Frans Timmermans: Мiners are extremely valuable for the energy transition

The era of fossil fuels is ending, says the "father" of the EU Green Deal

Frans Timmermans: Мiners are extremely valuable for the energy transition

The "father of the Green Deal" and Vice-President of the European Commission says that the earlier Bulgaria moves away from coal, the more successful it will be in its green transformation

The era of fossil fuels is ending, says the "father" of the EU Green Deal

© European Commission

Frans Timmermans is a Dutch Labor Party politician. He served as the country's Foreign Minister (2012-2014) and then as First Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration in the Juncker Commission (2014-2019) and Executive Vice-President responsible for the EU Green Pact in the Von der Leyen Commission (from 2019).

You are considered as "the father of the Green deal", why was this initiative needed and how did recent crises (like COVID and the Russian invasion in Ukraine) change it up to date?

The Green Deal is a response to two things. First of all, to the loud and urgent call from young people all across Europe to take action to preserve their futures. And secondly, a response to the ongoing climate crisis and loss of nature. These are not distant possibilities, it's already happening.

Look at the massive drought last year - and this year again. Look at the tragic floods earlier this month in Italy, as well as the recent floods in Bulgaria or those of the past years. Look at the forest fires, or the state of the forests that are ravaged by bark beetles. The list of examples can go on and on.

COVID and then our response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine have accelerated our transition, especially in the field of energy. We made tremendous progress in the last year - more than anyone thought possible. But we cannot think that our work is done now that our climate legislation is finished. And we cannot think that we can postpone other parts of the Green Deal, such as our legislation to restore nature or reduce air and water pollution. I know that clean air is really close to the heart of many Bulgarian people.

We cannot solve the climate crisis if we don't improve our nature. It's that simple. We need nature to absorb carbon, but we need it just as much to shield us from the worst impacts of climate change. Healthy soils drain and retain water much better and can reduce the intensity of floods. A green and lively forest keeps down temperatures. So fixing nature is not about 'the birds and the bees', it's about our own lives, all of us.

How does the Commission compensate businesses for the increased market interventions and higher number of regulations (related to the Green Deal) in order to preserve their competitive advantage globally

Our future competitiveness will depend on the sustainability of our choices today. I am absolutely convinced of that. Because every country in the world will have to go through its own green transition and find new, sustainable ways of growth.

Consider the three main risks that the World Economic Forum identified for the coming decade: first, failure to mitigate or prevent further climate change; second, failure to adapt or prepare for unavoidable effects of climate change; and third, natural disasters and extreme weather events. If we don't act now, the change will be forced upon us anyways. Because of disruption and disaster, and the costs of fixing that will be much, much higher.

This is why it is a positive thing that the European Union is among the first to adapt the regulations. It first of all provides businesses legal certainty about what will be required. In addition to that, various funds, including the COVID-recovery fund, the Cohesion Fund, and Modernisation Fund, support members like Bulgaria who are still working to catch up and face a more difficult energy transition.

Bulgaria is the last country in the EU without just transition plans. Could you explain to the workers and people in the coal regions, why this transformation is needed and which is the successful path towards sustainable development and growth?

The era of fossil fuels is ending. For more than 200 years, we have grown on the basis of carbon. And now, in a much shorter time, we have to change that. Because if we continue to emit greenhouse gases - and coals is the most polluting fossil fuel there is - the planet will warm up even more, and the climate-led natural disasters we already experience will only get worse.

But moving away from something that you have been doing for centuries; that's incredibly difficult. And that's why it's so important that we plan for it, together with the coal regions. I come from a former coal mining region in the Netherlands myself. It used to be the richest in the Netherlands until, almost overnight, the mines had to close. Now, my hometown of Heerlen is consistently among the poorest cities in the Netherlands. Why? Because the mines were closed and there was no plan for the transformation of the region.

Now, we have more time and we have a chance to do things differently, to really support the workers and their families so that nobody will be left behind. Bulgaria can benefit from about EUR 1.2 billion from the Just Transition Fund, to prepare for the country's coal phase-out and help plan a future for its coal regions. That is important, because if you start the green transition early, if you plan for it, if you manage it, you can master it.

The Commission is ready to work with the Bulgarian authorities to develop the just transition plan before the end of this year and provide all the support possible to the workers and their families in Bulgaria's coal regions. Many of the workers in the coal mining industry have a lot of technical skills. And there will be a lot of jobs in the renewable energy industry that require those kinds of skills - in manufacturing but especially also installing and maintaining renewables. We want to help Bulgaria grasp these opportunities and offer the people working in coal mining the chance to use their experience and their skills in the energy transition. We will need them dearly: already, one of the biggest bottlenecks identified by the renewables industry is the lack of workers.

