European Commission Vice President for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič (R) and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (L) during COP24 climate talks in Katowice, Poland, December 3, 2018.  © European Commission, 2019/ Photo: Irek Dorozanski

As we ring in the New Year, we usually get to reflect and prepare for what lies ahead. I believe that 2019 will be a defining year for our European Union. The people around Europe will elect a new European Parliament, with the result set to determine Europe’s face and soul. The rise of populism, nationalism and even extremism could potentially re-draw its political landscape.

It is clear that we face a number of societal changes, often exploited by those offering simplistic, misleading solutions. Therefore, we need our people to be and to feel fit for the future. I see the upcoming European elections as a unique opportunity for us all to reconnect with them. On our side, we have countless examples of a positive change set in motion. The project of the Energy Union is one of them.

We witness the most profound transformation of Europe’s energy systems since the second industrial revolution, with far-reaching spillovers across the entire economy. At the same time, we are turning risks of climate change into opportunities of climate action.

The last month of 2018 alone saw a significant “hat-trick” demonstrating Europe’s unwavering commitment to climate action. At COP24, we managed to adopt a clear rulebook that will make the landmark Paris Agreement operational, with the EU playing an instrumental role. In the EU, we reached an agreement on the CO2 emission standards for cars and vans beyond 2020 – something that will also boost long-term competitiveness of our industry so that the best, cleanest and most competitive cars are produced here. We also agreed on the new rules for the EU’s electricity market and a last piece of the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package fell into place – it is a major step towards completing the Energy Union.

I am excited to see that we will enter the next decade with a legal framework supporting Europe’s profound modernization journey.

I am equally proud that we are already looking further ahead – towards a climate neutral Europe in 2050. The EU is in fact the first major economy outlining its strategy for economic and societal transformation that could lead to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

It is only right, as we have recently received a loud wake-up call. According to an IPCC report, urgent action is required to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond this level, even half a degree will painfully worsen the impact of climate change, namely extreme temperatures, droughts, floods and poverty.

Climate change is already affecting us all. In Europe alone, we had extreme heat waves in four of the last five years. In 2017, weather-related disasters cost us unprecedented €283 billion in economic damages. The toll – worldwide – is simply too devastating.

Status quo is not an option

Under this Commission’s mandate, we have focused primarily on what needs to be done for the clean energy transition between now and 2030. The policies put in place so far will go long way – even beyond 2030 – but they will only bring us to emission reductions of around 60% by 2050.

We have identified a number of strategic building blocks that can pave the way towards a climate neutral economy. Energy plays a central role, as it accounts for 75% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance, by maximizing their deployment, 80% of electricity will come from renewables by 2050. This can bring down fossil fuel imports and save us €2-3 trillion after 2030. Instead of paying third countries for energy we only burn, we can invest into modern, cleaner industry that provides high-quality local jobs.

We will be stepping up renovation of our buildings. Renewable electricity in combination with European green batteries – and alongside other alternative fuels – will power our bikes, buses, cars or trains. This will bring healthier air and again, investment into European industry. All of this will see the necessary infrastructure in place, for instance smart grids and smart charging, including vehicle-to-grid technology.

The key to success is that all sectors pitch in – industry, transport, land or agriculture, but also innovation, finance, circular economy, trade. It is in fact under this Commission when we have learnt to better integrate various policies into the Energy Union. Breaking walls among sectors is essential.

This will require additional investment of some 0.8% of our GDP. But the good news is that the ‘climate neutrality’ objective is achievable based on existing solutions – and imagine what we can accomplish with technologies of tomorrow. More good news is that it can increase our growth by 2% as well as green jobs, already amounting to 4 million. Where the transition is difficult, we will help – like we already do in coal regions in transition.

We want to see a thorough debate across our societies in the run up to the Sibiu Summit on the Future of Europe. Later, it will be the next European Parliament and the next Commission – alongside the EU Member States – who will be further shaping this challenging but equally fascinating transformation of Europe. So far, we have enjoyed popular support, as overwhelming majority of EU citizens sees climate change as a serious problem and believes the economy benefits when we act on climate change.

Therefore, let’s dive into another year full of resolute climate action. And let’s dive into honest discussions across Europe, showing we truly care and our actions can bring optimism into people’s lives.   

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Maroš Šefčovič is European Commission Vice President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight