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Portugal’s EU challenge: a greener way out of the Covid-19 crisis

Portugal took the helm of the EU aiming to drive Europe towards a fair and sustainable recovery. To steer the ship in that direction, key policies falling under the Portuguese Presidency will need to be addressed, interwoven and strengthened under a horizontal green approach.

The EEB analyzes the Ten Green Tests delivered to the Portuguese Presidency of the EU to help to address the most pressing environmental problems.

At the end of 2019, the European Green Deal (EGD) was launched by the European Commission as “the green thread that will connect all European policies”. One year later, and with an unprecedented global health crisis in between, Portugal takes over the EU presidency promising to deliver a swift “fair, green, digital recovery”. 

In order to build back better from the COVID-19 crisis and to catalyse the transition to a sustainable Europe, those green threads will have to be strengthened. The multiple environmental, social and economic crises facing the EU over this pandemic need to be tackled by horizontal policies, that range from the Green Deal to the 8th Environment Action Programme (8EAP), published in autumn 2020, to the Sustainable Development Goals.

This requires not only a focus on EU member states but also engagement with European neighbours and building on EU responsibility and leverage in global trade. Portugal faces the challenge of turning the European Green Deal into a worldwide political compass – with a more climate and environment-friendly US administration, but also with a post-Brexit UK still unclear on environmental standards and regulations.

A green recovery deal

One of the main concerns of environmentalists in 2020 was whether the handling of the pandemic would be used as an alibi to curb the EU’s green ambitions. If Portugal is determined to clear up these doubts from its presidency, it must ensure that the EU fully embraces and implements the EGD’s goals, by placing them at the heart of all Corona crisis responses.

In its priorities, the Portuguese Presidency has emphasised the need to “implement the Social Pillar of the European Union as a key element for ensuring a fair and inclusive climate and digital transition”. To deliver on its commitment to a just transition, Portugal will have to encourage a Council debate on a mechanism for the deeper integration of ethical considerations, social cohesion, equality and solidarity.

The Green Deal remains the best tool to respond holistically to the existential threats of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and pollution, and the current and future pandemics. It is therefore important for the Portuguese Presidency to listen to science and people when designing subsequent steps of the EGD, as well as to ensure a strong 8EAP and integrate and implement the SDGs, all while taking into account the social dimension.

EU’s environmental tracker

The 8th Environment Action Programme, tabled by the European Commission on 14 October 2020, is mainly a monitoring tool for the EU’s broad environmental goals. It will also be a helpful instrument to assess progress on the European Green Deal and the SDGs, which are the two main beacons leading the EU towards a just and sustainable transition.

However, it envisages an assessment only for 2029, and no midterm review, which reduces its potential and impact unless it is reformed. Here is where Portugal can play a key role, said Patrick ten Brink, Deputy Secretary-General and Director of EU Policy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“This 8th Environmental Action Programme proposal is not yet fit-for-purpose – it needs a 2024 mid-term assessment, indicators to fully measure progress in the system change we need, and response mechanisms to promote well-being and sustainability and help the EU live well within our means”, ten Brink said.

The indicators set out in the 8EAP pivot around the idea of a “wellbeing economy”. The need for a “regenerative economy”, “do no harm”, and “systemic transformation” must be the goals enhanced by Portugal’s EU presidency, under a 2050 vision to “live well, within the planetary boundaries.”

It’s essential to encourage annual monitoring, reporting and discussion on these key EU environmental policy compromises, on where we are succeeding and where we are still failing and hence need renewed policy attention.

We need a commitment to regularly discuss the 8EAP, EGD and SDGs at a high level in the Commission, Parliament and Council”, ten Brink pointed out.

Global and coherent climate leadership

In the last two years, the EU took a few steps forward to become the world’s reference in tackling the climate crisis. The announcement of the European Green Deal launch and the SDGs implementation, framed in the United Nations Global 2030 Agenda, have been two major milestones on the EU’s path to a global climate leadership. However, without a subsequent bold action, all these pledges will remain a dead letter.

The EU is still missing a Sustainable Europe 2030 strategy with clear targets for all SDGs, timelines, and an implementation plan for the goals five years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. Furthermore, the monitoring process to measure progress towards the SDGs remains weak, ignoring the clearly voiced interest of civil society, local authorities, businesses and researchers to be included in the process.

Under its EU mandate, Portugal has the chance to address the gaps in SDGs implementation and to make its monitoring system more transparent, meaningful and participatory. Embracing the UN mandate towards a more sustainable economic system and lifestyle is one of the greatest international credentials to lead the global green transition.

Balkans Green Agenda

As part of its neighbourhood policies, the European Commission launched in October 2020 the so-called Green Agenda for the Balkans, framed on the Economic Investment Plan for the region. The South-Eastern European countries that aspire to one day join the European Union (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey) are in the process of bringing their environmental policies closer to those of the EU.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that certain investments create new lock-ins in fossil-based technologies (e.g. in fossil gas) and compromise habitat protection, as the EEB has recently warned.

The Portuguese Presidency must ensure that this €9 billion Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkan is fully aligned with the EGD objectives and relies on the involvement of civil society. In a region where bureaucratic transparency is low, it is the EU’s duty to provide meaningful responses to the concerns of local communities. The Western Balkans future is under the spotlight, and Portugal’s presidency can play its part in bringing the region into the EU race against the climate crisis.