1. The Topic and the Approach
Over the last years, it has become increasingly obvious that the phenomena of ecosystemic degradation, upscaled pollution, natural resource depletion, deterioration of the ozone layer and global warming are all concurring to a wave of climate change that is all-encompassing and operates on a global scale, putting the survival of the entire human species at stake.
Consequently, the topics of environmental issues and climate change have seen a surge in awareness and societal attention across the whole global community, and are now among the frontline topics on the global socio-political agenda - in particular in the European Union. In fact, over the last years the Union pledged its commitment to the Paris Agreement of 2016 and to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda - actions which set fertile ground for the creation of the European Green Deal. Issued in December 2019 by the newly-minted Commission chaired by President Ursula von der Leyen, it is an ambitious set of economic, social and climate policies with the purpose of making Europe “the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050” by implementing “a sustainable green transition across all sectors”.
Due to the extremely broad scope of the European Green Deal as a whole and of all the different policies included, we decided to divide the works of our Roundtable into three sections, each focused on one of the main pillars the EGD rests on: “Reinventing Energy: Clean Energy Supply and Decarbonisation”, “The New Circular Economy”, “Mainstreaming and Financing Sustainability.”
Furthermore, as the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading around the globe starting from February, we revised and updated the Roundtable’s guidelines, so to include in the discussion the impact of COVID-19 on the Green Deal’s policies and goals. Indeed, as industrial activity came to a halt, emissions momentarily sharply decreased, bringing along evidence of climatic improvements which gained much relevance in the media - however, it was very clear to all world leaders that as soon as industrial activity would have resumed the main goal would’ve had to be the incentivisation of the economic recovery, at all costs. For these reasons, environmental policies momentarily shifted in the background, and the Commission reasonably updated and / or rescheduled some of the European Green Deal’s policies and goals.
2. The Roundtable Works: Discussions & Policy Proposals
One of the main challenges of this EYD edition was that it was to be held entirely digitally: plenary assemblies, roundtable works and final presentations. Since the beginning, we Chairs were very aware of the difficulties that this in-distance setting would have entailed - especially for steering the daily discussion, encouraging participation from everyone and keeping attention and productivity high. However, we were lucky in finding that the majority of our Roundtable Members were very motivated and willing to make the discussion engaging and proactive, even in distance. Furthermore, we had yet another element of richness in the diversity of all their backgrounds: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Lithuania were all represented at our table, and the participants’ first-hand insights on the situation and policies present in their own country provided for extremely valuable contributions to our works.
The works on the first section, titled “Reinventing Energy: Clean Energy Supply and Decarbonisation”, started with an analysis of the energy sources currently used by the EU’s Member States in terms of both production and consumption: oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear and other renewables. Relying on our data sources, we compared their respective environmental impacts and hence evaluated which ones it would be more convenient to phase out, substituting them with more sustainable counterparts. Particularly precious were the participants’ insights on which sources were the most widespread in their own country and on which conditions were allowing for their profitable exploitation: availability of financial resources, infrastructures, modern plants etc.
The debate then focused on the process of coal phaseout, one of the main decarbonisation goals the Union had already subscribed to in 2015 with the Paris Agreement and re-committed to with the European Green Deal. The EGD set 2030 as the deadline for mid-way targets of emission reduction (-50% ca.), and 2050 as the final deadline for achieving “complete climate neutrality”, i.e. zero carbon emissions and phaseout completed. The participants immediately posed their attention on the countries that, as of today, have already succeeded in achieving climate neutrality, and much in advance with respect to the deadline - that is Belgium, Switzerland, the three Baltic republics and Cyprus. They started discussing the country-specific socio-economic factors that may have enabled or facilitated reaching such a goal, and whether those conditions could be replicated in the other countries in order for them to follow suit in that direction. We ended up evaluating an array of social, economic, infrastructural and political reasons, with particular focus on the prickly question of political interests and government alignment, revolving around the question “Can effective green transition policies be easily integrated into the policy platforms of parties that are not green, or is it necessary to have a green party in power?”. After some discussion between different political sides, the participants eventually agreed that the EU should impose minimum environmental standards to the policies of every government, no matter their political alignment, and also took into account the role of lobbying by non-state actors, such as environmental organisations.
