Editorial of June 2020


 by Carlos Abreu Amorim, Professor of Administrative and Environmental Law, UMinho

The European Green Deal as a model of world leadership in the recovery of Covid-19 crisis

In July 2019, the candidate for President of the European Commission, the German Ursula von der Leyen, presented a program entitled “My Agenda for Europe, Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission 2019-2024”. Concrete goals were set there during her tenure, such as “An European Green Deal”; “An economy that works for people”; “A Europe fit for the digital age”; “Protecting our European way of life”; “A stronger Europe in the world”; “A new push for European democracy”. Those axis were reaffirmed on 1st December 2019, when she took office as president of the new college of commissioners.

Although these priorities are necessarily interlinked and can be considered as similar challenges, we highlight the European Green Deal as a remarkable turning effort in the institutional logics of environmental protection adding a desired projection of the will of the European Union (EU) to assert itself as a world leader in the defense of the values of justice, solidarity and quality of life, amongst which safeguarding the environment is the indispensable background of our times.

This is not the first European plan for environmental protection, of course. The history of the EU’s environmental policy is long, notably since the Paris Summit, held from 19th to 21st October 1972, following the then hopeful and innovative success of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place a few months earlier in Stockholm from 5 to 16 June, through the modifications of the Treaties which enabled the express consecration of the protection of environmental values with the Single European Act (1986) until the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007).[i] In this context, the EU has already approved seven multi-annual environmental action in the field of the environment since  1973, the latter of which was adopted by the Council and Parliament in 2013  to be in force until 2020.

But we do not believe that we are in a state of illusion if we consider that the European Green Deal includes reasons, means, and purposes that distinguish it from previous environmental plans and policies. In Europe and beyond. We are dealing with a cross-cutting strategy for the development, a conversion of modes and forms of integrated evolution. The basic idea is to delineate a consistent path that will achieve climate neutrality in the time of a generation (2050), as well as to achieve an innovative development model capable of achieving the separation between economic growth and resource-intensive use, concepts that have almost always been umbilically linked in the history of civilization, particularly in extended economic areas.[ii]

For these two major objectives to be achieved the supposition of European leadership is inevitable. The EU is embodied in a wide area of freedom and openness in its most relevant dimensions, from economic to social to cultural and legal, among others. It makes no sense to figure an evolution in the modes of essential development with an EU bent on itself, in an almost self-contained autopoiesis, transforming itself inwardly without adding out of itself and relatively indifferent to the surroundings that make up and influence it permanently. However, this cannot mean that the EU is bound to suffer from the same evils, impasses and misconceptions of its partners and allies, especially when the topics are the environment and the emergence of climate change.

This ambitious long-term strategy may imply some European solitude at the beginning of the road because most countries and economic areas have not taken effective action on the environmental challenge beyond formal convergence in international treaties, agreements and declarations without subsequent practical actions.

First, for Europe to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent, the journey must be started by those who feel like it and are able to do so, finding travel companions who share the same desires for change, fine-tuning the itinerary when necessary and enabling its completion. The EU influences and should set an example, but the overall transformation of society proposed by the European Green Deal presupposes that the rest of the world should monitor these changes within reasonable time. Meanwhile, the EU will take on its historical role in environmental transformation and will seek to influence other states and international organisations to follow its example. European leadership in the environment is expected to be felt at the various international conferences in the coming years and will use all its diplomatic power to hold Green Alliances across the globe. EU trade policy will be one of the main foundations of this leadership – the EU is the world’s largest single market and will impose environmentally friendly trade standards.

And the affirmation of an initial path of its own, necessarily temporary,[iii] may prove prophylactic about the environmental debate in the times we are in.

In the 21st century, the world has not been particularly lucid in affirming a global strategy to combat climate change. The two most extreme camps, those that persist in a state of denial and the adherents of a revolutionary civilisational rupture as an exclusive means of tackling the environmental emergency, have firmed their positions and converted the debate into a crisp, tribalized altercation, in which no one is available to hear and think any kind of arguments other than their own.

