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The European Green Deal: A promising start and a long road ahead

Annika Hedberg , Sofia López Piqueres

Date: 13/12/2019
The European Green Deal provides a valuable and ambitious basis for streamlining the EU’s climate and environmental goals across its policies and finances. However, to succeed, it is essential to overcome the silo mentality, bridge the gap between words and action, and promote a transition across the whole of the economy and society.

The European Green Deal, published by the European Commission on Wednesday 11 December, puts forward a comprehensive package of measures aiming to achieve a just transition to a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and competitive economy.[1] While the proposal is first and foremost a response to the ongoing climate crisis, it also rightly aims to address environmental challenges related to biodiversity, pollution and more. It underlines how action is needed in different sectors and across policies. As such, it is an important basis for aligning EU action with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.

However, several obstacles will need to be addressed if the European Green Deal is to succeed. While there is a growing recognition of the urgency to act, the challenges cut across the economy and society, and require system-wide responses. While the Commission wishes to address the existing silo mentality and remedy, for example, incoherent legislation that undermines the European Green Deal, an even more comprehensive, systemic and ambitious approach is needed – and fast.

Overlooked ambitions: Time to think greener

First, the sustainability crisis is threatening the planet, people’s wellbeing and prospects for businesses. The global environmental and climate crises are feeding into, for example, worsening inequalities, increasing migration flows and threatening competitiveness. The pressures are growing, and the implications will be felt across the economy and society if they are not adequately addressed. The urgency to act and the scope of the challenge is even greater than suggested in the Green Deal.

Second, while the Commission correctly selects the energy, transport and food systems as well as the circular economy as important areas for action, it is essential that the follow-up measures will lead to real systemic changes. It is imperative to align measures with the best available scientific knowledge, stop harmful practices and overcome vested interests when designing policy measures.

The Commission rightly recognises the importance of informing and empowering consumers in the transition to a sustainable, climate-neutral economy. However, it could have been more ambitious by stating that the ultimate goal would be to reduce consumption levels and ensure that every product and service on the European market is, by default, sustainable.

Third, the Commission’s recognition of the role for innovation and digitalisation as enablers for greater sustainability is a positive development, which should be fully reflected in the EU’s respective agendas. As the EU is falling behind in the global innovation and digital race, targeting European expertise and solutions to solve the largest sustainability challenges in both the EU and global levels could give the Union the momentum it so desperately desires.[2]

Fourth, the EU operates within a global context and must use all of the tools available to encourage and support the global transition. While the EU’s direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are decreasing and the share may appear small in a global comparison, what the proposal for the Green Deal fails to mention is that the EU has a responsibility to act. Historically, it has been a significant emitter. Moreover, the EU continues to have a major environmental footprint that exceeds its borders via the products we consume, and waste we create and ship to third countries. In this context, the Commission’s suggestion to stop exporting EU waste, for instance, is very welcome. But why not be more ambitious by turning the challenge into an opportunity and aiming to become a global leader in managing waste, and not only Europe’s?

It is in the EU’s interest to act. The global demand for sustainable products and services is growing, and being a standard-setter could provide exciting business opportunities and thus enhance Europe’s competitiveness. Moreover, the EU has the expertise and tools to influence developments beyond its borders, and the proposal appropriately recognises the role of diplomacy, trade and financing in these efforts. However, the EU’s leverage beyond its borders will depend greatly on what happens internally – this cannot be stressed enough. If the EU manages to reform its economy and showcase the concrete economic, social and environmental benefits, it can provide an attractive and credible model for others to follow.

