EU official: Climate action can be ‘catalyst’ for recovery

The European Commission is targeting hydrogen technology, buildings and cars as part of plans to deliver “growth and jobs” following the Covid-19 crisis, while bailouts must be subject to strict conditions, the chief of staff to vice-president Frans Timmermans said on Wednesday.

Samsom: delayed biodiversity and 'farm to fork' strategies set for release later this month (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Samsom: delayed biodiversity and 'farm to fork' strategies set for release later this month (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“I think climate action can turn into a catalyst for recovering from this corona crisis,” Diederik Samsom said in a video conference. “That should be our main goal.”

With Timmermans in charge of the European Green Deal, his head of cabinet is a key actor in rolling out the flagship programme, which envisages sweeping reform to Europe’s energy system, economic model and environmental protection.

Samsom said Europe would find itself in uncharted territory in terms of economic slowdown, rising unemployment, a private sector investment gap and public deficit, citing an EU economic forecast published today.

He sees the green deal as central to the solution, and recalled that in December the commission had chosen to frame it as a growth strategy, a move that drew criticism from environmentalists at the time.

“That was a political choice to do it that way, and with hindsight I am happy we did, because we presented it as a new model for Europe, as a Marshall Plan for Europe,” Samsom said. “There’s an outcry now for a Marshall Plan, which could be the green deal.”

He outlined three areas ripe for immediate priority, starting with the ‘renovation wave’ to improve the energy efficiency of Europe’s building stock. “Refitting 200 million homes ... will deliver an enormous amount of jobs,” Samsom said.

Europe also needs to move forward into a new energy system, the Dutch official said. With lots of public money already needed for the transformation, the present crisis is an opportunity to “jump forward towards a hydrogen economy”.

“Large investments into hydrogen production, transportation and deployment ... might be done quicker than we actually anticipated,” Samsom said.

Thirdly, he stressed the automotive sector’s position as a pillar of the EU’s industrial base. “Whatever you think of it, we are a car economy, and we need a plan for the automobile industry,” he said. “We can save them, and we will save the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are now on the line.

“But we might also make a deal with them saying if we invest public money into automobile companies, why not speed up your investments into electrical drivetrains and the electric car future,” he said. “And at the same time we might speed up our investments into charging infrastructure.”

The commission is still working on a recovery package based on a revised post-2020 budget, which president Ursula von der Leyen has already likened to a Marshall Plan, in reference to a US postwar development aid programme. The recovery plan will be delivered “in due time ... somewhere in the next month”, Samsom said.

The EU official acknowledged that the bulk of post-Covid support for industry and jobs, already seen in the aviation and automotive sectors, would inevitably come from national budgets, he was “glad to see member states discussing conditionality”, which had been largely taboo in the wake of the 2008-9 financial crisis.

“The commission is watching this with more than just interest – we are the guardians of the single market,” Samsom said.

The executive will not accept huge support for industry in countries that have the means to bankroll firms when others do not, the official said. “Or that in one country there are green conditions attached to some of the bailouts and recapitalisations, and in other countries there are not.”

Samsom restated Timmermans’s pledge that the delayed EU biodiversity strategy and a 'farm to fork' strategy for sustainable food production would be delivered later this month. Coronavirus has highlighted the “necessity of living in harmony with our surroundings and with nature”, he said.

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