Part of the Dean’s Speakers Series
In 2020, the European Commission approved the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives intended to make the European Union carbon neutral by 2050. An interim plan also aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
On September 22, 2022, SAIS Dean James Steinberg hosted Frans Timmermans, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, for a conversation on “Climate Action in Times of Crisis.” Timmermans and Dean Steinberg discussed the goals of the Green Deal, the importance of climate action in the context of Putin’s War in Ukraine, and the role of global supply chains in effectively tackling climate change.
Timmermans began with a crucial reality check: the climate crisis is quickly accelerating. Even changing our behavior fundamentally and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 — the goal the International Energy Agency states would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst possible scenario — still wouldn’t be enough to tackle the difficult but necessary challenge of reversing climate change.
Pondering on the impacts of climate change, Timmermans said, “It’s humanity we need to save, not the planet. The planet will go on just fine without us.”
Even if the world didn’t have to worry about a climate crisis, Timmermans emphasized, the Green Deal would be the right thing to do. It takes a comprehensive approach to climate policy, targeting not only GHG emissions reductions, but also improving economic efficiency, addressing energy poverty, and striving towards a just society, free from reliance on a cartel of fossil fuel providers.
Timmermans next addressed critics of the Green Deal who believe climate action is not a priority while a war rages in Ukraine. He pointed out that most of Europe doesn’t have domestic access to gas or oil and, in light of global commitments to move away from coal, developing renewable energy sources is the only way to increase its sovereignty and independence. When the war started in February, 40% of Europe’s gas came from Russia. The number is now down to 9%, but at a heavy cost: energy has become extremely expensive.
According to Timmermans, taking Russia out of the equation has cut global gas supplies by 10%, in a market where demand already outstripped supply. The only sustainable solution is to reduce gas consumption. He cited the ability of many industries to spontaneously reduce gas consumption by 10% or more as evidence that they could have done this long ago. Gas was simply too cheap for too long. He ended by identifying two promising renewable sources to focus on: rooftop solar power and offshore wind power.
Moving forward, Timmermans believes that the EU and the US need to devise comprehensive, granular trade agreements based on openness and not protectionism. The existing system of global trade agreements is affected by fundamental conflicts over perceived and real injustices, which drive trade protectionism.
Timmermans’ visit to SAIS concluded with a lively Q&A session, touching upon wide-ranging issues like taxonomy of clean energy sources, expectations for COP-27, and engagements with autocracies in cooperative climate action.