The European Union was created to maintain peace and resolve cross-border and common challenges. We need to become better at resolving challenges if we’re to strengthen public support for the EU – and environmental issues are a crucial area for action. With stricter climate policies, increased investment in renewable energy and new green jobs, the EU can demonstrate leadership that will resonate around the world.
The last few years have been tough for us pro-Europeans. We have watched reluctantly as the EU has unsuccessfully attempted to manage the refugee crisis sweeping the continent. As a politician in the country that has taken in by far the most asylum-seekers per capita, I have looked on with great sadness as EU members have failed to work together in a fair manner. Instead, country after country has stepped back from the asylum laws and international conventions we have all sworn to uphold. The EU should be better than this, and be able find solutions that enable us to share the responsibility equally.
The next setback has, of course, been Brexit. As Minister for the Environment, I find it particularly unfortunate that one of the EU’s most progressive voices on climate change is to leave the Union. The UK has been proactive and ambitious on crucial EU climate measures such as emissions reduction targets and the design of the EU Emissions Trading System. But Brexit is, of course, serious in a wider sense, and risks breathing life into other EU-critical forces. The answer can never be an impassive EU or inactive member states. Quite the reverse; when populist and Eurosceptic winds blow, it falls to those of us who believe in the EU to show that we are willing to give cooperation our all. Regardless of developments after Brexit, the Swedish Government is dedicated to working hard for the future of the EU.
There is now reason to carefully consider how we should develop our cooperation and, in so doing, increase public support for the EU. I am convinced that one of the most important keys to popular support is environmental and climate policy. It’s so clear-cut that the EU must tackle environmental issues, as these issues often transcend national borders. Greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution do not respect frontiers. In addition, because of the internal market, it’s reasonable that environmental regulations be competitively neutral throughout the EU. European citizens should understand that this is an area where we act together. And if it’s done right, people will see and appreciate what’s being done.
Within the broad spectrum of environmental issues, I believe there are several aspects that will be of particular importance. We must begin by stepping up the pace of climate efforts and the expansion of renewable energy in Europe. The Paris Agreement places obligations upon us. The stricter target of keeping the global temperature increase as close to 1.5°C as possible means that we in the EU must also work on our policies. I am glad that the EU has ratified the Paris Agreement so quickly. Now let’s implement it.
The EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) is central to climate policy. More and more trading systems are being trialled around the world, many of them modelled on the EU system. But the EU ETS must be tightened up. There are too many emissions allowances in the system and the price is too low to send proper signals to the market. We need to further lower the emissions cap for the next trading period, reduce the possibility of emissions allowances being allocated for free, and tighten the market stability reserve to ensure fewer emissions allowances in the market. EU citizens need to see the real results generated by an effective ETS, and for this reason the trading funds that are linked to the system should be more heavily directed at the renewable sector.
The collective will to make the ETS as good as it needs to be is currently lacking. But the Swedish Government wants results here and now, so we have chosen to go ahead alone with the required action. To increase the price of emissions, we have launched a programme to purchase and cancel emissions allowances, at a cost of €30m a year. In addition, we will make it tax-deductible for private individuals, companies and organisations to offset emissions using the ETS. We are inviting everyone to get involved in climate adaptation.
But climate policy is not just about emissions trading. The EU also needs to become better at expanding and managing renewable energy. The Energy Union is an important element in this. A functioning internal market is vital if we are to achieve the EU’s climate and energy targets in a cost-effective manner, with a view to transitioning to 100% renewable energy in the long term. A functioning market is also important for developing better transmission capacities, more integrated networks and a cohesive market. This is crucial for the future, and must be acted on as a joint task for all EU member states.
Perhaps as important is to show more clearly how environmental and climate issues are already affecting our citizens. Climate change threatens the security of all. It puts at risk access to clean
water and so the ability to avoid bacteria and other dangerous particles that cause serious illness. Air pollution claims thousands of lives every year, and affects all of us daily; it will do so to an
even greater extent in the future. Unimpeded climate change will increase the risk of extreme weather events, meaning drier and warmer weather where it’s already hot, and more extreme
precipitation in many areas. This summer, Europe received a painful reminder of what a warmer climate brings. Wild fires of the kind that have ravaged southern Europe risk becoming more common, and the consequences are serious. Here in Sweden, south-eastern parts of the country have suffered a drought following a couple of winters of reduced precipitation, causing serious damage to agriculture. In other parts of the EU, there has been heavy rainfall.
The answer to these challenges is not just about climate measures, but is contained to a large extent in other common EU policies. We need frameworks and regulations to ensure good water quality, protect biodiversity and ensure the tougher management of permits for endocrine disruptors and other chemicals. We need strict regulations on pollution from traffic and industry to reduce quantities of hazardous particles in our air. The key for the future is to show how important all of these policy instruments are to the daily lives of people living in the EU.
The EU offers many benefits, and we must highlight them. They include the possibility to study, work and live in other countries, and a larger market for goods and enterprises, as well as greater
opportunities for cross-border action for security and peace, and against terrorism. But Sweden will continue to act on the conviction that environmental issues are also crucial. We will work for the most ambitious policy possible to underscore that Brexit will only be a footnote in the successful history of the EU. Instead of backing off and fearing for the future of the Union, we will invest in it and make it even better.
IMAGE CREDIT: Sehenswerk/Bigstock.com