The European Union in its entirety is at a crossroads and will have to choose between continuing on as heir of the European Coal and Steel Community or to initiate a new era of society that is economically sustainable, socially sustainable, and circular in the sense of promoting an integrated and digitalised production chain which reuses products and materials. The Covid-19 pandemic could present itself as the right incentive to promote and implement the strategy through the so-called European Green Deal, which was outlined in January 2020 by the Commission. The European Green Deal is an economic and environmental framework which defines the different aspects of a radical transition towards such an economy. However, this new path forward comes with some noteworthy contradictions, see for example the European Parliament's approval of 32 projects of common interest (PCI), such as fracking gas infrastructures, in February 2020.
The green practices before the Green Deal
One must keep in mind that the whole European economic and social system will face some fundamental challenges in the field of environmental policies and that the European Union has committed itself at an international level through the 2015 Paris Convention (COP 21), and consequently to shape a “climate neutral” internal market. Furthermore, it has committed itself to preserve natural capital and protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts. Regarding the energy sector, the European Union has already begun to tackle this challenge through the (EU) 2018/2001 Directive and the Commission’s Guidelines on State Aid for environmental protection and energy 2014-2020, which introduced public tendering procedures in order to determine the premium in favor of renewable energy producers for the sold energy on a highly competitive market. This strategy has certainly produced encouraging results and is successful in many areas of green energy by boosting and fostering the development and the diffusion of renewable energy technologies, but has at the same time created many difficulties for small producers, who are not always able to compete in public auctions with middle-sized and big production enterprises.
Can Covid-19 infect the European Green Deal?
This question is about the fight against climate change at a global level and entails two opposing views. Some hope the pandemic will bring about a resurgence of government action by offering a way forward for fighting climate change, and show increased optimism due to images of nature taking back what was originally hers and the data showing a reduction of emissions. “Others fear the worst, that the rush to resuscitate a badly battered global economy will push climate back down the international agenda,” since the combination of public fear and governments’ desperate measures to boost economic growth will encourage political short-termism, which may result in them resorting back to the old fossil fuel industries and giving the go-ahead to ransack natural resources such as rainforests. The European Green Deal can disprove this pessimistic scenario and show that the contrary is possible, namely how in the context of worsening social and economic conditions, sustainable development can lead to a fairer society and improve the social, environmental, and economic system without distortions of the internal competition. As Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, stated: “This situation is a test of governments and companies’ commitment.” A clear signal in this direction comes from the recent publication of two pillars of the European Green Deal, the “Farm to Fork Strategy” on agriculture and the “Biodiversity Strategy 2030”. Both of these action plans determine some steps towards a sustainable development such as a reduction in the use of pesticides, an increase in organic farming, reinforced protection of primary ecosystems, and targeted reforestation. At the same time, they emphasize the lack of an EU-wide legally binding methodology and legislation, which has led in past years to deep regulatory gaps between Member States in the area of nature restoration and forest protection.
Proposals for an “extreme Green" Deal
The “extreme Green” Deal, unlike the Green Deal now in force, should gradually give up fostering fossil fuels and more specifically the so called “capacity mechanisms” as the only solution for the intermittency and variability of renewable sources. Additionally, it should further pursue the development of innovative and sustainable energy storage technologies and an increase in involvement by local communities as a new form of democratic participation in decision-making for citizen’s welfare. In particular the decentralization at the local level of production and distribution of renewable energies can not only create widespread diffusion thereof and consequently influence the market-price signal at the expense of fossil fuels but also improve the efficiency of energy consumption and of the whole system, given that the supply of energy in loco is also able to flatten demand peaks of energy by preventing periods of excessive or negligible demand. Regarding the regeneration of ecosystems and the protection of biodiversity the shared competencies between the European Institutions and the Member States has always restricted progress and even today still prevents the adoption of a unified legally binding recovery plan for the biodiversity and the reforestation “with disastrous consequences on biodiversity and with a very high economic cost.” However, due to the recent “Biodiversity Strategy 2030,” the European Institutions finally have the opportunity to promote a constructive dialogue with the Member States and other involved players in order to define a clear and serious framework of competencies and actions and finally reach the environmental standards such as the biodiversity targets for a diversified ecosystem. The agriculture too plays a very important role in this area since the push for organic farming may not only reduce the use of pesticides but also avoid resorting to genome editing techniques, which is presently banned from the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice according to the precautionary principle but indirectly cited in the proposal of the European Green Deal, because they don’t “improve the sustainability of the food system” but instead contribute to the loss of biodiversity.
About the Author
Raffaele Palermo is a PhD candidate in European Competition and Energy Law at the University of Würzburg and the University of Padova. In 2019 he wrote his Master Thesis on State Aid Law in Renewable Energies Sector with an analysis of the German Renewable Energy Act at the University of Padova and the University of Trier. For his thesis he spent a research period at the European Court of Justice.