High-profile speakers at the 2020 EEB annual conference included Kate Raworth, the founder of ‘doughnut economics’, European Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius and Austrian Climate Action and Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler.

The main message from the one-day event were that the European Union needs to shift from a focus on the dough of economic growth to the doughnut of wellbeing within planetary limits. The EU must dare to be more ambitious with its Green Deal and build back better after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Breaking with convention, the European Environmental Bureau’s annual conference took place virtually, instead of the usual physical event, such as the one which took place in Berlin last year.

As with so much of the ‘new normal’ associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, this proved to be both a challenge and an opportunity. Although participants were deprived of the useful face-to-face, in-person contacts that make our annual conferences such rewarding affairs, this year’s edition was able to reach a far wider audience than is possible with a physical event and created space for new types of interactions. Its carbon footprint was also immensely smaller.

Hundreds of people registered for the event, from every corner of Europe and beyond, and wandered around the conference’s e-spaces. A peak of 1,300 people tuned into the speeches and panel discussions.

Hitting the sweet spot

The keynote speaker at this year’s annual conference was Kate Raworth, the British economist behind the ‘Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries’, that visually represents a framework for sustainable development that does not overshoot the Earth’s natural limits (see diagram).

Raworth spoke on the theme of whether the European Green Deal truly represented a system change or was simply a semantic shift. “We cannot deny that Europe has set out a transformative agenda,” the British economist told the EEB’s EU Policy Director Patrick ten Brink. “It has shown leadership and, for that, Europe has to be recognised and praised.”

One challenge of the European Green Deal that Raworth identified was in the tension between the its self-identification as a new ‘growth strategy’ and its holistic vision of a wellbeing society and economy living within ecological boundaries. “When I read the strategy, I’m struck by the two contradictory paradigms it presents,” Raworth admitted.

Research by the EEB, and modelling and simulations by the LOCOMOTION project, suggest that so-called ‘green growth’ is unlikely to deliver the required reductions in emissions and shrink our ecological footprint sufficiently to make us sustainable. Achieving true sustainability requires deep system change, including rethinking how we create jobs and our relationship to work, as a new EEB report will argue later this month.

One example is the electric car. If it simply replaces the internal combustion engine, this will prove unsustainable. Making it sustainable requires a rethink and redesign of how we move and the mobility solutions we use.

Pursuing the dream or illusion of endless growth, Raworth reiterated, was a major factor behind the biggest crises of the 21st century so far, including the financial meltdown of 2007/8, the ongoing climate breakdown and the COVID lockdowns of 2020. “These crises emerge from human systems,” she explained. “Our strategy of endless expansion means there are boomerang effects that lead to crises.”

Hostage situation

Despite the progress in outlook and semantics, the question remains, Raworth emphasised, of whether this transformative vision would be harnessed or hijacked.

Raworth criticised the long timeframe of the European Green Deal, saying that 2050 was too far in the future and we needed to act radically now. She also criticised the lack of binding targets in certain key areas, such as decoupling and the circular economy.

“Legislation and finance is where the risk of hijacking is the greatest,” she noted, pointing to examples like the Common Agricultural Policy, where money that should have been used to make agriculture sustainable is set to be used to perpetuate destructive farming practices.

Historic opportunity

Kate Raworth urged European leaders to rise to the occasion and to dare to be ambitious. “The best way to harness the opportunity is that leaders just need to have the guts to do it,” she insisted. “Sometimes a moment opens up, a crack in history.”

European Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius echoed this point. “We live in times of crises. Human beings tend to go back to old solutions, to business as usual. I’m proud that, here, in Europe, we did the opposite, despite the difficult circumstances,” he argued in a session about the EU’s environmental leadership. “COVID-19 reminded us of our fragility and the fragility of our world.”

Sinkevičius expressed his conviction that the only litmus test that counted for policymaking was: Is it ambitious enough to keep us within planetary boundaries?

