European Green Deal, how the sustainable transition will transform Italy

The European Green Deal provides a set of concepts, tools and goals to support Italy’s sustainable transition – all the more vital post-pandemic.

The European Green Deal tackles many different yet interconnected aspects. How relevant are these to Italy? At what stage of the green transition is this country in? In what specific areas can Europe help Italy leap ahead? Some key numbers help answer these questions and understand the European Green Deal’s revolutionary potential for Italy.

European Green Deal, the areas of intervention

Biodiversity

In Europe, 81 per cent of natural habitats are in dire conditions. This is especially true for grasslands, dunes, marshlands and peat bogs, while forests have shown signs of improvement. These findings are reported by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in the State of Nature in the EU study. Cyprus, Romania, Estonia and Malta are among the most virtuous countries in terms of natural habitat conditions, whereas Italy, which boasts 261 habitats (second only to France), adequately conserves only 22 per cent of them.

Conversely, it performs better in terms of protection of fauna (a metric that doesn’t include birds): just under 40 per cent of species are considered to be in good condition, compared with a European average of 27 per cent. According to the WWF, however, the level of alert should remain high as the number of vertebrates has fallen globally by 68 per cent in less than half a century (1970 to 2016). This is principally the result of habitat pollution, invasion and destruction. Such troubling figures bring to light the urgent need to defend biodiversity.

habitat, Italy, dolomites
Passo Tre Croci, in the Dolomites. Italy has a total of 261 habitats, but only 22 per cent of these are in good conditions © Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash

Food and agriculture

Biodiversity is closely related to food production. This is the focus of the Farm to Fork strategy, which shares much of its approach with the WHO’s One Health programme, premised on the belief that people’s health and that of the planet are one and the same.

In this sense, the case of antibiotics is emblematic. Currently, they’re administered not only to animals who fall ill but also to those who have been in contact with them, as well being used preventatively. As a result, bacteria develop increasingly high levels of antibiotic resistance, which causes 33,000 deaths in Europe each year according to the European Commission. The latest report on the European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption (ESVAC), however, offers an optimistic picture, pointing to a 34 per cent collapse in sales of antibiotics between 2011 and 2018.

pig farming
Antibiotics are often administered by mixing them into animal feed, which also affects animals that are only a few days old © Mali Maeder/Pexels

Pesticides, on the other hand, haven’t seen a downward trend despite countless studies on their negative environmental impacts. According to PAN Europe‘s calculations based on official data, just under 380,000 tonnes of pesticides were sold in Europe in 2018. In 2016, Italy was the third-highest consumer of pesticides behind Spain and France. These three countries, plus Germany and Poland, account for 71 per cent of the entire European market.

Europe is pushing for healthier and more sustainable farming, aiming, for example, for fertilisers to be deployed only when strictly necessary, seeing as their overuse deteriorates soil and water quality. Another key element is organic farming. In this sense, Italy has a head start, with organically farmed land covering almost 2 million hectares, equal to 15.8 per cent of cultivated land.

Construction

Citizens may try their best to make their lifestyles more sustainable, but their efforts risk being in vain if the homes they live in, offices they work in and buildings they visit in their day-to-day lives are a constant source of pollution. In this regard, the Commission writes, there’s still a lot of work to be done. At the European level, buildings account for 40 per cent of energy consumption and 36 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

As far as Italy is concerned, a study carried out in 2017 by the Polytechnic University of Milan doesn’t paint an especially flattering picture. The most common energy rating is G and only 7.4 per cent of residential buildings and 6 per cent of non-residential ones are certified with an A or B rating. It’s fair to assume that the real numbers are actually worse, considering that only 17.6 per cent of dwellings and 21 per cent of commercial properties have even received such EU-based energy efficiency certifications (with A being the most virtuous category). This comes as no surprise in light of the fact that 72 per cent of Italian homes were built before 1980.

homes, renovations, european green deal, italy
On average age, Italian homes are rather old. The European Green Deal will incentivise renovations of such properties © Bertrand Gabioud/Unsplash

Mobility

In Europe, transportation accounts for approximately a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars and commercial vehicles account for 71 per cent of this enormous figure, followed at some distance by civil aviation and shipping, which are both responsible for between 13 and 14 per cent. According to Transport&Environment, in Italy too, transportation has stolen the title of the most polluting sector from industry over the past forty years.

This is certainly not helped by the fact that the country’s vehicle fleet is among the oldest in Western Europe, with 45 per cent of vehicles in the euro 0, euro 1, euro 2 and euro 3 categories. Add the fact that traffic restrictions are often unrelated to vehicles’ environmental performance, with rare exceptions like the B Area in Milan. Much braver investments in charging infrastructure to promote the transition towards electric vehicles will certainly have to be made. Currently, there are 13,721 charging points across 7,203 publicly accessible stations in Italy, but distribution is strongly imbalanced in favour a handful of northern regions and the motorway network is lagging behind.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that transportation involves much more than just private vehicles: since 1990, emissions from the aviation and international shipping sectors have doubled in Italy.

