The heated debate surrounding the selection of a replacement for Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Union Commission responsible for climate policy and the EU’s Green Deal, underscores the central place climate secured for itself in the international political arena. Potential candidates are being subjected to a series of critical checks and scrutinizing questioning, to ascertain their views and commitment to advance the set goals.
While European countries now place climate and the environment at the forefront of political priorities, in most Arab countries these matters continue to occupy a backstage position. And while high caliber European politicians are competing over a leadership post on environment and climate policies, such portfolios continue to be allocated, in most Arab countries, as consolation prizes for junior partners or social and ethnic minorities. When an experienced former foreign minister was appointed Minister of Environment in Lebanon two decades ago, this was considered a form of demotion and punishment by the new regime, and not as a measure to reinforce the ministry with his expertise in international relations.
Leading the competition to replace Timmermans in the European Union is Wopke Hoekstra, most recently the Dutch foreign minister, and former minister of finance. A new position as EU climate commissioner is considered prestigious, and a promotion, rather than a demotion after Hoekstra’s previous posts, contrary to the case of the former Lebanese foreign minister.
Timmermans resigned from his position in the European Commission to lead his party in the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, seeking to become the new prime minister. While this will give a boost to environmental and climate action in the Netherlands, it might create a vacuum at the European level that will not be easily filled.
His tenure was rich in achievements, which moved environment and climate action to advanced stages. Since becoming responsible for the climate and green deal portfolio in 2019, Timmermans achieved in less than four years more than what the European Commission did over 15 years, as he succeeded in passing 12 laws with executive measures to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
In order to prevent some countries hiding behind long-term goals to delay initiating action, the EU committed to a phased cut in emissions, by half, by 2030, after Timmermans was able to bypass the objections of many countries that called for an extension of the deadline, including heavy-weights like France. Instead of an extension, the EU later agreed to go even further and aim to boost emissions cuts to 55 percent instead of 50 by 2030.
The European Green Deal, which was approved in 2020, may be considered the most prominent of Timmermans’ programs. This initiative is unique in that it links climate action to the protection of the environment and natural resources, by reviewing all laws to ensure that they comply with climate and environment goals, in a way that guarantees Europe’s transition into just and prosperous societies that embrace a competitive circular economy.
Among the most important components of the Green Deal is the transition to clean energy, with a focus on enhancing efficiency and rationalizing consumption patterns, in addition to popularizing renewable energy sources and developing green hydrogen technologies. The shift to cleaner industry and the adoption of a circular economy in production and consumption has a prominent position in the plan, to be achieved by raising the rate of reuse, and recycling materials in new industrial processes instead of abandoning them as waste.
A practical example of the success of these measures was imposing a deposit on almost all kinds of empty containers, including glass bottles, plastic boxes and aluminum cans. This increased the rate of returned containers for reuse or recycling to over 90 percent in some countries, with young and old people collecting the few abandoned ones from the garbage to cash the deposit.
Other components of the Green Deal is employing reusable materials in the construction industry, and the renovation of old buildings to enhance their ability to save energy and water. Initiatives include the Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to reduce pollution in water, air and soil to levels no longer considered harmful by 2050. The Deal also includes a shift to sustainable means of transportation, not only by using electricity and hydrogen as fuels, but also by strengthening public transport, city planning and distributing housing, work and entertainment centers in such a way to control communication and traffic.
The plan is distinguished by considering the preservation of biodiversity and the protection of nature as a basis for climate action. It sets specific goals in this field for the year 2030, including protecting 30 percent of terrestrial, marine and forest habitats, planting 3 billion trees, and reviving 25,000 kilometers of rivers. This trend was reinforced by the Nature Restoration Law, which outlines a practical roadmap to revive destroyed and threatened natural systems across Europe.
Perhaps the most ambitious components of the Green Deal are those related to agriculture, comprising grand goals for 2030, such as raising the proportion of organic farming to 25 percent and reducing the use of fertilizers by 20 percent, and pesticides by 50 percent.
In addition to his leading role in environment and climate policies and laws in Europe, Timmermans played a pivotal role in international climate negotiations, and was the major force behind the settlement that led to the approval of the Loss and Damage Fund, the most prominent achievement of the 27th Climate Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh.
It will not be an easy task for whoever is chosen to replace Timmermans in leading the European Green Deal. The upcoming climate summit in Dubai will certainly miss his unique ability to make compromises. However, the groundwork has been already done, with many laws and commitments in place. Europe should prove that it does not lack environment and climate leaders capable of implementing its commitments and advancing its targets, as the watchful public will be scrutinizing and judging, not only within the EU but beyond.
When Hoekstra goes to the EU Parliament in a few days for final endorsement, he will face a lot of scrutinizing, some professional and others projecting power struggle and conflicts of interest, leading to compromises. His background as executive of an oil company and minister of finance will be used against him by some, while it will be considered an asset by others.
In a positive sense, the heated discussions can be seen as a reflection of the importance attached to matters related to climate and environment policies in our times, including the transition to green economy. It is hoped that this will be an impetus to bring environment and climate to the front line of policy making where it is still in the back seats, including in most Arab countries.