Europe’s green drive risks alienating ordinary citizens

On paper these aims appear noble but in practice they will result in higher consumer prices and will have minimal impact on the hoped-for green transition

The European Union’s drive to green up its act by cutting carbon emissions is noble. In a world that is experiencing the social and economic repercussions of climate change with growing intensity, the EU’s green agenda offers a glimmer of hope. 

The green transition offers a lot of promise but it also has its pitfalls that risk derailing the whole project unless European politicians navigate the waters with diligence. 

It is no coincidence this leader uses marine terminology to describe the task at hand since January 2024 will usher in new carbon taxes for cargo ships across the EU. 

These taxes are intended to hold the shipping industry responsible for its contribution to harmful carbon dioxide emissions. The intention is to punish the polluter and hopefully encourage a shift in behaviour and technology that is less harmful to the environment. 

On paper these aims appear noble but in practice they will result in higher consumer prices and will have minimal impact on the hoped-for green transition. 

The new carbon taxes that will be phased in over a couple of years will simply make cargo more expensive to transport with ordinary citizens being made to pick up the bill. 

Admittedly, the shipping industry has been too slow in transitioning to cleaner alternatives but the net result of the new carbon taxes will end up penalising European consumers that are already under pressure from inflation. The additional costs will make everyday goods more expensive as companies recoup the tax surcharge from customers. 

Maltese consumers will also feel the hit. Every trailer brought over from Italy will see its cargo cost increase between €90 and €100, a substantial cost that is expected to be higher in subsequent years. 

The problem with this regime is that the alternatives to cleaner transportation of cargo are still not around and the few that are, are very expensive. In short, the technology has not evolved enough to prompt a shift that the new taxes hope to achieve. 

The end game is one where ships will continue to pollute and consumers will end up paying more for their supermarket trolley and their daily needs. The pressure to keep up with the cost of living will trump any noble consideration to safeguard the environment. 

Undoubtedly, this course of action risks alienating ordinary citizens, a phenomenon that is gradually unfolding across the EU and which risks ushering in far-right politicians who can speak the language of the people but whose solutions can pose a serious challenge to democratic norms. 

Malta runs less of a risk in electoral terms since there is no serious and organised challenge to the two mainstream parties from either side of the political spectrum. However, the ballgame may differ slightly in next year’s European Parliament election, where historically, far-right candidate Norman Lowell has performed relatively well albeit falling far short of ever getting elected. 

But Maltese voters are also showing disquiet by stamping their feet and opting not to vote, a phenomenon witnessed in the last general election and which polls suggest is likely to grow in the months to come. 

The disgruntlement cannot be reduced exclusively to EU regulations – inflation is a major factor and this has been a global phenomenon for the past 18 months at least. But the new taxes that will be levied on shippers will only make it worse. 

Before using the stick to condition behaviour, the EU should have focussed on supporting investment in innovation to enable the green transition to happen much quicker. In this way, cheaper and greener alternatives would be available before taxes are levied to force people into changing their behaviour. 

As things stand it is those on the middle to low income rungs that will carry the burden. Unless the green transition is accompanied by a sense of social justice it will simply hurt society’s weakest and when that happens, mainstream politicians should not be surprised that people push back and seek radical alternatives.  

But there is also the localised reality of Malta being an island economy on the periphery of the EU. This puts Malta at a natural disadvantage with other mainland EU states that can rely on road and rail transport apart from shipping. 

The new shipping tax will undoubtedly penalise Malta disproportionately in comparison to other EU member states and thus it is unfair. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done now but this leader believes that government should assess the impact and based on the outcome, lobby within the EU to extract some form of exemption, at least for imports intended exclusively for the domestic market. The issues concerning the manufacturing industry are more complex and would require a different strategy. 

However, on a grander scale, the EU should re-assess its priorities and adopt a funding system that encourages public and private investment in innovative green technologies before it wields the stick. 

It is useless telling people to shift to electric cars when these are still out of reach for many people even when the government grant is taken into consideration. 

It is useless to tell people to ditch their traditional heating systems and go for heat pumps when their cost is phenomenal. 

A greater effort must be done to reduce the costs of production of environmentally friendly products, while supporting citizens in their attempt to access the green market. 

In its efforts to remove the climate change tumour, the EU must be careful in the process not to kill the patient because it would be futile and counterproductive.