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2022: The European Green Deal Make-Or-Break Year

The current spike in gas and electricity prices reminds us that this crisis could have been averted, had green solutions to our addiction to fossil fuels with their volatile prices been implemented earlier. The European Green Deal, if suitably transformative, will help avoid innumerable crises in the future.

The European Commission published its 2022 Work Programme (CWP) and annexes on 19 October this year. This dry-sounding document is in fact the third-year installment of the European Green Deal (EGD) – and an essential read for those wishing to engage in the sustainability of Europe.

The 2022 commitments, combined with those from the EGD’s first two years, can chart the path to sustainability and make a major stride towards transformative change. Yet, a lack of ambition and poor policy choices can still trip us up and leave us exposed to further crises.

Attractive promises

We welcome that the European Green Deal is at the heart of the 2022 Work Programme, and that within this, the focus is on the Zero Pollution Action Plan (ZPAP). We are promised progress on air quality  – the EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive is to be aligned with the recent World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Standards, thus potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Water too will feature and promises of improved integrated water management, the revision of the lists of surface and groundwater pollutants mean that action can be taken to clean up our waters that our wildlife, economy and well-being all depend on.

There are also promises to further advance in the fight on the climate crisis (addressing emissions from heavy goods vehicles and carbon removals), on circular economy (strengthening the right to repair), plastics (tackling microplastics), and on the biodiversity-agriculture interface (addressing pesticides). How transformative these promises will be remains to be seen (and to be fought for).

2022 has also been named the European Year of Youth, so hopefully the call to leave the planet in a fair state for next generations will trigger more responsible ambition.

These initiatives must complement  proposals launched already in 2020, or still expected to see the light of day by the end of 2021 (e.g. revision of the environmental crime directive, communication on soil strategy, new nature restoration law) as well as proposals being put forward for negotiation with the European Parliament and Member States.

The EEB also gladly receives the stated recognition that the recent high energy prices also confirm the need for the clean transition and to decrease EU dependence on fossil fuels. It is essential that the 2022 EGD climate files and the ongoing negotiations on the Fit-for-55 package launched last year are progressed with that vision, and an ambition of 1.5 degrees in mind.

Similarly, the promise to uphold and strengthen the rule of law and to protect to core values of our Union and strengthen democratic resilience – is welcome. Europe is a special place due to the commitment to the rule of law and it is essential for the credibility and future of Europe to invest in democratic resilience.

Areas of concern

While the price risks and challenges to the rule of law are key external concerns, within the CWP 2022, the most worrying element is that the ‘one-in-one-out’ principle is the first item mentioned.  While no one wants unnecessary burdens, this principle contradicts good regulation principles. All laws should be decided on their own merit and it simply makes no sense for public policy to tie its hands when deciding how to best address the challenges society faces. If there is a burden to worry about, it is the burden of unsustainable practices that ends up on the shoulders of people, society and the planet. Modernisation should be about making policies secure a fair future for current and future generations.

Linked to this, there is a promise of a range of legislative “REFITs” (regulatory fitness and performance  programme) that are explicitly stated in the CWP to have a “burden reduction and simplification objective”.  Yet, they should do so much more than just this: a refit should primarily be about ensuring that legislation is most effective in meeting its objectives and address the challenges. The list of legislation that will face REFITs include the revision of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD); the restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electronics; the Detergent Regulation ; and the Directive on end-of-life vehicles and  type approval of motor vehicles.

A second concern relates to the revision of the EU Regulation 517/2014 on fluorinated gases which have a global warming effect 23.000 times higher than CO2 and fall into the scope of the Effort Sharing Regulation, currently being revised in the Fit for 55 Package. A legislative proposal was promised for the last quarter of 2021 as part of the second Fit for 55 Package but has now been shifted to mid-2022.  Is this a sign of lack of prioritisation? This further delay will have an impact on the Fit for 55 overall ambition and risks extending the period during which these gases can continue to heat up our planet.

The legislation on mercury aimed for example to advance laws limiting the use of mercury in dental amalgams and ensure that mercury-added products that are banned in the EU market are not allowed to be exported. The legislation was to be tabled in the last quarter of 2022 but now no longer seems to  be included in the CWP 2022.

There is also no proposal to look at revising the Environmental Noise Directive within the ZPAP. With noise being the second most important driver of health impacts, it is essential that political attention focuses on this.  Similarly, there is also an absence of focus on light pollution – recognised as a prime driver of insect loss.

Haste not

An often-aired argument is that ‘a good deal tomorrow is better than holding out for a better deal later’. Speed should not, however, undermine quality or ambition. Yes, we need decisions quickly, but this does not mean that they have to be poor ones. With due investment of effort, political capacity and with due consideration of the climate, environment and health crisis facts, it should be possible to get the Fit for 55 or ZPAP we need. It is a matter of political will, imagination and tenacity.

Strange behaviour

EU processes, for all their flaws, have many strengths – public consultation is one of them.  So, it is strange to note a creeping weakening of EU processes, namely of asking for feedback on both the policy road maps and public consultations at the same time. This is crippling the role and consultation of the road maps and more and more people risk ignoring the roadmaps. Does this mean that road maps are not taken seriously enough and that they are becoming just tick box exercises and self-created red tape? Consultation should not be undermined. Insights, facts, good ideas spring from consultation, as does legitimacy and public buy-in to the body of EU law.

Complicating matters

The existing Better Regulation policy and the associated Fit-for-Future platform risk complicating matters. The stated aim of the platform is to look at simplification, burden reduction and modernisation.  The official position is that neither the objectives of the laws nor those of the European Green Deal should be compromised. But with a focus on burdens to business without due consideration of the burdens to people and the planet, there are risks that interested parties will nudge future legislation towards something lesser than it rought to be. The onus is on the Commission services to filter through the facts and arguments and strip out fake news and unsubstantiated points that may undermine effectiveness, and hence public service.

A full and essential year

2022 is a make-or-break year for the EGD.  There is a large agenda of policy files launched in 2020 and 2021, complemented by the additional 2022 items. This package has the potential to be a once in a generation watershed of progress. The EGD needs to chart our way towards sustainability, taking us away from system lock-ins that tie us to fossil-fuel dependency, climate change, pollution that undermines health, resource depletion and a biodiversity crisis that will leave humankind’s mark on the planet in a way no one wants, earning our time on this planet the sad and telling designation of Anthropocene.

If resolve fails and if short-term political and economic interests trump the moral needs to leave a fair planet for the next generations, and the EGD becomes a weak deal, we will not chart a path to sustainability, but instead a path to disappointment and crisis, consequences far harder to deal with than seeking political consensus on progress now.  We can’t afford to trip up.