By Dr Martha Theodorou
You are the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for the “European Green Deal”. The pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge at a global and European level, with severe socio-economic consequences. As the current and future consequences will be complex and interlinked, which is the roadmap of the needed key policies and measures to achieve the “European Green Deal”?
It is absolutely clear that our first priority is to do whatever it takes to combat the covid-19 crisis, to protect people; first in terms of public health, finding a cure and a vaccine, second in terms of ensuring our economy remains viable.
This then is the time when member states have to work together, and EU solidarity matters more than ever.
However, once we emerge from the immediate crisis, we will need to reboot our economy as quickly as possible so that business can start again, and people can work and earn a living. This leaves us with a fundamental choice: desperately trying to get back to our unstainable ways or making a sincere effort to reach a much better situation with a green, inclusive, and resilient economy that offers decent jobs and is fit for the future.
It is clear that fighting climate change and biodiversity loss remains necessary when receding nature brings out zoonotic diseases that affect people, or when thawing permafrost may release new unknown viruses. It is also clear that in Europe 400.000 people die prematurely due to heavy air pollution each year. On top of that, it looks as if air pollution only exacerbates the conditions of those afflicted with the corona virus. It’s terrible that our economies have slowed down so much, but it does gives us the opportunity to smell again what clean air is.
For our recovery we will need massive investments, public and private. So let us make sure that we do not waste money and energy on obsolete technologies and outdated business models of a sputtering and poisonous carbon economy that uses natural resources excessively. Let’s make sure that the investments we make are sustainable, and foster the resilience of our economies and societies in line with our long-term decarbonisation and resource efficiency objective. Such investments in green economy sectors, such as building renovation or domestic renewable energy generation, nature restoration, sustainable food or circular products are not only good for our health and the climate, they also create local jobs.
Climate change is a major concern for Europeans. Will a proper enforcement and implementation of the “European Climate Law” ensure a climate-neutral Europe by 2050? Will all sectoral EU legislation be aligned with the long-term objective?
As one of the first deliverables of the European Green Deal, the Commission has proposed the first European Climate Law. It puts into legislation our firm objective to reach climate neutrality by 2050 in the EU. This is an important step and the Climate Law will play a major role in the decarbonisation of our economy and society. But, this is not something the Commission can do by itself. Everyone and every member state will have to pull together. Our proposal for a European Climate Law lays down the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 – a goal that was established by the European Council and that has full support of the European Parliament. It acts as a sort of political navigator.
This law shows that the EU means business when we pledge to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. Entrepreneurs and investors have been asking us to give them a clear course so that they have some predictability. This allows business to do what it does best; that is to invest smartly and with an eye to the future, while avoiding stranded assets and lagging behind.
For us to be able to stay on track, the climate law gives the Commission the possibility to set the path for emission reductions from 2030 to 2050, based on the best available science. We will link our work with the five-yearly global stocktake under the Paris Agreement, ensuring that we can immediately identify action that is not in line with our set trajectory and swiftly make proposals for correction if necessary.
The “European Green Deal” proposed a “Just Transition Mechanism”, including a “Just Transition Fund”, to leave no one behind. Where the Mechanism will be focus?
We can only succeed in this transition if it is a fair one, helping those who are most in need and making sure everyone is on board. The transition towards a climate-neutral economy will affect everyone, but certain regions in the EU will encounter specific challenges and be more affected than others. To make sure no citizen or region is left behind in our transition towards a climate-neutral Union, the European Commission proposes to set up an ambitious “Just Transition Mechanism” that will direct investments towards these regions.
The Just Transition Mechanism is an ambitious plan seeking to mobilise €100 billion of investment in the regions most exposed to the economic and social challenges of the climate change transition over the next long-term EU budget period.
In Greece we have the ambition to raise up to €4 billion of investments in communities dependent on lignite production and carbon-intensive industries in Western Macedonia, in the area of Megalopolis in the region of Peloponnesus and in Crete and the Aegean islands. These funds, which should come in addition to the European regional policy, will support economic diversification, reskilling programmes, SMEs and affordable clean energy solutions. Greece has taken a bold decision to phase-out coal by 2028 and we want to work hand in hand with the Greek Government, regions and municipalities to develop viable alternatives and future proof jobs for the communities at the frontline of these changes.
As biodiversity loss can have a significant impact on human health, a new coordinated and comprehensive strategy is necessary. Which measures will be included in the new biodiversity strategy?
