Why the EU’s Green Deal really could well be its ‘man-on-moon moment

UPDATE APRIL 2022: Back in 2019, President Ursula von der Leyen announced and named the European Green Deal a ‘man on the moon’ moment. Back then no one knew that the path to the ‘moon’ would not be paved with roses but rather stumbling rocks.
Why the EU’s Green Deal really could well be its ‘man-on-moon moment

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the European Transport Forum (ETF), a platform for open debate on the future of European Transport, to provide insights on hot topics dealing with mobility. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect an official position of Volvo.

Furthermore, this article was originally published in May 06, 2020 and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

At the beginning of the global pandemic, and despite the disruptions caused by it, the Commission President declared that the European Green Deal should be the ‘engine’ of Europe’s recovery. Based on that commitment the Commission moved forward with key proposals and put forward an ambitious package for economic recovery from Covid-19 while bracing up the narrative of a ‘green and just recovery’ at the same time.

In response to the pandemic, the Commission topped up the EU budget by EUR 806.9 billion through NextGenerationEU as a temporary instrument to power the EU’s recovery. The EU announced investments of over €2 billion in 140 key transport projects alone to jump-start the economy and support sustainable transport, create jobs, and build missing transport links across the continent.

In 2021, in relation to the European Green Deal, the Commission presented the Fit for 55 package which aims to pave the way to a reduction in CO₂ emissions by 55% by 2030, accelerating the EU’s plan to fully decarbonise by 2050. The broad package containing hundreds of pages of legislative proposals out of which a few aims at bringing the transport and buildings sector into the EU decarbonisation process. Transport is one focus of the package: It is a sector whose emissions remain higher than in 1990 and which faces the huge challenge of reducing emissions by 90% by 2050 to achieve climate neutrality.

The European Green Deal combined with the Fit for 55 package is already an impressive piece of legislation, the question is whether all that will be a great challenge for a viable future or a breakneck project. For the time being, the EU must address pressing issues such as rising costs due to ETS obligations, rising energy taxes and the risk that alternative fuels might in the end turn out to be costly because there are not enough of them.

In 2022, we will be watching the Commission, the Council and the Parliament working tirelessly on those proposals, and hoping that all the discussions will result in a coherent and balanced framework that is fair and socially just, maintains and strengthens innovation and the competitiveness of EU industry, and supports the EU's leading position in the global fight against climate change – only then we will be able to call it the ‘man on the moon’ moment.

Lastly, there is a lot to watch across the Atlantic, with the change of the administration the United States was able to rejoin the Paris Agreement and set a course to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050. Moreover, Biden Administration set 2030 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target which picks up the pace of emissions reductions in the United States, compared to historical levels, while supporting existing goals to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.

Nonetheless, all the global sustainability efforts already might be facing a lot of challenges ahead. In the EU, the EU Green Deal is slightly slipping off track due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The current geopolitical situation in Ukraine is triggering discussions within the EU on the timeline of certain policies, first doubts are circling around the planned agricultural transition, with some stakeholders aiming to weaken the ambition of the EU. More questions appear as the situation evolves with fear that the European Green Deal and other global commitments could be largely affected amid the situation in Ukraine.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE 06/05/2020: The European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen was not afraid to use bold language to describe the European Green Deal, her plan to remake achieve climate neutrality by 2050 by remaking the bloc’s economy. “This is Europe’s ‘man on the Moon’ moment,” she said as she unveiled the Green Deal. “The old growth model that is based on fossil fuels and pollution is out of date and out of touch with our planet.”

A Colossal Scope

For some, that might sound bombastic. But the scale of the plan is indeed gigantic – and not just in transport and mobility, which accounts for more than a quarter (27%) of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, Ms von der Leyen said the Green Deal is more than about cutting emissions, it is also a new European growth strategy. She vowed to “leave no-one behind” as she aimed to reconcile “our economy with our planet”.

The plan effectively stakes Europe’s economic future on an environmental clean-up that will overhaul businesses and trade relations. The scope is colossal. It includes proposals like an EU Climate Law setting a 2050 net-zero emissions target, a carbon border tax, a new Circular Economy Action Plan, a zero-pollution ambition, and a strategy for sustainable and smart mobility.

And the costs are mind-boggling. Meeting the zero-emissions target could mean as much as €290 billion a year in extra investment for energy systems and infrastructure representing about 1.5% of 2018 GDP.

Climate Emergency Is Real

The Commission says the Green Deal is emphatic because the climate emergency is real. And it is not just about money, but about changing a system. There are concrete measures for the transport sector, like a plan to end aviation’s excise duty tax holiday, make sure shipping pays for its emissions and mandate the deployment of clean fuels and technology. It will remove subsidies for fossil fuels so that oil companies could end up paying tens of billions more in taxes.

It plans to move to completely zero-emission cars and vans through a combination of new standards, ubiquitous charging infrastructure and green batteries. It also includes plans for a final set of pollutant emission standards for cars, vans, buses, trucks with a combustion engine (euro 7).

The Green Deal will face scrutiny from governments, MEPs and stakeholders as its different parts move through the EU regulatory machine. And if the challenge to change Europe is not enough, it also needs global support to affect an overall change in emissions and temperatures.

Taking Bold Action

But it also comes after hundreds of millions of people have taken to the streets over the past year of climate strikes. Part of this unprecedented political momentum comes from the ‘Greta effect’, named after Swedish schoolgirl campaigner Greta Thunberg, who epitomises the public pressure over the climate emergency. Named Time magazine’s Person of the Year on the day the Green Deal was announced, she has become the most powerful voice on the biggest issue facing the planet.

There is powerful political energy behind the Green Deal. This is a moment when the EU senses its responsibility take bold action to meet its low carbon and sustainability vision. It may take time, but it will have an effect that could indeed rival the Moon mission.