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The EU launches an ambitious plan for the environment, without destroying industry

Devastating fires and disastrous floods after heavy rain and hailstorms. These events have become a dramatic feature of our times and will unfortunately become increasingly frequent in the future. Climate change and global warming are the main cause. Using the power of good journalism, “The Economist” addresses the issue in this week’s cover story, titled “No safe place”. It says that we are all at risk in the “3°C future” scenario, when the Earth will warm up to 3 degrees higher than in the pre-industrial era (we are getting ever closer: 2021 risks being the hottest year this century). The image of two penguins in the middle of the ocean, watching TV shows about burning forests and cities is poignant, not least because of its effective and very British irony.

The “extreme phenomena of floods” (the most recent in Germany and China) and fires (in Canada, Australia and now, here in Sardinia) will not disappear, but “economic and social adaptation could limit their impact”, writes the British weekly. It also suggests what can be done. Of course, we need to cut CO2 emissions, but above all we need to invest in changing production and consumption systems (transport, urban living conditions, renewable energy), making the Paris agreement on sustainability a reality and committing the richest countries to helping the poorest and most fragile countries in this area.

“The Economist” reflects on the intelligence of a couple of centuries of good practice, with few concessions to ideological extremism (it is also worth reading the issue’s editorial on neurological research and scientific ethics, arguing that liberal democracies must not give way to China on neuroscience). The Economist’s recommendations could be a good starting point in the preparation of the EU position for COP 26 (the UN Climate Change Conference, chaired by Italy and the UK) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has already stated, “We want to reach an ambitious agreement, which includes both rich and emerging economies”.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement already called for the global average temperature increase to be kept well below 2°C, at 1.5°C in the long term. This was an important strategic choice. However, this was followed by uncertainties, shortcomings and outright disengagement, such as that of the US in the rocky season of the Trump presidency. Now the issue is back on the table in responsible political strategies, in part thanks to the radical change of direction of the Biden presidency, which is more aware of environmental issues.

In Brussels, the EU is moving with great determination. The Green Deal announced in recent weeks by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sets ambitious targets: a 100% reduction in CO2 emissions (“carbon neutrality”) by 2050, with an intermediate target of a 55% cut by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels); rewarding decarbonisation; introducing a tariff on non-EU goods produced under poor environmental standards (imports from China and India are particularly targeted); taxing fuels according to their energy content; planting 3 billion trees in EU countries to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide; launching a €72 billion social fund to co-finance national incentives of the same amount for the green economy.

It’s a very ambitious plan, which addresses the demands of European public opinion on climate issues. In order to progress with the rapid implementation foreseen by EU officials, it still needs some ironing out.

Trying to convince the large manufacturing economies and energy producers (China, India and other industrial countries in the Far East, as well as the Arab countries and Brazil) to accelerate industrial change, reducing reliance on coal-fired plants and the massive use of other fossil fuels (oil, gas) is an international policy issue. This can be done with weapons of taxation (the “Cbam”, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, the so-called “carbon tax”, which has been applauded by leading economists such as Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008): “The US and EU effort risks being thwarted, the Earth is dying, punish the irresponsible”, “La Stampa”, 23 July 2021).

The transition needs to be designed so as not to bring European industry to its knees, starting with the automotive industry, which will be severely affected by a ban on non-electric car sales in 2035 (there are 300,000 direct jobs in the automotive sector in Italy), as well as the transport, cement, steel and aluminium industries.

“There is room for manoeuvre,” Brussels assures. The Recovery Plan includes measures to be taken for the energy transition that are closely linked to the digital transition. In short, we need to establish a new European industrial policy that rewards companies that have already invested in sustainability and encourages those that have not yet done so or have only done so partially. It is an important, urgent and necessary challenge, which involves the government, social partners, businesses and trade unions. It will require a great deal of cultural and political focus, careful and well-documented information and a general awareness of public opinion. The public needs to consider, understand and share its objectives (as the broader, most responsible part of the Italian population is doing to combat the pandemic, despite the fake news and propaganda from the anti-vax movement).  

“We need to move soon. The ecological transition is not a merry-go-round. It will be necessary to convert and change models and jobs. This requires painful but necessary choices. We need to manage the transition in an orderly manner, reducing risk profiles, increasing employment and stimulating entrepreneurship”, says Francesco Starace, CEO of Enel (“Il Sole24Ore”, 17 July).

There are some cutting-edge companies in Italy. 432 thousand industrial and service companies invested in green products and technologies between 2015 and 2019, according to a recent study by Symbola and Unioncamere. Now, “the Next Generation EU and the NRP are crucial for tackling the crisis and building a better future for Italy and Europe,” comments Ermete Realacci, President of the Symbola Foundation. The green transition is at the heart of this, together with social cohesion and digital innovation. In other words, a “safe place” is still possible, however difficult it may be.