Green Deal". It's a bit overshadowed by everything else that is happening right now, but it is by no means less important. From how it is presented, it looks a little too good to be true, especially since there was not that big of a political push from below, and it goes against the short-run interests of most powerful interest groups (I say short-run because in the long run we all probably die).

Yes, when it comes to climate change I can be very pessimistic, I always feel as if whatever it is they're doing is not enough anyways. But one cannot just read the grim facts and give up when politicians don't immediately act. That's not the purpose of scientific research, and certainly not how politics work (especially in the plethora of organs, commissions, and councils that we call EU).

A practical look at EU climate policies

For all its shortfalls and imperfections, the European Green Deal shows a level of effort and commitment that is unprecedented not only in the EU but in the whole world, especially in these "corona times".

But what is the true weight of it? Is it just a way to save face and assert moral superiority of our government of technocrats over the more polarized political systems of the rest of the world? Is it a real 'green revolution'? I probably shouldn’t spoil the conclusions of the whole rubric in the second paragraph of the first article, but truth is this Green new deal probably falls in the middle, that is, it is a solid foundation to start the green transition, but it will by no means make Europe a 100% sustainable circular economy in 30 year. This piece is to serve as a foundation, a compass to navigate not only the rest of this rubric but also news and opinion pieces from every source. If you are already well informed, this article can be useful to put a bit of order in your mind, but if you think you know what's going on more or less but you feel a bit overwhelmed by the chaotic political conversation in Europe, this can finally give you a solid base to understand the climate and how it's dealt with in EU decisional organs. Where are we now? Currently Europe (the EU-27) produces 4.6% of the energy in the world, yet it consumes 11% of it: the EU is the world's largest energy importer, with net imports of mainly petroleum products and gas that make up 6.4% of its energy consumption.

Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, in 2016 they reached 49 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalents, of which 16% by the EU-27 only. However, in 2017 it had reduced its emissions by 21% compared to 1990 levels, meeting the target it had set for 2020 ahead of time. The sectoral distribution of emissions is similar to that of other G20 countries, with fuel combustion taking the spotlight.

In short, the way through which we get energy for most of our economic activities emits billions of tons of greenhouse gasses. These trap heat within the atmosphere, warming the planet and causing wildfires, droughts, the melting of glaciers, and lots of other fun things. It is important to note the reinforcing feedback effect that makes climate change an exponential rather than gradual phenomenon: for example the temperature rise increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas itself that in turn leads to further warming (for a simple yet deep overview on the science side of climate change, go here).

No, you can't just go live on a boat

Climate change is costly in the short run, lethal in the long run.

In Europe, recent harsh climate episodes have had strong economic repercussions, although with a very high variability between regions: the south has been through heat waves which increased the competition for water and the risk of forest fires, while in the north they have taken the form of greater warming than world average which has brought more rain than snow and damaging storms. This with a small increase in temperature (+0.​97° C) compared to the projections for the future; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a temperature rise of 1.4 to 5.6 degrees over the next century. Just think that at the end of the last ice age average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.

If it is true some areas will get a more liveable temperature (Scandinavia), this does not imply a more liveable environment. Just as you can't just go live on a boat when sea levels rise, more days of sun don't mean they will have the chance to replicate Mediterranean conditions. Ecosystems are fragile, and any heavy unbalance brings bad news whatever the direction. Before they adapt to these changes many natural catastrophes will happen, human lives and whole species will be lost on a scale comparable to that of other ‘worse-off’ regions.

Record meteorological events In Europe​

(source: World Bank. Costs are estimates)

Impact of extreme weather and climate related events in the EEA member countries.

What the European Union is doing about it

Although the very nice people at Exxon knew about climate change since the 70s, we the general public only realised we were screwed in the early 90s thanks to a report by the IPCC. In this period some general commitments were made by the EU with few specifications of the actual measures to achieve them, until the Kyoto protocol of 1997 (effective 2007, extended for 2012-20), which included more forceful and precise measures to reduce GHG emissions worldwide. It introduced a threefold policy approach that divided the strategy in the areas of greenhouse gasses, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.

During the yearly United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of 2015, discussions on measures to be taken after the second commitment period resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement, a separate instrument broader both in the scope of its targets and of its participants.

Finally, we get to the European Green Deal. Unveiled in December 2019, it involves a myriad of initiatives in all the sectors of the economy you could possibly imagine. Its main goals are making Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050 and decoupling economic growth from resource exploitation. A more in-depth discussion of its various sections can be found in the following sources: Tales of Europe and European Commission.

An initiative worth mentioning specifically is the Just Transition Mechanism, which should mobilize around 100 billion euros with the aim of supporting energy intensive sectors through the transition to more sustainable practices; all this without leaving behind the workers who will lose their jobs in polluting industries.

It remains to be seen whether this commitment really is as revolutionary as it seems, and if in any case it will become legally binding.

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