European Union leaders took up a difficult debate Thursday on a bold new climate plan dubbed the Green Deal. While the details are impressive – such as a potential legal obligation to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050 – just as important is a call for equitable sacrifice among EU member states.
In the spirit of the Three Musketeers, the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the plan “must work for all or it will not work at all.”
Around the world, many climate proposals have failed in recent years because of a perception by voters and others that cuts in carbon use would not be balanced by economic justice. Last year, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron had to retreat from a proposed hike in fuel taxes in the face of a “Yellow Vest” protest movement among rural commuters. In announcing the Green Deal this week, Ms. von der Leyen tried to head off any perception of unfairness by promising to “protect those who risk being hit harder by such change.”
For the EU, protecting certain nations from tougher emission targets could be expensive, costing perhaps as much as $130 billion. Much of that money would go to member states now heavily dependent on coal – notably Poland – to move them toward lower emissions and to retrain coal workers for other jobs. The name of this climate help, the Just Transition Fund, reflects the concerns about how to distribute the burden of cutting greenhouse gases.
An even trickier fairness concern is how the EU would protect its industries if their costs rise as a result of moving toward a zero-carbon economy. Companies could face stiff competition in imports from countries without tough carbon targets. Some might even move their factories overseas, also known as “carbon leakage.” Ms. von der Leyen’s solution would be to impose a “carbon tax” at the border. Such a levy would be based on a complex estimation of the pollution involved in the manufacture and transport of an import.
Any portion of the Green Deal could falter if EU leaders do not adequately address the fairness questions. In addition, the EU must prepare for other countries, such as the United States and China, reacting badly to a carbon border tax.
The EU’s leadership on curbing climate change has been admirable. Between 1990 and 2018, the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 23% while its economy grew by 61%. Now the world’s biggest single market can also be a leader in defining climate fairness. If Europe achieves “one for all and all for one” in burden-sharing, the rest of humanity may follow.