The European Green Deal seen through the eyes of citizens

The European Green Deal launched by Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission is a colossal transformation that involves the economy, industry and society. Faced with this challenge, citizens are proving to be responsive and proactive.

Cooperative, debated, collective. These will be the features of the journey towards the European Green Deal, the EU’s colossal plan to become climate neutral by 2050. This mission will involve cutting emissions, radically and immediately, but not only. “It is about making systemic modernisation across our economy, society and industry. It is about building a stronger world to live in,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her first, long-awaited State of the Union Address. “We need to change how we treat nature, how we produce and consume, live and work, eat and heat, travel and transport,” she continued. “This is a plan for a true recovery. It is an investment plan for Europe”.

Key to success is the goal to “leave no one behind“. A Just Transition Mechanism will be deployed in those regions that still have strong ties to a fossil-based economy. At least 150 billion euros will be mobilised to help transform obsolete production plants, ensure energy access, create jobs, offer professional training and much more.

Such high stakes mean that communities deserve to be involved right from the start. The European Union is fostering this through a vast public consultation programme addressing divisive issues. European citizens, for their part, have shown that they’re ready to respond to the call. Large parts of civil society have decided to go one step further by making their voices heard, sharing new ideas and spurring institutions to increase their levels of ambition.

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The European Green Deal includes a Just Transition Mechanism aimed at helping those regions that still have strong ties to fossil fuels. In Poland, for example, 73 per cent of electricity is coal-powered © Omar Marques/Getty Images

Citizens speak up on Europe’s green future

During the long preparatory phase that precedes the implementation of new legislation, it is customary for the European Commission to consult citizens and, more generally, all stakeholders. Climate action, which is vital to our collective future, is no exception. And so various public consultations were launched within the Green Deal framework, i.e. online surveys that can be accessed on a dedicated section of the Commission’s website for a period of at least twelve weeks. Citizens, civil society organisations, companies, NGOs, universities and local authorities have the opportunity to make their voices heard regarding existing policies as well as those in the works – to point out aspects they believe should be prioritised and share experiences gained in the field. Responses go straight to the Commission as there are no intermediaries.

Over the past year, stakeholders were consulted on the possibility of making the 2030 Climate Target Plan even more ambitious by increasing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal from 40 to 50-55 per cent compared to 1990 levels. In the end, the Commission took this proposal on board, and this was one of the cornerstones of President von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address. Between March and June 2020, a survey was made available to help define the terms of the European Climate Pact, through which the EU intends to encourage citizens’ and communities’ participation in climate action. Another consultation, which terminated at the end of August, was related to the future climate change adaption strategy.

Climate strikes lead to tangible proposals

The climate issue is undoubtedly a deeply felt one. Images of climate strikes in which hundreds of thousands of students and citizens have taken to the streets of Rome, London, Paris, Berlin and hundreds of other cities big and small remind us of this. Even with social distancing regulations in place to tackle the health emergency, students haven’t give up but simply moved their protests online. And, on the 25th of September 2020, many took to the streets once again for a global day of climate action.

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A Fridays for Future movement demonstration in Athens, 27 September 2019 © Louisa Gouliamaki/Afp/Getty Images

Fridays for Future activists don’t intend to stop at a purely theoretical plan. This was demonstrated when – thanks to the joint efforts of several European groups and technical support of scientists and experts – they set up their first European Citizens Initiative (ECI) linked to a petition that needs to collect at least one million signatures before the 23rd of March 2021. If the ECI satisfies all necessary conditions, the Commission will have to take it into consideration. Within three months, a meeting will take place between EU functionaries and the organising committee, who will then be able to present their initiative to the European Parliament. At this point, the Commission will publish a formal response, deciding whether or not it will propose new legislation based on the proposal and explaining the reasons for its choice.

Citing several scientific studies, the proponents claim that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 isn’t enough to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Therefore, the first point in the ECI relates to changing the Union’s Nationally Determined Contributions (the emissions reduction commitments set out in the Paris Agreement), aiming for an 80 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and all member states’ carbon neutrality by 2035. The second proposal involves taxing imported goods based on the greenhouse gas emissions caused by their production. Linked to this is a demand to sign trade agreements exclusively with countries that are doing their bit to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, which would exclude the US and Mercosur. The final point involves the production of free educational materials on climate issues to be utilised in the school curricula of member states.

A grassroots plan for Europe’s energy system

Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, a coalition of 170 environmental organisations based in 38 countries, and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), which brings together around 150 civil action organisations across thirty or so countries, share similar considerations. Together, they have developed alternative European energy scenarios that are fully compatible with the Paris Agreement.

