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Europe’s Green New Deal climate goal: Revolution: To eliminate emissions by 2050, the EU will have to ‘remake civilization’



This article is part of the special report The World in 2050.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen likes to compare her Green Deal to “Europe’s man on the moon moment.” That’s almost certainly a galactic understatement.

Cutting the Continent’s emissions to “net zero” — meaning Europe would sequester at least as much greenhouse gases as it produces — by 2050 will require a radical overhaul of nearly every aspect of the modern economy. Dramatic cuts in carbon will wipe out entire industries, transform others and force people to change the way they eat, work, live and travel.

“Man on the moon was a hobby,” said Vincenzo Balzani, an Italian chemist, emeritus professor at the University of Bologna and author of several books on the transition to a cleaner world. The EU’s ambition to decarbonize Europe, he said, is nothing less than “a proposal to remake civilization.”

This is not policymaking on a normal scale. French President Emmanuel Macron calls what follows “the next world.” Polish Climate Minister Michał Kurtyka, president of the 2018 U.N. climate conference, calls it a “civilizational challenge” that will require a “Copernican revolution” to succeed.

“People don’t think of it as a ‘deal.’ They think of it as almost a revolution in American life” — Gary Gerstle, professor at Cambridge University, on the original New Deal

There are few historical precedents of similar dimensions, all of them folkloric: Deng Xiaoping’s marketization of China’s economy, the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal revolutions.

Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at Cambridge University in England, believes the closest historical parallel is U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal.

It’s no coincidence that the projects share a name. U.S. advocates of combatting climate change, including Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, refer to their proposals as their “Green New Deal.” The Commission has opted for “The European Green Deal” to describe the policy framework expected to push the Continent through the transition.

The New Deal’s goals were similarly ambitious. Faced with the aching years of the Great Depression, the New Dealers explicitly wanted to remake U.S. capitalism through massive interventions and capital expenditure. And they did. In addition to introducing work programs and social security retirement benefits, the program changed how U.S. citizens thought about their rights and responsibilities. Roosevelt’s broadened vision for government’s role in the economy became the dominant political paradigm for half a century.

“People don’t think of it as a ‘deal,’” said Gerstle. “They think of it as almost a revolution in American life.”

Historical parallels

Raw cash comparisons have limited usefulness, but they can provide a sense of scale. Government spending on the New Deal between 1933 and 1941 has been estimated to have run to $653 billion in 2009 dollars. That’s less than Obama’s post-crash stimulus a decade ago, although significantly larger on a per capita basis.

The Marshall Plan gifted around $130 billion in today’s money for the post-war recovery in Europe. The Apollo mission that put Neil Armstrong on the moon cost the U.S. government the equivalent of $288 billion. Decarbonizing Europe will require combined private and public investment of €230 billion each year from 2031 to 2050, according to the European Commission — for a total of €4.6 trillion over two decades. For scale, that’s roughly 18 times the cost of the Apollo program.

Another parallel between the New Deal and Europe’s Green Deal, says Balzani, is the lack of an appealing alternative. Just as the Great Depression presented the U.S. with an unprecedented challenge, unrestrained climate change poses an existential threat to the European project.

The land area rated at “high or very high” risk of becoming desert in Southern Europe and the Balkans has grown to be the size of Germany and Hungary combined, according to a Romanian study published in 2017. Those fleeing drought and hunger in poorer countries will seek the relative safety of Europe, raising the prospect of a perpetual, destabilizing, dehumanizing refugee crisis.

The European economic model is built on trade with an open, prosperous world. An unstable climate will contract GDP across the globe. A sense of this being Europe’s last chance to offset these impacts, combined with growing popular anxiety, has steeled Europe’s policymakers.

The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the historical alignments with the New Deal. Suddenly Europe faces a “shock without precedent since the Great Depression,” European Commissioner for the Economy Paolo Gentiloni has said. The €750 billion economic rescue package announced in May is also intended to jumpstart the Green Deal project.

