The European Union has a chance to set the course for a decade of environmental action. But only if an ambitious policy framework can be established, says Rebecca Humphries from WWF’s European Policy Office
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
In autumn 2020, when the European Commission presented its proposal for an 8th Environmental Action Programme (EAP)—which sets out the direction for EU environmental and climate policy action until 2030—WWF criticised the lack of ambition and forward-looking actions to achieve the stated long-term aim of “living well within the means of our planet”.
Rather than building on the European Green Deal—the Commission’s flagship project for achieving long-term sustainability—the proposal falls short of effectively tackling the challenges the world faces, instead simply repeating existing commitments without adding substance.
The 8th Environmental Action Programme could trigger a shift towards an EU “wellbeing economy”, allowing Europe to pursue prosperity for all with the possibility of social progress, in a way that is environmentally sustainable and respects planetary boundaries.
What exactly do we mean by a “wellbeing economy”? This concept starts from the idea that public interests should determine economics and not the other way around. A well-being economy monitors and values what truly matters, therefore measuring progress on societal values such as health, nature, education and others, not merely economic growth.
Only when we take all of these indicators together can we truly determine the progress of our society. The EU should adopt this approach and firmly embed it in the 8th EAP as the framework for future European environmental policymaking.
Right now, there is still room for manoeuvre to improve on the Commission’s proposal on the 8th Environmental Action Programme as it moves through the EU institutions. In March, the Council representing the EU’s member states already adopted its position, which strengthens the Commission’s proposal but fails to make the wellbeing economy a guiding principle, merely making a vague reference to the concept.
Instead, it would have been helpful to include concrete actions, such as a requirement to assess existing frameworks and indicators with the purpose of moving towards a framework using “wellbeing indicators” to measure societal progress.
The European Parliament is currently discussing its position and there is hope that it will be more ambitious. The draft report by MEP Grace O’Sullivan is a good basis and strengthens the Commission’s proposal in several key areas.
Not only does it call for the EU to shift towards a sustainable wellbeing economy within the planet’s boundaries by establishing new indicators of economic performance and social progress beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but more importantly, it makes explicit the enabling conditions that will determine whether the European Green Deal is a success.
Ensuring that the green oath for EU initiatives to do no harm to the environment—a key commitment of the European Green Deal—is firmly integrated into the EU’s way of working, is fundamental in this regard.
Currently, the success of environmental legislation is often undermined by initiatives or laws in other policy areas which are incoherent with the EU’s environmental and climate goals. There are myriad examples of this: from harmful subsidies for unsustainable agriculture or fisheries to rules that govern our energy system.
Take bioenergy, for instance, which is being promoted by the EU Renewable Energy Directive as “renewable”, even if it comes with significant carbon emissions and devastating impacts on forest ecosystems, running contrary to both the EU’s climate and biodiversity goals. Hydropower is similarly problematic, hailed as a green energy source, but ultimately—due to its environmental impact on rivers—incompatible with the EU’s goal of ensuring good status of its freshwater ecosystems.
Another often criticised area of incoherence is the continued and entirely absurd support for fossil fuels through public subsidies to the tune of €50 billion every year, which dramatically undermines the EU’s agreed goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest. Fossil fuels have no role to play in a carbon-neutral world, so the EU and all Member States must—as early as possible and by 2025 at the latest—phase out all direct and indirect fossil subsidies.
As they adopt their position on the 8th Environmental Action Programme this week, MEPs in the Parliament’s environment committee should ensure that provisions on these key issues are included and taken forward to the plenary vote in July for the full Parliament to endorse.
Only with such an ambitious Parliament position can we hope that the EU will end up adopting an Environmental Action Programme worthy of its name, with the necessary impetus to ensure that the next decade of EU policy-making is driven by much needed environmental action, in line with the promises and objectives of the European Green Deal and leading the way to a genuine wellbeing economy.
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