"We're in a new phase because until now we've been focusing a lot on legislative work so I think we built this new political but also legislative framework for the Green Deal," Šefčovič told Euronews in an interview recorded on Tuesday.
"Now we're approaching the phase that should be equally challenging, if not more, and this is the roll-out, this is proper implementation, this is how to make sure that this climate transition will be done in a socially fair (way), that it will help our industry to be the top competitor on the global markets."
Over the past couple of years, the EU has passed a raft of transformative laws to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% before the end of the decade, including a gradual ban on the combustion engine, a border tax on polluting imports and new beefed-up targets for energy efficiency.
On top of that, the bloc has introduced far-reaching plans to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels and ramp up the deployment of renewable systems. The European Commission estimates the effort will require €620 billion annually in additional investments.
"To put (this) in practice, I think will be as challenging as the work we've been doing now," Šefčovič said.
But, he noted, failing to take action would be "the worst possible solution." The vice-president suggested the executive should, by early next year, propose an "interim" target to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, without specifying a percentage level. As of today, the EU only has legally binding goals for 2030 and 2050, when climate neutrality is supposed to be achieved.
"Let's look at this summer. Let's look at last summer. Last summer we saw what was terrible. This summer it was much worse," Šefčovič went on, referring to recent natural disasters, such as the devastating floods in Slovenia and the raging wildfires in Greece.
"We have to behave responsibly. We have to engage more with all stakeholders and we have to work hard to make sure that we manage these three overarching goals: be socially fair, tackle climate change and make our industry competitive."
A renewed focus on industry
Šefčovič was speaking with Euronews in one of his first TV interviews since being promoted to Executive Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal, taking over Frans Timmermans, who last week resigned to lead a centre-left alliance in the forthcoming general election in the Netherlands.
With the reshuffle, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tried to preserve the delicate political balance in her college: the overarching green portfolio is therefore left in the hands of the socialist group, while the job of climate diplomacy and finance is turned into a separate role, possibly for the conservatives. Until his departure, Timmermans was the highest-profile socialist politician in Brussels, together with Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief.
While less outspoken than his Dutch predecessor, Šefčovič has made a name for himself after years of working across the EU's halls of power and is seen as a safe pair of hands who can handle a variety of policy assignments. In 2019, von der Leyen appointed him as Vice-President for interinstitutional relations and foresight and he was later given the extra tasks of managing the EU-UK relations in the post-Brexit era and spearheading a novel initiative to help member states purchase gas supplies jointly.
Working closer with the private sector, he says, will be among his top priorities.
"A very important issue will be to work very closely with our industry," Šefčovič said. "I would like to introduce a series of, I would say, structured roundtables with the industries which would be the most affected by the green transition, which are under a lot of pressure from international competitors."
The approach reflects the anxiety unleashed across the continent as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), an initiative introduced last summer by US President Joe Biden that offers generous tax credits, rebates and subsidies to producers of green technology – as long as manufacturing takes place on North American soil.
The IRA has triggered fears of an industrial exodus across the Atlantic Ocean and an irreversible loss of competitiveness for the European economy. In a countermove, the European Commission unveiled earlier this year a new industrial strategy to drastically boost the domestic production of key components, such as batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and heat pumps. The legislation is still under negotiations.
"Our industry should know that we are here to fight for them. We want them not only to stay but to prosper in Europe," Šefčovič said.
While the idea of establishing industry roundtables is still in the early stages, the vice-president flouted one possible module that could bring together power plants and energy-intensive sectors. This "could be very, very useful because by 2050 we would need probably 3.5 times more electricity than we have right now."
In response to recent comments made by some European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, in which they asked for a "pause" in climate legislation, Šefčovič said another of his priorities would be to decrease the administrative burden "as much as possible."
"I understand that this green transition and tackling climate change, it's not easy," he said. "It's not easy for our citizens, for households, for industries, and for our member states. And I have full sympathy."