By Dieter Holger and Maitane Sardon
The European Union has proposed spending hundreds of billions of euros on green industries as part of a plan to allay the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, building on a pledge to turn the bloc into a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
The 750 billion–euro ($821.6 billion) recovery plan and the separate €1.1 trillion budget for 2021–27, which were unveiled Wednesday, have earmarked billions for renewable energy, clean transport, hydrogen power and energy-efficient building renovations.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive, has proposed that a quarter of the budget go to combating climate change.
Both the broader budget and the recovery plan await tense debate before an outcome is agreed on by the bloc’s 27 member states.
“We need to press fast-forward towards a green, digital and resilient future,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, in a speech to the European Parliament. She added that an extension of the union’s emissions-trading program and the addition of a carbon-dioxide border tax could help pay for the proposed green investments.
Meeting the EU’s current targets on clean energy could add 1% of GDP and create nearly 1 million green jobs by 2030, the Commission said. On the other hand, exposing the EU’s economy to global warming of 3 degrees Celsius could cost the bloc €175 billion a year, according to the EU’s Joint Research Center.
The EU budget, the first since then–freshly elected von der Leyen outlined in December the European Green Deal as a cornerstone of her five-year term, doesn’t recommend member states use any of the money they receive toward fossil fuels, but countries do have some flexibility in how they spend the funds.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs said earlier this month that the up to €300 billion of yearly investment needed to reach the EU’s climate ambition — totaling some €9 trillion by 2050 — could be met by freeing up money that now goes to fossil fuels.
It is also the first budget since the U.K. exited the bloc and set its own ambition for carbon neutrality by 2050. In the first quarter of this year, more than 40% of the U.K.’s energy consumption came from renewable power, overtaking fossil fuels for the first time in February, according to Drax Electric Insights.
Europe’s push for clean energy underscores calls by politicians, investors and corporations for a shift away from polluting industries. Earlier this month, 155 companies with more than $2.4 trillion in combined market value urged governments worldwide to align their coronavirus recovery packages with the Paris Agreement on climate change, which hopes to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
European investors and companies welcomed the commission’s ambition to put climate change at the heart of its recovery plan to drive business growth and create investment opportunities.
“This important green pact will deliver growth, employment and prosperity,” said Ignacio Galán, chairman and chief executive of Spanish utility Iberdrola SA /zigman2/quotes/202060935/delayed ES:IBE -1.12% /zigman2/quotes/205092538/composite IBDRY -1.77% . “We will see real economic benefits, and the creation of value for society as a whole.”
Environmental groups said the proposals represent a step in the right direction, even as some called for a more aggressive plan.
Markus Trilling, finance and subsidies policy coordinator at nonprofit Climate Action Network Europe, said it runs the risk of allowing member states to spend money on polluting industries through the EU’s regional development funds.
“The lack of a more ambitious climate action target for the EU budget and the new recovery fund risks derailing the European climate and environmental objectives,” he said.
Claire Roumet, head of strategic partnerships and overall coordination at nonprofit network Energy Cities, also criticized the recovery plan for handing over more negotiation power to the EU’s member states instead of the European Parliament.
“Big figures can only have a big impact if the real actors of the economy are involved,” she said.