The EU cannot be a green island in a dirty world

The author is director of the Open Society European Policy Institute and one of the authors of the International system change compasswritten with Systemiq and the Club of Rome

The EU has a laudable history of climate leadership, having made legally binding commitments to climate neutrality and creating an ambitious policy framework to deliver on them. Unlike the United States and other global players, Europe has put its money – and its policies – where its mouth is.

But that story will start to look less laudable if the EU doesn’t address the global implications of its transition, as outlined in the recently released International System Change Compass. To put it bluntly, the EU cannot be a green island in a dirty world. Unless its trade, aid and other external policies help other regions achieve their own green transitions, the EU’s ambitions will be doomed.

There is only one climate, so emission reductions on one continent do not help if it continues to import products made with dirty energy from elsewhere in the world. By 2030, the EU will probably be responsible for less than 5% of global emissions, thanks to its “Fit for 55” package. But European demand generates much of the remaining 95% of emissions due to CO₂ embedded in imports from other regions.

Carbon emissions are not the only problem. The EU is a massive importer of virgin resources which are extracted in other parts of the world. Global extraction of natural resources has tripled in the past 50 years, according to the UN’s International Resource Panel, while global material productivity has declined and material consumption is expected to double by now. 2060. To avoid externalizing the emissions and ecological damage of this consumption, low-income countries must use resources much more efficiently by moving to a circular economy.

Resource efficiency has become more urgent now that Europe’s decarbonisation drive is increasing demand for critical raw materials, such as lithium for batteries. If the United States and Europe were to maintain the same consumption levels, currently known resources or planned mines could only provide about 50% of the lithium and 80% of the copper needed for humans to transition to electric mobility. and renewable energy generation, according to the International Energy Agency.

The development of renewable energies is Europe’s solution: it is the best way to decarbonise the economy and ensure long-term energy security, much better than finding new sources of oil and gas. Renewables are fuels of freedom because the sun and wind are abundant and well distributed around the world. But the raw materials essential to making solar panels and other clean technologies are concentrated in specific places, and most of the supply is controlled by one country: China. Shortly after Europe’s huge effort to escape dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, it will find itself more dependent on China. In addition, the mining boom of renewable technologies could trigger new resource conflicts. An important challenge for the next phase of the European Green Deal is to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure good governance of natural resources.

The EU needs to step up its investments on both the demand side and the supply side. Like the US and China, the EU must view the shift to more efficient use of materials as a security imperative, both for energy security but also as a conflict avoidance strategy. . A circular economy would be more resilient because greater reuse and recycling of materials means less vulnerability to external supply chains. It would also mean less competition for virgin resources between these three major economies.

However, the EU must cushion the impact on its low-income trading partners of import cuts and the introduction of climate-motivated trade barriers. Before introducing the carbon border adjustment mechanism planned for 2026, the EU must make parallel commitments on financing and technology transfer to help its low-income trading partners develop their own sustainable industries and recover the value chain.

Europe’s global reputation is at stake. To be a climate leader, the EU must avoid starting a new era of extractivism reminiscent of its colonial past, and instead make its own economy more resource efficient. and in energy. It must help other regions change their economic systems, not just threaten them with measures they see as protectionism in green wrappers. The European Green Deal will only succeed if it drives a global green deal that takes Europe’s trading partners on their own path to sustainability.

About Mike Stevenson

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