Making the Best of the Worst: The EU’s Pathway to a Sustainable Future in the midst of covid-19

Despite its devastation and tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic provides a historic opportunity to reimagine and strengthen the European Union’s Green Deal to provide a greener future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused problems few governments were prepared to handle. National and international responses have mobilised previously unmatched financial and political support, while the social impacts have been felt across the globe. Regional blocs like the European Union (EU) have become leaders in the chaotic new world order, giving them power to shape the post-pandemic future. Indeed, the EU’s response to COVID-19 will reveal how willing the bloc is to support the European Green Deal and pave the path for a more sustainable Europe.

The European Green Deal is designed to be the most comprehensive and radical overhaul of the EU’s economies and regulation in an effort to make the continent among the most sustainable in the world.

The main goals of the deal are to reduce emissions to net-zero across the EU by 2050, provide incentives for private sector investment in environmental projects, and sustainability action plans for key sectors. In addition, the entire EU budget is subject to checks on whether the money is spent on environmentally sustainable projects. Underlying much of the plan is the belief that job losses will be offset by new industries facilitated by the Deal.

There are, however, significant political and financial considerations that stand in the way of the Green Deal being implemented. The largest is the EU’s legal framework, which requires the Deal to be approved by each of the bloc’s 27 member states. This may prove difficult given the fossil fuel dependence of Eastern European member states. Furthermore, the €1 trillion financial commitment required of the EU, member states, and the private sector has raised eyebrows. While some have argued the amount to be too high, others say that it is insufficient to make a big difference. With a budget of this size, there are doubts about how effectively the EU can oversee the distribution of funds when it has had a spotty record in the past with agricultural regulations intended to improve environmental sustainability.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another question mark in the future of the European Green Deal. Now, the EU has serious immediate considerations regarding the recovery and support to shattered economies after the worst pandemic in modern history. Rather than halting the Plan, COVID-19 could aid this restoration. Frans Timmermans, the Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal in the European Commission, argues that the Deal “must become the cornerstone of Europe’s pandemic recovery” and that it will “prepar[e] Europe for a competitive and inclusive 21st century, climate-neutral future”.

The EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, echoes this belief of COVID-19 being a watershed moment, saying that “[Europe] can turn the crisis of this pandemic into an opportunity to rebuild our economies differently and make them more resilient.” Furthermore, the World Economic Forum highlights that economic recovery plans could integrate the Green Deal as they are deployed, allowing sustainability and decarbonisation to dictate what recovery looks like in the long run.  

One of the main ways that the Green Deal is being implemented into the EU’s recovery plan is through increased support for the Just Transition Fund (JTF). The JTF supports the transition to climate neutrality through worker re-skilling programs, opportunities for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and investments in clean energy. The JTF’s priorities are a solid framework for both individual member states and the bloc to follow in the process of rebuilding. Furthermore, the European Commission has proposed an additional €15 billion for the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development in an effort to support farmers and underscore the important role rural communities have in the journey to decarbonisation. While the integration of elements of the Green Deal into the EU’s recovery plan is a solid first step, the push for a completely independent and extensive European Green Deal must continue.

The crisis has underscored the importance of newfound industrial sovereignty.

The European Green Deal is also being used as a means of better preparing Europe for future instability. It is estimated that industries classified as strategically important make up 20% of the EU’s economy, employing 35 million workers. The Green Deal is uniquely equipped to provide this security through its emphasis on sustainable supply chains and localised agriculture. The cornerstone of the Deal’s agricultural programs is the Farm to Fork strategy, which seeks to increase the sustainability, health, equity, and security of Europe’s food supply. Programs such as these will be vital to making more resilient food systems; a problem that humanity will be faced with undoubtedly should temperatures continue to rise.

COVID-19 is a mixed gift for the EU’s efforts to forge a greener future for the bloc. On one hand, enormous stimulus plans and massive rebuilding provide a historic opportunity to put Europe on the path to sustainability. On the other, political opposition and economic challenges are among a myriad of challenges which will be faced by an independent European Green Deal. If the EU can indeed forge a landmark deal, it would set an incredibly valuable precedent for other countries such as the United States and regional groups like ASEAN. In a wider sense, the successful passage of a European Green Deal would be a much-needed light in the darkness of a global pandemic, economic collapse, and social upheaval.

Art by Oliver Walter

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