Europe’s 2020 Environmental Policies – A Year in Review

29 January, 2021

Unprecedented – a word succinctly describing the events of last year. Following the warmest decade on record, 2020 shepherded in unprecedented levels of droughts and wildfires, stronger storms and flooding, and a global pandemic. These devastating events can be attributed to destabilized ecosystems that are a product of climate change and anthropogenic habitat alteration. Meanwhile, coronavirus circumnavigated the globe, with billions enduring harsh lockdown measures as economies slipped into the worst global recession since WWII.

However, not all of 2020 was filled with grim news. During the great “anthropause”, lockdown and travel restrictions led to a 7% drop in CO2 emissions – the largest recorded fall since WWII – with a 12% and 11% decrease in the US and EU. Germany was even able to reach their 2020 climate goal of reducing carbon emissions by >40% over 1990 levels. And, despite a global economic recession, the European Commission showed a resounding commitment towards green goals and tackling climate change by passing several key strategies under the European Green Deal, including the Circular Economy Action Plan and Biodiversity Strategy.

Still, a single year’s reduction in CO2 will not be enough to limit rising temperatures – 2020’s 7% drop in carbon emissions only translates to an overall 0.01 °C reduction in temperature by 2050. A rebound in emissions is also inevitable if the economic recovery is not tied to climate targets and if individuals do not alter their consumption habits. Meanwhile, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 still continue to accumulate, illustrating that action through forced inaction and a global pause is not enough. To achieve 1.5 °C Paris Agreement objectives, the EU must pursue a low-carbon recovery supporting zero-emissions and sustainable technology, reducing reliance and subsides on fossil fuels, and restoring ecosystems and investing in reforestation. To this end, the European Commission under Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Vice-President Frans Timmermans have tried to maintain climate ambitions at the heart of the €1.8 trillion budget-and-recovery package, with 30% of the EU funds allocated towards fighting climate change (although some may argue that this is still not enough).

After enduring the hardships brought on by such an unprecedented year, now is the time to break from the status quo and pursue a green economic recovery. After observing the large rebound in emissions following the 2008-9 financial crisis that led to the warmest decade on record, the pandemic provides an opportunity to change course, re-start our economies, and modernize our societies. Decisions made in 2021 will be pivotal in creating a cleaner, greener, and more equitable future. With the start of a new year and decade, A Path for Europe notes key environmental initiatives and their outlooks.


EU climate leadership: 55% net reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030?
Ulises Bobadilla y Jiménez | Permanent Author

Within the framework of the European Union’s Green Deal and the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the EU strives to reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by a minimum of 55% by 2030 (as compared to 1990) in its path to halting net GHG emissions by 2050.

In March 2020, as part of the Green Deal, the European Commission proposed that the European Climate Law should aim for climate-neutrality by this mid-century; six months later, an intermediate 2030 target for emitting at least 55% fewer net GHG (thus replacing the previous 40% 2030 target) was proposed.

The Climate Law is pivotal as 2020/2021 marks the first time in which all countries will have to increase their nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) climate commitments as envisioned in the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement for limiting rising temperatures. Said concisely, now is the time for consolidating the EU’s global climate leadership.

Against this background, the Council of the European Union recently endorsed and advised on implementing the Commission’s proposed 2030 legislative net target. In parallel, the net target is also the base of the bloc’s newly updated NDCsubmission to the UNFCCC.

Net GHG reductions refers to the final mitigation of GHG emissions after considering natural and technological GHG removals. In the case of CO2, natural carbon removals include forests and soil sinks, while technological solutions include the engineered sequestration, capture, storage, and burying of CO2.

Critics see these measures as a “trick” because commonly accepted removal measurements remain underdeveloped and because removals imply a lesser compliance-burden for industries. Thus, removals weaken climate policy and the target’s efficiency. The EU Commission itself estimated real future mitigation with these measures at 53% and not 55%. Scientists and NGOs consider that effective GHG mitigation will be about 50% or even less. “Mixing carbon sinks and emission reductions is an irresponsible accounting trick and undermines the deal’s credibility”, stated the NGO, Carbon Market Watch.

What’s next?

The EU seeks to attain global leadership by cutting 55% net GHG emissions by 2030 as a mid-step towards 2050 net climate neutrality. On the downside, the net target signals the political and legal acceptance of continuing to emit CO2 if carbon emissions are paired with natural and technological removals. Consequently, real economic decarbonization decisions can be delayed or misallocated. Given that corporations have the legal room to offset continuing emissions instead of reducing them, tightening the EU ETS cap and allocation methods would be a way of reducing the economic room for emitting.

On the upside, the contributions from natural and technological removals are undeniable, which is exactly why they should accelerate the achievement of any climate target. In other words, they should be additional to – and not be a part of – the EU’s target.

Furthermore, whereas the NDC fixed the EU’s pledge vis-à-vis the international community, the Commission’s and Council’s positions must still confront the European Parliament’s demand for an even more ambitious non-net target of 60% GHG reductions by 2030, which is why the EU should use the upcoming trialogues to legislate towards overachieving its new global NDC commitment.


Learning from the Past: Just Transitions and the European Globalization Adjustment Fund
Declan Ingham | Research Associate

As we look to the new policy horizon of 2021, it is worth remembering the past; it is often littered with previous attempts to solve similar problems. In response to the labour market challenges of decarbonization, the European Commission has prepared a Just Transition Fund as part of the European Green Deal. This fund, projected to be €17.5 billion, will provide support for communities and workers in carbon-intensive regions and sectors by financing initiatives that range from job creation and re-training, to research funding and technical assistance.

