Climate justice means social justice

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In times of crisis, there is a temptation to curb the green agenda and not heed the voices of citizens given the urgency to act. Today, the Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, in her state of the European Union speech, showed that Europe has largely resisted this temptation, staying true to the European Green Deal, but also gave in to political pressure on several unfortunate points.

EEB Secretary-General Patrick ten Brink reports with Alberto Vela and the EEB policy team.

The last year has been a deeply tumultuous year with the EU finally emerging from COVID but then shaken by the illegal Russian war in Ukraine and now facing high fuel bills and increases in the cost of living and prospects for a worrying winter. Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech underlined that the EU provided many of the right answers to the current energy crisis and demonstrated deep solidarity with Ukraine.  

Von der Leyen’s speech has preserved strong support for the European Green Deal, but despite the many welcome successes of the green agenda over the past year, the pace of change risks being too slow and too weak to transform Europe on time. Without additional political commitment, it will not be the person on the moon moment.  

Thankfully, the Green Deal was recognised as a blueprint for the recovery from the COVID crisis. Europe showed its courage and solidarity by mobilising unprecedented funding to build back better using the European Green Deal as the compass. Similarly, the EU’s answer to the current geopolitical earthquake of war in Europe and never-seen-before energy prices and inflation can build on an accelerated climate and environmental roadmap. This is the evidence at the Commission can rise to the challenge in these dark times without waiving its transformative green agenda. 

However, the coming winter is likely to be more difficult than any citizens have faced since the last war and we need to be resolute in policy measures, in sharing the burden, and in demonstrating deep social concern while guaranteeing energy security. 

We welcome the statement that profits must be shared and channelled to those who need it. This is a symbol of fairness and commitment to social justice, a necessary means of helping people overcome the energy crisis, and should be a source of funding to support the investment in energy independence.”

Patrick ten Brink, Secretary-General of the European Environmental Bureau

The daily bad news of fires, droughts, and floods from across the globe show that the energy, climate, pollution and biodiversity crises are interlinked and have a human face.  Our economic model is at the core of the problem: combined with poor governance practices that give too great a voice to vested interests and importance on GDP growth it endangers the natural resources we all depend upon. It is essential that we embrace better governance and commit to sustainable and equitable stewardship of our planet to avoid leaving a planet unfit for our children. 

The President refers to the need for a social market economy. However, our current economic system is driven by an infinite increase in profit-making which is wrecking our planet and increasing inequalities. We need to turn this around and refocus our economies on serving planetary and human wellbeing in Europe and globally.”

Patrizia Heidegger, Deputy Secretary-General of the European Environmental Bureau

“Sharing the burden of limited energy supplies is essential to ensuring social cohesion. The key for this is energy efficiency and direct support of vulnerable citizens. The temptation to subsidise fossil fuels risks perpetuating our fossil dependence and shifting the burden to those in the world least able to pay high prices.”  

Luke Haywood, Manager for Climate and Energy at the European Environmental Bureau

The EU has a historic responsibility to address the climate and environmental crises and a duty to act. European policymakers have committed to embracing their responsibilities by launching the European Green Deal. It remains to be seen whether this too will be too little too late.  

During the last year, there have been many new commitments under the European Green Deal. Some of these have been ambitious and welcome. Others have shown missed opportunities. And yet others show that policymakers have given into vested interests – as seen by the greenwashing of gas and nuclear in the EU Taxonomy for sustainable activities, undermining the credibility of the European Green Deal.

EU’s immediate next steps

We have two more years in which Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission, the members of the European Parliament, and Member States have the opportunity and responsibility to make the difference we need. This requires: 

  • Support a fully green and sustainable reconstruction of Ukraine to help rebuild the country: as soon as the current disastrous situation is over. Civil society should play a central part in helping Ukraine rebuild and move towards membership of the EU. 
  • A fundamental commitment to social justice: in facing fuel prices, inflation and the cost of living, and in the energy and ecological transition. Support for heat pumps, home insulation, and affordable public transport are key to avoiding fuel and transport poverty. These can be partly financed by taxes on windfall profits. There will be temptations to subsidise fuel prices to solve the problem. With limited energy supplies, subsidies risk being costly and in very many cases futile. Where subsidies are implemented, they must be temporary to avoid entrenching fossil fuel use. Supporting a well-funded and well-governed Social Climate Fund in the trilogues between the Commission, Council and Parliament will also be essential.  
  • Energy transition – commit to full independence from Russian fossil fuels and accelerate the move to a net zero economy with a 100% renewable future and deep energy efficiency in businesses and homes. Put in place measures to facilitate a shift to nature-positive renewables. Specific focus should be on community-based renewables that support citizens’ agency and empowerment and help regenerate the social fabric of society. Renewables can help ensure sustainable and affordable energy for Europe. 
  • The REPowerEU package is welcome, but we should resist the temptation to roll back needed environmental protections and public consultations. There are plenty of go-to areas to invest in nature-positive renewables without weakening our laws and citizen buy-in is essential. The commitment to hydrogen is welcome, but given conversion losses and leakage of the smallest molecule in the world, its use should be limited to industries in which direct electrification is currently not possible and some areas of transport. The temptation to update the gas grid to a hydrogen grid and replace fossil gas with hydrogen in our homes should be resisted – direct electrification, renewables and energy savings can reach our objectives more economically.
  • Burning biomass is not the way to go: High prices of fossil fuels have led to increased use of biomass, also for domestic heating, putting pressure on natural ecosystems in Europe and beyond and further increasing air pollution, hampering EU air quality objectives and putting citizens’ health at risk. The EU must ensure that the hierarchy of biomass use is respected and that the highest standards are applied both in the EU and to imports, while not considering it equal to wind and solar energy when it comes to supporting ‘renewable’ sources. Forestry using clear-cutting should end and stricter controls are needed to avoid importing biofuels from deforested lands. 
  • We need a raw material transition: Projected demand for lithium, rare earths, and other materials risk growing availability concerns, price rises, and environmental degradation. It is essential that circular economy solutions are accelerated, that environmental protections are safeguarded and meaningful public consultation processes are implemented to avoid solving one problem while creating another. The need for certain critical raw materials must not mean open season for mining projects. Future action must take full advantage of materials already in stock and focus on demand-side policies to reduce material dependencies.