Another interesting topic of discussion was the role of the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) in facilitating the phaseout. We looked closely at the fluctuations in emission prices caused by the pandemic and pondered how they are going to affect the ETS’ functioning in the near future. The participants then highlighted the ETS’ nature as an economic-driven system of demand and supply effective only in the short-term, thus generating a discussion on the different incentives and directives needed to support decarbonisation in the long-term. The proposals that surfaced in this regard are several: changing the modes of production of the heaviest industries, running sensibilisation and awareness campaigns targeted at leaders and CEOs, industries and consumers, and providing subsidies to the countries who invest the most in green transition. The latter was the proposal backed by the strongest agreement among our participants, who argued that economic tools are in general the most effective in incentivising compliance, and that positive action is preferable to negative action, as would be a stream of Pigouvian taxes.
The second section of our works concerned circular economy, a model whereby resources that have reached the end of their consumption cycle (product life) should be integrated as a new raw resource back into the production process. The implementation of a circular economy model on a large scale has long been regarded by experts as a way to progressively minimise, and then hopefully annul, the environmental impact of the productive process, as well as the waste deriving from it.
We started off our work by discussing to identify some sectors we believe are most in need of a “circular economy revamping”: upon evaluation of the main materials used, the amount of waste and the characteristics of the productive process, we eventually decided to focus on the healthcare, technology and fashion sectors.
For the healthcare sector, the participants first observed how it uses and then discards large amounts of special and/or non-recyclable materials (PPE items, surgical instruments, inorganic waste, special waste like medicines and drugs etc.) - hence making the finding of substitutes necessary, to seek environmental impact minimisation as well as cost optimisation. The suggested solution was the launch of projects to create biodegradable medical equipment, relying on an increase in funding for the R&D activities of hospitals and/or universities and on enhanced collaboration between the R&D and operative departments of hospitals for testing and perfecting the new equipment.
Second on in our plan was the technology sector. We started by observing that technological devices are made with largely non-recyclable materials, which do not decay over time and are cause of long-lasting pollution, and even with some non-renewable sources (lithium batteries etc.). Being aware of the need to minimise the environmental impact of products that are so widespread and ingrained in our everyday life, the participants eventually agreed that the EU should first and foremost act on consumer regulation. Some among the several policies considered in the discussion: the mandate of extension of warranties on technological devices; the mandate to grant consumers a free right to repair for a larger part of the life of some specific very expensive products; encouraging commerce of regenerated tech devices; incentivising permutation policies; monitoring the number of repairs and regenerations done by tech companies and subsequently allocate European-level incentives or facilitations. Moreover, the roundtable also proposed the establishment of a European committee with the tasks of monitoring the companies’ compliance with the above normative and assigning incentives or fiscal benefits to the most virtuous companies.
Needless to say, the main difficulties in implementing these policies would come down to matters of interference in the free market and bargaining with the biggest tech companies on the minimum sustainability standards to be enforced.
Lastly, we targeted our discussion on the fashion sector. We started by considering how plastic- and water-intensive its productive process actually is, alongside the significant, still non-recyclable portion of waste produced at the end of the life-cycle of fashion products, and the increased diffusion of the philosophy of “fast fashion”, which is disregarding the environmental impact and worsening the aforementioned effects. Our participants made it clear that the EU should, maybe through a new set of regulations, encourage transparency on the production process and materials used in the sector - especially for what concerns the use of plastic and oil, the raw materials with the highest environmental impact. Moreover, they maintained that the EU should impose stricter CSR Disclosure Requirements on fashion companies, especially those most relying on ”fast fashion” practices, and eventually went into the specifics by suggesting the implementation of further EU regulation in the following areas: limiting imports, incentivising local production and “km zero” products, and imposing stricter controls and limits to the relocation of multinational luxury groups , allowed only upon verification that CSR and sustainability requirements of the products are met in both home and host country.
