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Europe blinks in its commitment to a great green transition



LONDON — Europe made big, bold promises to slash carbon emissions to slow global warming, but now the bill is coming due, and governments are starting to blink at the cost — political and economic — needed to power the great transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

Once far-off goals are getting more real, as Europe wrestles with how to tell Germans which cars they can drive, Italians which stoves are acceptable, Polish miners why they must abandon coal, and Britons why they can’t keep exploiting their country’s massive oil and gas reserves.

Britain and the European Union have pledged to go “net zero” by 2050, with steep cuts by 2030. But across Europe — where this summer has brought brutal heat waves and raging fires in the Mediterranean region — a backlash is simmering against some of the world’s most ambitious green targets.

Last week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak traveled to Scotland to announce with a big splash his decision to open the North Sea to more oil and gas drilling.

This got Sunak’s private mansion in the Yorkshire countryside draped in “oil-black fabric” by Greenpeace activists who warned that his plan to “max out” fossil fuel reserves could destroy Britain’s chance of meeting its emissions commitments and risk tipping the climate into a danger zone.

Climate activists drape British prime minister’s home in ‘oil-black’ fabric

Sunak’s gambit to commit to more domestic drilling was inspired in part by the results of a one-off parliamentary election in the London suburbs — for the seat that former prime minister Boris Johnson abandoned when he quit the House of Commons. There, voters signaled they were opposed to the pollution charges ordered up by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, to limit the number of petrol cars allowed into the central city.

The E.U., too, has been fighting about cars.

Last fall, the 27-nation bloc reached a world-leading political agreement to effectively end the sale of nonelectric cars by 2035. But this year, a group of countries sought to water down the rules.

The regulations have remained largely intact, though Germany secured an exception for conventional vehicles that would run on carbon-neutral e-fuels. Such fuels are not yet economically viable for mass use.

But the push suggested the rising discontent among auto industry executives and workers across the continent over a total switch to electric vehicles, and the end of cars using internal combustion engines — whose production is linked to tens of thousands of jobs in Germany, Italy and beyond.

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Italy and other E.U. nations are also taking aim at “Euro 7” regulations that, by 2025, are meant to tighten vehicle exhaust emissions.

“Italy, with France, Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, have the numbers to block this leap in the dark,” Italy’s hard right Transportation Minister Matteo Salvini told a May car dealer conference in Verona. “We’re now a blocking minority, we want to become a majority.”

Despite those claims, analysts say that rolling back already agreed-upon E.U. rules remains a long shot. But new agreements are more vulnerable.

During a speech on how to revive French industry, President Emmanuel Macron in May called for “a European regulatory break.”

“We have already passed lots of environmental regulations at the European level, more than other countries,” Macron said. “Now we should be implementing them, not making new changes in the rules or we are going to lose all our [industrial] players.”

When every day somewhere is a climate record

Macron said Europe was doing its part and is “ahead of the Americans, the Chinese and of any other power in the world.”

The E.U. has reduced its per capita emissions by 29 percent since 1990 but still has far to go. Overall, the top emitters today are China, the United States, the E.U., India, Russia and Japan. The prevailing notion of climate justice suggests that wealthy countries that grew their economies while spewing carbon for a century need to do more than poorer, less developed countries that are historically less responsible for climate change.

Surveys show strong support for reducing emissions in Britain and Europe. But the zeal dampens when the pollsters ask more detailed questions about the people’s willingness to make lifestyle changes or spend a lot of money.

Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, pointed to the new right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which is pushing back on bloc-wide efficiency standards that could require mass renovation of buildings across Europe.

“Meloni and others say, ‘Look, why should we force our citizens to retrofit their buildings? We cannot impose this on ordinary people,’” Tagliapietra said.

He said, “This is the kind of pushback you see when climate policy really enters the daily life of people. And it can be pretty successful.”

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, rising far-right star, gets White House welcome

Meloni — who is rapidly emerging as a guiding light for the European right — has walked a cautious line on the environment.

She has artfully dodged the toxic label of “climate denier” — arguing instead for “pragmatic” solutions that don’t run Europe’s economies into the ground.

(Her alliance partners in Italy have been far less careful. “I do not know how much climate change is manmade and how much of it is due to the Earth’s [natural] climate change,” her environmental minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin told Britain’s Sky News last week.)

Britain’s prime minister, too, is careful to call his new North Sea oil policy “proportionate and pragmatic.”

As the U.K. transitions away from fossil fuels — toward wind, solar and nuclear power, which it is doing at pace — it will still need oil and gas for decades to come.

So why buy foreign oil, asks Sunak, who says he is still committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. To balance out his oil-and-gas play, he also announced billion-dollar bets on carbon capture technology.

But the right wing of Sunak’s Conservative Party is filled with climate skeptics, who argue that a warmer world will not be so bad for damp, cloudy Britain. They deride climate activists as the “eco-woke” and warn that the costs of the transition to net zero are too high — especially when top polluters like China and Russia are not following the West’s lead.

David Frost, a former government minister and top Brexit negotiator, told the House of Lords last month that rising temperatures “are likely to be beneficial” for Britain, because more people in the United Kingdom die from cold than from heat.

Frost said rather than spend billions on renewable energy, the U.K. should adapt to the warming climate, “so we can adjust to the perfectly manageable consequences of slowly rising temperatures as they emerge.”

“We must put aside the current mood of hysteria and try to assess the choices logically,” he said.

Frost’s go-slow appeal comes against a dizzying streak of record-breaking heat waves in Europe, the United States and Asia, as well as shrinking sea ice at the poles and hot-tub ocean temperatures.

U.N. chief António Guterres pleaded for immediate radical action on climate change, saying that record-shattering July temperatures show the planet has passed from global warming to an “era of global boiling.” He begged governments not to backslide.

“Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy. No more excuses. No more waiting for others to move first,” Guterres said.

But on a grass-roots level, Europeans are thinking about costs.

In Holland, Dutch farmers have staged strikes against government calls to dramatically slash heads of cattle and sell off land to help the country meet its goals to cut nitrogen and ammonia emissions by 2030.

It happens as the Dutch are feeling the impact of climate policy in deeply personal ways, including reductions in highway speeds and new building permits to meet climate goals.

“We’re not going to take it anymore,” said Jos Ubels, a young Dutch cattle farmer and vice president of the Farmers Defense Force, a group formed to promote farmers’ rights.

“We should teach the countries that pollute the most — the poorest countries — ways to reduce emissions,” Ubels said.

“You can’t expect a small country like the Netherlands to make such a difference,” he said. “Here, it’s become some kind of joke, the way they keep using trial and error, and are not sure if any of it really helps.”

Faiola reported from Rome. Beatriz Rios in Brussels contributed to this report.

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