School of Transnational Governance - European University Institute

Climate change is happening now

Contribution to the series "Firenze, Idee d'Europa" by Professor Jos Delbeke on the troubling weather conditions in summer 2021 and what to expect from COP26 and the European Green Deal.

23/09/2021 | Opinion - Publication

The summer of 2021

This summer should leave us in no doubt that climate change is already happening. We have seen massive forest fires in California, Mediterranean-like temperatures in the Arctic and Siberia, floods in China. Nearer home we have seen extreme heat in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, and severe flooding in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body bringing together climate scientists from all over the world, released its latest report. The scientific evidence confirms with more clarity than ever: the planet is warming faster than expected and human behaviour is the primary cause of this warming, in particular through the continued use of coal, oil and gas.

The conclusion is clear. We must urgently act to limit dangerous climate change, and we need prepare ourselves more urgently to adapt to some unavoidable consequences, such as extreme weather and rising sea levels.

The next global climate Summit in Glasgow

EU leaders decided in 2019 to make Europe the first climate neutral continent in the world by 2050. This bold commitment was followed by many countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and more than 60 others. Equally important is that the United States returned to the Paris Agreement and has committed itself to ambitious targets.

The next United Nations Climate Summit, known as ‘COP26’ will be held in Glasgow next November. It must move the world closer towards limiting the global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C. A central issue is how to scale down the continued extensive use of hard coal, especially in emerging economies such as China, India, South-Africa, as well as in many others like Australia. Also in Europe, coal use is still a problem, even if it is on its way out: between 2010 and 2020 it declined from 24% to 13% of the energy mix.

The European Green Deal

As a key step towards climate neutrality, the EU has decided to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to 1990. A comprehensive policy programme has now been proposed encompassing all sectors of the economy. Intensive negotiations will now begin between the Member States and the European Parliament to decide on these new policies. Fortunately, since 1990 the EU has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 24%.

One important EU policy is the Emissions Trading System, that makes large polluters pay for their emissions. Each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted entails a cost of around €55. The system will be strengthened further and the Commission has proposed that the system be extended to heating and transport fuels, though not necessarily with such a high price for polluting. Europe wants to see other countries do the same. The EU also plans to impose pollution charges on imported goods, such as steel and cement, as European producers of these goods should not be treated unfairly compared to imports.

Other key measures will seek to increase the share of renewable energy, in particular of solar and wind energy, to 40% of the energy mix by 2030. In transport, performance standards for new cars will be strengthened with a view of having only zero-emission new cars sold by 2035. These clean technologies offer enormous opportunities for European businesses that decide to lead in these areas.

There may be short-term costs but the longer-term benefits far outweigh these. Any adverse social impacts that occur in the transition phase towards the low-carbon economy will be addressed. A new Social Climate Fund is being created specifically to address issues of fairness and the ability to everyone to pay for the costs of the climate transition.

The Green Deal will require large additional investments. Professor William Nordhaus, who won the Noble Prize for Economics in 2018 rightly suggested that “Global warming is a trillion-dollar problem requiring a trillion-dollar solution”1. Europe foresees that a third of its budget, including substantial new borrowing to finance recovery from the COVID-19 epidemic, will be spent in line with the Green Deal objectives. Italy stands to benefit from these funds, that can finance investments to reduce emissions, protect against extreme weather events, as well as ensure fairness. As the scientists recently reminded us, now is the moment for boldness.


Jos Delbeke is Professor at the European University Institute' School of Transnational Governance and the KULeuven. In September 2020, he was appointed the Institute's first EIB Climate Chair. From 2010-2018 Delbeke was Director-General of the Directorate-General for Climate Action at the European Commission

This article originally appeared in La Repubblica, as part of the bilingual "Ideas of Europe" series about the most pressing issues of our times, a collaboration between La Repubblica and the European University Institute.

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