‘Future of Europe at stake’ as EU lines up billions of Euros for green recovery

Tomorrow the European Commission will announce its Green Recovery package, kicking off a debate about how best to rebuild economies following the coronavirus pandemic.

Mauro Anastasio has checked out a leaked draft and spoken to some of the EEB’s policy experts ahead of the big launch.

Anticipation is growing in Brussels about an announcement that could prove to be transformational for both the environment and the European Union.

By putting the European Green Deal at the heart of the EU’s recovery plans, the European Commission could make Europe a world leader in climate and environmental action, creating millions of jobs, improving our health and protecting people against future outbreaks. They could also help to strengthen the EU, by increasing the size of the bloc’s budget and – for the first time – creating Eurobonds. 

Aside from the political wrangling over the exact source, an amount of funding to make available, the success of any plans will hinge on whether the right investments are made at this crucial time. And after more than a million people have signed petitions calling for a green recovery, citizens’ expectations are high. 

Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau said that planning a green recovery from the corona pandemic was a “historic chance”. 

With climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and toxic pollution all threatening to run out of control, Wates said that the “future of Europe is at stake”, and that the EU had an opportunity to “rebuild Europe, creating secure, new jobs and building more resilience to future crises”.

After a joint French-German proposal for a €500bn recovery package, a leaked version of a European Commission proposal included measures in five areas: renovations, renewables, mobility, circular economy and food. 

The total EU investment in measures proposed in these areas could be higher than €1 trillion, with additional funding released from national and local government, as well as private sources. 

While the leaked proposals contain some welcome elements, campaigners have raised concerns about some of the plans, and highlighted important areas that appear to have been entirely left out, such as addressing toxic pollution. 

Renovations: Hundreds of thousands of new, local jobs

It seems certain that any major investment plan will include a ‘renovation wave’, which could create hundreds of thousands of jobs making homes, schools, hospitals and offices more energy-efficient.

Ageing buildings are currently responsible for 36% of Europe’s total CO2 emissions, so it’s no surprise that building renovation is a big priority in the European Green Deal. 

According to the European Commission, a ‘renovation wave’ could cost more than €250bn a year, with money coming from the EU budget as well as private investments and national subsidies to households and businesses. Barbara Mariani, EEB senior policy officer for climate said:

“Improving the energy systems of buildings will provide new quality jobs and cut greenhouse gas pollution, improving people’s quality of life and decreasing Europe’s dependency on the imports of materials and energy.”

Barbara Mariani, EEB senior policy officer for climate

Renewables: A safe and resilient energy system 

The Commission already plans to invest heavily in smart and local grids, storage capacity and the electrification of our distribution systems. 

The EU could boost renewable energy and electricity infrastructure with €100bn a year to be spent on energy generation and transmission to help Europe meet its climate targets.

However, funding continues to flow to fossil fuel infrastructure, despite the likelihood of creating stranded assets. Fossil gas pipelines continue to be built across Europe, undermining emissions reductions and climate neutrality goals and major questions remain about how, when and where investments should be made in hydrogen. 

Jonathan Bonadio, EEB policy officer for energy and grids stressed the need to ensure money was invested in “truly green alternatives” and not in new gas infrastructure. 

A joint EEB report published last week called for future available volumes of hydrogen to be assessed before investments in infrastructure are made. 

Mobility: Active transport and clean vehicles

This week the cities of Bonn, Brussels, Dublin and Milan joined health and environmental groups in calling for the Commission to make major investments in cycling infrastructure and clean public transport. 

A joint letter from the cities to Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans and Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean called for 12,000 zero emission buses to be put on the streets each year within the next five years. 

They also called for a new grant scheme to help cities construct new permanent cycle infrastructure and a multi-billion euro investment in fleets of public (electric) bikes.

Circular economy: Clean and responsible industry

In order to deliver on the promises made in the European Green Deal, the EU will need to transform its industry. Companies will need to rethink technologies and production processes, transform consumption patterns and eliminate waste.

Europe will need to embrace shorter, more diversified supply chains, more local manufacturing and a truly circular economy, in order to enhance resilience. 

While following the waste hierarchy means the primary aim of any policy should be to minimise the amount of waste produced in the first place, as much as €9-10bn per year is needed to improve reuse and recycling, including for batteries, textiles, furniture, commercial and industrial waste, and construction and demolition waste. 

Because of the particular dangers of hazardous waste, Tatiana Santos, EEB Policy Manager for Chemicals warned that it is important to “detoxify material loops”. 

Santos said: “Recycling should be the last ‘green’ option – after prevention, reuse and repair. For potentially harmful substances – like the chemicals found in some plastics – concrete measures must be funded to avoid toxic recycling.” 

Thinking beyond immediate loans and liquidity injection, long-term investments in Europe’s industry must then be conditional on toxic-free, climate neutrality, the transition to circular business models and zero pollution.

Davide Sabbadin, EEB climate and circular economy policy officer said Europea needs a “new industrial revolution with clean, safe and sustainable jobs.”

Food Chain: Better food from healthy farms?

The agriculture sector is the recipient of the single largest share of the EU budget (36% since 2014) with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) costing €60bn every year, yet scientists agree: European agriculture is having a wide-scale harmful impact on our environment, which the CAP is supporting. 

EU funds should support local food production with short supply chains and diversified production on the farm. This is the only way to truly ensure future farmers’ resilience to shocks: climate, epidemic or economic crises.

Funds could be linked to the achievement of quantifiable climate, environmental and societal targets, and they must be redirected to support farmers in need. Better jobs and conditions could be created for farmers, reducing their use of toxic pesticides and enabling them to reconnect with the people who consume their produce.

However, the CAP is the sacred cow of the EU and is defended by powerful agroindustry lobbyists in Brussels. While hope has emerged in the form of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy, which seeks significant cuts to fertilizer and pesticide use and sets a target of 25% of EU farms being organic by 2030, the contents of the leaked recovery proposals are not in line with the climate and biodiversity commitments of the EU when it comes to food and farming. 

The EEB’s senior policy officer for agriculture Bérénice Dupeux said: “Some of the proposals fly in the face of the mountain of evidence that a transition to agroecological farming is urgently needed to stop climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse, and increase the resilience of our farmers. The ‘techno-fixes’ proposed by the Commission, focused on precision farming and bio-energy production, risk locking us into another decade of business as usual, which will be destructive for Europe’s nature. 

Dupeux added: “Proposal for three billion new trees and the restoration of peatland are generally welcome, but they shouldn’t be used as a fig leaf to cover continued investments in harmful industrial agriculture.”

What about pollution? 

While it is unclear whether the leaked document represents all or just some of the measures to be announced tomorrow, it has faced criticism for failing to address a major environmental problem: pollution. 

Santos pointed out the aim of achieving ‘zero pollution’ in the European Green Deal and yet the apparent lack of any investment on: “key measures to tackle the toxic pollution problem, such as economic instruments to incentivise safe and sustainable products and clean production, the development of green chemistry and safety by design concepts, the promotion of safe and sustainable innovation or the detoxification of the industrial processes, consumer products and the circular economy.”

Restart or rebuild?

Questions have also been raised about the kind of economic recovery Europe should be attempting to launch, with warnings against a return to “business as usual”. Nick Meynen, EEB policy officer for environmental and economic justice said: 

“Rebuilding doesn’t mean going back to normal. Normal was the problem. Normal was an economy burning-out both peoples and our planet. All over Europe, people say that wellbeing should be the top priority, not GDP.”

The European Commission will publish full details of its proposal tomorrow afternoon. Follow @Green_Europe on Twitter for the latest news.