Actions speak louder than words

Although the European Green Deal is a promising start, many obstacles will need to be dealt with before it can become a true success. A framework for action means little if it is not fully implemented and enforced. The unfortunate reality is that member states are weak in complying with existing sustainability goals and legislation. In fact, the member states are currently not even on track to achieve the self-set 40% GHG emission target for 2030. Simply increasing the target to 50-55% will not guarantee success, either. The European Environment Agency’s recent report on the state of European environment is a shocking reality check: despite its comprehensive environmental legislation, the EU is failing on almost all of its sustainability goals for 2020, including those regarding energy savings, biodiversity and air, water, soil and chemical pollution. It has been estimated that one-third of chemicals placed on the Single Market is illegal,[3] and that 10-15% of energy-related products do not comply with ecodesign requirements and labels.[4] The EU is also failing to reach its waste targets. If existing EU environmental law was just implemented, it would save €55 billion per year –that is, almost one-third of the EU annual budget. [5] This money could be of great use to fund the transition.

It is essential to put our money where our mouth is. The proposal justly recognises a role for taxation, sustainable financing, the Emission Trading Scheme revenues, public procurement and the role of the European Investment Bank in aligning spending with the climate and environment agenda. The first real litmus test case, however, is the member states’ ongoing negotiation on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-27. As it stands, the member states are worryingly leaning towards protecting old national interests rather than using the budget as an investment tool for a more sustainable future.[6] The risk is that if the EU budget of the next decade continues to subsidise areas such as fossil fuels and livestock production and consumption – which all contribute to climate change and a multitude of environmental and health problems –, this could seriously undermine the Green Deal as a whole. 

Getting everyone on board

It is essential to obtain a wide buy-in for the European Green Deal and ensure that the member states, citizens and industry recognise the urgency and join forces to ensure a just transition. The member states’ role in implementing existing rules, aligning their spending with the set goals and strengthening market surveillance cannot be overstated. The Commission can provide financial and technical support but must also step up its efforts in highlighting member states’ failure to act and launch infringements cases more readily. The EU must also provide the conditions, via governance and economic incentives, for citizens and industry to contribute to and succeed in the transition.

The science is clear: recent reports indicate the world has 10 years left to act if it is to avoid the most devastating climate change impacts, and the clock is ticking.[7] The ongoing environmental degradation cannot continue. Thankfully, the European Green Deal can provide an ambitious basis for action. It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Only then will the deal lead to a genuinely comprehensive and successful reform of our economy and society.     


See also the following EPC publications:

Porter, Martin (2019), “Making climate neutrality the galvanising heart of a new economic agenda for Europe” in “Yes, we should! EU priorities for 2019-2024”, Challenge Europe, Volume 24, Brussels: European Policy Centre.

Hedberg, Annika (2019), “The EU budget – including the CAP – should be used to finance the Union’s priorities” in “Yes, we should! EU priorities for 2019-2024”, Challenge Europe, Volume 24, Brussels: European Policy Centre.

Hedberg, Annika, Stefan Šipka and Johan Bjerkem (2019), “Creating a digital roadmap for a circular economy”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.

Bjerkem, Johan and Marta Pilati (2019), “An Industry Action Plan for a more competitive, sustainable and strategic European Union”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] European Commission (2019), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: The European Green Deal, COM(2019) 640 final, Brussels.
[2] See Hedberg, Annika and Stefan Šipka (2019), “Creating a digital roadmap for a circular economy”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
[3] Staes, Bart and Sven Giegold, “In breach of REACH: Europe’s chemical dieselgate”, EURACTIV, 24 October 2018.
[4] See European Commission (2016), Communication from the Commission: Ecodesign Working Plan 2016-2019, COM(2016) 773 final, Brussels.
[5] Madsen, Peter G.; Alexandra Maratou; Lorenz Carl Wähler; Martin Birk Rasmussen; Tanzir Chowdhury; Adrian Gibbs and Ann Ballinger (2019), Study: The costs of not implementing EU environmental law. Final report, Luxembourg.
[6] Hedberg, Annika (2019), “The EU budget – including the CAP – should be used to finance the Union’s priorities” in “Yes, we should! EU priorities for 2019-2024”, Challenge Europe, Volume 24, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
[7] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018), “Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty”, Geneva: World Meteorological Organization.

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