Three major challenges set by the European Green Deal

The European Green Deal is much more than just an environmental plan: the changes it will bring involve the economy, technology and all of society.

“If we invest hundreds of billions of euros in rescuing our economy from this pandemic, we must not throw money at the old economy. We must guide our societies to a cleaner and healthier future, one that our children can embrace with hope, not fear”. With these words, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, speaking to the EU Parliament on the 6th of October, reiterated that the European Green Deal is, and will remain, a priority. Now more than ever. This portentous, transitional journey is solidly grounded in the realisation that our current development model is no longer sustainable because it consumes too many natural resources and is compromising the future of our climate. Hence, its three imperatives: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, decoupling economic growth from resource use and ensuring no person or place is left behind. This mission requires “systemic modernisation across our economy, society and industry”, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen‘s State of the Union address. “It is about building a stronger world to live in”.

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to the point that they’re entirely compensated by what the soil, oceans and forests can absorb: this is what carbon neutrality means. The European Union has been on course for this target for a long time: evidence of this trend is a 23 per cent decrease in emissions between 1990 and 2018, which, incidentally, wasn’t achieved during a time of economic stagnation, unlike the deceptive and momentary reduction in greenhouse gas levels at the height of the coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020. On the contrary, over those 28 years, the continent’s GDP rose by a whopping 63 per cent. Proving, once again, that a flourishing economy and climate action can indeed go hand in hand.

From now on, however, we need to ramp up our efforts. The 2019 Emissions Gap Report, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reaches the conclusion that global emissions will have to be cut by 7.6 per cent every year between 2020 and 2030 to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels, the target set out by the Paris Agreement. In this scenario, G20 countries will play a crucial role. Alongside China, India, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, the European Union is one of the six virtuous actors who, according to projections, will succeed in abiding by its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs – simply put, CO2 reduction promises) by applying existing policies. But there are no guarantees that this will be enough. Even if all countries scrupulously keep to their commitments under the Paris Agreement, temperatures could rise by 3.2 degrees before the end of the century.

lockdown, emissions
The reduction in emissions that resulted from the coronavirus lockdown turned out to be temporary. Fighting the climate crisis remains a top priority for the European Union © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Therefore, the European Commission has upped the ante, hoping to inspire other global powers by leading by example. The 2030 climate and energy framework currently in force requires emissions to be reduced by at least 40 per cent compared to 1990 levels. The possibility of raising this ambition was debated for some time, and after public consultations and an in-depth impact assessment, the Commission finally came to a decision: it will propose that the goal be increased to 55 per cent by 2030, again compared to 1990 levels. Von der Leyen chose her first annual State of the Union address, a key moment, to announce this. The new target will require the EU “to reduce our emissions over the next decade by as much as we have achieved over the past quarter-century”, Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, explains.

Decoupling economic growth from resource use

For centuries, the wealthiest fraction of humanity has been anchored to a wrong way of thinking, i.e. that it has the right to consume the planet’s resources without restraint, believing this to be necessary for economic growth. The think tank Global Footprint Network has developed a direct way of showing the consequences of this mindset. It’s called Overshoot Day and it represents the day when all the resources that the Earth can regenerate in the course of one year are exhausted. In 2019 it was on the 29th of July: never had it fallen so early in the calendar. The WWF found that in Europe it actually arrived much sooner, on the 10th of May. If all 7.8 billion people on Earth had the same lifestyle as the average European citizen, we would need 2.8 planets to satisfy our demands.

This year has unquestionably been far from ordinary, because the coronavirus pandemic paralysed productive sector for months, emptying schools and offices, and grounding most commercial aeroplanes. For the first time, Earth Overshoot Day was pushed forward, by over three weeks, falling on the 22nd of August. However, this doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. EU member states have still kept consuming resources at a much higher rate than the global average. Despite national lockdowns, the Netherlands and Germany have been in debt with the Earth since the 3rd of May, Italy and France since the 14th of the same month, and Portugal and Spain since the 25th and 27th respectively. The European Green Deal is also, and most of all, a plan to create a new economy based on a more prudent use of the planet’s resources, capable of levelling past imbalances.

There are many ways to reduce natural resource consumption. Some are linked to individual lifestyles, others require redesigning production processes. The EU has for several years established itself as a vocal proponent of the circular economy paradigm, according to which each product has to be manufactured using the least possible amount of virgin raw materials and designed to be repaired, reused and recycled. Several European countries already perform extremely well in this regard, but the road ahead is still long, as proven by the fact that only 12 per cent of materials used in industry today come from recycling processes. Therefore, the European Green Deal renews and reinforces the Union’s commitment to this cause through a Circular Economy Action Plan. Among other things, this will incentivise: a product-as-a-service model, whereby consumers aren’t required to purchase a product but can simply use it for however long they need; textile reuse and recycling; replacement of single-use items with durable alternatives; waste reduction; and correct disposal and recycling practices.

plastic waste
The extractive economic model epitomised by single-use products has to be left behind through a transition to the circular economy © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Ensuring no one and no place is left behind

The direction of this journey has already been set, but the starting point isn’t the same for everyone. Certain countries are spearheading the transition, such as Norway, where half of all cars sold in March 2019 were electric or hybrid. Or Germany, which this year is close to deriving 50 per cent of its electricity from renewables sources. Further east, however, lies the core of the fossil-based economy.

In Poland, coal accounts for just under 80 per cent of electrical production, and 47 per cent of supply, as well as employing 80,000 people (down from 400,000 in 1990). At the end of September, the government and unions agreed to a shutdown of coal mines, but the timeframe isn’t promising: the deadline was set for 2049. This dirtiest of energy sources also accounts for the lion’s share of Czechia‘s supply, with heavy repercussions on air quality. In Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation, 14,500 of the country’s seven million citizens work directly in the coal sector, and 46,800 indirectly. Many other such examples exist: in Italy, for example, 8,000 families still depend on Taranto’s ex-Ilva steel plant for their livelihood.

coal, mining, poland
Turow coal mine and power plant, in Poland © Omar Marques/Getty Images

If we are to look ahead enthusiastically at a green future, it is crucial that the needs of these areas, and the people who live on them, aren’t brushed aside. Timmermans is clear: “The transition is just – it has to be just or there will just be no transition”. Stemming from this commitment is a tool through which Europe aims to mobilise up to 150 billion euros to improve socio-economic equality, known as the Just Transition Mechanism.

The EU will offer workers in the fossil fuel sector new job opportunities, education and retraining. At the same time, it will promote their access to clean energy at affordable prices and improve their homes’ efficiency, reducing the risk of energy poverty. The companies that pollute the most will be aided in the transition through investments, easier access to loans, and research and development. At the same time, the creation of new SMEs and startups will be incentivised. There are also provisions for national and regional authorities to create new jobs, infrastructure, public transport, heating and electrical production systems, and digital connectivity networks. The common thread through all this? Reducing our impact on the environment as soon as possible.

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