EYD roundtable 2: "the European Green Deal"

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 th