September 18, 2020
10 min read

EU’s Frans Timmermans and the making of a climate-neutral continent

Rolf de Vos

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans is orchestrating Europe’s “man-on-the-moon moment” – turning climate action into a Green Deal strategy for economic growth and setting the pace for energy transitions around the world.

Frans Timmermans’ mission is to transform the energy systems in Europe. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for combatting the deep economic depression in the Unites States in the 1930s, Timmermans’ European Green Deal aims for an unprecedented socioeconomic change: Europe will be climate neutral by 2050. The deal is designed to keep the European Union as prosperous as ever – even improve the quality of life for its citizens – by making the fight against climate change a winning economic growth strategy. Even now, with the world facing a pandemic-induced recession, Timmermans avers, the energy transition is the road to economic recovery.

Europe’s plan for the planet

Between now and 2050, the European Green Deal will radically change the energy landscape in Europe. Renewable energy sources will replace fossil fuels as the dominant commodity on the power market, with grid stability support from gas and biomass with carbon capture and storage. Energy, gas, heat and industrial feedstock infrastructures in Europe will be much more entangled than they are now. For example, electrical vehicles will draw their fuel from solar panels on our roofs, industrial heat will be used in buildings, clean hydrogen could be produced by wind and solar farms in Europe and Africa for synthetic fuels and chemicals. And process industries will be fully circular, mining their feedstock from their own output or from nearby bio-sources. In fact, when all is said and done, the EU economy will be largely decoupled from fossil-fuel energy consumption and Europe transformed into the world’s first climate-neutral continent.

On many occasions, the energetic and forthcoming Dutchman Timmermans has been outspoken on urgently needed long-term green initiatives and the work ahead. In October 2019, he laid out his ideas for the European Green Deal in front of the Environment Committee of the European Parliament, pointing out that it’s not exclusively for the EU: “If we do this well in Europe, it will have an effect on the rest of the world.”

Our Green Deal is our lifeline out of the crisis.

Frans Timmermans

Executive Vice-President, European Commission

Scaling up long-term strategies for carbon neutrality

Timmermans has since been working on the political basis for the energy transition. In March 2020, the Commission proposed the EU Climate Law, to make the Green Deal’s target for a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050 legally binding. “The European Climate Law,” said Timmermans at the law’s presentation in March, “is also a message to our international partners that this is the year to raise global ambition together, in the pursuit of our shared Paris Agreement goals.”

If adopted, the law will also increase targets along the way: from 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction to at least 50 and possibly 55 percent by 2030 (as compared to 1990 levels). The current goals already imply that the EU emissions trading system (ETS) – the world’s first international carbon market – will have to reduce the cap on greenhouse gases in order to cut emissions by 43 percent from 2005 levels. And the share of renewables, which had only reached 18 percent of the EU’s final energy consumption in 2018, will have to increase to 32 percent, while energy efficiency in heating and cooling, transport, industry, buildings and power generation will have to scale up to 32.5 percent. Increasing the overall target reduction to 50 or even 55 percent by 2030 requires all of these sectors to accelerate and step up their efforts.

Europe’s strategy is to make investments in green hydrogen a priority in order to support climate neutrality and boost economic growth.

Sector coupling and integrated energy systems with green hydrogen

“Much of the energy transition will focus on direct electrification,” Timmermans recently said to the press. “However, in sectors like steel, cement, chemicals, air traffic, heavy-duty transport and shipping, we need something else: continued development of carbon capture and storage, as well as energy carriers that can be stored longer and transported more easily over longer distances. This is why scaling up the use and production of clean hydrogen in Europe is such an important piece of the puzzle.”

Clean hydrogen is produced when electrolyzers use electricity from a renewable source like a wind farm to split water into its chemical elements. The resulting hydrogen gas is storable, transportable and can be further converted into other carbon-neutral synthetic fuels and chemicals, helping to couple other sectors of the economy to the power industry and create an integrated renewable energy system that includes carbon capture, waste heat and biomass.

By 2024, the EU plans on supporting the installation of at least 6 gigawatts of electrolyzers to produce up to 1 million tons of green hydrogen. By 2030, the production of green hydrogen will increase to 10 million tons and be used as a main energy carrier and feedstock, storing renewable power for days and making renewable energy available to other sectors that are otherwise difficult to decarbonize.

