With the European elections just around the corner and the subsequent appointment of a new European Commission, the next phase of the European transition to climate neutrality is about to begin. This article touches upon some key topics and challenges that lie ahead in the near future to ensure an effective implementation of the European Green Deal (EGD).
Resilience of the Green Deal
Four years after the launch of the European Commission’s communication establishing the climate neutrality objectives by 2050 for the European Union, the European Green Deal is facing an uncertain future, with increasing scepticism towards its distributional and competitiveness impacts. However, the urgency to act in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit the increase of the global temperature to 1.5°C by the end of this century is continuously reiterated by the scientific community, as well as in international debates, such as the COP28 that took place last December in Dubai.
According to the results of the 2023 European Green Deal Barometer, an annual confidence consultation that interviewed more than 600 sustainability experts, the majority of respondents (56%) expressed a certain confidence in the fact that the EU institutions will turn the EGD into approved legislation, necessary to meet international climate commitments. However, this confidence is soft, with only a minority declaring themselves to be ‘very confident’. The implementation of the Green Deal has often been hampered in the past years, particularly due to insufficient political commitment to embed climate targets into other policies, such as into the European Semester. Nevertheless, the Green Deal has survived many challenges since its launch: from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis.
The 2024 EU elections will pose another challenge to the continuation of the EGD agenda, with a new European Commission to be formed, new Members of the European Parliament to be elected and future national elections that may affect the composition of the Council of the EU (including the incoming presidencies of Belgium and Poland). In this regard, the EGD Barometer’s respondents had a fairly positive perception of the future of the Green Deal, with 61% stating that the agenda will be at least moderately resilient after the next European elections. This is an encouraging finding that not only confirms its resilience but also the necessity for EU policymakers to continue in this direction. From the next European elections, scheduled for 6–9 June 2024, there will be very little time before 2030, the year that marks the first intermediate deadline on the road to 2050.
Priorities for the next phase of the EGD
As an overarching political agenda designed to transform our society and economy in response to the ongoing climate crisis, the European Green Deal is necessarily a long-term strategy (up to 2050 and beyond). It therefore requires immediate action to be implemented and a forward-looking vision. It is undeniable that considerable progress has been achieved in only four years since its launch, especially in the energy sector, but other areas of the Green Deal require more ambitious policy reforms or new legislative frameworks, which in turn will facilitate the achievement of the climate neutrality goal.
Filling some policy gaps and processes
More in-depth reforms are required in certain areas that have been overlooked so far, particularly in relation to the areas of food and biodiversity. For example, it is regrettable that the European Commission did not publish a framework for sustainable food systems, the revision of the chemicals regulation, the full animal welfare package and the ‘blue agenda’ under its current mandate, despite its commitment to do so. These commitments should be carried out and effectively achieved by the new European Commission.
The current measures in force for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector are proving to have a minimal impact, even with the reviewed national targets put in place in the Effort Sharing Regulation. To enhance the contribution of the agriculture sector in climate mitigation, it is important to establish a sustainable and resilient food system, which would help reduce the food systems’ footprint, both in and outside the EU, introduce measures aiming at improved biodiversity, soil health and carbon farming, and promote new policies to ensure sustainable consumption, including via innovations. In support of the agrifood transition, a new vision for CAP and land use is needed, calling for in-depth changes to the CAP and the EU budget.
In addition, it is therefore paramount that the next phase of the Green Deal aims for a better approach to policy integration. This would compensate for conflicting objectives and responses between different policy areas. By doing so, we would ensure a more effective and cohesive approach to policymaking, as well as to its implementation. For example, it is imperative to integrate climate and biodiversity policies into a holistic approach, to safeguard the EU’s natural capital and get nature back on the road to recovery. Nature-based solutions, including current or new proposals on nature restoration, will play a crucial role in achieving the 2040 climate targets and remain vital for the business sector’s competitiveness and sustainability.
