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Keep climate targets but ditch red tape, says EPP’s green leader

MEP Peter Liese debates the planned 2040 emissions reduction target in February with EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra (in background)
MEP Peter Liese debates the planned 2040 emissions reduction target in February with EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra (in background) Copyright Frederic MARVAUX/ European Union 2024 - Source : EP
Copyright Frederic MARVAUX/ European Union 2024 - Source : EP
By Robert Hodgson
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In an exclusive interview, the European People’s Party’s environment policy coordinator tells Euronews the group wants to revisit a raft of Green Deal legislation, and why he thinks climate targets must remain sacrosanct.

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From reversing a ban on petrol and diesel cars to lifting protection for wolves, the EPP’s environment spokesperson Peter Liese has outlined what the centre-right party hopes to achieve in the next five years.

The German Christian Democrat, a former medical doctor and an MEP since 1994, said he is confident of being re-appointed as the group’s environment spokesperson tomorrow (4 july), when the EPP plans to adopt its policy agenda for the coming parliament term.

Leaks earlier this week suggest the group wants to pause or even reverse aspects of the EU Green Deal, the flagship policy agenda of the von der Leyen commission. Liese has already moved, with a call last week to postpone implementation of the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR).

In an interview with Euronews, Liese suggested the move was indicative of the direction of travel since the group, already the largest in the European Parliament, expanded its ranks to 188 seats in last month’s election, but not a reversal on environment policy.

“We want to keep the essence of the Green Deal, but we want to improve the legislation where it is too bureaucratic,” Liese says. And the EUDR is not the only file in the group’s sights. The veteran lawmaker also points to car CO2 emissions limits, which will reach zero in 2035, a de facto ban on petrol and diesel models.

There should be a place for conventional cars running on synthetic e-fuels, he says. Backers say the climate impact of octane or other hydrocarbons made using green electricity is minimal as CO2 is captured and used in their manufacture. Critics argue it is a highly inefficient use of energy when road transport can be electrified directly.

For Liese, the law must be “technology neutral”, and the transition must be market driven while the EU sticks to its emissions reduction policy. “If a company invests in electric vehicles or in e-fuel only cars is their decision, and we are not the nanny of the automotive industry to tell them what they should do.”

He is adamant, however, that the EPP remains committed to the target of cutting net greenhouse gas output to 55% below 1990 levels by the end of the current decade (from around 32% now) and to net-zero by 2050.

“There is overwhelming support for the targets,” Liese asserts, while acknowledging the scale of the challenge. “We are intending to do the same size of emission reduction in six years that we did in the last 34,” he says, adding that he has not spoken to any “reasonable person” who challenges the targets.

“It's a huge effort, but we need to do it. It is also, internationally, our obligation, so I will fight for this.”

At the same time, Liese appears less convinced of his party’s backing for an interim target of 90% by 2040, without which the EU’s independent panel of climate scientists says the net-zero goal will be impossible, and one endorsed (if not yet formally proposed) by the European Commission.

“There are many colleagues that are not yet convinced, so this is not an EPP position,” he says.

Here things get complicated. The EPP wants to revise the EU emissions trading system (ETS), a cap-and-trade scheme where firms have to compete for a dwindling annual supply of emissions allowances, which on the current trajectory will reach zero by 2039 – although the so-called linear reduction factor post-2030 has yet to be negotiated.

Liese is critical of the Commission’s assumption in its impact assessment for the 2040 target that an 88% baseline reduction can already be assumed if current policy is implemented in full.

“No more emissions by the industry and the energy sector already in 2039 - this is what they assume under current policies that have not yet been agreed,” Liese says. “I think we will have a problem,” Liese says.

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Besides a slower reduction of the emissions cap after 2030, Liese argues that firms should be able to count “negative emissions” from technological fixes such as direct air capture (DAC) of CO2. The trouble is, DAC is highly energy intensive and remains for now a ruinously expensive niche technology.

“I always compare it with [solar] photovoltaics,” Liese says. “That was horribly expensive and difficult in the 90s, but now it's very cheap.”

And there is more. A second ETS is due to start in 2027, putting a carbon price on fuels for road transport and heating buildings. Millions of households who have not replaced their boilers with an expensive heat pump will see their energy bills rise, and drivers will feel the effect at the pump.

Liese rigorously defends the legislation he personally steered through parliament – even though the Commission has recognised it could prove controversial, and there have been dissenting voices within the EPP amid concerns of a public backlash.

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“I see that we have a challenge here,” Liese says, but he argues that without a market based mechanism, governments will not be able to achieve the 2030 target. “All the other instruments at national level are more painful, more expensive,” Liese says, equating the cancellation of ETS 2 with abolishing the 55% target.

The system comes with a built-in social fund intended to shield the poorest citizens from high prices but Liese argues that more could be done, perhaps with the European Investment Bank financing up-front payments for home conversions.

So what other aspects of environment policy can we expect the EPP to target? Besides the original ETS and the symbolic issue of car emissions, Liese points to a couple of other issues that have attracted media attention in recent years.

The EPP believes intensive livestock farming – a source of methane, ammonia and other pollutants – should be removed from the scope of the industrial emissions directive and regulated separately, he says.

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Cattle are already exempted from the air pollution limits, but intensive pig and poultry farms are covered. The Commission has to review the legislation by the end of 2026. “Agriculture is not industry, and that's why it shouldn't be an industrial emissions directive,” Liese says.

Another divisive issue the EPP intends to address is wildlife protection. “We also want to open the Habitats Directive to change the protection status of some animals, like wolves, cormorants and so on,” he says of a process the von der Leyen Commission has already initiated . “But if there are animals that should be more protected, I would also support strengthening it.”

Liese’s group would also be open to revising the Nature Restoration Law that it bitterly opposed during its difficult passage through parliament and the EU Council. “If there is an opportunity to improve the text, we would of course take that opportunity,” he says.

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