The Green Brief: Building back better?

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When the European Union prepared its response to the coronavirus pandemic in May last year, it promised one thing: to “build back better”.

The phrase, initially coined by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, has caught on across Europe and the rest of the world. At a recent summit, the leaders of the world’s seven most industrialised nations promised just that – “to beat COVID-19 and build back better” after the crisis.

The European Commission – backed by France, Germany and other EU nations – has undeniably taken a leading role in pushing forward that agenda at the global level, putting the European Green Deal at the centre of its €750 billion recovery plan.

The idea is to rebuild with a focus on a sustainable, future-proof economy. EU institutions agreed to set aside 37% of the recovery fund for the green transition and 20% for the digital economy.

In addition, the entire EU budget and recovery fund will be subject to the “do no significant harm” (DNSH) principle – a commitment that not even a single euro of EU money will be spent on environment-damaging investments.

These political objectives deserve praise, but how do they translate in practice? Over the last few months, academics, think tanks, and NGOs have tried to answer that question by analysing the national recovery and resilience plans that EU member states have submitted to the European Commission (read our latest update on that here).

And they tell a different story to the EU’s vision of green spending. Earlier this month, the Greens in the European Parliament warned that the submitted national spending plans fell short of the bloc’s climate commitments.

Their letter to the Commission listed a raft of violations, including spending on public transport in Poland and Slovenia being falsely tagged as ‘low-emission’.

And investments in hybrid vehicles in Germany, France and Czechia were misidentified as green spending. In Italy, the purchase of diesel-fuelled agricultural machinery was labelled climate-friendly because it would replace older equipment.

The list goes on for almost 15 pages, with violations grouped in seven different categories. The document is available here and is worth a read as it reveals a lot about national priorities.  

The Germany-based Institute for Future-Fit Economies (ZOE) published another analysis more recently. It found “weaknesses across all of the plans” when it comes to the way EU governments apply the DNSH principle, for example when it comes to biodiversity protection and addressing economic disparities.

“We are particularly worried about the fact that most plans lack explicit consideration of the regions and people that are left behind through the combined impact of digitalisation and globalisation,” said Elizabeth Dirth, head of the analysis team at ZOE.

“As a result, some measures may deliver short-term effects, but they will miss the long-term objective: transforming Europe’s economy and society towards climate-neutrality and fairness,” she said.

As of Wednesday, the European Commission has approved ten EU countries’ plans, which will now be subject to a vote in the EU Council of Ministers. It’s not clear how strict that scrutiny will be but there are reasons to believe member states will be charitable to each other.

Later this week, EU leaders will meet António Guterres at an EU summit in Brussels, where they will exchange views on the post-pandemic recovery and the EU’s promise of “building back better” after the crisis.

Those analyses are fitting reminders that, when it comes to grand political promises, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

– Frédéric Simon

 

Top stories

 

This week’s stories

 

News from the capitals

ROME. EU Commission chief green lights Italian recovery plan. Italy has received a green light for its Recovery and Resilience Plan, meaning the country will soon obtain its first tranche of around €25 billion in stimulus to help it recover from the economic fall-out of the pandemic. Read more.

VIENNA. Von der Leyen gives green light to Austrian recovery plan. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has declared the Commission’s approval of Austria’s €3.5 billion recovery plan in a press conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Austria will primarily invest the money in railways, broadband extension and ecological projects. Read more.

WARSAW. Polish city has worst air quality in Europe. The southern Polish city of Nowy Sącz has the worst air quality in the European Union, according to a new ranking released by the European Environmental Agency. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Commission gives green light to Slovakia’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. The European Commission has approved Slovakia’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. Visiting the country, Commission President Von der Leyen said it allocated 43% of spending to green investment, including new renewable energy capacities, energy efficiency and renovation as well as developing new infrastructure for electric vehicle charging points and public transport. Read more.

TIRANA. Hydropower-based Albania launches first wind energy tender. Albania launched its first tender on Monday for the construction of utility-scale onshore wind power plants, with a total capacity of 100 MW with the aim of diversifying its hydroelectric production capacity. Albania produces more than 99% of its energy from hydroelectric power, with its main plant located in the northern part of the Dorini River. The country is thus vulnerable to seasonal changes and relies on expensive and high-emission imports of electricity. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

GENEVA. In the aftermath of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Green MEPs and political parties from countries around the Baltic Sea expressed their “firm disapproval” of and “opposition” to the Nord Stream 2 project. Read more.

PRAGUE | WARSAW. Turów negotiations take place between Czechia and Poland. The Czech Republic and Polish governments started negotiations on Thursday to try to resolve a dispute over the controversial Polish lignite mine Turów situated near the Czech borders, which according to the Czech Republic has become an environmental issue for the country. Read more.

SARAJEVO. DiCaprio urges BiH to stop building mini-hydroelectric plants. Hollywood film star Leonardo DiCaprio has sent a letter to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federation (Bosniak and Croat entity) authorities, calling on them to adopt the legislation banning the construction of many small hydroelectric power plants – demands he already made last autumn. Read more.