Surprisingly, a non-negligible part of public opinion came to regard the environmental issue as a political trap, advice to put some more developed economies in a dependent position on the emerging countries, namely Asian ones. Many of those who persist in refuting the climate emergency and the conclusive lessons of science have abandoned the cloak of modesty that they were still wearing and were able to garner important support in the political field, dangerously conditioning the feasibility of international environmental agreements.

In turn, the followers of environmental radicalism became enclosed in a defense of an abrupt and totalising change of all dimensions of life, abdicating the logic of well-being, mobility and a remarkable set of conditions of modern life, sometimes almost seeming to cry out for the return to a pre-industrial era. In more extreme but very mediatized cases, it has been allowed that the public perception of the environmental combat of our day is confused with a strange revisit of the “Children’s Crusade”, which, let us not forget, in spite of the controversies of historians, is certain that it will not have ended well[iv]. Unfortunately, most of these fighters by immoderate measures of changing contemporary living conditions apparently have not realised that political hyperbole tend to be counterproductive in the medium and long term.

The environmental debate has become a Fight of Apostles. And the political impasse is the natural consequence of a discussion unable to find constructive, sensible, and satisfactory answers.

It is in this generally unpromising context that the European Green Deal has emerged, and it is a turning point in the debate and environmental proposals. It is the most consistent and ambitious strategy of transforming the development logics of contemporary society towards sustainability that has already been enunciated. By refusing to maximize the assumptions of the problem, assuming strong but balanced solutions, it affirms a perspective of a just and prosperous society, endowed with a competitive economy, exemplarily efficient in the use of resources, which contains capable responses to the challenges of climate change and the degradation of environmental quality but without ever deduct any of the advantages of the quality of life and the primacy of well-being that the time in which we live supposes and that the generality of European citizens has acquired. This is the European response to the decisive challenge of our generation.

The European Green Deal takes on the objective of modernizing and green transitioning the economy that enables climate neutrality by 2050 and, together with digital transformation, to take on a new industrial strategy for a clean economy that includes the decarbonisation of energy-efficient industries, a  sustainable circular economy strategy,  the efficient use of energy and resources in construction and renewal, the transition to sustainable and intelligent mobility, a new strategy for “From Farm to Fork” food, the renewal of the biodiversity strategy, the scheduled end of the use of fossil fuels and the aspiration of an environment free of polluting and toxic substances with the action plan “zero pollution” for air, water and soils.

These objectives will be achieved by integrating all EU policies under the logic of sustainability, with instruments typical of national budgets showing signs in the ecological sense, the mobilisation of research and the increase in innovation, the operationalisation of a fair transition mechanism that will provide financial and practical support to workers and regions most affected by these changes in the perspective of leaving no one behind, the activation of education and training aimed at the development of knowledge and the improvement of attitudes towards climate change, with transversal policies attuned to the green commandment: “Do no harm”. The actions, plans and programs of this transversal strategy are included in a roadmap that schedules them in detail. Underscoring the proposal for a European Climate Law regulation that makes the 2050 climate neutrality target binding, ensuring the cross-cutting of all European policies and the contribution of the various sectors of society and the economy.

And, of course, all subject to a massive, public and private funding plan. The ambition of the European Green Deal is based on extremely high investments that match this claim. The Commission has calculated an additional annual investment of EUR 260 billion by 2030, together with other parcel investments and, above all, with the Investment Plan for a Sustainable Europe which will mobilise around EUR 1 trillion over the next decade.

And it is precisely in the considerable volume of investment that the circumstantial weakness of this strategy lies in the face of the advent of the pandemic crisis of COVID-19 that has immobilized Europe from the end of February and early March 2020, raising fears of an unprecedented economic crisis and the urgency to reallocate large financial funds to support the health systems and sectors most affected in the economies of the EU Member States. As early as 1st April, a group of 40 Europeans MPs urged the Commission “to put Green Deal on ice amid COVID-19 crisis”[v]. Serious crises, whether they are personal, institutional or even in countries, usually bring as an immediate effect the fear of change. In the context of threat, risk and uncertainty, testing the opportunity to change life and work day-to-day can, at first, increase fears and sustain ambitions for reform.

