Three takeaways from chatting with the EU Green Deal chief

Chief Europe Correspondent
Man wearing a suit talks into a red microphone with European Union flags blurred in the background.
Photo credit: Thierry Monasse / Contributor via Getty Images.

NEW YORK CITY — Dozens of world leaders descended on the Big Apple last week to talk climate ambition, fossil fuels and geopolitics. Meanwhile, thousands of activists marched through the streets to put pressure on those politicians to act faster.  

Amid the flurry of activities dotted by tight security, Cipher caught up with the European Union’s new Green Deal chief at the Plaza Hotel to discuss these big-ticket items. 

Maroš Šefčovič, an executive vice president of the European Commission and a Slovak career diplomat, picked up the role at the end of August after his predecessor, Frans Timmermans, decided to return to national politics in the Netherlands.  

Šefčovič called on the world to not discard the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Below are other key takeaways from that conversation. 

1. Search for the common denominator

The world’s future relationship with fossil fuels will be under the spotlight at this year’s United Nations climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, known as COP28. 

Climate ambitious blocs like the EU are building coalitions ahead of the December meetings to support language that would commit the world to ending its dependence on coal, oil and gas.  

Šefčovič described the negotiations between now and December as “difficult.”  

The EU is looking to support language that will call for the phase out of unabated fossil fuels, a slightly different focus than at last years’ COP27 in Egypt, where the initial push was to phase down all fossil fuels. The 27-member bloc is set to adopt its final negotiating position in October ahead of the December climate summit.  

“Unabated” refers to burning fossil fuels without canceling out their emissions via technologies like carbon capture and storage.  

Check out our recent primer on the semantics of climate negotiations and how a word can make a big difference.

We are looking for the language which can build this global consensus,” Šefčovič said. “We believe that the commitment to gradually phase out unabated fossil fuels should be there, and we should use all the technologies which would allow us to get to climate neutrality in Europe by midcentury.” 

Reaching that common denominator in climate negotiations is a tough job, especially since the world doesn’t see eye to eye on how big a role fossil fuels should play going forward or how much we should rely on carbon capture technologies to reduce emissions.  

This gap was in the spotlight in New York last week, a reflection of the upcoming tensions at COP28. 

2. Navigate tough geopolitical times

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only forced the EU to confront its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, but also — as the bloc began speeding up its clean energy transition — its reliance on China for everything from critical raw materials to solar panels. 

“In this world, geoeconomics and geopolitics will be just more difficult,” Šefčovič said. “This strategic autonomy of being able to stand on our own legs and to be much more assertive — when it comes to all the assistance we can provide to our supply chains in Europe — will be so crucial.” 

The Commission is planning a series of regular meetings with various industrial sectors, such as hydrogen or wind, to help build their decarbonization models.  

“It’s our common duty to make sure that European industry will stand and prosper in Europe,” Šefčovič said. 

But there’s also strength in numbers if allies choose to work together, he added. 

“As Western liberal democracies, we have to stick together as partners, as allies,” Šefčovič said.  

The idea of creating a green transatlantic marketplace, meant to boost investments and cooperation between the EU and the United States, has picked up steam in recent months, including at the recent EU-US Trade and Technology Council in Sweden.  

Šefčovič described the concept as “very appealing.” 

But it’s also “not an easy task” in practice, he added. The EU and U.S. are working behind closed doors to iron out differences on various aspects of the U.S. 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and to hammer out a pact aimed at securing critical mineral resources.  

3. Make the search for money easier

While the bloc wants to be a cleantech leader, applying for funding for clean energy projects in the EU is complicated and messy.  

The issue, described as a symptom of the EU’s bureaucratic and layered system, came to the forefront when companies started tapping into subsidies offered by the Inflation Reduction Act through a U.S. process that European businesses described as comparatively much more straightforward.  

The European Commission is mulling a one-stop shop digital portal that would streamline various funding procedures and quickly point business leaders in the right direction when they are looking to tap into EU funding for the energy transition, Šefčovič said. 

“Financial incentives have to be channeled much, much faster and more to the point,” he said. “What we hear from business representatives is that very often it’s quite complicated to get funding, that [the process] is not clear.”