Backtracking on a green and just transition?

The Granada declaration will signal whether Europe’s leaders can rise to the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises, write Patrick ten Brink and Faustine Bas-Defossez.

This article was originally published by Social Europe.

With leaders of the European Union preparing to gather on Friday in Granada to chart its future political objectives and priorities, the current course of the European Green Deal is worryingly divergent from the promising trajectory set in 2019.

It has failed adequately to confront the urgent and escalating challenges posed by the accelerating climate crisis, the distressing decline of ecosystems and biodiversity and the far-reaching consequences of pollution. These crises are, in turn, exacerbating social injustices across the continent.

Discussing future priorities is not premature, given the unfulfilled promises of this five-year European mandate, and the process is already under way. Officially, the responsibility for adopting the ‘strategic agenda’ lies with the Belgian EU presidency in the first half of 2024. The core directions are however expected to be outlined in a declaration to be adopted in Granada.

While not receiving the attention it deserves, the strategic agenda is a crucial milestone. It serves as a basis for the next European Commission, after the European Parliament elections next June, to set its work programme, as was the case with the 2019 version.

In the face of recent challenges to the Green Deal in the European Parliament and a ‘State of the European Union’ (SotEU) address last month revealing clear setbacks, will the heads of state and government put the last nail in the coffin of our common future? Or will they rise to the occasion, forging a collective European pact for the future that gives youth and voters hope?

Hostile campaigns

With the elections looming, hostile campaigns are gaining momentum. In recent months, we have witnessed a wave of populist, conservative opposition — driven not by science, sound economic principles or concern for citizens, but by ideology and meretricious power politics. Misinformation is flooding the debate and has become just another political weapon.

The Green Deal’s pillars — spanning nature, pesticides, food, chemicals, the industrial-emissions directive, the critical-raw-materials act and legislation on air pollution—have all come under fierce attack. The opponents frequently prioritise the short-term economic interests of a few companies over the common good and even the sectors they claim to represent.

Restoration of nature — of soils, forests, marine areas — will lead to a growth in productivity, not a reduction. It makes no long-term sense for agriculture, forestry and fisheries that politicians should empty the nature-restoration law of meaning.

Foundations eroded

These relentless attacks and disingenuous calls for deregulation, when our only home — and planet — is in environmental crisis, not only imperil our collective future but also erode the very foundations of our institutions.

In her last State of the Union speech, the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen presented a narrative of promises kept and progress made on the European Green Deal. She reiterated her commitment and recognised the climate crisis, noting the ‘chaos and carnage of extreme weather’, the ‘reality of a boiling planet’ and the need for a convincing EU response. She also accepted that ‘loss of nature destroys not only the foundations of our life, but also our feeling of what constitutes home’, adding: ‘We must protect it.’

The speech did not, however, acknowledge the increasingly stark contrast between the promises made and delays and diminished ambition across critical regulations. There is a risk that the commission will go back on its promises and not table legislative proposals on revision of the REACH chemicals regulation, sustainable food systems, animal welfare and access to justice.

Von der Leyen said the Green Deal was ‘our answer to the call of history’. While a clear and welcome shift from the policies of the previous commission, the dramatic weakening of ambition across the files requires a new surge of commitment to make it the tool that answers that call.

Boundaries crossed

The draft Granada declaration acknowledges the climate crisis and adopts a mainly technology-based way forward — with references to specific technologies. The biodiversity and pollution crises are however ignored.

Three weeks ago, the Stockholm Resilience Centre announced that we had officially crossed six planetary boundaries out of nine (with a seventh about to be transgressed). There is clearly a gap between the global reality and what national political leaders seem to understand as the challenges and priorities.

The lack of reference to the triple crisis humanity and European citizens face is even more concerning given that the Green Deal has so far failed to deliver on nature and is weak on pollution, on which the need is to double down. Citizens are increasingly suffering the impacts of pollution on their health and the destruction of biodiversity on their wellbeing, society and the economy.

Is that what leaders really want? Especially when there is an opportunity for them to act responsibly and take the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and toxic chemicals seriously — and listen to the voices of the youth.

Accelerating implementation

In Granada, political leaders should clearly commit to radically increasing public investments in climate, the wider environment and social concerns, to accelerating implementation of the European Green Deal and to closing the deficits in ambition, including on nature and pollution. As the heads of the European Investment Bank and the European Central Bank have warned, the green transition needs to be speeded up, not ‘watered down’.

To be convincing, leaders should also commit to strengthening EU governance, democracy and the effective participation of civil society. The role of citizens at national and EU levels needs to be enhanced, with equal access to decision-makers, and justice across Europe needs to be ensured. Only with strong commitments here can the scepticism of so many young people be overcome. That could tip the balance in next year’s elections and define Europe’s future.

Backtracking on Europe’s commitment to a green, fair and socially just transition would play into the hands of those seeking to destabilise the EU and undermine its core values. It would jeopardise Europe’s competitiveness in the global race for sustainability and prolong reliance on authoritarian regimes and destructive practices around the world. It would eventually put the fragile European project of peace, prosperity and stability at risk.

That is a future no one should want. There is an opportunity in Granada — and a historic responsibility — to chart a different one.