Biodiversity is the web of life. As we are an integral part of it, we simply cannot survive without it. It is important to recognise that we don’t need to protect the biodiversity for the planet’s sake. We do all this and more to protect the health and well-being of humanity; that is our objective.
We are currently preparing a new biodiversity strategy for the EU with a 2030 perspective and with a twofold objective:
Firstly, the Strategy will profile the EU’s vision for an ambitious Global Biodiversity Framework. We want our Strategy to be a source of inspiration to guide and galvanise other countries’ efforts. It will set out EU ambition for the UN biodiversity conference (COP15) and make proposals for the whole EU and Member State commitments.
Secondly, the Strategy will give new impetus to scale up action at home. We need new measures that will have to be implemented promptly. For instance, we will need to embark on a massive nature restoration journey, and, to that end, work out a new legal framework for restoring degraded European ecosystems. We need to ensure that our farming, bioenergy, fisheries and other economic sectors thrive without harming biodiversity. We also need measures to reduce the EU’s global environmental footprint.
To curtail biodiversity loss, we need to take measures across sectors and policies. We will come up with solid, measurable commitments. Furthermore, we want this strategy to mobilise funding and reward actions that support biodiversity, and enable a fair transition leaving no one behind.
The green transition will be supported by actions in other initiatives under the Green Deal, such as the Farm to Fork Strategy to ensure sustainable food production along the entire value chain, a Zero Pollution Strategy to ensure a healthier environment, and an extended circular economy action plan. that also aims to integrate natural capital.
Following the European Commission’s zero-pollution ambition, what mechanisms do you foresee for the Member States in order to achieve net-zero emissions in all sectors?
We want to create a toxic-free environment and for that we need to intensify our action to prevent pollution from happening in the first place, and enhance measures to clean and remedy it.
We have already started to systematically look at all policies and regulations and their impact on the environment. In particular we are working on a zero pollution action plan for air, water and soil that we want to present next year.
We have to revalorize the natural capital that surrounds us and start restoring the natural functions of ground and surface water. This is essential to preserve and restore biodiversity in lakes, rivers and wetlands and to prevent and limit damage from floods.
It also means reducing pollution from fertilizers, and from new sources of pollution such as pesticides, micro plastics and chemicals, including pharmaceuticals. Here again we are taking a holistic approach looking at all elements.
We already have much of the evidence we need, like the evaluation of the current air quality legislation. So we will propose to strengthen already existing provisions on monitoring, modelling and air quality plans to help local authorities achieve cleaner air.
We also need to review the way we address pollution from large industrial installations, looking at the scope of the legislation and ensure it is fully consistent with climate, energy and circular economy policies.
To ensure a toxic-free environment, we will also present a chemicals strategy for sustainability. This will help protect citizens and the environment better against hazardous chemicals, and encourage innovation for the development of safe and sustainable alternatives. This is not a left or right issue, this is to protect our health and well-being.
As a new “climate culture” is needed in Europe, how could it be supported by the “European Climate Pact”? What is the role of the organized civil society to the success of the “European Green Deal”?
All sectors of society and economy have a part to play. We launched in the beginning of March a public consultation on the design of the European Climate Pact. This will be an instrument from and for citizens to help harness and channel everybody's efforts to change the way we produce, consume, use and reuse.
We want to collect all the knowledge that is out there, we want to share it, and we want to inspire each other to step out of a carbon-fuelled world towards a de-carbonised world that is healthier, cleaner, safer, and more sustainable, while no one will be left behind.
We are inspired by grassroots organisations, they contribute hugely to the political momentum we are seeing around climate and environmental action. I am sure that without these grassroots movements, probably today we would not have a Green Deal, let alone a European Climate law.
Following the UN “2030 Agenda” and the “Paris Agreement”, at international level what will be the next steps for the European Commission?
The transition to a climate neutral and sustainable way of life is a global task. We will use our influence, expertise and financial resources to mobilise our neighbours and international partners to join us. We want to show the world that this transition can be a just one, leaving no one behind, and that an economy that gives back more to the planet than it takes, can thrive.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in particular the Paris Agreement, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity remain the key multilateral frameworks for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. Although the COP26 and COP15 have been postponed amid efforts to contain the coronavirus, we will stay strongly committed to making a success of both. We will not slow down our work domestically or internationally to prepare for an ambitious COP26 and COP15, when they take place.
We will reinforce the partnership between the EU and China on climate and environmental issues. And our recently adopted Africa strategy puts a strong emphasis on the development of renewable energy and sustainable development. We are also working with global partners to develop international carbon markets as a key tool to create economic incentives for climate action.