Europe faces a time marked by environmental challenges that will have wide-reaching implications for our societies and economies. Citizens around the world continue to mobilise, as they make their voices heard to urge governments and public authorities for more ambitious actions and stronger international cooperation at all levels, to address the climate emergency. The EU has a unique opportunity to harness the growing awareness among Europeans and the readiness of civil society to support Europe in achieving its climate goals and transition to a fairer and more sustainable economy. The EU can encourage its neighbours and international partners to follow suit, while pursuing an agenda that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, preserves ecosystems, and enables Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby amplifying European efforts and strengthening the global response to the climate emergency.
Prioritising a green and just transition
Anchored in the target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the European Green Deal (EGD) holds the potential to stimulate profound societal and economic shifts in Europe. In addition to paving the way towards a carbon-neutral economy, the EGD can enhance the wellbeing of citizens in the long-run, create a more resilient economy and support Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in order to reach the Green Deal goals, decision-makers need to commit to an ambitious and comprehensive framework that permeates all policy areas. Moreover, the EU must enhance investment in sustainable solutions that can truly transform our production, consumption and behaviour patterns in Europe.
The EGD needs to offer a systemic view of the environmental, economic, social, and cultural implications of the climate crises. While encouraging reforms from the local to the European level and across sectors, the preservation and restoration of our ecosystems, the protection of water resources, and the reduction of emissions and pollution need to go hand in hand with greater social cohesion and investment in future-proof business models. Moreover, the plans and resulting legislation must align the whole spectrum of the EU’s activities including environmental, fiscal, internal market, competition, innovation, social and trade policies. It is vital that the tools of the EGD are designed in a transparent and open manner, taking into account the concerns and expertise of all tiers of governments and a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society, to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the policies’ implementation.
Boosting a green recovery
Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic should prioritise sustainable investments that meet environmental goals, while ensuring that sectors are on a steady path towards climate neutrality. At the same time, reducing our ecological impact and preventing the further loss of domestic and global biodiversity will be crucial to preventing the emergence of pandemics of a similar scale.
The EU’s stimulus package supporting Member States’ recovery from the pandemic should act as leverage in the fight against climate change and the preservation of ecosystems and resources, while maintaining employment, guaranteeing social rights, and enhancing skills needed for a green and digital transition, so as to leave no one behind. Any EU funds and economic stimulus aimed at enhancing Member States‘ recovery from the pandemic, need to support the implementation of the EGD and other relevant EU environmental protection acquis objectives, addressing in particular the challenges of the most vulnerable regions of Europe. It is vital that the EU and Member States align their budget and recovery plans with the objectives of the European Green Deal, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) .
Ensuring transparency, accountability and justice
The EU and Member States should be open about their green investment plans in order to be fairly scrutinised by citizens and stakeholders. When defining national plans for the use of EU investment and funds, for instance via the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, the Partnership Agreements and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plans, civil society must have a say via structured dialogues, as a way to give legitimacy to the plans and to ensure the alignment of EU funding and investment with the Green Deal objectives. Moreover, the involvement of local and regional governments in these structured dialogues can ensure contributions with a clear added value when it comes to defining the practicalities of recovery investments.
Citizens have a unique role to play in combating climate change, and the EU and Member States can only benefit from further strengthening civic participation in environmental and social policies. To strengthen their participation and sharpen their understanding, citizens rely on accurate information on the environmental and social impacts of their consumption choices, which can be provided, for instance, through product passports and labelling schemes. It is also crucial that the EU complies with the Aarhus Convention, to empower citizens and civil society organisations by granting them legal access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters.
Uniting across ambitious climate goals
While the European Climate Law and Climate Pact are key elements of the European Green Deal, any binding, EU-wide climate targets, must be supported by inclusive decision-making and multi-stakeholder dialogues that include Social Partners, civil society and local and regional governments. These efforts need to be underpinned by flexibility, adequate financial support, and policies as well as strong social requirements and commitments at the national and local level. By enshrining the climate-neutrality goals for 2050 as well as interim targets in EU legislation, the European Climate Law can help guide public and private investment towards climate action. Moreover, the EU can match its climate-neutrality commitment with an equally ambitious effort to increase the energy efficiency target to at least 45%, with at least half of the energy sourced from sustainable renewable energy by 2030, taking into account embodied energy in materials and imports.
As the climate law does not foresee individual targets for EU Member States to become carbon neutral by 2050, national, regional and local authorities need to work together, to translate the EU-wide targets into policies on the ground. While promoting the objectives of the EGD and the Climate Law, the European Climate Pact needs to foster communication and true cooperation among stakeholders across Europe, encourage alliances, engage citizens, and promote the sharing of best practices on issues such as energy efficiency, climate action and environmental protection.
Initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors, the Green City Accord, the European Green Week, the European Week of Waste Reduction, or the New European Bauhaus can further encourage civil society and local stakeholders to actively be part of the transition towards climate-neutrality.
Delivering the European Green Deal
The European Commission’s intentions for the green transition and the current proposals within the EGD are ambitious and provide the means to deliver on citizens’ demands and achieve the climate goals agreed on by the international community. However, the translation of the plans into national agendas and their enforcement remain a key challenge. To enforce existing and future environmental legislation, the EU must allocate more resources while reducing the administrative burden on partners implementing the measures. A structured dialogue as well as financial and capacity-building instruments can empower stakeholders and help align their strategies for implementation.
The input and support of different stakeholders, all levels of governance, and civil society at large will be crucial for the effective implementation of the EGD, and civil society organisations can give credibility to the plans, while promoting positive and transformative change across Europe. It is essential that the EU’s Just Transition strategy is designed, implemented and monitored in an inclusive way to ensure that the interest of all relevant stakeholders such as local governments, social partners, employer organisations and businesses are taken into account. At the same time, civil society can play a key role in holding the EU and Member States to account on the achievement of the EGD goals and ensure that social needs are prioritised.
Stepping up the energy transition
Energy presents a necessity in Europeans’ daily lives, and clean, safe and affordable energy needs to be guaranteed to every European citizen and resident. However, most of the European and global energy supplies still rely on fossil fuels, making energy consumption one of the biggest causes of climate change. Only by increasing the share of renewable energies can Europe reduce emission levels and pave the way to climate neutrality. This, at the same time will provide millions of citizens with access to sustainable and safe energy as well as boost and future-proof the creation of local jobs.
The EGD holds the potential to transform the energy sector and energy-intensive industries, by promoting the investment in renewable energies and energy-efficient solutions and gradually phasing out fossil fuels. To support this transformation, Member States need to modernise energy-intensive industries, including steel and chemicals, and decarbonise the transport and heating sector. While the transition to sustainable energy can also be a driver for the creation of new jobs, for instance in the construction or energy sectors, the EU and Member States need to harness the job-creating potential of the energy transition by investing in new skills and enhancing social protection in these sectors. Furthermore, regulation and support for renewable energy should, in general, be technology-neutral, focusing on climate performance and sustainability of the energy.
Investing in the green transition
Europe’s climate ambitions require significant and long-term investment from the EU as well as the national public sector and the private sectors. In support of the EU’s long-term budget and recovery plans, the suggested level of investment in the EGD must be increased and financed through a fair taxation system, the use of all available instruments of the European Investment Bank and the European Central Bank, and an adapted macro-economic framework. Comprehensive and inclusive investments policies need to develop and deliver further effective financing solutions in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises, smaller towns and cities. Lastly, with an EU budget that is increasingly financed through a set of new own resources, carbon taxes, a tax on financial transactions, a digital tax and other fair and environmentally ambitious levies can present a way for the EU to speed-up its climate efforts.
Protecting our environment and ecosystems
In order to preserve and restore our biodiversity and ecosystem, which underpin our economy and well being like our current production, consumption and behaviour patterns must change. Most notably in regard to agriculture as the biggest single driver of biodiversity loss in the EU In this context, the European Commission’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Farm to Fork Strategy provide ambitious plans to tackle climate change, preserve biodiversity and achieve more sustainable food systems that provide citizens with affordable, high-quality and sustainable food. Member States need to do their part by committing to an EU farming policy that incentivises the implementation of the strategies while supporting farmers in delivering sustainable, fair and profitable agricultural systems. When it comes to meeting the food waste reduction target of the SDG, the EU still needs to make substantial efforts to reduce food waste in a holistic manner and along all food production and supply chains.
As one of the key pillars of the EGD, the Zero Pollution Action Plan must strengthen and harmonise the EU’s policies and global actions to pursue more ambitious environmental and health standards that can keep citizens safe, and protect our air, soil and water. With air pollution currently considered to be the largest environmental health risk in Europe, the EU’s legislation on air quality needs to be revised to better control air pollution and reduce emission sources, without shifting pollution to other locations. Alongside a strong legislative framework, an effective and long-term improvement of air quality relies on the cooperation and communication between national, regional and local governments.
As part of the EU’s zero-pollution commitment, the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability can become a driver of detoxification and decarbonisation of our economies, if accompanied by a sectoral and horizontal approach that fully addresses chemical aspects of all related strategies and policies. By reducing the use of chemicals in consumer products and shifting to safer and more sustainable production models, the strategy holds the potential to create millions of new jobs.
Making sectors and jobs sustainable
The EGD can become the compass guiding Europe’s economy towards one based on citizen’s well-being, a strong emphasis on social rights, reduced inequalities, and the protection of natural ecosystems. To promote these ambitions, a circular economy should be at the core of the EU’s industrial strategy, bolstered by green and digital solutions that empower citizens, workers and employers from the private and public sector.
