The Green Brief: Europe’s ‘zero pollution’ dreams

Green brief

Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Of all the objectives in the European Green Deal, presented in December 2019, the “Zero Pollution Action Plan” immediately jumped out as the one policymakers were likely to struggle with the most.

“Creating a toxic-free environment” with zero air, water and soil pollution is something hardly anyone can disagree with. Yet the objective has been treated with little urgency by the European Commission, which presented its “action plan” on 12 May – one of the last in the series of major policy initiatives launched under the Green Deal.

But instead of a great climax to round off Europe’s new climate ambition, the zero pollution action plan comes across as a list of good but toothless intentions, setting out “an integrated vision for 2050” where the world would be pollution-free.

Unlike the binding objectives agreed for 2030 and 2050 to tackle climate change, there are no time-bound legal obligations or major new policy proposals to tackle pollution. All the Commission promised is a review of existing laws “to identify remaining gaps in EU legislation” and determine whether “better implementation is necessary”.

That hardly sounds like the far-reaching plan it was lauded as. To quote the European Environmental Bureau NGO, “the proposal falls short on ramping up action to prevent pollution at source and instead mainly lists existing legal obligations and ongoing reviews of EU laws”.

In fact, the initiative seems more like a repackaging of existing EU policies than anything new.

Take air pollution, for instance: the European Commission proposes to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55%. However, this is already an obligation under the EU’s air quality directive. And the Commission itself recognises that the 55% objective will be reached by 2030 “if member states implemented all measures” agreed under existing EU laws.

Granted, the plan does include some ambitious targets, such as measures to address air and noise pollution from transport and phasing out the most harmful chemicals. But it doesn’t propose any tangible ways of addressing these.

And past experience – for instance with chemicals – has shown that far-reaching environmental policies require investment in political capital, which the Commission has chosen to place in climate policy.

Like most EU environmental plans, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The zero pollution action plan may have been labelled as the cherry on top of a grand Green Deal, but it lacks the impetus for real change. For the time being, Europe’s new “action plan” bears all the hallmarks of wishful thinking and procrastination.

– Frédéric Simon


This week’s top stories


News from the capitals

BUCHAREST. Former Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila has been hired by the country’s central bank as the consultant for green energy. The decision has caused outrage as Dancila is seen as a close ally of former PSD leader Liviu Dragnea before he was convicted and sentenced to jail for corruption. Read more.

BERLIN. Construction continues on the hotly contested fossil gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. The construction of two kilometres of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – which had been halted due to environmental concerns – was ordered by the German maritime authority (BSH) on Monday to allow safe continuation of works in Danish waters. The entire German side of the project was green-lit in April. Read more.

PRAGUE. Czech government approves national recovery plan. The Czech government approved on Monday a national recovery plan with investments worth €7.9 billion, mostly funded by the EU recovery fund. However, the plan was slammed by environmental organisations for lacking ambition on climate measures. Read more.

BUCHAREST. Romania plans reform of freight transport taxation. The Romanian government has proposed a reform of the taxation of road freight transport on highways in a bid to reduce pollution in the long term. Read more.

BERLIN. Germany’s coal phase-out plan based on flawed calculations. Greenpeace says the formula used by Germany in 2020 to calculate the compensation it awarded to energy companies as part of its plan to phase out coal by 2038 contained favourable assumptions for energy companies, resulting in a miscalculated sum for two energy companies, Der Spiegel reported. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. €1.5 billion needed to decarbonise Slovakia’s steelworks. After a business trip to Pittsburg, Slovak Finance Minister and former Prime Minister, Igor Matovič, unveiled a €1.5 billion plan to decarbonise Slovakia’s U.S. Steel Košice steel mill, which aims to reduce the steelwork’s emissions by 80%. Read more.

ZAGREB. Zagreb feels the Green wave. The Green-left coalition of the We Can!, Zagreb is Ours, New Left, ORaH and For the City parties were projected as the biggest winners of local elections held Sunday, according to exit polls. Read more.

ROME. “There is not a single thing that can solve the climate crisis. We need a multiple approach,” said US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, who met on Thursday with Italy’s foreign and ecological ministers, as well as with CEOs of the country’s major energy companies in Rome. Read more.


News in brief

Thunberg turns to lawmakers to halt CAP. Young climate activists have turned their focus on the European Parliament to halt the disputed Common Agricultural Policy after their meeting with EU Green Deal chief, Frans Timmermans, where he made it clear his hands are tied on the dossier.

This was the third meeting of campaigners from the #WithdrawCAP movement with Timmermans since the start of negotiations on the legislation. But, while Timmermans told activists he shared their concerns, he said he could not act unilaterally to scrap CAP.

“I find this to be a very contradictory statement,” said Finland-based campaigner Sommer Ackerman.

Leading climate activist Greta Thunberg said in a press conference that they do not expect the EU executive to withdraw CAP and will now focus on EU lawmakers, urging them to vote it down in the plenary once the negotiations come to an end. Read the full story from EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna here.


Lights out at Poland’s biggest power plant. Ten of the 11 units at Poland’s largest power plant – the lignite-fuelled Bełchatów – were switched off after a malfunction this week, cutting output by almost 4 gigawatts. The sudden drop in power left Poland reliant on neighbouring countries, Germany, Sweden, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, for power.

Bełchatów provides around 20% of Poland’s power and has consecutively been labelled the EU’s largest climate polluter in a list compiled by think tank Ember Climate. The event has sparked a debate about energy security in Poland and showed that, even without almost all of Bełchatów, the system can still deliver, according to Joanna Flisowska from Greenpeace, head of the climate and energy unit at Greenpeace Poland.

