Yes to a Green Deal, no to a green washing deal for Europe

In collaboration with  Franziska Achterberg and Bernhard Obermayr

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The European Green Deal (EGD) is an important reference document for the direction of the EU and its ambition of leading the global climate effort. No major country or economic and political bloc has put forward anything comparable as a framing of a new executive branch. This alone makes the EGD an important reference for the climate justice movement inside and outside Europe. 

The EGD has changed the battleground for the climate movement. It means that overarching importance of the climate and ecological breakdown has reached the highest political level. The new battle is over narratives and the nature of the societal transformation needed to stop (and reverse) the breakdown. Can we rely on small tweaks to the existing system and technological development to get there? Or does it need more than that? 

Reading behind the overall narrative, the Commission’s proposed Green Deal is nothing but its climate and environmental policy programme for the coming years. It does not incorporate any economic or social objectives, which the Commission is pursuing under separate pillars of its five-year programme

The EGD has a dominant focus on climate related policies, which are spelled out in most detail. But also has non-climate related commitments, like a Biodiversity Action Plan for 2030, a Zero Pollution Action Plan, a Farm to Fork Strategy and a Circular Economy Action Plan, which the Commission will turn into detailed policies at a later stage. The Deal also has a financial perspective, which the Commission presented immediately following the overall plan in the form of a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan that commits 1 trillion EUR in public and private money to the “green transition” over the period of 2021-2030. The proposed policies include a revised Non-financial Reporting Directive aimed at increasing corporate transparency and accountability.  

Although the details fall short, compared to the challenge ahead, the mere fact that a conservative Commission puts such a plan forward shows how far the climate crisis has hit the mainstream. Individual elements of the EGD can be used in a tactical way, including new funding mechanisms offering concrete and progressive transition opportunities for local/regional actors. Furthermore, a “Europe is transforming” narrative can be supportive in other world regions. The biggest opportunity however is the high level of priority accorded to the climate and ecological breakdown vis-à-vis other priorities of the new Commission. 

But EU institutions are famous for their exposure and openness to corporate lobbying and influence. Looking at the EGD through that lens, we can find major cracks and weaknesses behind the impressive and ambitious narrative.

Lacking economic paradigm shift

 The EGD wants to make us believe that climate action and keeping the EU on track for the 1,5° goal is possible whilst keeping within the existing economic paradigm. The EGD places its full trust in market solutions, new technologies and private economic actors, and above all a false promise of green growth. In fact, Ursula von der Leyen refers to the EGD as “our new growth strategy” which will benefit European industries by giving them a “first mover advantage”.  Furthermore, the EGD clearly avoids any conflict with polluting industries, regardless how harmful their operations are or how bad their track record is. It quietly accepts the technology fixes offered by these industries, which are likely to further exacerbate the climate and ecological crises, such as CCS and genetic engineering.

Note however that Frans Timmermans, the Socialist responsible for the delivery of the Green Deal, likes to present the Green Deal as a way to improve “health and well-being of our people” and also mentions “transforming our economic model”.This political difference between van der Leyen and Timmermans can serve as an entry point into some more fundamental debates. 

Lacking social transformation

The EGD fails to acknowledge the fact that a meaningful response to the climate crisis includes a social transformation of scale. Pushing through regressive policies whilst keeping everything else unchanged can lead to severe social crisis, as it will mean that the poor are hit hardest. Although there is some talk and money for a “just transition”, a clear social transformation strategy, and the concept of the commons, is lacking. 

Not coherent with what science demands

The Commission’s European Green Deal sets out a plan to reduce emissions by 50-55%, which is not in line with the 2 degree, let alone the 1.5 degree target under the Paris Agreement. With this year’s COP and climate being at the top of the political and media agenda, the adequacy (or not) of climate targets will be an important yardstick against which to measure success of the European Green Deal.

Bailing out dirty industries

The EGD risks following the bad tradition of pouring massive amounts of public funding into dirty industries, regardless of their behaviour. Besides being morally and socially unfair, it is also politically counterproductive by supporting the fiercest opponents to climate action. Rather than forcing polluting industries to radically change their business practices, it would shield them from such pressures. This echoes the devastating signal of the bail-out of banks during the financial crisis – if you are big enough, you need not care about the societal impact of your actions – with negative long-term consequences. The logic remains that benefits are for corporations and costs for society as a whole.

Greenwashing

The fact that there is no clear course of transformational action can stimulate any actor to simply greenwash their activities. This can mean that insufficient action is presented as comprehensive – as the Commission itself is doing with its oversized man-on-the-moon messaging on the EGD (which it declares 1.5C compliant although it is not). It can also mean putting a layer of green paint on activities that in reality have the opposite effect of damaging the climate and nature – as the Commission is doing with its announcement of CCS, “decarbonised gas”, industrial tree plantations and genetic engineering as part of the EGD.  Because the EGD lacks clear red lines on what can and cannot serve to save the climate and our ecosystems it incentivises an “anything goes” mentality and a drive towards cheap or best-sellable actions or stunts.

Lack of global responsibility

The EGD is not addressing Europe’s responsibility for emissions and destruction abroad (e.g. deforestation or production in the global South). This reaches from the effects of domestic consumption to neglecting the effects of trade agreements. 

What does all this mean after all? That the EGD is a critical story and political opportunity for the global climate movement, and should be responded to so. Getting lost in the details of the various policy packages is not going to lead to the ultimate systemic shift and leap change the planetary crisis is calling for. Grassroots, together with NGOs and think tanks should claim back the climate story from the EU Commission, by pushing the Overton window of the public debate on what is an acceptable and real solution now.

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