Devastating marks for Europe’s environment policies

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Out of the 35 tracked indicators and policy objectives for 2020, the EU is on track to meeting six, while set to fail a whopping 29, according to the EEA's State of Environment report 2020. [© Fatma Demir, Picture2050 /EEA]

The verdict of the EEA’s “State of the Environment Report 2020” is scathing. But if we get it right, the European Green Deal can provide us with a unique opportunity to turn the tide, writes Ester Asin.

Ester Asin is the director of the WWF’s European Policy Office and Chair of the Green10, a campaign group bringing together ten of the largest environmental organisations at European level. The full list of signatories is at the bottom of this article.

Six out of 35. That’s the devastating mark the EU was given today for its environmental performance. ‘Must do better’ does not even begin to describe it – but sadly, re-sitting the test is not an option. Environmental destruction and climate change don’t wait, and we’re running out of second chances.

The “State of the Environment Report 2020” published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) today does not make for happy reading. Out of the 35 tracked indicators and policy objectives for 2020, the EU is on track to meeting six, while set to fail a whopping 29. Looking to 2030 and 2050, predictions are even worse: we are nowhere in our efforts to tackle climate change, pollution or nature loss. I think it is fair to say that policy-makers have failed their citizens, and it’s totally clear that current incremental measures are insufficient. Instead, systemic change is urgently required if we are to prevent ecological collapse.

The inertia of our policy-makers in the face of ecological disaster comes at a very real human and economic cost, a cost that is often not taken into account or underestimated when crucial decisions are taken. Already today, many people in Europe and across the globe are affected by the impacts of climate change and nature loss – heat waves with rising death tolls, air pollution shortening our life expectancy, floods and droughts destroying livelihoods, homes and communities.

No wonder that the youth is in the streets. This mess we have created is their new reality – and a threat to their very future.

Scientists tell Belgian school kids on climate strike: ‘You’re right!’

A group of more than 3,000 scientists have given their backing to thousands of Belgian school children who took to the streets for the fourth week in a row on Thursday (30 January) to ask for more ambitious climate policies.

But we firmly believe that we can turn this doom and gloom scenario into an opportunity.

As the new Commission takes office for a new five-year mandate, the signs are good, starting with the promise to present an ambitious and far-reaching “European Green Deal” within 100 days. If we get this right, the EU can yet turn the tide. But what does ‘getting it right’ mean? Here are some opportunities that we as the Green 10 can see:

First, the European Green Deal must be underpinned by an understanding of the direct link between climate action and nature conservation and restoration. Bringing nature back and restoring ecosystems such as natural forests, peatlands and coastal zones presents a win-win opportunity for both climate and biodiversity. It will ensure carbon is kept in the ground and more is stored, and it will improve our resilience against heat waves, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events brought on by the changing climate. A legally binding target for nature restoration can support our efforts to address climate change.

Second, the EU needs to act in line with the state of climate emergency and agree to a new higher 2030 climate target by the middle of 2020, well before COP26 in November. To achieve this, the European Commission must present its proposal within the first 100 days in office – doing so later would jeopardise an agreement before COP26 and hence undermine the Paris Agreement. This target should be well beyond 55%, as science supports even deeper cuts of at least 65%.

Third, the European Green Deal must bring far-reaching reforms across all economic sectors, even those more resistant to change (such as transport and agriculture), and this must be done in a socially fair manner. Without social justice, the ecological transition is set to fail. All parts of the European Commission must work together to ensure the same environmental and social ambition is applied to all economic, financial and industrial policies. The recent decision by the European Investment Bank (EIB) to phase out support to fossil fuels after 2021 must trigger a much deeper transformation of our financial system. The next EU budget must also be in line with the objectives, by allocating half of the spending to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, and national budgets also need to make a better contribution. The Stability and Growth Pact should be overhauled into a sustainability pact. And a meaningful Just Transition fund must ensure support for the communities and regions most affected by this transition.

Fourth, the European Green Deal should put an end to Member States blatantly disrespecting existing strong environmental laws, notably on health, nature protection and freshwater. Today, these breaches go largely unpunished. This sets a dangerous precedent for any new initiatives to be launched under the Green Deal. The EEA rightfully points out that full implementation of existing policies and legislation would take Europe a long way to achieving its environmental goals up to 2030. The Commission has the tools to hold Member States to account for dragging their feet on implementation of EU law, and it must start to apply its promised ‘zero tolerance’ stance by demonstrating greater courage in using them. Whether it is protecting old growth forests in Bialowieza, or ensuring air quality standards are met – this is about issues that are close to people’s lives, and will boost public acceptance.

The new Commission is off to a good start as far as its promises go. Now it’s important for it to deliver the meaningful measures that should make them come true. We as environmental NGOs will carefully assess every initiative and every proposal. We want to urge Ursula von der Leyen to use her yearly State of the Union address to report back on the Commission’s actions on climate and biodiversity. From now on,the EU’s year-on-year figures on CO2 emissions reductions and nature restoration must be made public, to ensure that we are on track for a carbon neutral Europe.

Science matters. Without it, we would be guided by ideology or guesswork. Scientific facts, like the ones presented to us by the EEA today, help us see things as they are, and fully recognise the emergency we are facing. Now it’s up to decision makers in politics, businesses and civil society to apply this knowledge, courageously and with the best interest of our planet and future generations at their hearts. The European Green Deal is a great opportunity to meet this challenge, and we simply cannot afford to get it wrong.

Greta Thunberg: ‘We just want politicians to listen to the scientists’

School kids are on climate strike “because we have done our homework” and listened to science, 16-year-old green activist Greta Thunberg told EU policymakers in Brussels today (21 February). “Just unite behind the science, that is our demand,” she said.


Full list of signatories:

  • Ester Asin, WWF European Policy Office (current chair of Green 10)
  • Ariel Brunner, Birdlife Europe
  • Huub Scheele, CEE Bankwatch Network
  • Wendel Trio, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe
  • Jeremy Wates, European Environmental Bureau (EEB)
  • Jagoda Munic, Friends of the Earth Europe
  • Jorgo Riss, Greenpeace European Unit
  • Andrea Lichtenecker, Naturefriends International
  • William Todts, Transport and Environment
  • Génon Jensen, Health and Environment Alliance

Subscribe to our newsletters