New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made the “European Green Deal” a centerpiece of her administration and is moving to back the initiative with vast funding and a powerful new executive focused exclusively on climate change.
But she also vows solid growth and more jobs. Some say going green and delivering old economic growth could actually be mutually exclusive notions, something of an oxymoron. The issue also lays bare the ongoing disparity among countries in the EU, which are developing and evolving at different speeds.
High school graduates have likely read about the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland of Germany, a key objective for Allied forces in WWII. Today the former steel and coal region no longer belches steam and smoke.
The vast coking ovens and smokestacks of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex are now silent following their closure in 1986. Today Zollverein is a Unesco World Heritage site that has become a gentrified, green post-industrial environment and home to business startups, a restaurant, a centre for contemporary arts and a design museum.
An apt metaphor for its repurposing is a cool and calm ice-skating rink now resonating with the talk and laughter of children instead of the whine of coal conveyor belts and the hiss of hot steel. Yet the reality is, the site has a much more limited economic impact today and its present incarnation does not employee anywhere near the number of workers it did in its production heyday.
Some 600 km away, an industrial region almost as famous for its industrial past as the Ruhr, is still living its coal-reliant legacy. In Silesia, Poland, coal is still king. The province’s capital Katowice is often covered in smog generated by thousands of coal-burning home heaters.
The city of about 300,000 sits in the heart of the aging Polish heavy industry belt. It hosts the mining industry’s largest trade fair and is home to Europe’s largest coal producer. Almost half of the 82,000 jobs in Poland that rely on coal production are found in Upper Silesia.
In Katowice many talk not of change but of keeping their jobs and the 200-year-old coal culture alive. Of course, they would likely embrace a move to less arduous work, but they and their families need a decent-paying financial alternative. The key to any transition away from coal in the region is ensuring that mining jobs are not simply replaced with precarious work, say miners.
As it stands now coal is still used to generate 80 per cent of Poland’s electricity. In a December vote, it was the only EU member state to decline signing on to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Von der Leyen is certainly aware of the magnitude of the challenge in both economic and cultural terms. She recently likened de-carbonisation to Europe’s “man on the moon moment”.
“The European Green Deal is on the one hand our vision for a climate neutral continent in 2050 and on the other hand a very dedicated roadmap to this goal,” she said in a speech to the EU parliament as 2019 drew to a close. “Our goal is to reconcile the economy with our planet, the way we produce and the way we consume, to make it work for our people.
“I am convinced that the old growth model based on fossil fuels is out of date and out of touch with our planet,” said von der Leyen. “The European Green Deal is a strategy for growth that gives more back than it takes away.”
That ambitious, perhaps over-the-moon, view must be backed by a real and tangible design for action, say critics. The commission has responded with a plan it says would mean a staggering ?1 trillion investment in the European Green Deal.
The plan scheduled for adoption on January 14 calls for at least 25 per cent of the EU budget to be devoted to climate action, a record share, as well as help for financial institutions and private investors so they can make sustainable investments. It also wants to turn the European Investment Bank into a ‘climate bank’ that doubles its climate-related lending.
But anything affecting the real finances of European workers better be well considered, a harsh fact French President Emmanuel Macron discovered when he tried to raise the tax on vehicle fuel to fund environmental efforts.
Macron’s move triggered the violent ‘yellow vest’ protest movement in France that has now continued for more than a year. He said on Saturday the attempt to raise the fuel tax was a ‘mistake’ and he now might ask for a referendum on the fight against climate change to ensure government policy is backed by voters.
Yet more so than anywhere else on the planet, climate change is seen as an existential threat in Europe, say opinion polls. The threat is real, most agree. The rub for European workers comes when the response is no longer a theory but a reality that affects their own lives. It seems the moment for sacrifice is not in the distant future. It has already arrived.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com