How the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the EU New Green Deal

The New European Green Deal, which the EU Commission has designed as the new growth strategy capable of offering certainty to investors while helping the Old Continent’s economies grow in a sustainable manner, has one more challenge to take on – COVID-19.

There is no doubt that the Deal, which encompasses several initiatives such as Climate Neutrality and zero pollution, Circular Economy, Ecosystems and Biodiversity, Farm to Fork Strategy, Building renovation, Transport, Money, R&D and finally External Relations, is under a lot strain while Europe is battling a major public health crisis along with increasing migration flows at its borders and a looming economic crisis.

It is still “a Union that strives for more” as Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, called it when discussing her agenda, but in these agitated and complicated times many concerns are arising about what will happen to the New EU Green Deal. Recently Ursula von der Leyen reaffirmed the need to move fast and press ahead with the work necessary to provide a legal framework to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 and meet the expectations of Europe’s next generation. On March 4, the first European Climate Law proposal was presented by the Commission. According to the plan, every EU law and regulation will be carefully reviewed and assessed to match the community’s new priorities and climate objectives, starting with the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive but also the Effort Sharing Regulation and the LULUCF Directive dealing with land use change.

Due to health being Europe’s immediate priority, it is unlikely that the Commission will be able to develop and present a plan to increase the 2030 targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction to at least 50% compared to the 1990 levels by September 2020. Failing to do so would undermine Europe’s leadership in combating climate change ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) that is supposed to take place in Glasgow next November and for which all countries have been asked to overhaul their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the EU long term budget, which is crucial in ensuring financial coverage for the transition towards a low carbon economy, are slowing down.

Prior to the pandemic, the European Commission succeeded in adopting its new Circular Economy Action Plan for Europe, which is meant to foster sustainable consumption, to promote circular economy processes, to empower consumers and public buyers and enhance competitiveness so to make Europe into a world leader in industry, while at the same time promoting the twin ecological and digital transition. A transition which the Commission views as its driving force as well as a generational task and an opportunity.

The progression of some Green Deal related initiatives has been delayed following the spreading of the virus as in the case of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, whose adoption was set to take place at the end of March in the run-up to a UN biodiversity summit taking place in China in October. The EU was supposed to adopt several measures aimed at fighting soil and air pollution but also other phenomena such as deforestation and land degradation.

Other delays include the presentation of the ‘farm to fork strategy’ that aims at establishing a green and healthier agricultural system as well as supporting local farmers by investing in rural areas while providing the community with affordable, nutritious and safe food. This also implies a reduced use of chemical pesticides, antibiotics and fertilizers. National strategic plans submitted by Members under the Common Agricultural Policy will have to be aligned with the goals of the Green Deal. Other initiatives will follow behind. However, if such an ambitious Deal is to be fulfilled above and beyond major crisis such as the present one, the EU must show its commitment not to leave anyone behind thus securing a Just Transition Mechanism in order to help Member countries which are most heavily dependent on fossil fuels make the necessary leap. By mobilizing 100 billion euros through the “Invest EU” program, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Just Transition fund, the EU will target the most vulnerable regions and sectors that will also benefit from technical assistance to help them manage the funds according to the community’s strict spending rules. Such a budget will also boost R&D, enabling research programs, like the Horizon Europe research and innovation program, to contribute significantly to the Green Deal. Moreover, as proof of the EU’s commitment, 35% of its research funding will be set aside for climate-friendly technologies. Finally, EU diplomatic efforts will play a key role in supporting the New Green Deal. By increasing its climate ambitions and leading by example, Europe expects the rest of the international community to follow and seeks to establish key partnerships and alliances, like the one soon to be finalized with Africa while strengthening more established ones, as in the case of the Western Balkans.

Ursula von der Leyen was quoted saying that putting people and fairness first is the only way to make sure the European Green Deal stands the test of time but it is also true to say that although the Deal still remains a long-term priority on the EU agenda, the decisions the EU takes today will determine “if we simply let this virus divide us between wealthy and poor, or we are going to end up with a stronger continent, an important global player, perhaps we will become closer as communities, and people will respect democracy even more”. It is not only a question of how the emergency will affect the Deal’s timeline, but also how united and supportive Europe will be.