As students make their way back to school, EU institutions are entering a new year full of challenges and opportunities. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) takes a look at what they should prioritise in the upcoming months to help ensure a better future where people and nature thrive together.
Many opportunities lie in the future of the European Green Deal (EGD), consisting of a growing set of policy initiatives that should help the EU transition to a more sustainable economic model. Since the launch of the EU Green Deal, the EEB has closely observed to what extent the EU Commission has lived up to its promises, and the report card looks overall promising. Notably, it shows that, despite some room for improvement, the EU has undoubtedly stepped up its game, putting people’s health and the environment high on the agenda.
The good, the bad and the ugly
During its annual conference in Brussels back in June, the EEB presented its assessment of the Green Deal’s implementation so far. The assessment was divided into three categories: the good, the bad and the missed opportunities. While it is clear that a lot of work still remains to be done, the assessment indicates that a powerful dose of green has been infused into EU policies as a result of the EGD.
Notable steps forward include:
- The commitment to a carbon neutral and Zero Pollution Europe
- The commitment to a Chemicals Sustainability Strategy
- Higher profile given to social concerns via the Social Climate Fund
- The revolutionary commitment to end the sale of fossil-fueled cars in the EU by 2035
- The Circular Economy Action Plan
- The commitment to a Nature Restoration Law, that for once is not a defensive text, but one that offers hope of regenerated ecosystems.
However, significant gaps remain when it comes to the pace of actual change and constraining measures. First, a range of important opportunities was missed, including the commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65%, which was watered down to 55% despite the recommendations of environmental groups, including the EEB. In the same vein, the funds allocated to build back better after the Covid-19 crisis were not always directed to climate measures and policy reforms that could have accelerated EU independence from Russian fossil fuels. Further missed opportunities relate to industrial emissions, pesticides and gender mainstreaming.
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Since the launch of the Green Deal, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Taxonomy files have remained the bad students of the class, hampering the Green Deal’s ambitious trajectory, and putting its credibility at risk.
On one hand, the CAP continues to directly undermine the EGD by going against its biodiversity and climate objectives. Notably, the CAP fails to use its budget to encourage the needed transformative change in agriculture, as well as to properly involve farmers, who need adequate support to react to the effect of climate change and be active agents in the fight against it.
On the other hand, the recent evolution of the Taxonomy leaves the door open to unsustainable practices and steps away from the development of an ambitious Sustainable Finance framework. When it comes to the Taxonomy, two main flaws risk derailing the credibility of the entire EGD agenda. First, fossil gas and nuclear as sustainable investments. Second, the settings of the ‘do not significant harm principle’ are not fit for purpose. For the moment companies can claim that they are participating in the climate halt even if some of their activities are detrimental to environmental protection not linked to climate.
The poor performance on these two highly problematic files has cast doubts on the green leadership of the European Commission, which must now demonstrate again with facts its commitment to the EU Green Deal.
In the assessment, the EEB identifies a list of key moments that will be determinants for the success of the Green Deal. The Commission is a major actor of change, as its role is to propose EU legislation. But none of the work can be carried out without the support and will of the Council, composed of national ministers and the European Parliament, whose members are elected by EU citizens every five years.
To be truly transformative, this intricate orchestra needs to follow a new compass, one that will lead the EU to a post-fossil fuel system change, a circular economy revolution, a genuine commitment to zero pollution without harmful chemicals in our products, as well as a commitment to a regenerative wellbeing economy.
Patrick ten Brinck, Secretary General of the EEB, said:
“The European Green Deal is proving to be a transformative policy and provides hope, despite being weaker than it needs to be. Now more than ever, our decision-makers – in the Commission, the Parliament and in member states – must resist business and political lobbying pressure to water it down, and ensure it achieves its full potential to inspire Europeans and decision-makers everywhere”.
A better future for people and nature
The future EU legislation holds a lot of weight in the battle against the climate and environmental crises we are facing. Whether the EGD creates a person-on-the-moon moment will depend on first how member states commit to the mission via the Council positions and implementation; second on whether the European Parliament will push for higher ambition to respond to the needs of the citizens they represent; and third on a citizens’ and the scientific community’s demands to raise the bar.
Two years are left to go, and many policy files are still on the table. It is the case of the long-awaited Nature Restoration Law; it is also the case of the Renewable Energy Directive which, together with REPowerEU, offers an opportunity to push for nature positive renewable energy, but needs care and attention to avoid creating additional problems. There are also opportunities to strengthen ambient air quality legislation to reduce health impacts while also helping climate action and energy independence. Others include chemicals law reforms, a raw materials act, laws on environmental liability, proposals to reform the EU’s economic governance framework, to name a few.
Ten Brink said:
“Progress on all of these files will define whether the EU Green Deal provides the transformative agenda that we need and deserve, or whether we are stuck in orbit, locked into the status quo by listening too much to vested interests, and failing our children and future generations.”
The European Commission deserves credit for having created the Green Deal and launched a potentially historic process. Effort across the board is required to ensure a successful year ahead during these difficult times. We cannot allow its mission to stall or fail: too much is at stake.