Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. Image via Twitter @vonderleyen

“Europe’s man on the moon moment” is how Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, describes the European Green Deal.

The European Green Deal is a plan to make the EU’s economy net zero by 2050 “by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities”. It is supported by a widening range of other strategies for everything from a “renovation wave” to a “methane strategy“.

The Just Transition

The EU will also provide financial support and technical assistance to help those member states that are most negatively affected by the move towards the green economy. This is called the Just Transition Mechanism, promising “at least €100 billion (AU$166 billion) over the period 2021-2027 in the most affected regions”.

This Just Transition is important – and close to the heart of Frans Timmermans, the commission vice president in charge of the European Green Deal, both of whose grandfathers were coal miners.

The document laying out the Deal is only 24 pages long but it seemingly covers everything the Union does – society, the economy, biodiversity and agriculture.

A good investment

The price tag for reaching the 2030 stage of the journey to 2050 — a 55 per cent cut in emissions compared to 1990 levels — is €82 billion (AU$136 billion) to €147 billion (AU$244 billion) extra investment each year, about half a percentage point of the EU’s GDP.

The returns on that investment are likely to be good, and to those you can add the avoided costs of climate disasters and sea level rise, which alone could be €135 billion (AU$224 billion) to €145 billion (AU$241 billion) per year by the 2050s.

Another motivation for Europe is demonstrating world leadership. With Trump turning his back on the Paris Agreement, the EU wants to show “the rest of the world how to be sustainable and competitive”, says Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

Enforcing that leadership is going to be easier in Western Europe, harder in Eastern Europe’s coal-dependent territories and even harder in imports of one key commodity – food.

Agriculture and the Green Deal

A “farm to fork” initiative targets a 20 per cent fertiliser reduction and a 50 per cent pesticides cut plus one quarter of land to be farmed organically by 2030. Three billion trees must be planted, 25,000 kilometres of waterways restored and the decline of pollinators reversed.

Even Europe’s brewers are on board with the Deal.

All well and good, but such standards don’t apply to external trade partners.

“In the past 18 months, the EU has signed deals (some pending ratification) covering nearly half of its crop imports — with the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, and pacts with Australia and New Zealand are on the table,” argue Richard Fuchs, Calum Brown and  Mark Rounsevell in Nature magazine.

But “each nation defines and enforces sustainability differently. Many use pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms that are strictly limited or forbidden in the EU”.

In addition, destruction of natural habitats such as the Amazon rainforest are encouraged by creating markets for the products of the land converted to agriculture. “Farming practices that are restricted in Europe are explicitly permitted in imports, not just overlooked.”

In response, these scientists are calling for the EU to harmonise sustainability standards, encourage citizens to eat less meat, grow more food, and develop indoor farming, even of staple crops like soya.

System change

“Europe has the potential to emerge from the current crisis to become a fairer, more prosperous, more sustainable and more resilient society,” von der Leyen wrote in a report published last week describing how the new goals will be achieved. The green and digital transitions “will shape the social, economic, and ecological architecture of the continent for decades to come”.

The report, from The Club of Rome and advisory firm SYSTEMIQ, introduces a “System Change Compass” to roll out the Green Deal, with ten societal elements that need to be redefined.

These include political leadership, improved measurements for Green Deal targets and financial support to facilitate economic ecosystems.

It details the type of policy interventions that might help to transform economic “sectors” to what it calls “ecosystems – integrated, resilient, adaptive, and directed to truly meet our societal needs”.

Such a process needs industry “champions”, and some of these are identified too – from mobility-as-a-service to regenerative farming and hydrogen technologies. These are “scalable” sustainable industries identified as essential to form Europe’s economic backbone in a net-zero world.

“By treating the EGD (European Green Deal) and COVID-19 crisis recovery as two sides of the same coin, the European Commission is demonstrating genuine leadership,” says the introduction.

Von der Leyen has proposed to increase targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the EU to 55 per cent by 2030, up from the 40 per cent agreed by member states in 2014. The European Parliament has since called for a yet more ambitious of 60 per cent cuts.

European leadership is having influence: President Xi Jinping has said that China would achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and Japan has just announced it will match Europe’s aim.

They are supported by evidence in the Energy Transitions Commission’s latest report “Making Mission Possible” that all sectors in developed economies could achieve zero emissions by 2050 — and all developing countries by 2060 at an estimated cost of just 0.5 per cent of global GDP by 2050.

Not nearly enough

But when the Green Deal was launched, Greta Thunberg was not impressed. “This climate law is surrender. Nature doesn’t bargain, and you cannot make deals with physics”, said the widely-respected teenage campaigner.

The reason? 2050 is twenty years too late. She argued that the package of measures agreed by EU leaders proved that politicians were still not treating climate change as an emergency.

Adelaïde Charlier, co-founder of Youth for Climate, has also said the EU needs to be more ambitious and work faster. She criticised the conflict between green policies and other EU policies that support polluting industries. You cannot have a “budget to kill your planet and a budget to save it”.

She called for a policy for r”restoration”. “Restoration can lead to a significant creation of employment in sectors such as construction or landscaping work and natural capital investment, including restoration of carbon rich habitats and climate friendly agriculture is among the five most important fiscal recovery policies,” she said.

Between 1990 and 2014 European forests expanded by 9 per cent, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Greece (13 million hectares). 

But almost as much was deforested to grow crops that were consumed within the EU in the same period – around 11 million hectares, three-quarters of which was linked to oilseed production in Brazil and Indonesia. These forests had unparalleled biodiversity and were some of the world’s largest carbon sinks, crucial for mitigating climate change.

The (diminishing) Circular Economy

…is much talked about but much less practised as yet. Evidence for Thunberg’s criticism – shared by the German school strike movement – can be found in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, which forms part of the Green Deal.

It proposes measures such as restrictions on the use of those packaging materials for certain applications “for which alternative reusable products exist” and includes a “sustainable products” policy to support circular design.

The problem is that most materials can only be recycled a finite number of times. Those, such as steel, which can be recycled almost infinitely without loss of quality, are encouraged in the plan.

The most recycled material in the world, 75 per cent of the steel ever made is still in circulation today, partly because its attraction to magnets makes it easily recoverable from waste streams. This is why over 82 per cent of used steel packaging in Europe is currently recycled into new products.

The strategy contains no plan for what to do about the bulk of materials, which are not steel.

Chemical cop-out

Then there’s the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability adopted this month by the European Commission. This prohibits the use of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products such as toys, childcare articles, cosmetics, detergents, food contact materials and textiles, “unless proven essential for society”. The last phrase has been criticised as a “get out of jail” card because of its ambiguity.

Other phrases in the strategy such as “substituting as far possible the presence of substances of concern” have all the hallmarks of an industry lobby group sponsored compromise.  What does “as far as possible” mean?

This lobbying activity has been well documented by Greenpeace and its “Unearthed” team of investigators.

The European Green Deal is a modest but necessary statement of aims, and its accompanying blizzard of new legislation a good start. But only when the entire ecological footprint of Europe’s consumption is reduced to a sustainable level can the Green Deal be truly green and truly said to be accomplished.

And if Thunberg is right, by then it might be too late to avert disaster.

David Thorpe is author of books such as Solar Technology and One Planet Cities. He is director of The One Planet Centre. He is based in the UK.