The main legislative package of the Green deal - Fit for 55 is underway. Does the Commission take into account the different levels of development in the countries while accessing the perceived effect of this legislation on their economies? Could you give concrete examples how Bulgaria might take advantage from the ETS reform, the new emissions trading system, or even the Social Climate fund?

We are very mindful that not everyone in Europe has the same starting point. This awareness is present throughout the Green Deal, both in the allocation of European funding but also in how we design the regulation. Look at the national climate targets, or the targets for renewables.

By the way, Bulgaria was among the first Member States to meet its renewable target for 2020. It was also among the first beneficiaries of the clean tech Innovation Fund, for a project to store carbon in a depleted gas field in the Black Sea. These are competitive projects, where the money awarded on the basis of the quality, ambition, and potential of the proposal and not on a pre-determined allocation. So I think there is reason to be confident in Bulgaria's potential to grasp the opportunities that will come with this transition.

The new Social Climate Fund will provide EUR 2.5 billion to Bulgaria. In addition to the revenues from the emissions trading system - which in 2021 and 2022 came to almost EUR 2 billion - this is money that will be available to provide clean heating to houses, to support cleaner transport, to insulate as many homes as possible and help people install solar panels on their roofs, etcetera.

How will the CO2 emission performance standards for cars and vans and the bans of fossil fuels engine cars impact the market in Bulgaria?

To be sure: our legislation does not ban fossil fuel engines. From 2035, all new cars that are sold in Europe will have to be emission-free. Cars with fossil fuel engines can and will continue to drive on European roads long after that. They can also continue to be sold on the second-hand market. In the meantime, the car market is changing fast. The expectation is that in a couple of years, new electric cars will already be cheaper than new combustion engine cars, simply because car makers are focusing more and more on battery-electric and demand is growing. We are also learning that batteries last longer than expected, which is also good news as it means electric cars can have a second or even third life. Bulgaria is a market where, next to new cars, many second-hand cars are bought. So this change will become more and more visible in Bulgaria too. The new law on charging infrastructure will ensure that charging points are installed along all the major European highways, from Stockholm to Sofia and from Burgas to Brussels.

Apart from the emissions reductions in Europe, what is the EU doing to slow down climate change (fights heats, floods, natural disasters etc.)

Every Member State will have to prepare for these impacts that you mention. And this is where our proposal on nature restoration will be incredibly important. For example: we will need to lower the temperatures in our cities. This is something that a lot of people want. The net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten average sized air conditioners operating twenty hours a day. When you lift tiles and put in trees or other greenery, you also provide more space for water to go in the event of heavy rain - so that less cellars will flood and that streets remain accessible. The Nature Restoration Law also foresees more floodplains and river restoration, so that we reduce the impacts of floods. There are many more examples like this. Really, nature is our best ally in the fight against the climate crisis.

What do you expect of the recently presented Critical Raw Materials Act and its impact on the EU security and competitiveness?

The pandemic and then the war against Ukraine upended supply chains all over the world, not just China. It reinforced the need to become more resilient and less dependent on outside suppliers. In response, we have to move to an economy that is circular, energy-efficient, and powered by renewable energy. The Critical Raw Materials Act supports this change.

We first of all want to diversify, so that we avoid becoming dependent on just one or two suppliers. The plan is not to extract or manufacture everything in Europe: we will continue to buy and import, while also increasing production here.

But it's not just about extracting. Natural resources are scarce, and their extraction causes a lot of emissions and biodiversity loss. That's why the Act states that by 2030, 15% of the EU's consumption of raw materials should come from recycling. The more we reuse and recycle, the less we need to mine ourselves or import.

What green legislation will be on the agenda by the end of 2023?

By then we should be done with most of the legislation we have proposed. We have already finished almost all of our climate and energy proposals, and we are making good progress in our proposals for transport and the circular economy. By the end of this year, I hope that we will also be in the final stages of negotiating the Nature Restoration Law and the law to reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides. There will be a few last proposals that we are still presenting in the next months, for example on soil health, food and textile waste, and microplastics. These will require some more time before they are final.

Frans Timmermans is a Dutch Labor Party politician. He served as the country's Foreign Minister (2012-2014) and then as First Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration in the Juncker Commission (2014-2019) and Executive Vice-President responsible for the EU Green Pact in the Von der Leyen Commission (from 2019).
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