Piggybacking on natural gas infrastructure

Timmermans often stresses that maintaining the present natural gas and LNG gas infrastructure is extremely helpful in getting to a hydrogen economy, and even key for the development of the climate-neutral energy market. “Fossil fuels will also be part of the mix,” he says, at least during the transition phase toward 2050. He paints the picture that in the next decades green hydrogen will gradually replace natural gas and hydrogen from fossil origin (called blue or grey hydrogen) to render the infrastructure, turbines and other gas equipment climate neutral. The adaptations will be relatively small because hydrogen can be transported through the existing gas infrastructure with minor upgrades, however, additional hydrogen infrastructure cannot be excluded.

As Timmermans pursues speeding up green hydrogen developments in the EU, he uses business perspectives as a strong argument: “In developing and deploying a clean hydrogen value chain, Europe will become a global front-runner and retain its leadership in clean tech.” But the effort requires help. For this purpose, the Commission launched the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance. “This alliance,” Timmermans told the press, “which brings together industry, NGOs and other stakeholders, will help build up a pipeline of viable investment projects to make sure the most promising projects can get up and running fast.” At the same time, he is also looking for partners abroad: “By working with partners to the east and to the south, the industry ambition is to add an additional 40 gigawatts of electrolyzers by 2030.”

In developing and deploying a clean hydrogen value chain, Europe will become a global front-runner and retain its leadership in clean tech.

Frans Timmermans

Executive Vice-President, European Commission

The European Green Deal Investment Plan and the Just Transition Mechanism

The search for cooperation with industrial stakeholders in the Hydrogen Alliance is not a singularity to be set aside as just “good intentions.” The Commission itself has already put more flesh on the bones by founding the Green Deal on a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan, presented in January 2020. The Investment Plan intends to mobilize over €1 trillion for green investments in the coming ten years. Nearly three quarters of that money will come from EU budgets, funds and the European Investment Bank, while a quarter or more will come from the private sector. The division confirms the European Commission’s willingness to integrate climate action and opportunities into the financial system – a clear sign to companies to grab green opportunities. Because, in the end, all these investments will go to “the real stuff.”

Even while facing a pandemic recession, Timmermans’ ambitions haven’t been watered down. In April, the Commission got support from the European Parliament when it launched the Green Recovery Alliance. Tens of multinational companies and other organizations reacted with their signature, trust and willingness to act. Timmermans and the Commission see the Green Deal as an entrepreneurial opportunity that will play a prominent role in Europe’s economic recovery plans. “We can deliver quick wins, for jobs and for health,” Timmermans said to the ENVI commission of the European Parliament in April 2020. “We can create the optimism that we need for the people who are going to really fear becoming unemployed. Many people may become unemployed and we need to make sure that this period of unemployment, if it happens, is as short as possible. Our Green Deal is our lifeline out of the crisis.”

Timmermans, a social democrat, wants the Green Deal to be “inclusive”: Both front-runners and stragglers have to be enabled to participate. This isn’t just for social reasons, but also for creating broad public and private support and financing. One vital part in the investment plan is the Just Transition Mechanism, a cornerstone of the Green Deal and a new model for an inclusive and fair transformation. The mechanism provides financial assistance to areas affected by the loss of fossil-fuel development. Whether it be regions that still rely largely on coal or citizens without big money to spend, Timmermans wants to take care of all these partners. “The Green Deal is not a blueprint,” he said at the European Parliament Plenary Session on the European Green Deal, “it’s a roadmap. The Green Deal is an extended open hand to you and to all the stakeholders, whether it’s businesses, whether it’s NGOs, whether it’s trade unions, whether it’s citizens, whether it’s cities, whether it’s regions to be part of a discussion of how we are going to reorganize our society in a just way, so that it reflects the values we want to stand for.”

September 18, 2020

Netherland-based physicist and author Rolf de Vos has been reporting on global developments in energy and the environment for more than 30 years. Among the first to cover climate change and sustainability, de Vos has also been an acting consultant for organizations such as the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy.

Combined picture credits: Ilona Burgarth, Shutter Stock, EC Audiovisual Service