Pollution

In addition to CO2, internal combustion engines produce particulates, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide. These substances end up in our lungs, with grave consequences for our health. The numbers are dramatic: atmospheric pollution is Europe’s gravest environmental public health risk, causing at least 400,000 premature deaths every year, followed by noise pollution, which causes over 12,000. Italy is one of the countries that pay the highest price, with over 76,000 premature deaths on average each year. The Po Valley experiences some of the highest levels of pollution in the whole of the continent due to a combination of factors including topography, climate and population density.

Children and young people are the most vulnerable to this kind of pollution. “Acute and chronic illnesses, when combined with a source of traffic pollution within a 100-metre range, drive up asthma attacks from 36 to 64 per cent,” pneumologist Roberto Dal Negro told LifeGate in an interview. “In children, these conditions cause a further increase of 34 per cent, with persistent coughing rising up to 70 per cent as well. In adolescents, these same symptoms increase from 30 to 60 per cent”. Even the intensity and frequency of allergies grows when smog is inhaled day after day. “A person with an allergy living in a polluted area is 300 times more likely to experience critical episodes compared to someone living where the air is cleaner. Pollen itself becomes a vector for particulates and pollutants, depositing them in our lungs,” Dal Negro adds.

Climate neutrality

The backbone of the European Green Deal is achieving climate neutrality across the European Union by 2050. This means net-zero emissions for the Union and all of its member states, as clearly stated in the most recent draft of the Climate Law.

Italy is on the right path as its greenhouse gas emissions fell by 17 per cent between 1990 and 2018, from 516 to 428 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. This was confirmed by the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), whose report highlights its excellent performance in terms of renewable energy use and the success of industrial sectors in consuming energy more efficiently. Since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and farming also fell by 13 per cent. Within this category, the heaviest polluter (accounting for 80 per cent of total emissions) is cattle farming. Emissions in the energy and transport sectors, however, buck the trend and have risen by 2 per cent since 1990. These are far from insignificant categories, as these two sectors combined account for half of all greenhouse emissions.

In other words, Italy has been working to reduce its climate impact, but it will have to do much more between now and 2050. The goal of climate neutrality will force much braver action.

wind power, italy
A wind farm in Italy @ GWEC

Implementing the European Green Deal in Italy

The issues presented so far are wrought with complexities. Italy, like all other member states, can’t face these challenges alone. This is why the European Green Deal also includes a series of financial and operational tools.

One of the best-known is the Just Transition Mechanism, designed to ensure that “no one is left behind”. This means that even those regions that are still highly dependent on a fossil fuel-based economy will receive assistance to transition towards a greener future while jobs are also protected, the latest skills are shared and old production sites are converted. The Commission has promised to mobilise at least 150 billion euros between 2021 and 2027, partially coming from the EU and its member states, and partially from private investors. It isn’t yet known how much of these funds will go to Italy, and which specific areas will receive such aid. However, the Commission Staff Working Document makes direct references to the ex-Ilva steel plant in Taranto and the Sulcis coalfield in Sardinia.

In the meantime, the coronavirus pandemic has caused an epoch-defining economic crisis. The challenge has therefore become twofold: restarting the system and doing so sustainably. In her State of the Union Address on the 16th of September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vocalised her commitment to this goal.

The way ahead revolves around Next Generation EU, the colossal, 750-billion-euros (500 in grants and 250 in loans) budget that will support member states through the first, difficult years. Also known as the “recovery fund”, this instrument will be added to the EU budget, with two pieces of good news for Italy. Firstly, the country will receive the largest portion of the fund, equal to 209 billion euros (81.4 in grants and 127.4 in loans), provided that its Recovery and Resilience Plan respects the Commission’s requirements. Secondly, 37 per cent of Next Generation EU funding will be invested in achieving the European Green Deal’s aims, as announced by von der Leyen herself in September. She also specified the “flagship projects” on which investments will be focused: hydrogen, building renovations and electric vehicle charging points.

True recovery is sustainable

As soon as the European Green Deal was announced in January 2020, it became clear that it would cause a paradigm shift across the continent. And Italy is no exception. Now that the economy has to be rebuilt after the trauma of the pandemic, it has become all the more important to steer the ship in the right direction – a green and sustainable one.

This is also the view held by a global group of economists, including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern and Dimitri Zenghelis. In a paper published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, they reviewed over 700 economic stimulus packages deployed since the 2008 crisis, interviewing 231 representatives from universities, central banks, finance ministries and think tanks. This colossal undertaking reached a very clear conclusion: environmental projects are the most effective instrument to boost the economy, especially interventions in clean energy, building renovations, education and professional training, ecosystem protection and restoration, as well as research and development in the clean energy sector.

Among the interviewees are 28 Italians who distinguished themselves because they showed “a stronger appreciation for the alignment between the climate and the economy” compared with their counterparts from other countries, Oxford University Professor Cameron Hepburn told Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “Getting Italians back to work on projects for clean energy infrastructure, building redevelopment and natural capital is a great way to help the country emerge from the recession and prepare it for a carbon neutral future”.

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