Climate Is at Stake in the European Parliament Elections
Less than two weeks before voters go to the polls across 28 EU member states, the six candidates of the European Parliament’s different political groups for the presidency of the next European Commission debated each other on the issues that are of key concern for the 500 million of European citizens. Three of these Spitzenkandidaten— Ska Keller for the European Green Party, Frans Timmermans for the Party of European Socialists, and Margrethe Vestager for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe—said in their opening statements that climate change was a top priority. Importantly, this time around the discussion between the candidates was no longer about the “if” but the “how” of fighting climate change.
For the first time, climate change is high on the agenda for the European Parliament elections. According to the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last October, we only have until 2030 to limit global warming and its devastating effects, so every minute counts. Likely in part due to the activism of the young activist Greta Thunberg, as many as 77 percent of potential voters across 11 countries in the EU say tackling global warming will be an important factor when they decide which party to vote for, according to a poll published in April. Further, 73 percent say global warming is “one the greatest threats to humanity,” and aim to “make the EU a global leader in fighting climate change.”
"This week’s elections are seen as a game-changer as the European Parliament will shape EU climate policy for the next five years."
This week’s elections are seen as a game-changer as the European Parliament will shape EU climate policy for the next five years. Last November, the European Commission presented its “strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050.” The parliament endorsed this in a resolution in March, and it urged member states to do the same as part of the Future of Europe Conference in Sibiu, Romania, that was held earlier this month. However, the Council did not acknowledge this in its March resolution, and the member states failed in the summit declaration to take climate change seriously, devoting only one brief mention to the issue at the very end of the document: “we will continue to...jointly tackle global issues such as preserving our environment and fighting climate change.”
Nonetheless, the pressure is mounting. No less than 210 mayors have urged the Council and the member states to commit to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Similarly, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden called (in a “non paper” that was leaked) other member states to reach “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest” and to dedicate “at least 25 per cent” of the next EU budget “to projects aimed at fighting against climate change.” Germany, Poland, and Italy, which oppose a revision of their existing greenhouse gas reduction strategies to meet the 2030 and 2050 targets, were notably absent from the list of signatories. But then environment ministers from all 16 states in Germany declared on May 10 their commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to draw up a roadmap to make Germany carbon-neutral by 2050 –contingent upon the contentious use of carbon capture and storage technology.
By the end of 2019, all EU member states must have national energy and climate plans to 2030 and national long-term strategies to 2050. As noted by a report by Ecologic and Climact, today all of their plans “fall short on ambition and credibility, and do not describe a robust, Paris-compliant pathway for Europe.”
Hence, the role of the next European Commission and the European Parliament will be essential to trigger and support stronger actions at the national level. As highlighted a few weeks ago by a broad coalition representing hundreds of European cities, regions, businesses, youth and faith groups, and civil society organizations, EU decision-makers not only need to take decisive action to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C to respond to the climate emergency, their actions need to “alter the way we run our societies and economies.” This implies ensuring a fair transition in which no one is left behind and everybody benefits—a challenge illustrated by the social backlash in France to the introduction of a carbon tax.
The role the EU can play in fighting climate change is worth voting for, according to the opinions expressed by vast numbers of citizens, and worth contributing to by different actors, as mayors and heads of local governments are demonstrating with their bold climate action plans. But the clock is ticking. Will the next EU leaders be up to it? Let us hope so. And, if the past parliamentary term is any indication, mobilization, calls for actions, and close monitoring by citizens, civil society, businesses, and local governments will be even more crucial.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.