We need a Green New Deal for Europe

Comment: A European sustainability pact, massive investments and the EU’s full regulatory power will be needed to address the climate crisis, writes Michel Barnier

The UK has almost entirely phased out its coal power sector. Rochborough power station in the UK is demoslished in 2012 (Photo: Flickr/shirokazan/CC 2.0)


A ‘Green New Deal’ has become the talk of the town in many of the world’s capitals.

Having recently emerged in the United States, the idea pays tribute to the visionary economic-recovery program launched by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. But Europe can – and must – deliver it as well.

Europe has long been committed to the environment, introducing its first joint program back in 1972. In 2005, the European Union established the first emission-trading scheme, which remains the world’s largest carbon market. And in 2015, the EU took the lead in negotiating the Paris climate agreement, and committed to cutting its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels.

But these steps, though important, do not address the scale of the challenge now facing the world. Bees and other insects are disappearing, while microplastic pollution has become ubiquitous. Rising temperatures could cause ice to disappear from the Arctic by 2050, and will worsen the fires, droughts, and floods Europe is already experiencing. And as air pollution increases, so will deaths from respiratory diseases.

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And yet there are also grounds for optimism. More and more people are willing to act and to adapt their lifestyle, like the students and others taking to the streets of Stockholm, Prague, Brussels, and Milan every Friday. Businesses also increasingly see the benefits of the new green economy. It is politics and politicians, both national and European, that are lagging behind.

Now is the time to build on grassroots momentum and make Green Europe the number-one priority for the coming years. Doing so requires focusing on three main areas. First, Europe must become a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. If we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C relative to the pre-industrial era, we have no other choice: EU net carbon-dioxide emissions must come down to zero by mid-century. That means investing massively in future mobility, energy-efficient buildings, and renewables, and in key technologies such as hydrogen batteries, new generations of solar panels, and green chemistry. It also means applying strict CO2 emission limits to new passenger cars, public transport, and commercial sea and air transport. And it means making Europe, together with our car industry, the first electric-vehicle continent by 2030.

Second, Europe must take the lead in the responsible use of resources and become a truly circular economy that minimizes waste. Today, eight billion tons of materials are processed into energy or products annually in the EU. Only 0.6 billion tons – a mere 7.5% – originate from recycling. We must do much better. In addition to delivering on our plastics strategy, we should focus on four priorities: food waste and the bio-economy, textiles, construction, and fast-moving consumer goods. For example, we can begin with an EU initiative to fight the planned obsolescence of household appliances and electronic devices.

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Third, we must do much more to protect biodiversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund, wildlife populations have fallen by an estimated 60% globally since 1970. Next year’s United Nations conference on biodiversity in Beijing will be decisive. Once again, the EU should lead the way. We need to strengthen EU legislation on the protection of species, as well as an ambitious plan for the blue economy and the preservation of our seas. And we must launch a real debate with – and not against – our farmers, reviewing our standards and modernizing the Common Agricultural Policy to accompany this green transition.

This massive shift will not happen if its costs fall disproportionately on those least able to bear them. All EU measures should therefore be designed to minimize social costs. At the same time, we need to keep pushing for effective global cooperation, while protecting ourselves from unfair competition. There is no point in having strict EU rules on pesticides or forest management if our imported food and wood is produced in unsustainable ways.

The three objectives could become the pillars of a ‘sustainability pact’ at the heart of the EU’s new policy cycle. In some respects, this should be as important as the stability and growth pact that applies to member states’ public finances. Our ecological debts are no less a cause for concern than our fiscal debts!

To achieve its goals, a sustainability pact would require concerted action on climate, trade, tax, agriculture, and innovation. The EU must not be afraid to use its regulatory powers. For example, expanding the scope of ecodesign legislation and of extended producer responsibility for the post-consumer phase of a product’s life could accelerate pro-environmental innovation.

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Massive investments will be required, too. The European Commission estimates that the EU will need €180 billion ($203 billion) in additional investment each year to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement. This is an achievable target. The European Investment Bank is already the world’s largest multilateral provider of climate finance. In addition, the EU’s forthcoming budget and its Investment Plan – which has a track record of leveraging private-sector investment – could further boost Europe’s green firepower.

The financial sector also has a critical role to play: through climate-related financial disclosure, we can stimulate the world’s biggest financial institutions – such as Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and BlackRock – to take a long-term view and avoid what Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has called the “tragedy of the horizon.” And, although EU member states might resist it, we must have a debate on taxes and subsidies on fossil fuels, and on the mainstreaming of sustainability in public expenditure.

For such a transformative green program to succeed, we must set aspirational goals and embrace “moon-shot missions”. At the same time, we will need to agree on detailed roadmaps with member states and the European Parliament, and hold in-depth discussions with regions, cities, businesses, trade unions, and civil society.

Not everything can be done overnight. But we can no longer close our eyes and lungs to what is happening to our environment. The best time to launch a Green EU Deal was years ago. The next-best time is now.

Michel Barnier is a former vice president of the European Commission and French minister of foreign affairs. He is currently EU chief negotiator for Brexit. This article originally appeared on Project Syndicate and is reproduced with permission under their copyright: Project Syndicate 2019.


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