European leaders must embrace the Green Deal for a sustainable recovery

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

The European Union’s decisions on the economy and the environment have far-reaching impacts. By endorsing the European Green Deal, EU member states can drive positive change for their citizens and with partners worldwide, writes Inger Anderson. [Images Money/Flickr]

The European Union’s decisions on the economy and the environment have far-reaching impacts. By endorsing the European Green Deal, EU member states can drive positive change for their citizens and with partners worldwide, writes Inger Andersen.

Inger Andersen is the Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme

The grievous effects of COVID-19 mean that some of the biggest public investments in history are being lined up to heal and restart the economy. As EU member states decide on spending commitments for the bloc for the coming years, leaders have a clear choice. Back the Green Deal and invest in a greener and healthier future – including cutting emissions by up to 55% by 2030 – or return to old and harmful ways of doing business.

It is, essentially, no choice at all.

There has never been a better time to invest in a greener future, and not just because of the warning signs nature is sending us through COVID-19. Renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever. In the second half of 2019, the price of electricity from new solar photovoltaic plants was 83% lower than a decade earlier. Backing the European Green Deal means sending a vital political signal that can accelerate this trend, while improving air quality and our health. It also means moving towards a bloc that is more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.

Such a move will not come at the cost of jobs, as some may fear. By mobilizing at least €100 billion between 2021 and 2027, the Just Transition Fund can ensure that no European is left behind in the transition to clean energy. Fossil fuel industry workers must be ushered into the growing green workforce, and this fund can only help.

The new Biodiversity and ‘farm to fork’ strategies on the table also show unprecedented ambition from the European Commission. Unlike their last editions, they focus more on restoring biodiversity rather than stemming its loss. This is essential if we are to support the soon-to-be-agreed global post-2020 framework on biodiversity and ensure that nature continues to underpin human existence long into the future. The upcoming UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) also offers an opportunity for a major global restoration push, and for the EU to show leadership in restoring declining biodiversity.

The aspirations shown by the Commission to address the environmental effects of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are also welcome. The extra budget proposed for CAP rural development is a positive step forward. Another positive new element is the introduction of detailed targets, for example on cutting pesticide use in half.

Countries now have the opportunity to follow up with the right next steps. This can include ensuring that the Green Deal stimulates demand for healthier and more sustainable food. Europe can also flick the switch for more subsidies to embrace farming methods such as agroecology. This means working with nature to deliver food security, while also protecting biodiversity and supporting more jobs.

Many countries could benefit from the bloc’s experience in building environmental acquis, and the EU can, in turn, learn and apply improved standards and best practices from other parts of the world. By applying strong safeguards to trade agreements, the Green Deal can also ensure that new trade opportunities do not risk these acquis being undercut, or environmental damage being exported elsewhere. Indeed, fairer globalisation and a new generation of partnerships are needed to support achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Just as importantly, given the current COVID-19 crisis, the Green Deal should be seen as an insurance policy against future pandemics. On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months, and 75% of these diseases come from animals. Humanity’s expansion into wild spaces – along with increasing exploitation of species – is largely to blame for this trend, as we come closer into contact with animals and their diseases. The ambition of protecting 30% of the EU’s territory is a good starting point for action. The better care we take of nature – as the Green Deal aspires to – the better we take care of human health.

The UN Environment Programme is ready to support countries in tailoring national action plans to seize the best investment opportunities from the Green Deal. Green energy and a circular economy can deliver jobs and economic growth, as well as savings – for example through energy efficiency – while still helping countries meet common European climate goals.

The European Commission is right not to let its environmental ambitions fall victim to COVID-19 and to push forward with the Green Deal. This deal will make Europe stronger and greener. Investing in environmental sustainability is the only way to prosper.

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