European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s first State of the Union address delivered a courageous and hopeful vision for a sustainable future of welfare and wellbeing.

However, the EU’s environmental ambitions and targets still fail to live up to this rhetoric.

On Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen presented her first State of the Union address during which she looked back over her remarkable first year at the helm of the European Commission, which was marked with a groundbreaking European Green Deal and the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in the greatest socioeconomic crisis in generations.

“In these last six months, Europeans have shown how strong that human spirit really is,” the Commission president observed. She spoke of how the coronavirus had “brought into sharper focus the planetary fragility that we see every day through melting glaciers, burning forests and, now, through global pandemics.”

But this fragility can be transformed into resilience and strength, von der Leyen emphasised in a message of hope. “And this is the moment for Europe,” she stressed. “The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality.”

Greenprint for change

On the environmental front, von der Leyen reiterated the EU’s commitment to become the first climate-neutral region in the world by 2050 and to push ahead with the European Green Deal.

“The European Green Deal is our blueprint to make that transformation,” she told MEPs. “At the heart of it is our mission to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.”

Environmental activists welcomed this renewed commitment. “We welcome von der Leyen’s reiteration of her commitment to the European Green Deal and to ensuring a green recovery from the economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” remarked EEB Secretary General Jeremy Wates.

However, Wates voiced some major reservations: “But positive high-level rhetoric needs to be matched by ambitious concrete commitments, and here the Commission is still failing to align its ambition not only with what science demands but what the younger generations who will pay for today’s bailouts are demanding.”

In her speech, von der Leyen also emphasised the importance of preserving and deepening the EU’s “human economy”. “Europe must continue to protect lives and livelihoods,” she stressed.

“We welcome the commitment to a ‘human economy’, so wellbeing must take primacy over GDP growth at the heart of EU policymaking,” insisted Patrick ten Brink, the EEB’s director of EU policy. However, he noted that the EU was not fully putting its money where its mouth is. “The promised 37% of the EU recovery fund allocated to the European Green Deal objectives is welcome but not enough. It is also important that the remaining 63% is not spent in ways that undermine those objectives.”

Promoting human wellbeing within the boundaries of the natural world requires EU policies and actions to be guided by sustainability principles. “It is a shame that the Commission President does not explicitly base her vision of a sustainable Europe on the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the international community exactly five years ago,” points out the EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability  Patrizia Heidegger.

Climate of compromise

“To become the first climate-neutral continent, we’re proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%. I recognise this is too much for some and not enough for others. But our economy and industry can manage this,” von der Leyen asserted.

The rate at which emissions need to be cut in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global warming below the critical 1.5⁰C threshold and to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050 has been an issue of heated contention.

Although the 55% emissions reduction by 2030 proposed by von der Leyen is a far cry from the initial reluctance to even set an intermediate objective and is higher than the current 40%, it still falls considerably short of the 65% or more that scientists and environmentalists insist is necessary. It is also below the target floated by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee of a 60% cut.

“It is regrettable that the European Commission is not taking into consideration a higher emissions reduction target than 55%. A 60% cut would already be a compromise from the 65% put forward by MEP Jytte Guteland and supported by scientific evidence,” notes Barbara Mariani, the EEB’s senior policy officer for climate and energy. 

In addition, the 55% target is not all it appears to be. Judging by a leaked version of the Commission’s proposal, some of the proposed cuts are attributable more to creative bookkeeping than actual reductions, Mariani points out.

Moreover, the proposal still lacks a strategy to address emissions embodied in the goods the EU produces and imports. According to Eurostat, about 15% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions are imported from third countries.

That said, the EEB welcomes the prospect of a Carbon Border Adjustment mechanism because we agree with von der Leyen that “carbon must have its price because nature cannot pay the price anymore”.

Renewables revolution

The very high target for renewables in transport (34% compared with the current 7%, according to a leaked copy of the Commission’s draft Climate Target Plan) raises several sustainability questions which go beyond climate change, including the devastating impact of mining.

“Another important target that is missing is a target to reduce overall material and resources consumption,” noted Heidegger, “to bring down our overall hunger for raw materials and natural resources.”

“If all the world’s cars become electric by 2050 and recycling rates remain low there will not be enough lithium,” observes Margarita Mediavilla, an academic and expert in the LOCOMOTION modelling project, in which the EEB is involved. “If green energy is based on the aggressive pollution of mining and wastes precious minerals after a single use it is not sustainable.”

The goal should be to boost sustainable transport modalities, such as public transport, cycling and light electric vehicles, and to reduce traffic on our roads.

Life and death matters

One dimension that was inexplicably absent from Ursula von der Leyen’s state of the union speech was the alarming pace of extinction and mounting ecosystem collapse.

This omission was all the more stark given that the UN released this week a major new report sounding the latest alarm about the rapid speed of biodiversity loss, the threat it posed to human health and wellbeing, and how humanity was now at a crossroad.

“Despite another stark reminder of biodiversity collapse and insufficient action by governments across the globe to reverse that trend, the President made little mention of the EU’s plans to put biodiversity on the path to recovery,” said the EEB’s Policy Manager for Biodiversity and Water Sergiy Moroz.

Earlier this year, the European Commission released its proposed biodiversity strategy. Although the document presents an ambitious vision for protecting nature, its weakness on trade and enforcement spell potentially devastating consequences for biodiversity across the globe.

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