Europe flood disaster becomes a springboard for action on climate change

Brussels looks to build momentum behind plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the flood-ravaged town Bad Muenstereifel. She said the cost of rebuilding infrastructure would be higher than ever before. AFP
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EU leaders used the flooding crisis in Europe as a symbol of the consequences of unchecked climate change on Tuesday as they sought to build momentum behind the EU's green agenda.

A long political struggle lies ahead as Brussels tries to push through the climate package it unveiled last week. This calls for a ban on new petrol cars by 2035 and puts pressure on airlines to cut emissions.

Environment ministers from the EU’s 27 nations held a first round of talks on Tuesday in the shadow of the catastrophic floods that killed at least 200 people in Germany and Belgium.

“The cost of this transition is much, much smaller than the cost of letting things get out of hand, as we’ve seen last week,” said the European Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans.

“One of the aspects of the climate crisis is that humanity will be confronted with very erratic weather patterns.

“That is a consequence of the climate crisis, so everybody who talks about the cost of addressing the climate crisis should also think about the cost of not addressing the climate crisis.”

The floods in Germany led to calls for swifter climate action from Chancellor Angela Merkel and candidates running in September’s general election.

Mrs Merkel made a second visit to a stricken part of Germany on Tuesday and said the cost of rebuilding infrastructure would be higher than ever before.

She said her government would work to upgrade emergency warning systems after complaints that people in the disaster zone were not alerted.

“We've got to look at what worked and what didn't work, without forgetting that this was flooding as we haven't seen in a long, long time,” she said.

“This was flooding that surpassed our imagination when you see the destruction it wrought,” she said.

Jochen Flasbarth, a junior environment minister in Germany, said Berlin supported what he said was the EU’s ambitious and comprehensive package.

But securing agreement among 27 EU states, some of which are still reliant on coal, is likely to be a long process.

One particularly contentious aspect is a plan to extend the EU’s emissions trading scheme to heating and road transport.

It means that fuel providers would be charged for exceeding emissions caps at rates that would become steeper every year.

Another proposal is for the EU to impose carbon tariffs on goods from abroad under what is known as a Border Adjustment Mechanism.

There is quite a lot of difficult work ahead of us
Andrej Vizjak, Slovenian Environment Minister

Major producers of industrial goods such as Russia and China would be the most exposed to the tariffs, the UN's trade agency says.

Mr Timmermans said he was willing to listen to alternatives to the trading scheme but said there was no option but to cut emissions.

“The problem is, emissions in transport still are going up so we need to do something. If you have a better solution, we’re happy to embrace it,” he said.

Andrej Vizjak, the Environment Minister of Slovenia, which hosted Tuesday’s talks, said several countries had voiced reservations about the scheme.

“There is quite a lot of difficult work ahead of us and we were able to see that in the discussions,” he said.

But referring to the floods, he said: “These kinds of events prove that we have to continue on our path.”

Mr Flasbarth said the proposal was likely to be challenging for many EU members, but expressed optimism about finding a deal.

“We have to find a mechanism that supports specifically poorer people in the poorer member states,” he said. “I’m quite convinced that at the end we will find a very good deal on that.”

Updated: July 20, 2021, 2:54 PM

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