He, however, disagreed with Raworth’s assessment that the European Green Deal was not ambitious enough to meet the magnitude of the crisis. “We have a decade to halt the climate crisis and environmental degradation and to deliver systemic change,” Sinkevičius said. “Our commitment is ambitious but achievable.” He cited, as an example of this ambition, the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.

But this would require buy-in from every segment of society. “Last but not least, what is crucial is societal support. This cannot be done without everyone on board,” he said.

Build to thrive

A panel debate chaired by the EEB’s Global Policies and Sustainability Director Patrizia Heidegger brought together eminent voices from politics and civil society to discuss how to build back better and to build back differently. These included the chair of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, Pascal Confin; Florika Fink-Hooijer, Director-General of the European Commission’s Environment DG; Elisabeth Freytag-Rigler of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Climate Action and the Environment, as well as Ana Colovic Lesoska, Director of the Centre for Environmental Research and Information (Eko-svest),  

Austria’s Minister for Climate Action and the Environment Leonore Gewessler outlined her vision for a sustainable future. “There is only one answer: better, greener and stronger. We have to rethink in a comprehensive sense the structure of our society [and] the structure of our economy,” she noted. “We have to avoid spending billions of euros to move from one crisis to another.”

Gewessler also stressed the importance of embarking on an inclusive transformation: “Leaving no-one behind is essential. This needs to be put down as a reality, not just a headline.”

To truly achieve this kind of inclusiveness and equitability requires not only finding ways to improve the situation of the vulnerable in Europe, but also needs us to think about the global impacts of EU policies, observed Tonny Nowshin, a climate justice and degrowth activist.

For example, Nowshin pointed out, by subsidising agricultural overproduction in Europe, the CAP hurts farmers in poorer countries in Africa and Asia. In addition, the drive for greater sustainability in Europe can lead to negative consequences, such as deforestation, elsewhere in the world, she noted.

Another challenge was the perpetuating of environmental racism. “If we don’t take account of different ways of living and relationships with biodiversity, we risk replicating and perpetuating colonial relationships,” Nowshin said.

Overcoming this danger requires an inclusive decision-making process. This will bring benefits to all concerned, Nowshin emphasised. “We have so much to learn from communities who have been living for thousands of years in a more sustainable way,” remarked the climate justice activist. “And when we question our dominant civilisation, which created these crises through continuous exploitation, we need to include many different stakeholders.”

Future-proofing Europe

EEB Secretary General Jeremy Wates wound up the annual conference by reflection on how far the environmental movement had come in Europe in recent times. “We are in a completely different place than a few years ago,” he commented. “Before, we made gains despite of, not because of, the Commission. The von der Leyen Commission has really changed that.”

Wates praised the youth movement, environmental organisations, growing public concern and engagement, and policymakers with foresight for the shift.

“Has the European Green Deal changed things? Yes, it has. But it’s not a panacea,” Wates said. “The COVID-19 pandemic could have knocked the Green Deal off course. But it, by and large held. EU politicians have stood behind the European Green Deal and turned it into a call for a green recovery.”

Although that particular war may be won, the battles were far from over, Wates cautioned: “We have to continue the trench warfare on specific policy areas.”

“Now, political courage and leadership are crucial, as are the roles of the environmental movement, civil society and business,” Wates concluded. “Only together can we transition to a better world.”

And you, dear reader, are part of that transition and can help us push for the change Europe and the world urgently needs. To keep abreast of the latest development and to find out how you can help, subscribe to our Meta newsletter (see top of this article) and follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

If you would like to watch back the conference recording on our YouTube channel, click here.

Keep up to date with environmental issues in Europe

By signing up, you will stay informed about critical environmental issues from the heart of Europe.

Follow the trends with weekly updates from the largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe. Get the best insights on a range of environmental issues from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

By subscribing you will receive our weekly newsletter, META, as well as information on relevant environmental campaigns. All information we gather is processed in line with our privacy policy and you can unsubscribe at any time.