Europe is facing “the gravest planetary crisis of all time”. Ursula von der Leyen’s words to the European Parliament were stark as she delivered her set piece State of the Union address in Strasbourg on Wednesday, a moment in which the European Commission president typically takes stock of the developments of the previous year and looks forward to the next.
The summer’s fatal floods in Belgium and Germany and wildfires that tore through Mediterranean Europe demonstrated why young people were demanding that political leaders go “further and faster” to tackle climate change.
“And if we don’t believe our own eyes, we only have to follow the science,” she said. “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it.”
She urged the chamber of 705 MEPs to draw inspiration and emulate the continent’s young people, to be “grounded in values, and bold in action”.
But as the political representatives stood to respond to her speech, a consistent detail stood out.
Politician after politician, from member states across the continent, raised the same issue: high energy bills.
A steep jump in monthly household costs is a leading news story on the continent from east to west, and public anger is putting national governments under pressure.
After protesters took to the streets in Spain, the left-wing government of Pedro Sánchez announced a “shock plan” this week to cut consumer costs, by slashing electricity taxes and funnelling subsidies to the public.
The EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans was confronted by sceptical MEPs, who presented the price rises as demonstrating a toll ordinary European citizens would face under plans to cut the continent’s carbon emissions.
“Had we had the Green Deal five years earlier, we would not be in this position because then we would have less dependence on fossil fuels and on natural gas,” the Dutch man shot back.
Only a fifth of the price rise that consumers are seeing is due to an increase in price on the carbon market, he said, referring to the pollution permit that companies must buy under an EU regime to incentivise green behaviour.
“We cannot let the fear of change, the consequence of what we need to do, paralyse us,” he tweeted. “When measures have a price effect, let’s use the age-old instrument of redistribution to ensure it doesn’t affect the most vulnerable.”
The rise in gas prices in the EU is due to a mix of factors including low stocks of stored gas, a fall in deliveries by gas tanker due to a rise in demand in Asia, a faltering supply of nuclear energy and a drop in the gas flow from Russia.
But this hasn’t stopped opponents of the Green Deal from presenting renewable energy and efforts to combat climate change as the culprit.
And EU governments are nervous – “exceptionally twitchy” in the words of one MEP – due to the havoc caused by the “gilets jaunes”, or yellow vests, movement’s previous revolt over a cut to diesel subsidies in France.
The issue is being used to mount an attack on the European Commission’s proposals to extend its carbon pricing system to cover building and road transport, which had already raised concerns about an impact on consumers.
“We believe that the political cost is extremely high and the climate impact is very low,” said French MEP Pascal Canfin, who is in a key position as chair of the parliament’s environment committee.
While out-and-out climate change sceptics are hard to find these days in the EU, pragmatists are arguing that it all demonstrates the need for a cautious and incremental approach.
The Greens see it differently. “It seems to be an age of volatility,” said Dublin MEP Ciarán Cuffe. “This underscored the need to do the transition quicker to protect us from big swings.”
Investing in energy connections with France and Scandinavia would be a strategic move to increase resilience, Cuffe argues, so that the electricity would keep flowing wherever the wind happens to be blowing on the continent. Renovating buildings – a key part of the Green Deal – would mean consumers need to buy less energy in the first place.
Others see further geopolitical implications. Martin Hojsík, a Slovakian MEP with the Renew group that Fianna Fáil sits in, has argued that dependence on gas puts Europe in a weak position towards Russia – its dominant gas supplier, and one accused of using its control of energy supplies to apply political pressure in the past.
“It’s not just green, it’s about strategic autonomy,” Hojsík said. “The best and most secure is renewables.”