Monday, June 01, 2020

The EU's shaky track record on environmental policy should serve as a warning for its “green deal”

Jointly written by Pieter Cleppe and Kai Weiss. A version of this article was published as a chapter of the 2020 book "Green Market Revolution How Market Environmentalism Can Protect Nature and Save the World " - page 124

The new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, wants to come up with a “European Green Deal”, which is only part of a whole range of new EU measures intended to protect the environment. The Commission is thereby truly presenting itself as a green champion. Past evidence, however, raises quite a few doubts about the EU’s performance when it comes to protecting the environment. Hereunder is an overview of the EU’s shaky green track-record:

1.      The EU’s Agricultural Policies: 

Apart from the considerable waste of financial resources the EU’s biggest spending area – agriculture – entails, there have also been major environmental downsides attached to it.  First of all, there has been years of overproduction, the antithesis of anything that should be understood as sustainable. This even persists until today, despite the changes that have been made.

Only recently, more than 2,500 scientists across the EU have urged the EU “to act on the science, and undertake a far-reaching reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) without delay.” They thereby argue that EU subsidies financially support the so-called “intensive” agriculture model, which they think harms biodiversity.

Whether one supports the current model of agricultural or not, it’s clearly a problem that those keen to try out what they consider to be a more sustainable model of agriculture, will be facing competitors funded by the EU for billions and billions of euros.

2.      The EU’s fisheries policies

Even more clear is how the EU’s fisheries policies have caused a major environmental disaster. For years, the EU has enforced policies requiring fishermen to discard perfectly fine fish in case they have reached certain quotas. According to opponents of the CFP, this is mainly the result of the EU’s choice for quotas, instead of opting for the US or Nordic model whereby all fish which has been caught should be brought on land, where it can be inspected.

To be fair, the EU has made a half-baken reform here, improving things, and the European Commission has even openly apologized, but given that the CFP was one of the longest standing EU policies, it doesn’t really inspire confidence in the EU as an environmental champion.

3.       The EU’s climate policies:

Long before Barack Obama came up with U.S. “cap and trade”, the EU had its own version, which is called the “Emission Trading System” (ETS). The fundamental idea behind it isn’t bad, but the way it has been implemented is. 

The central idea of ETS was to force companies that emit CO2 to provide compensation but at the same time allow them to buy the right to emit, so to make sure CO2 is emitted by those able to do it with the lowest economic cost.

In reality, however, major industrial firms often managed to convince politicians to provide them with free emission rights, threatening to scrap jobs otherwise. In this way, the ETS distorted fair competition as it ended up supporting big manufacturers that emit a lot of CO2.

This meant that a policy intended to limit CO2 emissions has ended up providing an unfair advantage to the biggest emitters of CO2. The problem is known for years, but reforms have proven very difficult. Anyone supporting great new EU schemes to benefit the environment ought to keep this in mind.

Also in another area of climate protection there has been large-scale EU failure. In its drive to designate climate-friendly and climate-hostile technologies, the EU has made major mistakes.

A first example is how the EU and European governments encouraged diesel cars over the years, through regulations and tax treatment. The EU promoted diesel, for example by agreeing to a voluntary CO2 target for vehicles that was largely in line with what diesel technology could meet. Partly as a result of this, diesel sales soared. In 1990, only 10% of new car registrations were for diesel cars. This increased to almost 60% in 2011.

Today, diesel has fallen out of favour, even if some argue that it actually may be a superior choice when it comes to CO2 emissions than petrol cars and even a better choice than electric cars.

In any case, even if diesel engines would be more fuel-efficient and would emit less CO2 than other engines, their emission of soot, particulates, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) is also a environmental concern

The point here is not so much who’s right and who’s wrong in this very technical debate, with serious arguments being made by each side. It’s mostly that top-down control of environmental policy has been leading to epic u-turns and great uncertainty, also imposing a great cost on industry. 

Today, the policy consensus at the EU level is to promote electric cars. Few listen to dissident voices, like the International Energy Agency, which has warned that driving electric cars – which enjoy tax breaks - won’t make a dent in global carbon emissions, and may even increase pollution levels. Moreover, also the environmental impact is a worry, as senior researcher Elsa Dominish explains that "the mining of many metals used for renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles already impacts wildlife biodiversity”. It looks like once again, EU policy makers will need to make an embarrassing u-turn after having declared a certain technology to be environmentally friendly.

