The European Green Deal aims to transform the 27-country bloc from a high- to a low-carbon economy, without reducing prosperity and while improving people’s quality of life, through cleaner air and water, better health and a thriving natural world.
If that sounds ambitious, it is. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, called it “Europe’s man on the moon moment”. Nothing similar has been attempted before, as the pattern of human progress since the industrial revolution has been one of relentless exploitation and despoilment of the natural world, filling the atmosphere with carbon and the seas with plastic.
Nearly every major aspect of the European economy will have to be overhauled, from energy generation to food consumption, from transport to manufacturing and construction. In part, this will build on two decades of work in a few of these sectors, such as directives mandating renewable energy and cutting air pollution.
Previous attempts were piecemeal, limited in scope and sometimes flaccid in execution. Energy-intensive industries, for instance, have been covered by an emissions trading scheme since 2005, but political pressure kept the price of carbon low, rendering it largely ineffectual.
How will it work?
The green deal will work through a framework of regulation and legislation setting clear overarching targets – a bloc-wide goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a 50%-55% cut in emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels) are supposed to be at the core – alongside incentives to encourage private sector investment, with action plans for key sectors and goals such as halting species loss, cutting waste and better use of natural resources.
All of the EU’s budget will be subject to checks to ensure it is spent in ways that benefit the environment. That includes the common agricultural policy, scorned by green campaigners for promoting intensive farming, which will retain farm subsidies but direct more to green measures. Science, research and development budgets will take on more of a low-carbon slant, and there will be a detailed roadmap of “50 actions for 2050” for other sectors.
Jobs will be created, the commission believes, in new high-tech industries from renewable energy to electric vehicle manufacturing and sustainable building, and efficiencies in resource use will repay the cost of the changes. “The European green deal is our new growth strategy – a strategy for growth that gives back more than it takes away,” von der Leyen said.
But is it really €1 tn?
Even friendly experts detect wishful accounting in Brussels’ figures. Economists at the Bruegel thinktank say it is a stretch to consider the €503bn from the EU budget as “green investment”, as much of the money would be spent on traditional EU policies such as farm subsidies.
Previous attempts to “green” the common agricultural policy have failed dismally. In a damning report in 2017, the EU’s auditors highlighted how farmers were being paid to undertake environmentally friendly measures they would have done anyway, such as crop rotation, while governments handed out “green” cash with little oversight.
Will the UK be affected?
Boris Johnson’s government has made it clear that the UK wants to depart from EU environmental standards after Brexit. The post-Brexit environment bill, agriculture bill and fisheries bill now going through the British parliament contain various loopholes that green campaigners say would reduce in the UK the environmental protections that current EU law guarantees.
The UK does officially have a 25-year environment plan, with the government pledging to leave the UK’s natural realm in a better state than this generation inherited, but how that will hold up after Brexit is moot.
On the climate crisis, the UK is aligned with the EU. Last summer, a target of reaching net zero by 2050 was enshrined in law, and all major parties are pledged to uphold it. What’s missing, though, is a clear plan of action to meet the net zero aim. That is what Europe’s green deal is meant to provide, and unless the UK forms its own parallel plans soon, its 2050 target will look increasingly adrift.