Reaching net zero is in no way a given. Preliminary figures for 2018 show the EU cut emissions by 2 percent, around 90 million tons of CO2, that year. That drop will need to average almost 140 megatons per year to reach zero in the middle of the century. The jump doesn’t look huge, but many of the early wins have been comparatively easy ones, like replacing coal power with renewables or gas. The further down the path Europeans travel, the harder and more expensive the work will become.

The final steps are especially unclear. For some three-quarters of EU emissions, technologies exist that, over time and with some policy assistance, will unplug them from the heating planet.

The final 25 percent is tougher. It will require “innovation,” according to modeling by the French consultancy Climact. The models vary. In 2018, the Commission said it could see a path to cutting emissions to 90 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The rest would require a fuzzy “maximization” of technological options. “We do not have all the answers yet,” von der Leyen has admitted.

‘Tectonic shift’

If Europeans truly mobilize around the delivery of the 2050 goal, every business decision, lifestyle choice, political swing, every hallmark of European culture — from annual ski trips, to Champions League Football matches, to French cheese — will need to be tested against its contribution to climate change.

The European Climate Law, proposed by the Commission in March, would submit every EU law, past and future, to a test of its compatibility with climate neutrality — a “tectonic shift,” according to E3G, a think tank that advocates for emission cuts.

We may not know how it can be done, but we do know what needs to be done. In a carbon-neutral Europe, cars and trucks will be powered by electricity or hydrogen and made increasingly from carbon fiber. Nineteenth-century modes of haulage — riverboats and trains — will return with 21st-century power sources. Steel, fertilizers and cement, the materials that built modernity, will be made in novel processes that cut their massive carbon footprints.

No citizen, no industry, no government will reach the goal unchanged.

Buildings across the Continent will be transformed. Boilers, windows and insulation will be replaced, generating work on a huge scale. Meanwhile, every producer of every product will have found ways to use more recycled materials. Currently, just 12 percent of the stuff consumed by European industry has been used before. At home, we will all participate in more complex rubbish sorting rituals.

No citizen, no industry, no government will reach the goal unchanged. Through carbon pricing and policy nudges, citizens will be coerced or convinced to fly less, eat less red meat and use more trains, buses, trams and bicycles. Some communities will have to remake themselves at the most basic level after the near-total replacement of coal power with renewable or nuclear energy. Miners and oil workers will have to relinquish jobs bequeathed by previous generations.

Even after all this, significant quantities of greenhouse gases will still be wafting into the atmosphere. To reach net zero, carbon will be captured and buried. Agriculture and land management can provide some of the solution. Forests will help take up some of the emissions. Farmers’ income will be as connected to the carbon going into their soil as the food coming out.

There may also be a role for machines that suck CO2 directly from the air. A Swiss startup called Climeworks, which builds SUV-sized machines that remove carbon from the atmosphere and bury it or turn it into climate-neutral fuel, recently announced it had raised $67 million from investors.

Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal manager (a very 21st-century job title), believes the company will be able to get the price of its service down from $1,000 per ton currently, to $100 per ton by 2030. With a little back-of-the-napkin mathematics, Beuttler says Climeworks could be removing 5 gigatons of carbon each year by 2050 or just after. At $100 per ton, that’s $5 trillion every year.

Building that many machines would consume roughly half the steel currently used by the entire global auto industry. It would be “one of the biggest industries there is,” Beuttler said.

Unequal impact

There is a school of thought that considers the net-zero goal as something less radical; a continuation of a journey Europe is already some way to completing.

“We already have most technologies available, and we have already gone forward in this direction with innovative solutions,” said French MEP Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee. As for the unknowns, he says, “I’m pretty confident that we can bring these emissions to zero.”

That perspective shifts depending on who and where you are.

In Kilkenny, Ireland, Eamon Sheehan’s dairy farm is already transformed compared with when he took over from his parents 17 years ago. His cows now wear radio collars that surveil their every movement and bodily function. A real-time weather station helps him finetune his decision-making. Soil testing tracks the chemical composition and, vitally, the carbon content of the land.

