Some may say the European Green Deal is precisely what the world needs. We have seen many calamities in this previous year, from the Amazon, California and Australian fires to multiple heatwaves, droughts, storms, and floods across the world. The European Green Deal binds all the European countries to target net-zero emissions by 2050 through a European Climate Law placed at its centre.
The deal focuses on a wide range of themes–economy, agriculture, transport, energy, buildings, industries–focusing mainly on their impact on the environment and climate. There are detailed strategies for each sector covering biodiversity, circular economy, sustainable food, vehicle taxation, and electric vehicles. The colossal vision of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has its roots in decarbonising some of the world’s largest economies while maintaining a high standard of living for its people.
Aiming for a climate-neutral continent
The European Green deal is one such ambitious plan where the intentions are thoughtful and just, while the actions required and the path ahead are blurry and questionable. Europe aims to be climate neutral by 2050, which requires tenfold more efforts than the 2030 targets.
Carbon-neutrality is understood as keeping the carbon absorbed in carbon sinks—systems such as soil, forest, and oceans—more than the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. The European Union’s track record in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining economic growth is commendable—from 1990 to 2018, there was a notable reduction in emissions by 23%, while the GDP grew by 61%. The factor demanding attention is the distribution of these numbers amongst the member states. The green deal is banking on a 50%-55% cut in emissions by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels.
The proposals and action plan are comprehensive yet at a disadvantage when discussing the member countries’ different development stages and their economic dependencies. Attempting to make the deal just and achievable for all, an ‘Effort Sharing’ mechanism is in place. It establishes annual greenhouse emission targets for different member countries. Poorer European countries may face the same issue that the developing nations faced when the Paris Agreement’s goals demanded a significant reduction in the carbon footprint. The developed nations had the upper hand because of their progressive development before we considered Climate change a global emergency.
The deal, however, falls in jeopardy on multiple terms. European countries have several import-based relations with different countries across the globe, which are not abided by the rules under the Green Deal policies. EU plans to plant 3 billion trees by 2030, while its beef import from Brazil is owned by companies sourcing meat from newly deforested areas. Similarly, under the ‘From Farm to Fork’ action agenda, Europe decided to cut down harmful chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture by 50% and fertilisers by 20% before 2030. At the same time, Europe highly depends on imports for food products from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, etc. The agricultural laws and food-production methods in each county vary, including the mere definition of agricultural sustainability. In such scenarios, Europe cannot enforce its rules over the other partners.
Making its way through and beyond financial impediment
Assuming the set targets are achievable, for all countries to put their best foot forward, they need to be considerate of the population, their food consumption habits, and the required colossal leap to cover the gap. Some countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria wish to fast-track their climate neutrality journey. Others like Poland and Hungary want to continue at their own pace to avoid unnecessary circumstantial implications in bridging the gap. It is important to remember that countries with high fossil fuel dependency will have to start over and thus, need more time and resources to reach the same level as developed European countries.
Even so, the biggest challenge that persists is finance. The plan is to dedicate at least 25% of the EU long-term budget to climate action and rely on the private sector to contribute to this green transition. The estimated costing for the deal to phase through is EUR 864 million for climate action. However, multiple sources doubt the access to such a vast amount and even the availability of these funds. Besides, the European Commission seeks to raise EUR 750 billion, for a temporary recovery plan – NextGenerationEU – to repair the economic and social damage brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission aims to propose alternative revenue sources by 2024.
The current proposal by the European Commission for the Green Deal actions includes the Just Transition Mechanism. Member states can access it after preparing ‘territorial just transition plans’ covering the period up to 2030 and identifying regions that require help. The intention is to invest EUR 40 billion under the ‘Just Transition Fund’ with considerable support provided to the areas that need to shift away from coal dependence. Also, the European Investment Bank pledged to phase out loans on fossil fuel projects. Even if the funds are available and properly utilised, the number of people having to switch jobs is worth giving a thought. There were over 2,38,000 people employed in 128 coal mines across the EU in 2015. Thus, equivalent evaluation of the different urban planning sectors is imperative before progressing on the road to carbon neutrality.
Another strategy involves EUR 15 billion of funds to assist the farmers. However, some argue how the previous attempts in agricultural policy have failed. A report by the European Court of Auditors in 2017 mentioned that the EU was spending EUR 12 billion yearly on the new ‘green payment’. Understood in-depth, the EU was actually paying the farmers to use environmentally friendly measures to go green! Moreover, the changes brought by this Green Deal shall affect the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) built on principles of maximising productivity.
Yet another challenge faced will be by the power and energy sector. Solar and wind power are at the centre of most European policies. However, to reach a higher emission reduction level, Europe will need to contemplate other options such as hydrogen and fuel cells. Like all things going green, these initiatives will require a considerable allotted budget, not to mention larger systems’ inflexibility to shift swiftly to green technology.
Member states must align the pre-existing policies as per the changing norms and work through several technicalities before acting on the Green Deal actions plan. The Green Deal will be finalised by 2021. There is a long list of changes in policies and regulations required for all member countries to get on board. Along with that, EU members will have to tackle differences in the required vs available funds, and it is still going to be challenging to keep everyone happy!
Suppose Europe succeeds in planning, regulating, and implementing this Green Deal. In that case, it will set a top bar and put pressure on every other Nation that pledged to the Paris Agreement but could not follow through. Since 2015, the world’s carbon output increased by 4%. If followed through correctly, the European Green Deal will undoubtedly be “Europe’s Man on the moon moment”, as Ursula von der Leyen quoted.