Europeans expect realistic climate objectives and a fair agreement from the leaders of the European Union

The European Council will hold its last meeting on 10 and 11 December. At the event, the heads of government will decide on the Commission’s proposal to raise the 2030 climate protection target. Changing the current 40 percent emission reduction target to 55 percent may cause significant additional costs for most countries, and thus their citizens, so a heated debate is expected at the meeting. Based on the results of the Project Europe research, Századvég analysed the views of the citizens of the 27 EU Member States and the United Kingdom on the main dilemmas to be considered in the decision. 

Last December, at the European Council meeting, the heads of government agreed that the EU should become carbon neutral by 2050. In fact, the lengthy negotiations prior to the decision were not about whether it was right to increase environmental efforts, as agreed by the Member States, but about the extent to which the new objective could transform the EU’s budget. The two main fronts were created by a debate on sovereignty (the ideal ratio of Member State and central resource allocation) and a debate on fairness (the reallocation of the cohesion resources to the polluting countries). The agreement on the 2050 target is due to the fact that the Member States have managed to reach a consensus on the two issues.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has posed new challenges to policymakers in the countries. In the unfolding economic crisis, responsible leaders devote the development and recovery resources at their disposal to protecting jobs and families and refrain from all other spending. In a speech in September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, positioning climate protection efforts as a crisis management tool, proposed raising the previous 40 percent emission reduction target for 2030 to 55 percent. The proposal was discussed at the European Council meeting in October, but the decision was postponed. The main problem was the lack of a sufficiently thorough impact assessment at the Member State level, supporting the reality of the objective.

One of the main items on the agenda for the European Council meeting in December was the renegotiation of the 2030 target. To make a decision, the heads of government had to solve three dilemmas. On the one hand, it was dubious whether, in the current crisis, decision-makers within the Member States would be adopting more drastic new targets, the reality of which was questionable and thus their fulfilment could potentially be achieved only at a high cost, at the cost of a significant reduction in prosperity. On the other hand, if the target was adopted, addressing the fairness debate, which came to a standstill in 2019 but has since intensified, so, the growing resource needs of the countries with low environmental performance and high pollution, may have been a problem in the policies and funding plans to be resigned. Finally, including the rule of law criteria in the allocation of European resources has aroused the elemental concern of sovereigntists more than ever, who still did not consider it acceptable, especially in times of a pandemic, that Brussels denies cohesion or recovery resources from catching-up countries on political, climate protection or other grounds.

The necessary balance has been struck in the Council this year as well: the Heads of Government have agreed the 55 percent target for the community, but no contributions have been decided at Member State level. However, it has been stated that fairness (e.g. economic development, past emission reduction performance) and sovereignty (e.g. technology neutrality) considerations must be taken into account when deciding on Member States' targets. Based on the results of the Project Europe research, this analysis is intended to assist decision-makers to determine the national level objectives and conditions for fairness.

The majority of Europeans reject drastic climate targets that threaten high welfare losses

The main reason why the Council was still unable to agree on targets at Member State level is that no credible and public impact assessment has yet been carried out to support the reality of achieving the targets and estimate the cost of the necessary measures. (The results of the Member States’ impact assessment are expected to be published by the Commission in the summer of 2021.) The lesson from the negotiations and impact assessments of the previous targets is that even one percentage difference can be a significant burden on nation states and also on European citizens.

Thus, the dilemma that leaders will face in the future is to set realistic targets that involve a lower risk of spending or set a more ambitious target which potentially leads to higher costs.

According to the research results, the majority (56 percent) of Europeans believe that realistic goals are needed, the achievement of which does not impose a significant burden on citizens, and only 35 percent of them would set more drastic goals, even at the cost of significant welfare losses.

The proportion of pragmatic respondents in support of realistic goals was above the European average in all Visegrad countries: In the Czech Republic, 68 percent, in Poland and Slovakia, 61 percent, and in Hungary, 74 percent of respondents fall into this category.

The almost three-quarters domestic majority, in a dead heat with Latvia, is the highest proportion among the countries.

Project Europe

Cypriots and Italians are the most divided by the question: equal proportions support the two approaches in both countries. In all other countries surveyed, the proportion supporting realistic goals was higher.

The new agreement must not violate the polluter pays principle and must not lead to a reduction in development resources

One of the debates of paramount importance on the resources for climate protection is about the interpretation of fairness. According to the Brussels elite and the polluting countries, climate protection interventions will be more costly in countries and regions with high pollutant emissions, thus new resources need to be allocated to these actors. In contrast, Member States with good environmental performance in the past find it unacceptable that countries, with a successful reduction in their emissions at significant costs in the past, cross-finance countries, and in many cases richer ones, that have benefitted economically from past stowaway behaviour.

The results of the research showed that there is a pan-European consensus behind the interpretation of fairness related to the burden-sharing proportional to emissions:

Three-quarters (75 percent) of Europeans say the polluter pays principle should be enshrined in the climate agreement. In one-third of the Member States of the European Union, including Hungary, at least 80 percent of people would consider it fair if burden-sharing was proportional to pollution.

This proportion is more than two-thirds (67 and 68 percent, respectively) in the most-divided Denmark and Malta as well. Interestingly, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Századvég surveyed what kind of climate agreement the Hungarian population would consider fair, and the 77 percent support of the polluter pays principle at that time has since increased by 5 percent, to 82 percent.

Project Europe

As the proposal for a Fair Transition Mechanism showed,

published by the European Commission earlier this year,

Brussels, under the banner of increasingly ambitious climate targets, can divert significant resources from catching-up EU Member States to channel them in a larger proportion to affluent countries that contribute to pollution to a greater extent, through central allocation. According to the research, 60 percent of Europeans consider the redistribution of the resources along such logic to be morally unacceptable.

In every country, the rate of those who reject it is higher than that of those who accept it. It is the highest in Austria and Hungary (74 percent each). This issue divides the Scandinavian countries the most.

Project Europe
The Project Europe research

In the first half of 2016, the Századvég Foundation conducted a public opinion poll survey covering all 28 European Union Member States, with the aim to analyse the opinions of EU citizens regarding the issues that most affect the future of the EU. In a unique way, Project28 conducted the widest possible survey of 1,000, that is a total of 28,000 randomly selected adults in each country. Gaining an understanding of society’s sense of prosperity and mapping the population’s attitudes towards the performance of the European Union, the migration crisis and the increasing terrorism were among the most important goals of the analysis. The Századvég Foundation, on behalf of the Hungarian Government, conducted the research again in 2017, 2018 and 2019, which continued to reflect on the topics that most determined the European political and social discourse.

In 2020, the survey, now called the Project Europe, will continue, with the aim of mapping the population’s attitude towards the most important public issues affecting our continent. In addition to society’s sense of prosperity, the performance of the European Union and the attitudes towards the migration crisis, in line with the latest challenges affecting Europe, the dominant theme of this year’s poll is the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and anti-Semitism. In addition to the European Union Member States, the 2020 research covered the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland, interviewing a total of 30,000 randomly selected adults using the CATI method.

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