EU's green dream put to the test in series of parliamentary votes

Members of European Parliament to vote on Wednesday on eight measures in the European Green Deal

There are negotiations over how quickly to get rid of combustion engines. Getty
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The EU’s flagship climate change agenda faces being watered down by parliamentarians in a bumper series of votes this week, in the shadow of an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The sweeping green overhaul proposed by Brussels last year includes eye-catching measures such as a ban on new petrol cars by 2035 and a steeper carbon tax covering emissions from buildings and transport.

Eight of the proposals will be put to the vote on Wednesday after members of the European Parliament sparred over the package, which is meant to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent this decade.

Frans Timmermans, the EU official spearheading the so-called European Green Deal, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine had “only accentuated the importance of making the transition happen as quickly as possible”.

But sceptics said the package was too ambitious and expensive at a time when runaway fuel prices are already straining Europe’s citizens, raising fears of street protests similar to France’s Yellow Vest movement.

The parliament’s largest group of MEPs, the centre-right European People’s Party, said it could support making 90 per cent of new cars electric by 2035 but that getting rid of all combustion engines by then was a step too far.

“Let’s not put all our eggs in one basket when setting new rules for clean cars,” said EPP negotiator Jens Gieseke, a parliament member from Germany.

“Mandating a phase-out of combustion engines could put up to 500,000 jobs at risk… member states whose economies are heavily reliant on the car industry must get space and time to adjust and find solutions.”

The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group said the so-called Fit for 55 package, referring to the 2030 emissions reduction target, would come with “huge social and economic costs”.

“We have a war to the east, high inflation and rising energy prices. Are we really going to increase our citizens’ bills further?” asked Belgian member Johan van Overtveldt.

Mr Timmermans countered that the poorest people in society would suffer most from climate change because "rich people can always find a different place to live, find a way out".

The parliament’s environment committee has already recommended scaling down plans for a wider emissions trading system covering road transport and heating fuel.

MEPs will consider a separate law requiring countries to cultivate forests, wetlands and improve soil health to store more carbon in natural sinks.

Some said the package does not go far enough. Damien Careme, a Green MEP from France, said emissions allowances that give some leeway to companies should be phased out before the 2036 deadline proposed by Brussels.

The centre-left Socialists and Democrats group broadly supports the package but said it must come with measures to help the most vulnerable people cope with the race to net-zero.

“This will require a deep transformation of our economy and society… it can only be a success if we make it socially just,” said Spanish socialist Iratxe Garcia Perez, who called for “a green transition with a red heart”.

The Fit for 55 package was unveiled last July with the fight against climate change in mind. The EU has a target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 in line with its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has sharpened focus on generating renewable energy at home, while at the same time tempting governments to look again at condemned fossil fuel projects as an alternative to Russian imports.

The parliament is relatively weak compared to national assemblies in Europe, but its votes will determine its negotiating position in talks with the EU’s 27 countries.

It will also have to approve an eventual legal text, usually thrashed out in talks with the European Commission and the 27 governments.

Updated: June 07, 2022, 4:11 PM