Von der Leyen’s Commission legacy

In addition to addressing the extraordinarily difficult geopolitical context of the present moment, the Commission must decide what legacy wants to leave in the next two years. Civil society organisations expect Von der Leyen’s cabinet to:

  • Embrace science-based decision-making to ensure decisions are not deflected by vested interests. The mistake of allowing the greenwashing of gas and nuclear as sustainable investments in the EU Taxonomy should not be repeated. The development of the EU Taxonomy must lead instead to an ambitious Sustainable Finance framework rewarding truly sustainable activities and ensuring the substantial application of the ‘do no significant harm’ principle. 
  • Commit to better governance, accountability and access to justice: Greenlighting Poland’s national recovery and resilience plan despite its problems ensuring the rule of law problems was a mistake. The European Commission forfeited an important lever and the process erodes confidence. Poland deserved recognition for the huge solidarity for Ukraine, but the choice of the tool was deeply unfortunate.
  • Continue to launch ambitious policies: A revised Ambient Air Quality Directive that aligns with World Health Organisation standards will improve health across the EU, save energy and help address the climate crisis. The REACH and CLP revisions offer a unique opportunity to achieve greater protection for EU citizens from exposure to the most harmful chemicals including carcinogens and reprotoxic chemicals. Legislation is not a brake, but an incentive for resilience and innovation towards the future we need and measures provide social and environmental protections essential for wellbeing. 
  • Negotiate transformative packages: The Fit-for-55 climate package needs to deliver not only –a reduction in emissions of 55% but go beyond if we are to avoid this summer’s fires, droughts and flooding becoming the norm. The Nature Restoration Law is essential to help invest in the resilience of our ecosystems that provide the life support system for humanity and help absorb CO2. And a commitment to reducing pesticides is essential for sustainable future agriculture, fertile soils, biodiversity and health.
  • Be coherent at home and internationally and avoid double standards: do not export products banned from use in Europe and do not import into the EU products whose production is not allowed in the EU by law – e.g., harmful pesticides.  Embrace legislation that restricts the import of forest products that lead to forest destruction and degradation abroad. This is an issue of responsibility and ethics.
  • Embracing a sustainability and wellbeing pact: After three decades in place, our current fiscal framework is no longer fit to meet the challenges we are facing. Reformed fiscal rules need to go beyond allowing for more flexibility and simplification. They need to be aligned with agreed EU social, environmental and climate goals and principles such as the polluters pay principle, promoting overall well-being and prioritising quality of spending over quantity.
  • Stick to the deadlines for regulatory reforms: If promised legislation is not tabled on time, then they risk not being finalised by the end of this Commission and Parliament term and mandate. This creates not only delays but major uncertainty on commitments and fuels skepticism as to the level of political commitment to the needed change. For example, even a few months delay in the promised REACH and CLP reforms may in practice constitute a delay in years. 
  • Implementing change so that it doesn’t stay on paper: It is not only about what is agreed, but when change happens. We need a serious upscaling in national actions, and strengthen the capacity of the Commission to track and address non-compliance. We need more people allocated to infringements in the Commission. Public trust in the institutions depends on delivery of the change we need. 
  • Listen to youth and citizens: A healthy, vibrant democracy needs engaged civil society in touch with citizens, processes to listen directly to citizens and in particular youth, who current face deep anxiety about their future. They deserve a future they can look forward to.

Europe’s person on the moon

We are facing a crisis, multiple interconnected crises, but have the opportunity for a person on the moon moment. A real commitment to a transformative European Green Deal can give us the hope we need. This is for the EU, for the expected enlargement of the EU and can be part of wider diplomatic cooperation with other neighbours and partners globally.  

The Covid crisis and the response to the Russian war on Ukraine have shown that the EU can respond and rise to horrendous challenges. The EU is often under fire in national debates and media. Due criticism is healthy, and Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission has made some wrong decisions, but recognition of contributions is also important, else we play into the hands of those seeking to undermine the EU, including Russia. 

The SOTEU shows that progress has been made but much more is needed. The next two years of the EGD are crucial. What legacy do we need the Commission, our elected members of the European Parliament and national leaders to leave? Nothing less than a step towards a real system change is needed, shaking off our lock-in to fossil fuels, our dependency on Russia, and our over-exploitative economic system that has often sacrificed wellbeing for short-term economic benefits to a few and economic growth. This needs to change. Our youth and future generations deserve to inherit a healthy environment and a policy framework that reflects their right to a bright future.  

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