The third macro-area tackled by our Roundtable was “Mainstreaming and Financing Sustainability”. The framework of the discussion was the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan (SEIP), presented by the von der Leyen Commission as the budgetary plan for the road to the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the European Green Deal goals, which are estimated to require €260 billion of investment.
The SEIP pledges to mobilise more than a trillion euros in the span of the next 10 years, mainly through the InvestEU Fund, which pools together and enhances several smaller funding programs created during the Juncker era. Among the four areas of competence of the Fund, we chose to focus our attention on the Sustainable Infrastructures (simply because the other areas, like Innovation and Digitalisation, rather fell into the scope of competence of other Roundtables).
The participants started by evaluating some virtuous examples from other projects or countries, once again bringing in their own experience: the Sustainable Cities projects within the UN SDGs, the EU Project “Green and Blue City » which seeks to promote infrastructures for clean water and air, the recent major sustainable public transport rehauls in Denmark and the UK and so on. Drawing onto them, they agreed that the most urgent areas to act on to improve environmental and climatic impact are greener city development and public transport networks. For what concerns the former, we drew on the virtuous example of the Ecobonus recently introduced in Italy to devise a proposal for a “New Ecobonus for Privates and Corporate: Greener Cities and Sustainable Plants”, a European bonus program to incentivise the construction of highly energy-efficient buildings, both private and corporate, or to improve the efficiency of already-existing ones. Such a proposal rested on the recognition of, on one hand, the need for more efficient infrastructures in the corporate sector, and on the other hand the imperative to make the modern ever-expanding cities more energy-efficient and sustainable, while also keeping under control the negative externalities impacting the environment and the quality of life.
We could not fail to mention the event that marked 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear that it would have shifted priorities and perspective with respect to what was the Roundtable’s target at first, but we were also much aware of the need to exploit at its best the resources that will be unlocked to tackle the aftermath of COVID. Knowing that a part of the (hopefully soon-to-be-passed) Recovery Fund will be dedicated to the Green New Deal, we cheered up, and extensively discussed what the new priorities should be. They ended up being reflected in our final proposal, focused on the need to build and renovate infrastructure and keep Europe solidly connected. We reflected on how Member States rolled out policies already, and looked how and if they might be implemented in others as well. For example, the Italian Ecobonus was the starting point for the policy aforementioned and is clearly an initiative that brings us toward the right direction: it creates opportunity for investment to revamp and strive for more energy-efficient housing, while also stimulating the economy in a time of need. This case gives us a hint for a future European strategy too: COVID-19 response should be used as a model for the climate emergency response. In fact, it is a matter of the same pressing importance, requiring the same modus operandi, resting on the same pivotal role of science and the same degree of international cooperation. The goal is to deliver a quick, efficient and optimised global response to an issue that, just as the COVID-19 pandemic, threatens the very existence of our planet - albeit not in such a short term as the coronavirus.
3. Chairs’ Comment
Despite the difficulties posed by the virtual format of this fifth edition and the obvious limitations, we Chairs were very satisfied with the debate. But above all, even more, from the concrete proposals that have arisen. We sincerely believe that some of them can represent a starting point for concrete policies to be implemented at the communitarian level. At a time of such great difficulty and uncertainty for our European Union, we were delighted to see so many young people from different backgrounds engaged in imagining discussions and solutions for our common future.
As a final impression, we feel like concluding that this year’s European Youth Debate has been challenging, exhausting, ground-breaking and inspiring all at once. An invaluable chance for learning from each other and devising concrete policy proposals, in a setting of mutual respect, confrontation and growth - and all in such a peculiar moment for our lives as young citizens as well as in the grand scheme of European history. By embracing one of the mottos of European Generation, this time we can truly say that we started shaping our Europe.