Another example how the EU got it badly wrong is by designing biofuels as “climate friendly”. Apart from the fact these were also blamed for higher food prices in developing countries, they have been accused of destroying habitats such as tropical rainforests. NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) has claimed that using biofuels is actually worse for the environment than traditional fossil fuels.

After the EU Commission had put its weight behind biofuels in 2003, an external report it commissioned to scrutinize its own policies, concluded in 2011 that the policy did harm the goal to reduce CO2 emissions, as it actually caused higher emissions, due to indirect land use changes tied to biofuels, with activities like clearing grassland and forests negating any cuts in greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, however, tax incentives and subsidies had been introduced.

According to the damning report, the EU Commission cannot hide behind claims it wasn’t aware of the impact as it notes “There was little scientific evidence available in 2003 that supported the claim that a European biofuels target would be guaranteed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.”  

A similar debate is raging when it comes to biomass. An EU target requires 20% of the energy used in Europe to come from “renewable” sources by 2020 and biomass currently represents almost 60% of renewable energy consumption in the EU.

It’s estimated that burning wood for energy, which is what biomass ultimately comes down to, typically emits 1.5 times more CO2 than coal and 3 times more than natural gas. Opponents argue that to qualify biomass as “renewable” energy fails to take into account the scientific evidence showing that forest biomass harvesting and combustion for energy purposes exacerbates climate change by causing deforestation outside of Europe. A court case at the highest EU court challenging the EU’s definition of biomass as “renewable” is currently pending.

Then there are of course wind and solar energy. It’s been widely documented that hazardous materials are needed to produce solar panels. Also the environmental downsides of wind turbines, as for example visual impacts, the noise produced by the rotor blades or the deaths of birds and bats that fly into the rotors, are widely known.

Unlike in the case of nuclear waste – there are no proper plans on how to deal with the waste stemming from the production of solar panels and wind turbines. This is expected to hit 78 million metric tonnes by 2050. Solar panels have been estimated to create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear energy. In countries like China, India and Ghana, this toxic waste is often burned, in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. The resulting toxic fumes are known to cause cancer and birth defects.

In its climate policies, the EU has been consistently promoting the described technologies, while nuclear energy, despite its very low level of C02 emissions, has been on the defensive at the EU level.

The EU’s support for diesel and biofuels has already been revised and given the abundant evidence, it’s not excluded that in a number of years, also the policy choices to support biomass, wind and solar energy, as well as electric cars may be seen as grave errors, from the perspective of protecting the environment.

At the heart of the problem is that the EU has opted for imposing a fixed EU target for a certain technology to reduce CO2 emissions, in this case “renewable” energy, whereby defining what this amounts to isn’t very obvious. This has forced EU member states into expensive and unworkable policies and it has caused cheaper methods of reducing CO2 emission to be ignored.

Furthermore, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to which the EU signed up, foresees that the world’s developed countries provide developing countries with at least $100 billion a year until 2025, so to “ease the transition”. Also within the EU, a similar arrangement is being planned, in the form of a so-called “Just Transition Fund”, which would contain up to €35 billion euro, to support poorer member states like Poland, which is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

The track record of these kinds of support schemes is not exactly inspiring confidence: A study published in Nature in 2015, concluded that due to weak environmental oversight of the UN’s 1997 carbon credit scheme, there were “perverse incentives” for some industrial plants in Russia to increase emissions, so they could then be paid to reduce them. In other words: financially rewarding those that are lagging behind has proven to be a tricky strategy. Yet, the EU is enthusiastically doubling down on this, ignoring the lessons of the past.

Last but not least, in its climate policies, the EU is not above handing out EU subsidies to fossil fuels or withholding embarrassing reports on its own policies from publication until after the European Parliament elections.


In its brand-new plans for a “European green deal”, the EU Commission is pushing for more regulation, more spending, more taxes, more protectionism, more top-down control and picking winners in a complex technological environment. All of these approaches were applied by the EU in the past and they often harmed the environment. The question is whether an organization with such a questionable track record when it comes to protecting the environment should be trusted when it comes up with new grand policy schemes which basically amount to “more of the same”.


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