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STRASBOURG — Fears over war and living costs are testing the European Parliament’s commitment to climate action.
A year after signing off on a law to reduce emissions by 55 percent this decade, MEPs are preparing to vote on key measures to implement the target.
The outcome of Wednesday’s votes on eight elements of the European Commission’s so-called Fit for 55 package will shape upcoming negotiations with EU governments — and help determine whether the bloc’s actions on climate can match its words.
But the shift in Europe’s political and economic circumstances over the past year has sharpened divides among Parliament’s various camps.
Since the Commission presented its mammoth package of climate legislation last summer, fires, floods and droughts wreaked havoc across the Continent, extreme heat resulted in thousands of excess deaths, and three United Nations reports spelled out the looming dangers of global warming in more detail than ever before.
At the same time, the effects of the pandemic, the surge in energy prices and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have intensified concerns over how the package might affect the Continent’s prosperity.
Anxiety over the rising cost of living dominated Tuesday’s debate ahead of the votes, echoed in both right-wing calls for a slower decarbonization pace and arguments brought by left-wing and centrist lawmakers against a carbon price on heating and cars.
“Climate change is a threat for the planet and it’s a problem we have to fight. Denying it is a mistake,” said Dolors Montserrat, a Spanish center-right lawmaker. “But it’s also a mistake to not be realistic. The Commission can’t ignore the economic and social consequences we’re currently suffering due to COVID, the war, inflation.”
The impact of the war in Ukraine was a recurrent theme, but also served to underline the main split between lawmakers.
Many right-of-center and some liberal MEPs argued Brussels shouldn’t burden industry and households with tough measures given the war. Others said ending Russian fossil fuel imports meant stepping up climate action.
“The war in Ukraine cannot be an excuse to slow down the green transition as some in this house would like. It should be the opposite,” said Iratxe García, leader of the center-left Socialists & Democrats, Parliament’s second-largest group.
MEPs will vote on eight proposals Wednesday afternoon: The reform of the EU’s carbon market; whether to introduce a carbon border tax; new national emissions reduction targets; whether to establish a Social Climate Fund to support poorer households; new carbon sequestration targets; emissions standards for cars; and two sets of rules for aviation emissions.
Each of them, the Commission’s Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans reminded lawmakers during a speech in plenary on Tuesday, is needed to achieve the overall target.
Yet for most dossiers, the outcome — and the amount of emissions they can ultimately prevent — hinges on narrow majorities.
The center-right European People’s Party, Parliament’s largest group, and other right-wing lawmakers are attempting to water down several proposals. EPP lawmakers frequently called for a “realistic” and “sensible” approach resulting in “decarbonization not deindustrialization.”
But MEPs from other groups also expressed wariness about elements of the package and the potential social cost of certain measures proposed by the Commission.
“The automotive industry employs millions of people and in my country, it generates up to 8 percent of GDP. After the pandemic, the sector has not fully recovered,” said Kateřina Konečná, a Czech lawmaker with The Left, voicing opposition to the combustion engine phaseout.
“The Green Deal brings about changes in a time of uncertainty that may make people poorer than they are,” warned Bulgarian S&D MEP Petar Vitanov. “Let’s not achieve the climate goals to the detriment of the most vulnerable.”
Spanish centrist MEP José Ramón Bauzá Díaz said the debate was less about the environment and more about “whether these measures will improve the quality of life of Europeans or cause economic and social ruin.”
Green MEP Sara Matthieu cheered a compromise limiting the scope of the Commission’s proposed carbon price on transport and heating, saying Parliament had “managed to protect families” — while Timmermans denounced the move as lowering climate ambition.
“Instead of delivering 45 percent of emissions reductions in buildings and transport,” he said, a carbon price only for businesses and not private households, as the cross-party compromise suggests, “would only deliver 10 percent.”
Other lawmakers sought to remind their colleagues of what’s at stake.
Slovak Renew Europe MEP Martin Hojsík took a jab at lawmakers who describe climate policy as a business opportunity.
“We know what the threat is — droughts, floods, failed harvests, extreme heat,” he said. “This crisis is an opportunity to make industry more competitive and greener … but this can only be done if we haven’t destroyed the planet and the climate first.”
Many MEPs spoke of a “tsunami of lobbying” in recent days and described being swamped by industry letters warning against tough measures.
Large parts of Europe’s traditional energy-intensive industry, like steel and cement, are particularly worried about the planned phaseout of free carbon market credits, which effectively function as a subsidy and have faced fierce criticism from green groups. Center-left MEPs are urging their colleagues to ignore those missives.
“Don’t ask whether we take into account what some industry can accept but whether the efforts of industry to decarbonize are acceptable for society,” said S&D vice chair Mohammed Chahim.
If there’s one thing that MEPs did agree on, it’s that Wednesday’s voting session would be decisive for the future of Europe. Environment committee chair Pascal Canfin described the votes as “historic” for the bloc.
“This is the moment of truth for the European Union,” said the Greens’ Marie Toussaint. “This week we are going to decide if the Green Deal, this promise, is something we are going to stick to or not.”
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