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Pascal Canfin wants to save Brussels from itself.
The French centrist, who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee, says the Commission has put its flagship Green Deal project at risk with a polarizing carbon pricing plan — and thinks he can salvage it.
The Commission, he said in an interview, “made a mistake putting this on the table. Now we have to solve the problem.”
It’s not exactly a selfless plan.
In taking on the issue, Canfin — one of the most influential and visible MEPs on green issues — is putting himself in between two of Europe’s biggest political beasts: the Commission and Emmanuel Macron.
With the specter of the Yellow Jackets still hanging over Paris and elections looming in spring, France has voiced concerns over the Commission’s proposal to put a carbon price on fossil fuels used for road transport and heating, fearing a backlash.
Canfin, an ally of the French president, has vowed to ensure there will be no parliamentary majority to support it. As a compromise, he suggests scrapping the carbon price for private cars and homes and applying it only to businesses.
This, he thinks, would have the backing of both MEPs and EU capitals — and ensure Europe’s Green Deal stays on track. The Commission’s proposal, currently under scrutiny in Parliament and Council, has faced pushback from Southern and Eastern countries as well as lawmakers across the political spectrum.
Others are less convinced.
“The number of those that share Pascal Canfin’s view are dwindling every day,” said Peter Liese, a German center-right MEP who’s leading Parliament’s work on the policy.
Scrapping carbon pricing for individuals “can’t work because unfortunately, we have many emissions in the private sphere as well,” he added, “and without a CO2 price we won’t reach climate neutrality.”
Canfin insists he’s not pushing a French position. “It’s an idea coming from a Frenchman, but it’s not a French idea,” he said, with many other EU countries also opposed to the Commission plan.
Still, many see him as Macron’s man in Brussels.
After initially rebuffing the French president’s overtures, Canfin ran for the European Parliament on Macron’s list in 2019, albeit without joining the La République En Marche party.
As chair of the powerful environment committee and part of the centrist Renew group that often ends up as kingmaker in parliamentary negotiations, he now ranks among Brussels’ most influential lawmakers.
He knows it, too. Hardly a week goes by without Canfin offering his take on key legislative files of French interest, from a carbon border tax to budgetary reform, in interviews and op-eds for the European press.
On top of that, he’s also tasked, alongside Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili, with injecting green ideas into Macron’s expected reelection campaign.
“The time is very busy, I must say,” he said, wolfing down a salad between committee meetings. He nevertheless found time to start a podcast and publish a how-to-save-the-planet manual last year, a copy of which was placed demonstratively on the table during the interview.
It’s his second stint in the Parliament, having served as a Green MEP from 2009 to 2012 before joining President François Hollande’s government as development minister, later moving on to run WWF France.
Jumping from the Greens via the Socialists to Macron was driven by a desire to push for ambitious climate action, he says. “If you want to be ambitious, you have to be in power. If you want to be ambitious on paper, fine, you can join the French Greens.”
Canfin sees himself as a compromise-builder in a Parliament that’s more fragmented than ever before.
But his proposals tend to align with French interests: In November, he suggested including both nuclear power and gas in the EU’s much-fought-over green investment rules to get both France and Germany on board.
The Commission later followed up with a similar proposal, and Canfin claims some credit: “Maybe I was a source of inspiration for the compromise.”
His carbon-pricing pitch is clad in the same French-friendly pragmatism. Keeping it for businesses while removing its most explosive element — the direct price hikes for ordinary Europeans — offers something to all sides in the debate, he argues.
The Commission and its supporters, like Liese, say including private households is necessary to decarbonize the heating and transport sectors.
The measure is intended to encourage a switch to cleaner alternatives, mirroring the EU’s carbon pricing mechanism for energy-intensive industries and power plants, which forces companies to buy pollution permits and caps the total amount the sectors can emit.
But while the existing Emissions Trading System (ETS1) enjoys broad support, few EU countries like the idea of a parallel ETS2 for transport and heating fuels.
At a meeting of the bloc’s environment ministers in December, only Germany, Austria and the Nordic countries voiced support for the Commission’s plan.
Critics say the plan is at odds with Brussels’ vision of a fair transition for everyone, hitting commuters who can’t afford to go electric and tenants with no control over what fuel keeps them warm with higher bills.
Many Southern and Eastern European countries say they’d be on board only if the impact on poorer households could be balanced out.
The Commission’s proposed €72 billion Social Climate Fund is insufficient, they argue — but that new money pot is already facing resistance from countries opposed to creating additional sources of EU funding, like Sweden and the Netherlands.
Canfin fears this tangle of positions could threaten the success of the Commission’s larger package of climate legislation that the ETS2 is part of.
“It would give … a pretext for the most conservative countries on climate action to freeze the whole package,” he warned.
Liese said that this argument amounts to letting climate stragglers dictate EU policy: “If we scrap regulation every time Poland and Hungary announce their resistance, we won’t make any progress in Europe.”
He also claims that Canfin’s view isn’t shared by everyone in Paris.
French officials in Brussels declined to comment, saying they could not take a side as the country currently holds the presidency of the Council.
Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Jacques Delors Institute’s energy center, said the French reluctance to speak was “horse crap,” given that Paris happily advocates for policies like a carbon border tax.
The silence hides a complex position, he said. “There are many people in France who don’t like [ETS2], because they think it’s not a good moment to introduce such a measure.”
French elections are one reason — as are concerns that a tax can only foster decarbonization if people have the means to switch to alternatives and that those options, like second-hand electric cars, aren’t widely available yet.
But, he said, “you have others, especially in the French economic ministry, that think that a carbon price is good, because it generates revenues … That’s one of the reasons why the French government is not clearly opposed to ETS2.”
The key question isn’t just whether Canfin’s idea would garner majority support. It’s also whether it would affect the climate math: The Commission has said that any alternative proposals must achieve the same reduction in emissions.
Canfin argues that putting a carbon price on private consumption would have little effect on emissions as many households have limited financial resources and would not be able to replace their fossil-powered cars, simply saddling them with higher bills.
Others say chipping away at the proposal would lower the EU’s climate ambitions.
A Commission official said that as private households are responsible for two-thirds of emissions in the ETS2 sectors, exempting them would “majorly weaken” the new mechanism.
In the Parliament, Canfin isn’t the only MEP working on alternatives. The Greens are flatly opposed to ETS2, favoring other measures like a faster phaseout of combustion-engine cars; its policy lead Michael Bloss would not say whether he backed Canfin’s idea. Amendments are due by February 16, with committee and plenary votes penciled in for May and June.
The center-left Socialists & Democrats haven’t settled on a position, but its priorities are “both to reduce emissions in these heavy polluting sectors and to secure strong social inclusion,” said Jytte Guteland, a Swedish MEP leading the group’s work on carbon pricing.
She said that “the idea of Mr. Canfin is in my view rather narrow and would also risk sufficient decarbonization, as well as the funding of the Social Climate Fund.”
Canfin says that the clock is ticking.
“We are in a time of climate emergency,” he said, “so we cannot waste time.” The EU must “avoid debates we can avoid. And one big debate is ETS2.”
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