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European Officials Unveil A Sweeping Plan To Tackle Climate Change

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The European Union has a sweeping plan to tackle climate change, and that plan has the potential to reshape the continent's economy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the case for it yesterday.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: The infernos and hurricanes we have seen over the last few weeks are only a very small window into what our future could look like. But by acting now, when we still have the policy choices, we can do things another way.

PFEIFFER: What is that other way? Among other things, it includes phasing out sales of gas and diesel cars. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us to tell us how that would work. Morning, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So the EU's goal is to cut its contribution to climate change by more than a half in just a decade. How would it do that?

DOMONOSKE: Well, this proposal covers a lot of ground. You've got boosting wind and solar power, building more efficient buildings, making forests and agriculture into sinks to absorb carbon and, of course, changing the vehicles that people drive. An important part of this is also carbon pricing, which is fundamentally about making things that are worse for the climate relatively more expensive as a way to discourage them from happening, which, of course, there are lots of implications when you make things more expensive across the board. So the EU is also proposing a Social Climate Fund that would serve as kind of a pool of money to help offset those costs, specifically for the lowest-income households in Europe.

I also want to just emphasize that this is a plan. It's a proposal. In order to actually become policy, it needs to be approved by member nations and the EU Parliament, which could be a bit of a fight.

PFEIFFER: Would this actually mean the end of gas-powered cars in Europe? They're actually going to no longer be on the road?

DOMONOSKE: Eventually. So what would happen is this plan would mandate that all new cars be zero-emission vehicles by 2035, so less than 15 years from now. With current technology, that essentially means electric vehicles. It's very clear at this point that existing cars are not affected. So people who own vehicles today or 10 years from now wouldn't suddenly find their car being illegal in all of Europe. But what it would do is it would change what's available on dealer lots, which would change what's on roads over time.

PFEIFFER: So a gradual phasing out of gas and diesel. And that, of course, has been the goal for some people. For other people, it seemed unthinkable. How did the EU get to the point where it said, we're going to do this?

DOMONOSKE: Well, we heard at the top policymakers are citing wildfires, storms, heat waves, things that are happening now. There's a real sense that climate change is not a hypothetical future risk, but an urgent and immediate crisis. That's very clear. It's also the case that individual countries have already set targets for ending the sale of gas cars, which lays the groundwork for the EU to do this. And I think it's key that automakers are talking about going all electric, some of them very rapidly. And the fact that industry is moving in that direction has really shifted the sense of what's even possible when it comes to transitioning the global fleet of cars.

PFEIFFER: Many of our listeners may know that California is talking about - or has a plan to phase out the sale of gas cars. What about the rest of the U.S.?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Well, the Biden administration has new vehicle emission standards that are coming out this month. And progressives have been pushing for that to include a date for ending the sale of new gas cars. There's a lot of resistance here and, I'll note, in Europe from automakers who make money selling gas cars and some EV advocates who worry that mandates could backfire.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.