Skills are crucial for a sustainable and long-term transition. The EU can strategically promote and invest in the right skills that will be needed to deliver on the Green Deal’s targets, through the so-called ‘backcasting’, as opposed to forecasting skills, and by consulting Social Partners and civil society. Furthermore, new tools are needed to monitor environmental performance, track progress in terms of the Green Deal goals and benchmark businesses and industrial sectors against the SDGs. A coherent and context-dependent EU taxonomy that combines the environmental, social and economic dimensions and that is applicable to finance and business, can create a level playing field and transparency.
Ensuring cohesion, solidarity and convergence
Governments need to consider the social dimension of climate action and must promote the creation of sustainable quality jobs while also addressing citizens’ concerns and social needs. To this end, the Just Transition Fund should ensure industry and job transitions, as well as solidarity and convergence in Europe, by complementing and adding to existing cohesion policy funds. Increased funding should target, in particular, energy dependent industries of regions facing socio-economic challenges due to the decarbonation process. Local and regional governments need to be consulted when determining which territories are to benefit from the Just Transition Fund and need to play a role in the drafting of territorial just transition plans.
Climate risk and environmental pollution fall greatest on low-income citizens, exacerbating inequality. The green transition, therefore, requires real support for the most vulnerable, giving all citizens direct access to the best solutions while making sustainable products and services the default option. The Just Transition Fund should thus finance ambitious and long-term solutions, as well as provide communities with sufficient resources to minimise the burden of the transition beyond fossil fuels. Sector-specific alliances in industries like the energy industry, could help to design responses for workers who will be at risk, for example through reskilling programmes. Moreover, with urban development on the rise, there is an urgent need to invest in smarter and greener buildings and infrastructure, while also strengthening the link between urban and rural areas.
Enhancing social rights and equality
Looking beyond its borders, the EU should seek international partnerships, provide global leadership and invest in green solutions worldwide to promote the fulfilment of climate and environmental goals. The EU needs to ensure that the principles and objectives of the European Green Deal are fully reflected in its relations with the rest of the world to ensure policy coherence between external and internal policies, notably in trade and investment agreements, reducing any negative environmental and social impacts of European lifestyles in other parts of the world.
Together with its international partners and allies, the EU can support developing countries through their decentralised cooperation projects focusing on sustainable development and green transition. The EU should thus lead by example in tackling the global biodiversity crisis and in developing an ambitious new UN global biodiversity framework at the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2021. When funding with appropriate resources, international partnerships should foster the sharing of technologies, resources, knowledge, capacity-building, and successful policy designs. By highlighting how the implementation and enforcement of the SDGs need to be linked with the social implications of the transition, the EU can use international partnerships and deals to amplify the voices of marginalised and politically underrepresented groups at the global level, in particular young people.
By adapting its terms for international trade, the EU must ensure that the EGD’s goals are reflected in its trade relations with third countries and its engagement in multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Moreover, the EU can set sustainable standards for products and services that enter its internal market and that are exported from the EU. To shape a sustainable environmental future in Europe’s Eastern and Southern neighbourhood, the EU needs to encourage cooperation in the region and share and invest in innovations, to tackle key challenges such as pollution, health challenges, access to clean water and ecosystem threats, and channel support and investment towards sustainable development and the use of decarbonised and renewable energy. The principle of policy coherence is also a powerful tool for local and regional governments to raise awareness about the interconnected links between local and global challenges, as well as to involve different sectors of the community.
Placing citizens and civil society at the heart of the transition
To ensure that climate change does not compromise citizens’ lives and those of future generations, and to enhance citizens’ trust and engagement in the Green Deal, the EU must enable the active participation of civil society and Social Partners at all stages of the transition. Furthermore, the EU should work towards strengthening the role of youth participation in policymaking and addressing the issue of intergenerational justice.
Encouraging cooperation between different organisations, experts and sectors, including between civil society and the private sector, remains crucial for the achievement of the EGD’s goals. Moreover, civil society organisations can connect and promote the EGD through joint campaigns that allow for an EU-wide debate on the EGD and engage citizens in the processes. The different areas of the EGD need to be integrated into projects and programmes related to other fields, for instance by greening all EU Programmes in the field of culture and education, to raise awareness around the green transition and to contribute to the advancement of the EGD ambitions.
Citizens need to feel ownership and control over the EU’s climate action. To this end, meaningful deliberation and consultation opportunities, such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, should offer an opportunity to promote the co-creation of policies, as well as the implementation of the Green Deal, at the European, national and local level. This can improve the quality of policies as well as the long-term commitment of citizens from all walks of life and across Europe, to support the EU’s environmental and climate targets and to engage in and promote the transition towards a sustainable future.
Published in May 2021