“This event is yet more proof that centralised and fossil fuel-based energy systems do not guarantee the security of supply. It’s time to stop using this argument to slow down the energy transition. Poland needs to move beyond coal and focus on the transition towards renewables-based distributed and resilient energy system,” she told EURACTIV. Read more from AP. (Kira Taylor |


Dutch government pushes back on ECT claims. The Dutch government has asked German courts to check whether compensation claims filed against them under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) by energy companies RWE and Uniper have a legal basis. The international agreement allows companies to sue countries over actions that impact their investments, but the Dutch government argues that the catalyst for the suits – the Coal Prohibition Act – was carefully drawn up and the result of a democratic decision.

It added that companies should have assumed governments would bring in measures to reduce carbon emissions. For instance, Uniper built its coal plant in 2016 – the year after the Paris Agreement.

The ECT is currently under reform. France and Spain have both called for the EU to leave the treaty if it is not brought in line with the Paris Agreement, but any change will need to be agreed upon unanimously among the treaty’s 57 signatories.

However, some support the claims. Tomas Vail, a specialist investor-state arbitration lawyer told EURACTIV: “Uniper’s claim reflects the purpose of the ECT as agreed to by its contracting parties – to protect investors’ energy investments, both in the renewables sector and from other energy sources … The renegotiation of any treaty is bound to be complex and there are undoubtedly legitimate concerns to address. But it’s not obvious that the ECT, or the right of investors to bring claims against states, is the obstacle to sufficient investment in renewable energy that many make it out to be.” Read more on the RWE claim here or on the Uniper claim here (Kira Taylor |


Half of emission cuts will come from new tech, according to US climate envoy. “You don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things that we know we have to achieve … I am told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have,” John Kerry told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show. EURACTIV’s media partner, The Guardian, has more.

However, the comment hasn’t gone down hugely well with environmentalists. “50% of the carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that have not yet been invented. Great news! I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!” climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote on Twitter.


Renewables targets useless without improved permitting. Ahead of the revision of the renewable energy directive in July, the wind industry has warned that higher renewables targets require better permitting. Current projections see around 15 gigawatts of capacity added every year by 2025, but the industry says this will fall short of the 179 gigawatts needed by 2030 to reach Europe’s increased ambition.

“The barrier to the expansion of wind energy needed for the Green Deal is not technology. Nor cost. Nor financing. It’s permitting. Europe is simply not permitting enough new wind farms to reach its renewable energy targets … It’ll be nice to have a higher renewables target, but it’ll be academic if we don’t tackle permitting,” said Giles Dickson, CEO of wind industry body, WindEurope. Read WindEurope’s take on the July package here or EURACTIV’s reporting on the leaks ahead of the renewable energy directive reform here. (Kira Taylor |


Europe cannot delay improving air quality. The European Commission’s zero pollution action plan is a much-needed way to address pollution and its impact on health and the environment, but Europe needs a full alignment with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on air pollution, the rapporteur for the issue, MEP Javi Lopez, told EURACTIV.

“We need a full alignment with WHO recommendations and the latest scientific advice that is accompanied by a mechanism that enables its regular update. We cannot wait another 15 or 20 years to update our air quality standards,” said Lopez, who led Parliament’s call for Europe to align with WHO standards. 

However, he said the aim to take further steps to reduce ammonia emissions, a pollutant that causes particulate matter, was positive and welcomed the focus on urban pollution, given three-quarters of Europeans live in cities and suburban areas riddled with air and noise pollution. Read EURACTIV’s report on air pollution in the plan here or the measures it spelt out for soil protection (Kira Taylor |


COP26 president urges action on climate change. The world needs to act now to slow global warming otherwise there will be a climate catastrophe, COP26 President Alok Sharma said on Friday.

“If we do not act now, the science tells us these effects will become more frequent and more brutal, that we will witness a scale of global catastrophe the likes of which the world has not seen,” he said. More on COP26 from EURACTIV’s media partner (EURACTIV with Reuters)




Upcoming events

20 MAY. Cogeneration and district heating: an enabler of the green transition? Jakup Dalunde MEP, and Paul Voss and Hans Korteweg from the industry will discuss how effective integration between heat and power can meet energy efficiency goals and what this means for the industry Programme and registration here. (Supported by PGE)

26 MAY. EU agenda for global forests – getting the balance right. With a keynote address from environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius and more speakers to be confirmed, looking at how to get the balance right in the EU’s forest protection agenda. Programme and registration here. (Supported by COCERAL, FEDIOL and FEFAC)

27 MAY. China, EU and US cooperation on climate change – is there political will to make real progress? Together China, the EU and the US are responsible for around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Join Jacob Werksman, from the European Commission’s climate department, green MEP, Henrike Hahn, Ye Qi from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe to discuss how these countries can be climate game-changers. Programme and registration here. (Supported by the Mission of China to the EU)

4 JUNE. COP26: will it be different this time? Join Dimitrios Zevglios from the European Commission’s climate department, Jytte Guteland MEP and former Conservative MP Amber Rudd to discuss how the global community will have to work together to address the climate challenge at COP26 and beyond. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Equinor)


On our radar

25 MAY: EU summit in Brussels (face-to-face). Discussions will centre on the coronavirus crisis, the battle against climate change and tensions with Russia. More.

21 JUNE: Environment council. Ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the climate adaptation strategy.

14 JULY: Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in June, 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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