The European Green Deal: Towards a Greener Union?

Image Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

Arshdeep Kaur asks if the European Green Deal offers a beacon of hope for the global fight against climate change

December 11, 2019 saw European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reveal plans for the European Green Deal. Described as “Europe’s man on the moon moment”, the Communication on the Green Deal outlines a series of ambitious yet comprehensive measures, seeking to reorient the European Union’s strategy against climate change. The aim is to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030. The proposal includes a European ‘Climate Law’, that will enshrine into legislation the objective of net-zero carbon emissions, and ensure commitment towards meeting this end. 

A quick glance at the proposal reveals its all-encompassing scope, covering everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe, and the energy used in our households. At its heart lies the need to ensure a ‘just and inclusive transition’ to a climate-neutral, circular economy through a green and digital transformation. The Commission is slated to adopt a new policy framework to support ‘sustainable products’ by prioritising reducing and reusing materials over recycling, with a focus on resource-intensive sectors such as textiles, construction, and electronics. This shall be combined with an emphasis on supporting innovation in the development of low-carbon technologies and infrastructure, which offers huge potential for job creation. In summary, the Green Deal posits this transition as an opportunity for boosting growth, granting Europe the ‘first-mover advantage’ as the world is forced to move towards sustainable patterns of production and consumption.  

Brussels seeks to further bolster its position as a global leader on climate change mitigation through the Green Deal, outlining several measures to induce greater cooperation on climate action from larger emitters such as the United States and China. One such step is the institution of a border carbon adjustment mechanism, which would impose tariffs on imported goods based on their carbon footprint, and thus attempt to reduce ‘carbon leakage’ to economies with lower environmental standards. This mechanism shall work in conjunction with a revised Emissions Trading Scheme within the single market, but their compatibility with World Trade Organisation regulations is bound to be a tricky subject. 

Presently, the need for EU leadership on global climate cooperation is greater than ever: The fate of the Paris Climate Agreement hangs in the balance, after the colossal failure of the COP25 climate talks held in Madrid in December 2019, as well as the imminent US withdrawal from the accord. In light of this, outcomes of the 2020 EU-China Summit, where the EU hopes to get the Chinese to ramp up their efforts towards climate change mitigation, merit attention.

The cost associated with the transition is slated to be €1 trillion over the next decade, to be mobilised through the Green Deal Investment Plan: Approximately half of this amount (that is, €503 billion) is projected to come from the Union’s long-term budget. Contributions from member states shall make up about €100 billion. The remaining amount shall be raised by mobilising public and private investment through the InvestEU scheme. Included in the Investment Plan is a Just Transition Mechanism (with its own dedicated fund), which shall focus exclusively on regions and sectors reliant on fossil fuels, and will consequently be most affected by the transition. National budgets are also expected to be re-designed in order to facilitate the transition to a green economy. 

For now, all we have is a roadmap laying out a series of guidelines, consultative frameworks, and strategies on a broad range of themes. A successful transition to a green economy mandates a complete overhaul of policy and legislation across all levels of governance, to be carefully negotiated among European institutions, national governments, and the private sector. Needless to say, the scale of the task is daunting. A successful transition requires unprecedented levels of political will and commitment from individual member-states. The Polish refusal to sign up to the target of net-zero emissions by 2050, due to its economy’s reliance on coal, is cause for major concern. However, there still remains some reason for optimism: The increasing salience of climate action in public discourse has translated into more ambitious climate-related policies in many member states, as exemplified by the ambitious ‘Climate Laws’ recently adopted by Denmark and the Netherlands. The pursuit of these policies, as well as their emulation by others, shall go a long way in fulfilling the objectives of the European Green Deal. 

Ensuring cooperation from a broad range of stakeholders during the formulation and revision of specific policies stands as another major hurdle for implementation of the European Green Deal. Witnessing events such as the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes in France, or the farmers’ protests in Dublin only serves to highlight the difficulty of this task, alongside the need to ascertain that any and all potential ‘losers’ are duly compensated in the transition to a sustainable economic order. Strong, influential lobbies only serve to compound this challenge. 

Skeletal as it may be, the proposal has significant merit. Firstly, it is a realistic and achievable one: The Deal proposes a time horizon of about thirty years while the transition to sustainable energy is largely believed to take twenty-five years (roughly a generation). In contrast, many have ruled out the Green New Deal backed by US Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey as ill-conceived and impractical, as it envisions a complete decarbonisation of the American economy within ten years. 

Secondly, the proposal emphasises dialogue and consultations with the citizenry, through a variety of channels. This reflects cognizance of the fact that climate change mitigation must be driven by individual effort, given that it implies a fundamental transformation in lifestyles and consumer attitudes. 

The most significant achievement of the Commission’s proposal for the Green Deal lies in its conceptualisation of the proposed transition as an opportunity for economic growth, profitability, and new avenues for jobs and investment. Although it may be decried by degrowth advocates for doing so, by framing the narrative in terms that reflect and suit their short-to-medium term objectives, it increases the likelihood of cooperation from sections of commercial and business interests, thus removing a major politico-economic barrier to effective policymaking. 

While the exact form it shall take remains to be seen, the proposal for the European Green Deal is a clear statement of intent from the European Union: It indicates a willingness to lead the global effort against climate change. It represents a shift away from empty rhetoric, and towards actionable policy, which is worthy of credit.