These are based on five pillars. First of all, halving the EU’s demand for energy by 2050 compared to 2015 levels by upgrading buildings, modernising production processes and increasing efficiency in transport. In parallel, there needs to be a push toward renewable energy sources for public utilities – covering 50 per cent of gross final consumption by 2030 and reaching 100 per cent within the following ten years – and the electrification of transport, heating and industrial processes. The process as a whole requires ending fossil fuel consumption by 2040, with only (limited) use of renewable hydrogen.

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Electric bus charging station in Helsinki © Pixabay

CAN Europe and the EEB claim that such a plan could help the EU set its sights even higher than it has with the 2030 climate and energy framework. The latter involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent (although the Commission wants to increase this to 55), improving energy efficiency by 32.5 per cent and increasing renewable energy’s share to at least 32 per cent. According to the organisations, these targets could be raised to 65, 45 and 50 per cent respectively.

Civil society calls, the EU replies

In March 2020, when presenting the Climate Law – one of the Commision’s cornerstone pieces of legislation – Ursula von der Leyen sent a strong signal by asking Greta Thunberg to be by her side. The young Swedish activist didn’t miss the opportunity to urge the Union to fly even higher. “Net zero emissions by 2050 for the EU equals surrender. It means giving up. We don’t just need goals for just 2030 or 2050. We, above all, need them for 2020 and every following month and year to come,” Thunberg along with 33 other activists stated in an open letter.

“The Commission meets with civil society and youth organisations on various occasions, both in a structured and informal way. At this time, consultations are mostly virtual but physical meetings are also organised where possible,” says Massimo Gaudina, Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Milan, Italy. “Even just the name of the Next Generation EU programme, the extraordinary recovery plan for the health emergency’s aftermath, embodies the goals of taking care of younger generations and looking to the upcoming decades”. A central role will also be played by the European Climate Pact, which Gaudina says “aims to be an alliance between institutions, civil society and economic stakeholders”. Despite the fact that the COP26 in Glasgow has been postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the pact will nonetheless be presented at the end of 2020.

Sustainable lifestyles are the key to real change

Institutions define goals and set courses, but they alone can’t impose this vast transition from above. The European Green Deal’s success is also dependent on citizens’ day to day choices regarding their families, work and travel. And cultural aspects can’t be underestimated in a union that counts 27 member states and 448 million inhabitants.

According to a survey carried out by Eurobarometer, 94 per cent of citizens believe it is important to protect the environment, 91 per cent see climate change as a serious problem in Europe and 83 per cent feel European legislation on environmental issues is required. In terms of actual behaviour, however, significant discrepancies emerge between countries. These can be linked to historical legacies, the efficiency of infrastructure and services, and different degrees of awareness.

Therefore, while the EU-wide average for household waste recycling is 66 per cent, there are standout countries like France, where the figure is 76 per cent, and more critical situations, with Romania, for example, stuck at 26 per cent. Other virtuous habits, meanwhile, still aren’t as widespread as they could be. Only 31 per cent of Europeans avoid overpackaged products, 29 per cent do their best to save water and 19 per cent have changed their diet to make it more sustainable.

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According to a Eurobarometer survey, only 19 per cent of European citizens have changed their diet to make it more sustainable © Pixabay

Information and communication: nations, schools and social media

The habits of hundreds of millions of people aren’t going to change from one day to the next. But consistent communication will in time lead to concrete results. “Because schools are administered on the national level, it is mainly individual governments that enact awareness initiatives aimed at children and young people,” Gaudina explains. Europe Direct Information Centres, of which there are approximately 500 throughout the continent, provide support to individual countries by sharing skills, educational materials and creating opportunities to meet.

Institutions, on their part, conduct a number of campaigns. A recent example is Voglio un Pianeta così (“the planet I want”) aimed at Italian citizens, through with the European Parliament brought together celebrities such as Alessandro Gassmann, Bianca Balti, Lorenzo Baglioni, Eugenio in via di gioia, Mario Tozzi, Licia Colò and others. Five macro themes – food waste, air pollution, biodiversity, plastic and climate change – were tackled through a series of short, impactful and highly sharable videos. Startups committed to the environment and the stories of people who have done their bit, however small, were also given visibility.

Furthermore, the first International Day of Awareness on Food Loss and Waste Reduction was held on Tuesday the 29th of September. For this occasion, the European Commission’s Representation in Italy held the Zero Waste Global Convivium, a virtual marathon on the issue of food waste in collaboration with the FAO e-Learning Academy, Future Food Institute, Campagna Spreco Zero, and Fondazione Fico.

A journey through laboratories, kitchens, homes and institutional headquarters across three continents saw experts, researchers and chefs discuss environmental, social and economic issues related to food waste, suggesting good practices and innovative solutions. An initiative – Gaudina reminds us – that perfectly fits into the European Green Deal framework, which counts sustainable food and the circular economy among its pillars.

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