While average consumption of cow’s milk may decline, it will remain a staple food under every scenario the EU has considered out to 2050. Yet cattle farming is a major contributor of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Sheehan, who has a young family, worries farmers will be perceived as the problem rather than part of the solution. Irish farmers are enormously proud of their practices, he said. Tell him what he needs to do, and he’ll do it. If that happens, he believes he’ll still be producing milk in a net-zero Europe.

“None of us consider [action on climate change] as a threat to be honest with you,” Sheehan said. “Farmers have never been afraid to change and evolve and anything that we can do to improve how we farm, we’re going to embrace it.”

Things can certainly change quickly. Coal power was 40 percent of the United Kingdom’s electricity mix just eight years ago. The country just recorded two months without coal power for the first time since 1882.

But the view is very different in Poland, where 80 percent of the country’s electricity still comes from coal. For 100,000 families in the coal mining region of Silesia, net zero leaves no room for evolution. In December, the Polish government told the European Council it would agree to the Europe-wide 2050 climate neutrality goal, but could not see how it could be achieved at home.

The U.K.’s remarkable escape from coal in the last decade holds no positive lessons for these places.

The message was simple: If you want us to do this, you’re going to have to pay. “An electric car costs the same whether we are on this or the other side of the river,” says Climate Minister Kurtyka. “And an average Pole earns half of an average German.”

Silesian families will pin their hopes on the EU’s Just Transition Mechanism, which the Commission says will “mobilize” €100 billion between 2021 and 2027 to help impacted communities reimagine their futures.

Reshaping the EU

The same uncertainty faces the auto industry. Laura Reggiani and her husband Luca Zoboli work for Lamborghini in Italy. According to Reggiani, the supercar brand famous for its “very, very noisy cars” is going to have to convince an attention-seeking clientele to accept the near silence of battery power. It might take a while, she said.

But a more universal crisis is coming. Reggiani is a mechanical engineer. A standard combustion engine has roughly 1,400 components, an electric one just 200, according to a 2015 German study. Mechanical engineers “will have to change specialty completely, because they won’t be so necessary in the production of a car,” said Reggiani.

Zoboli, on the other hand, is a digital specialist, working on innovation in the production system.

“I will be the future,” he said. But he is also active in the automotive union. He worries about the decline in jobs across the industry. The couple said auto companies will have to become involved in much more than car-building to survive, including the roll-out of charging infrastructure. That will create jobs, perhaps more than are destroyed. But these jobs are as different as coal mining is from fitting solar panels and many older workers may struggle to adapt, said Zoboli.

These upheavals will be felt across the Continent, from Scotland’s North Sea oil capital of Aberdeen to Lupeni, in Romania’s coal-rich Jiu Valley, where fossil fuels have underwritten much of life. The U.K.’s remarkable escape from coal in the last decade holds no positive lessons for these places. The U.K. had few jobs to lose. Its coal mining sector was crushed in the 1980s when Thatcher broke the unions. Four decades later, former coal towns remain some of Britain’s most deprived.

Governments could look to the example set by Spain. A deal with unions in 2018 sent older coal miners into early retirement, paid €10,000 redundancies to young miners and committed the government to develop new industries in their communities. And even that program has left many unhappy.

This demand for solidarity across regions, nations and classes is perhaps the strongest argument for why ending emissions will necessitate a different Europe — and why it also has the potential to shape the EU.

Europe doesn’t need more pain — an unjust transition that deepens inequality will feed nationalist, populist politics. Take the U.K.’s mining towns: They once had the dignity of working to power their nation. In 2016, they voted for Brexit.

Delivered properly, the promise of the European Green Deal isn’t just a halt to the greenhouse gases warming the world. Many things will be better. The air will be cleaner, work safer, homes warmer, cities more livable. Poland’s Kurtyka wants his country to become a world leader in wind energy and electromobility tech. There will be larger, more diverse forests in which to play. People will be healthier.

Like the New Deal in the U.S., the project has the potential to foster a sense of common purpose and achievement — to help the EU answer the question: What is the union for?

Kalina Oroschakoff contributed reporting.