This instinctive tendency must be combated and soon replaced by the idea that the evolve of paradigms, although forced by natural and harmful events as happened with the current pandemic, should not be stopped by the mechanical replacement of the patterns of conduct prior to the crisis. If reality has changed, take advantage of that to improve the same reality.

In an apparent response, the Environment Ministers of the Member States issued a statement on 9 April[vi] to the Commission, in which they clearly assume that ecological and environmental transformation cannot be postponed, but will also have to be a power line in the recovery from the economic crisis.[vii] And that the European Green Deal strategy and its objectives, such as climate neutrality in 2050, should be the essential part of the new strategy for growth and job creation at the post-COVID-19 moment.[viii].

However, the intensity of the crisis and the need for answers to the European authorities, especially of a financial nature, has opened room for doubts as to priorities, the points that could remain unchanged and those that should be postponed to a more or less uncertain timeframe. Added to the concern that a possible postponement of such a deep and ambitious cross-cutting strategy could result in yet another deadlock and a missed opportunity that would add up to so many others in the history of combating climate change.

It seems that this will not happen. After a few weeks of uncertainty and unfound news, on 20th May, the program “From Farm to Fork” and the “EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030”[ix] were launched. The statements of EU leaders are unanimous in increasing the implementation of the European Green Deal, taking advantage of the opportunity of the rehabilitation of the European economy post COVID-19 to print the necessary ecological and digital transition.[x]

At the time this text is published, it appears that the discussion of the EU Recovery Fund, plan proposed by the Commission on 26th May 2020, will have as one of its conditions the adoption by Member States of the essential lines of the European Green Deal and the environmental duties associated with it.

If this happens, the EU will not have wavered at a decisive moment in its history, as well as the history of the struggle for environmental protection. With a new Commission, for many surprisingly bold, the EU will indeed establish its global leadership in the ecological and digital transition by setting a concrete example that this cross-cutting change, architected in a balanced and consistent way, is not only desirable but achievable. And when the dust from the effects of COVID-19 settles, the rest of the world will come after the good European example, even those who now do not even suspect it.

[i]The rules expressly referring to environmental policies are set out in Articles 11 and 191 to 193 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

[ii]Exceptions to this rule are mostly in microstates or small-scale economies.

[iii]As an example, in South Korea, last march, President Moon Jae-in Democratic Party published a Climate Manifesto to steer the country’s transformation into a low-carbon economy, including the net zero emissions goal in 2050. The Climate Manifesto explicitly referred to the European Green Deal.

[iv]Reference to the failed medieval movement of children and young people who intended the reconquest of Jerusalem and the Holy Places in 1212 and which succeeded in Germany, France and Italy.

[v]See https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/meps-urge-commission-put-green-deal-ice-amid-covid-19-crisis

[vi]See https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/04/09/european-green-deal-must-central-resilient-recovery-covid-19/

[vii]Idem: “We therefore strongly welcome that the Heads of States and Governments on 26 March invited the Commission to start working on a comprehensive EU recovery plan integrating the green transition and digital transformation. We call on the Commission to use the European Green Deal as a framework for this exercise and thereby to keep momentum by implementing its initiatives.

[viii]Ibidem :” The Green Deal constitutes a new growth strategy for the EU, which is able to deliver on the twin benefits of stimulating economies and creating jobs while accelerating the green transition in a cost efficient way. For example, the objective of climate neutrality by 2050 as well as a strong policy framework ensures a stable and forward-looking investment environment for Europe’s businesses, which is an essential precondition for green growth and job creation.”

[ix]See https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:a3c806a6-9ab3-11ea-9d2d-01aa75ed71a1.0001.02/DOC_1&format=PDF

[x]In the words of Frans Timmermans: “The coronavirus crisis has shown how vulnerable we all are, and how important it is to restore the balance between human activity and nature. At the heart of the Green Deal the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies point to a new and better balance of nature, food systems and biodiversity; to protect our people’s health and well-being, and at the same time to increase the EU’s competitiveness and resilience. These strategies are a crucial part of the great transition we are embarking upon” –  https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/actions-being-taken-eu/farm-fork_en

Pictures credits: Light bulb leaf by Pickpik.

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