 

News in brief

MEPs call for greater focus on carbon removal technologies. A group of 15 lawmakers in the European Parliament have called on the European Commission to do more to incentivise carbon removal technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). The letter, which was led by Finnish MEP Henna Virkunnen (EPP), points out that organisations, including the UNFCCC and the IEA, as well as the US and China recognise that getting to net zero by 2050 is impossible without CCS/CCU. In particular, it highlights the potential of bioenergy plus CCS (BECCS) to store CO2 with a “degree of permanence that nature-based solutions can rarely offer”. Read the full letter here

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COVID caused surge in single-use plastics. Pollution from masks, gloves and other single-use plastics increased thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the European Environment Agency. It estimates that 170,000 additional tonnes of face masks – about 0.75 per person every day – were imported into the EU during the first months of the pandemic. There needs to be better preparation for future disruptions and uncertainties, including research on alternative materials and product design and strategies to reduce littering, said the agency. Read more.

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German energy minister gives more detail on stance on gas. Asked by EURACTIV about Germany’s opposition to the blending of hydrogen and gas – seen in its stance during TEN-E negotiations – energy minister Peter Altmaier, said, “This is predominantly due to technological reasons. We want to accelerate the market upscaling of hydrogen and have therefore provided billions of funding. Until then, gas and coke oven gas are important bridge energy sources, both are possible. If we want to support green hydrogen, we need to know where it is used, and by whom, which is why we have opted for a different technological solution.” (Nikolaus J Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de)

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Belgium’s failure to meet climate targets is a human rights violation. After a six-year legal battle, a Brussels court ruled that Belgium had committed an offence under civil law and was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by not taking all “necessary measures” to prevent the impacts of climate change. Read more from EURACTIV’s media partner, The Guardian.

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Lawmakers call for more ambitious measures to decarbonise shipping. International decision-makers need to increase ambition for emissions reductions in maritime shipping, according to the official delegation from the environment committee of the European Parliament to the 76th session of the International Maritime Organisation’s Marine Environment Protection Committee.

“Shipping is one of the sectors that still sails under the radar when it comes to taking responsibility for their own emissions. This is totally unacceptable. The outcome of this IMO session is a big disappointment when it comes to tackling global warming,” said co-chair of the delegation, Jytte Guteland, MEP. Read more.

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ECB will “see to it” that banks meet climate risk expectations. No major bank in the euro zone meets all of the European Central Bank’s (ECB) expectations in assessing climate-related risk and they should expect increased pressure from their supervisor to adjust, ECB board member Frank Elderson said last week.

“The great majority of European banks are not even close to where they should be – and they know it: 90% of reported practices are deemed by the banks themselves only partially or not at all aligned with the ECB’s supervisory expectations,” Elderson said in a speech.

He added that over half of the banks supervised by the ECB have no approach for assessing the impact of climate risks and only around 40% of banks have assigned explicit responsibility for managing climate risks to the management body.

“The ECB will see to it that every bank is making expeditious progress in embedding climate risks into their organisations, by following up with supervisory requirements where needed,” Elderson added. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)

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Lawmakers call for swift phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. During a vote on the eighth Environmental Action plan last week, MEPs in the environment committee voted to phase out all direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 with environmentally harmful subsidies phased out by 2027.

Green Irish rapporteur, Grace O’Sullivan, said, “As we find ourselves at the beginning of a crucial decade in tackling the ecological crisis impacting our lands and seas, this [eighth] EAP responds to fundamental challenges facing our people and planet with an ambitious framework that recognises the need for systemic change.”

“Getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies – like tax exemptions on kerosene for planes or diesel for fishing vessels – is a crucial step towards a decarbonised Europe, one of the main objectives of the EU Green Deal,” Flaminia Tacconi, fisheries lawyer at ClientEarth.

Environmental action plans guide environment policy. The eighth plan will be in force until 2030, covering the crucial decade of climate action. It will be voted on by all MEPs in July. Read more. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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European Commission registers ‘Ban Fossil Fuel Advertising and Sponsorships’ initiative. Last week, the EU executive registered a European Citizens’ Initiative to ban advertising and sponsorship for fossil fuels, of almost all fossil fuel vehicles and companies involved in the fossil fuel value chain. The proposed ban would apply online and offline, covering advertising and sponsorship, including in sport, education, science, public events and third-party media events. The Commission is yet to act on it and it will need to garner support from people across the EU. Read more. See how citizens initiatives work here.

 

Opinions

 

Upcoming events

24 JUNE. Fit for purpose? The role of renewable fuels on the road to 2030 and beyond. Join Zlatko Kregar, policy officer for sustainable and intelligent transport at DG MOVE and Henna Virkkunen MEP from the transport committee as well as people from the industry to discuss the upcoming revision of the renewable energy directive, which is already causing ripples as people speculate about the role of bioenergy and how Europe can meet its new climate goals. Programme and registration here. (Supported by ePURE)

25 JUNE. What will be the cost of including transport and buildings in the EU ETS? With Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertynski, Undersecretary of State in Poland, Pascal Canfin, chair of the environment committee in the European Parliament, and more, explore the impact of the European Commission’s potential inclusion of buildings and transport in the emissions trading scheme. Programme and registration here. (Supported by the Polish Economic Institute)

25 JUNE. MEDIA PARTNERSHIP: The blue economy in the green transition – European contributions to sustainable ocean management. Join Portuguese Minister of Maritime Affairs, Ricardo Serrão Santos, and Norwegian State Secretary, Jens Frølich Holte, to discuss European policies and initiatives for a sustainable blue economy and how these initiatives contribute to the global efforts for sustainable ocean management. Programme and registration here. (Organised by Mission of Norway to the European Union)

 

On our radar

14 JULY: Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in July, including a revision of the renewable energy directive, a revision of the emissions trading scheme and our first glimpse at a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

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