Frans Timmermans (left) and Teresa Ribera
Kate Abnett and Pietro Lombardi, Reuters
The European Union could stand to lose two of its most effective climate change negotiators ahead of this year’s COP28 UN summit, with the possible departures of the EU’s own green policy chief and Spain’s climate minister. Frans Timmermans, the European Commissioner in charge of climate and environment policies, is running to be a candidate in Dutch national elections. If successful, he may need to leave his EU post as early as next month. That would cost the EU its figurehead in international climate negotiations and the politician who drove through Europe’s toughest measures yet to cut planet-warming emissions.
“We achieved, in terms of laws and legislation in the last three years, something that we didn’t achieve in 10, 15 years before,” EU Green lawmaker Michael Bloss said of the EU’s track record under Timmermans. The prospect of losing Timmermans — a former Dutch foreign affairs minister — months ahead of this year’s UN climate negotiations in November, has some EU officials worried. At the COP28 conference, countries’ core tasks include assessing how far behind they are in efforts to curb climate change — and, then, agreeing a plan to get on track.
Recent climate talks have yielded little progress. G20 ministers this weekend failed to agree to curb fossil fuels. At pre-COP28 negotiations in June, countries spent days fighting over the meeting agenda.
When COP negotiations stall, political heavyweights like Timmermans intervene and hammer out deals. At last year’s COP27 summit, Timmermans announced the EU would u-turn and finally back a fund demanded by vulnerable countries to address spiralling climate change-fuelled damages.
The move was at odds with the US, and faced ire from some EU countries who felt it gave too much away. Ultimately, it unlocked a deal and the fund was agreed. “He was this political animal, taking risks, knowing that he was going to ruffle feathers, but doing it and saying, ‘Well, all right, now blame me,’” one former senior EU Commission climate official said of Timmermans’ role in negotiations.
“It will leave a big hole,” they added. The Commission has not said how Timmermans would be replaced — by a reshuffle of existing Commissioners or a new Dutch nominee. Spanish elections on Sunday delivered a another potential dampener to Europe’s firepower in fighting climate change. Spain’s climate minister Teresa Ribera has represented the country at COP negotiations since 2018 — and, before then, from 2008 to 2011. “She brings a lot of credibility to the table,” Linda Kalcher, founder of the Strategic Perspectives think-tank.
Ribera’s role at the helm of Spain’s green agenda is on the line after a snap election on Sunday ended with gridlock. The conservative People’s Party is likely to get the first attempt at forming a government — but when combined with the far-right Vox, is still short of a majority and may struggle to find other partners. That leaves the door open to another centre-left government involving Ribera’s ruling Socialists party — or, potentially, fresh elections.
Known for her strong relationships with Latin American delegates — Spain stepped in last minute to host 2019’s COP conference when protests in Santiago left planned host Chile in the lurch — Ribera has aided EU efforts to forge compromises between developing countries and other major economies.
“She’s really well connected, really well respected,” Kalcher said, adding that if Ribera left, “It will require a bigger effort from everybody else”.
The potential loss of two climate heavyweights comes as the EU’s own green agenda faces resistance — even as record-shattering heatwaves and wildfires rage across Europe.
Since 2019, the EU has proposed — under Timmermans’ guidance - and then passed into law more than a dozen policies to steer Europe towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A recent fight over a law to restore degraded ecosystems suggested appetite is waning. French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested a pause on new green laws, while countries including Italy want to water down others.
The EU wants to pass at least two more green policies before EU elections next year — the nature law and electricity market reforms. Spain — whose current government typically backs ambitious EU climate policies — holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and will chair EU countries’ negotiations on all new laws until 2024. Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said a rightward shift in Spain’s government could cost the EU one of its member states most supportive of tackling climate change. “If Spain moves back, or simply does not push forward, the changes of course can have a great effect — it can really affect the whole EU environmental agenda,” he said.
The European Environment Agency said existing measures put the EU on course to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming pollutants by 30% in the next decade compared with 1990 levels.
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