The newly appointed European Commission has already done what no Commission has done before - not only admitting that we face an existential ecological threat, but putting the ecological transition we need at the top of its priorities. But having seen decades of broken promises, greenwashing, fake solutions and irrelevant feel good initiatives, I struggle to control my inner cynic and believe that, this time, it’s for real. So, as we eagerly await the publication of the Green Deal, I still see a few reasons for hope.
President Von der Leyen has created a Commission structure and mission letters for key Commissioners that make sense and are broadly sound. Vice President Timmermans is being tasked with solving the right problems (climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution) and is being put in charge of the right portfolios (environment and oceans, agriculture, energy, transport). Similarly, Virginjius Sinkevičius, who is in charge of the crucial environment and oceans portfolio, has so far shown competence, ambition and courage. His mission letter is ambitious and well-focused. This all strikes a remarkable, dare I say encouraging, contrast compared to five years ago, when the Juncker Commission mission letters ignored the ecological crisis and even asked for the deregulation of environmental laws.
But the new Commission faces extremely powerful vested interests committed to the status quo. If heeded, they will continue to lead us down the road towards ecological, and ultimately, societal collapse. Sinkevičius steps into a European Parliament and Council attempting to re-introduce destructive fishing subsidies that the EU banned 15 years ago, which he on the flip-side has been tasked with helping to phase out globally. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), arguably the single most important policy for the future of biodiversity, is stuck in the past with Member States falling over each other to make the abuse of EU funding even easier. Wherever you look, it is very clear that for all the recent rhetoric, the magnitude of the environmental crisis has yet to sink in beyond lip service.
So will the Green Deal be anything more than a PR-stunt greenwashing the image of the EU? I’ll be looking at three key tests the Green Deal must pass if it is to be taken seriously. To achieve anything, we need to see what’s in store for biodiversity - our life support system - but parallels can be drawn for climate action and beyond.
Law enforcement. The EU has some of the world’s best nature protection laws. Despite this, these laws are broken time and time again all across Europe with national authorities who often simply turn a blind eye to outrageous violations and abuses. From wildlife persecution to the destruction of natural habitats, nitrogen pollution to pesticides, from fishing to logging – nothing will be achieved without this very basic cornerstone – making sure Europe actually follows and enforces its existing fit-for-purpose laws. Practically, this means that the Commission must make infringements against Member States their day job rather than the rare exception it is today. This is fully within the Commission’s control. Sinkevičius has already declared zero-tolerance against EU countries breaking our nature laws, and Timmermans has vowed to make this his personal responsibility. They have no excuses for not delivering. The precious rule of law principle underlying the EU must apply across all sectors.
Nature restoration. The one new initiative that could bring quick and large scale wins for biodiversity, climate mitigation and climate adaptation, is an ambitious nature restoration agenda. Saving and allowing forests to mature towards old growth, rewetting peatlands, re-flooding wetlands and re-establishing biodiverse grasslands is key for reversing the decline of biodiversity on a continent almost entirely degraded by human activities. It is also the only readily available technology for locking up carbon to help fight climate change and the best way to keep water in the land and mitigate ever increasing floods and droughts. This requires establishing ambitious and legally binding targets and putting EU money behind them. Planting trees, mentioned by Timmermans in his hearing, can be useful, especially to make urban areas liveable and resilient. But it isn’t a silver bullet that will restore nature. In fact, large-scale tree monocultures are environmentally disastrous and create ephemeral carbon stocks that are easily wiped out by pest outbreaks, storms or fires. And planting the wrong trees in the wrong places can deal a powerful and lasting blow to our struggling biodiversity, much of which depends on open, naturally occurring habitats.
Agriculture and fishing. The science is crystal clear about the causes of biodiversity loss. By far, the most devastating ones are intensive farming and unsustainable fishing. As much as the powerful lobbies controlling much of EU politics would like to wish these facts away, we cannot save biodiversity, nor address climate change, or even offer a viable future to our farmers and fishers without making an immediate U-turn on the current, disastrous path we’re on, degrading the biological resources our very lives depend on. This will be the hardest test to pass, and will require the most time and effort, given the degree to which national governments are held captive by vested interests. It will require the political courage to stand-up to national governments and political parties, expose their systematic hypocrisy, and force them to come clean with their citizens who overwhelmingly support a just transition.
The Green Deal must lay out stepping stones that the Commission must stick to. If they do, they will earn their place in history. If they don’t, their successors might face a future too dark to contemplate.