Beyond growth dialogue with the European Commission: an exercise in “diplomatic debunking”

On the occasion of the major European Parliament Beyond Growth Conference in May 2023, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) brought together thinkers Timothée Parrique, Kate Raworth, and Vincent Liegey, as well as representatives of organisations such as Friends of the Earth Europe, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and the European Youth Forum. In collaboration, we wrote an open letter to the European Commission, which was translated and published in 23 languages. We received a response in August, but it was unsatisfactory. Then came a second letter from our broad coalition of NGOs and academic community representatives.

The European Commission’s remedy to the ongoing ecological breakdown is “sustainable” or “green growth”—the belief that technological innovation will ensure continued economic expansion while staying compatible with our planet’s biocapacity. Scientific research clearly debunks this narrative, showing that further GDP growth in high-income countries only increases social inequalities, affects the quality of life, and threatens life support systems. A recent study in The Lancet found that “[T]hese [high-income] countries would on average take more than 220 years to reduce their [CO₂] emissions by 95%, emitting 27 times their remaining 1·5°C fair-shares in the process.” Hence, the gap between the EU’s claims of being on a good path and the evidence from scientific literature is dramatic. 

Key environmental institutions are living up to this scientific evidence. For instance, recent reports from the European Environmental Agency and the European Parliamentary Research Service also invite the Commission to reconsider its strategy in order to facilitate a just transition that tackles the looming climate crises and accelerates environmental degradation on a global scale.

At the start of the European Parliament’s Beyond Growth Conference in May 2023, the open letter we coordinated and supported by over 150 civil society organisations and over 250 experts in the environmental sciences and economics fields was sent to the EU leaders. In August, senior representatives of the European Commission sent us their reply.

The Commission representatives listed the work the EU has done in relation to environmental policy during the current legislative period in their response. However, they dramatically overstated the potential of these policies by raising hopes for an impossible 100% circular economy and putting forward socially unjust market-based solutions.

The Commission’s representatives continue framing growth and competitiveness as desired outcomes of environmental policy. They also misrepresent the whole Beyond Growth Conference, stating that “a number of speakers(…) explained the conditions under which growth is sustainable.” But, on the contrary, most speakers at the event insisted that the idea of sustainable or green growth was a fairytale and focused on a different way ahead, while most of the speakers defending the status quo were representing the European Commission. The latter group was so far out of touch that an unfamiliar sound rose from the European Parliament auditorium: the sound of booing.

The letter’s authors urge the EU and its Member States to accept their global responsibility, given the union’s historic environmental impact and capacity to produce new and better solutions today. We strongly believe that only an innovative EU framework accompanied by science-based, binding material footprint reduction targets can effectively deliver a regenerative and circular EU economy, as called for by scientists, NGOs, several EU Member States (in particular, Austria) and the European Parliament.

The post-growth Europe we need and deserve implements a flagship European Green Deal beyond growth that embeds the EU’s commitment to a systemic change approach, creating a future where we can all thrive within planetary boundaries. Supported by over 400 civil society organisations and academic community members, we articulate our request for policies built on four essential Beyond Growth pillars: respecting biocapacity, fairness within and beyond Europe, wellbeing for all, and active democracy. We need a new relationship with growth—one where we ask ourselves what needs to grow, why, and for how long—and one where any growth happens in pursuit of enhanced human wellbeing and planetary health.

Read our May letter here

Read the August reply from the EC here

Read our October reply letter here