Furthermore, the external policies should be better mainstreamed in the EGD agenda, which in turn would be beneficial to achieving the EGD objectives and increasing support in third countries. Some of the trade-autonomous legislations approved so far, such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and the Regulation on deforestation-free supply chains, are certainly good examples. The former contributes to avoiding the so-called ‘carbon leakage’, while the latter bans imports of products that contribute to deforestation, thus encouraging sustainable agriculture and preserving nature. In this regard, however, it is important to stress that the focus must not only be on compliance, but also on achieving results on the ground. Regarding the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), it is crucial to evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of conservation and business tools resulting from the Green Deal to help producers transition to sustainable production. Zero deforestation can only be achieved if enforcement goes hand in hand with rural development. Therefore, a more coherent and inclusive approach, integrating the external and internal dimensions of the Green Deal, is crucial for the EU to remain a credible player at the international level. The introduction and enforcement of Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) during the last decade marked a major step in making EU trade fairer and more sustainable. Yet their operationalisation and effectiveness have been largely questioned, and more could be done to support climate, environment and labour rights protection worldwide.
Improving the EGD governance
At the same time, the governance of the European Green Deal must be improved. From draft legislation to implementation, the whole process needs to be made more inclusive with the involvement of all actors in society: researchers for accurate scientific knowledge and the private sector as a major promoter of green practices and investments, as well as local authorities, who have a better understanding of territorial needs. The European Green Deal was the first genuine attempt at establishing an economy-wide and transformative policy agenda to deliver the EU’s headline 2050 climate neutrality target. Yet it has remained growth-centric and committed to the vision of material use and environmental footprint decoupling from GDP, which is now challenged by the time left to get within planetary boundaries in a European context. Furthermore, despite growing recognition of concepts like ‘just transition’ or ‘well-being economy’, the EGD has lacked a compelling political narrative and binding policy framework necessary to secure broad-based social and political acceptability of wide-ranging EU-driven socio-economic reforms to put human and planetary well-being at the heart of EU decision making.
Currently, the implementation process is still highly politicised, which tends to create a generally negative narrative of what the green transition entails. However, climate change is a global issue and all these new policies touch all sectors; therefore, it is important that the top-down approach is blunted with the proper involvement of local authorities and the advancement of digitalisation. An additional effort to identify and present the impacts and benefits of the green transition policies must be undertaken, especially in areas such as climate and energy policies (e.g. Fit for 55 package), agriculture and land use, and nature restoration. Last but not least, it is crucial that the new EU legislature endorse the objective to reduce EU resource consumption to remain within planetary boundaries via, most notably, binding EU material footprint reduction targets.
Will the new European Commission commit to climate objectives?
According to various polls, the European Council will be composed of a majority of right-wing leaders in July 2024, resulting from recent national elections and those scheduled for the next months. This is expected to have a direct effect on the composition of the new European Commission, as EU Commissioners are nominated by EU27 heads of state or governments. As envisaged in the treaties, the European Parliament has a say in the appointment of EU Commissioners and can request to withdraw the nomination of any Commissioner-designate, following a negative outcome of the hearings.
However, projections for the new hemicycle also indicate an increase in seats for conservative right-wing groups, typically more sceptical about climate policies. This may create new majorities and groupings compared to the traditional alliances of the mainstream groups, thus affecting the European Parliament’s positions on some policy areas, including the Green Deal files.
Environment-related discussions are increasingly becoming a recurrent feature in the political debate leading up to European elections and, in general, in national politics. Many factors are contributing to this circumstance: policymakers cannot ignore the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena affecting our continent (and beyond), and the pressure from different stakeholders, civil society actors and citizens remains high. The July 2023 Eurobarometer indicates that more than three-quarters (77%) of respondents consider climate change a very serious problem at this moment, while 75% agree that action on climate change will lead to innovation that will make EU companies more competitive.
The EGD is expected to remain at the core of the future European Commission’s political guidelines, representing an overarching framework for the EU post-2024. It remains to be defined whether it will also become a growth and competitiveness strategy and the paradigm that could inform all other policies. Even in the face of significant political changes and new alliances, different areas and approaches may be adopted that will shape a new direction of future green policy proposals. In order to achieve this, EU policymakers should prioritise the following policy areas:
- Contributing to the development of EU food and renewable raw material systems so that they form a sustainable and resilient basis of our material economy.
- Strengthening and aligning environment and climate objectives through coherent policy and delivery mechanisms, where the choice is not climate or biodiversity, but climate and biodiversity.
- Ensuring that the external footprint of EU social and policy decisions acts as an agent for enhancing global sustainability.
The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.