This effort to guarantee “a just transition” for workers may appear novel, but European policy makers faced this problem before. Responding to concerns that globalisation and free trade has led to job loss and economic dislocation, the European Commission launched the European Globalization Adjustment Fund (EGF) in 2007. The EGF’s original objective was to co-finance alongside national governments and local authorities, programs to help workers negatively affected by globalisation. These measures, traditionally referred to as active labour market policies, aimed to encourage and retrain workers, boost employability, and shorten unemployment duration.

But what does trade-induced job displacement and training programs have to do with the environment? A surprising amount when acting as a case study for mitigating policy-induced job losses. If we want more ambitious climate action, we need to win the trust of regions and workers facing the most difficulties during these transitions.

IndustriALL, a global industrial union federation, estimates that 11 million jobs in extractive, energy-intensive, and automotive industries will be directly affected by decarbonization. This disruption does not necessarily mean job losses, many will simply be altered or augmented by new technologies or production techniques, and green investment will also create new jobs. But for many workers, there is still cause for concern: over 1.6 million workers are employed in the manufacture of plastic and rubber products; and in the coal sector alone, nearly a quarter million work directly in coal mines or coal power plants.

Previous efforts to seamlessly transition workers through EFG-funded programs were not overwhelmingly successful and it was not simply due to underfunding. Originally given a €500 million annual spending cap for the 2007-13 multiannual financial framework, it was quickly reduced to €150 million by the next cycle. Even when the program’s scope was expanded to include more potential recipients, the fund was only ever able to mobilize €132 million.

Over a nine-year period, only 147 applications were approved, covering 140,545 redundant workers. However, with administrative delays averaging 303 days, 20% of these eligible workers had already found employment by the time their EGF application was approved and funded. Of those who received assistance between 2007-13, their average effective re-employment rate was found to be a mere 49%. A survey of national authorities found that administrative complexity, eligibility uncertainty, and more favourable financing rates by other European structural and investment funds were all large factors in EGF underutilization.

It seems the Just Transition Mechanism takes a different approach, possibly building off problems identified by EGF Evaluations: complexity, delays, and targeting. The Commission directly addressed administrative burdens, launching the Just Transition Platform “to provide a single access point” for just transition resources and programming. Rather than wait for job losses, Member States are required to pre-emptively identify regions and sectors through territorial just transition plans. By integrating these efforts into the European Semester, funding delays should be reduced, implementation better monitored, and policy coherence enhanced.

The most important question is whether just transition programs will be effective and that remains to be seen. The wide range of acceptable projects and the discretion given to Member States may improve the flexibility of the program, but it seems to indicate no settled consensus on just transition best practices. Much of the conversation is also dominated by talk of re-training, but the most significant variable for re-employment during EGF programming was regional unemployment rates – suggesting that job creation may be a higher priority than job re-training.

To meet our climate commitments, we cannot afford to fail at rapid decarbonization of our economy and society – and we undoubtedly will if we build policy systems that entrench enduring pluralities, whether through inflicted economic pain or political misunderstanding, against ambitious climate action. Twenty twenty-one will be a crucial year to see if we have learned these lessons or if we will be frozen in a fossil fuel gridlock.


unCAPable to go green? The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy reform locked in a stalemate
Margherita Trombetti | Research Associate

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the European Union’s flagship policy to sustain and foster the agricultural sector, a delicate field of intervention accounting for almost 40% of the Union’s budget.

Traditionally, the CAP’s rationale has been twofold: on the one hand, it recognises the important role that farmers play in producing healthy and safe food, preserving Europe’s natural landscapes and traditions, as well as advancing environmentally sound farming. On the other hand, it acknowledges the decision-makers’ awareness of the peculiarity of the farming business, notably: its dependency on variables such as climate and weather, an inevitable time-gap between consumer demand and farmers’ ability to supply, and the circumstance that incomes in the agricultural sector are significantly lower than those in other sectors.

These considerations explain the Union’s heavy expenditure in this sector, as well as the need to revise the relative legislation to align it with changing social needs. In recent years, attention on agriculture has increased since this field is both affected by climate change and is a driver of its harmful effects, making legislative decisions to reform the CAP all the more difficult to adopt.

Heated debates between EU Institutions, agricultural stakeholders and environmental NGOs have arisen in recent weeks after the two co-legislators presented their respective negotiating positions on the next CAP, which is due to govern the bloc’s expenditure for the agricultural sector between 2021 and 2027. According to environmentalist groups, both MEPs’ and Agriculture Ministers’ standpoints are not consistent with the EU’s other environmental policies and objectives – i.e. the Green Deal – but rather risks watering them down to the detriment of the citizens’ and the Earth’s well-being.

In fact, the co-legislators’ positions are based on a CAP reform proposal presented by the former Juncker Commission – which does not address the EU’s sustainability, biodiversity protection, and emission reduction objectives put forward by the Von der Leyen Commission.

For instance, the Farm to Fork Strategy’s targets of halving the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, or turning at least one quarter of agricultural land to organic farming, aim to improve the way we produce, consume, and trade – but these targets are now jeopardised by the CAP proposed reform to earmark only 20 to 30% of the budget to stimulate farmers to implement green initiatives. Likewise, the Biodiversity Strategy’s objective to increase the EU-wide protected maritime and terrestrial network might be hampered by the CAP’s principle of allocating direct payments according to the farm’s extension – hence, continuing to encourage large-scale, environmentally harmful farming.

In other words, the overall objectives enshrined in the European Green Deal’s strategies would be in jeopardy, making the CAP reform a missed chance of contributing to the paradigm shift in the European food system that is vital for the continued existence and amelioration of our ecosystem, climate, biodiversity, and health.

Outlook on CAP

Discussions on the CAP reform will continue in the following months at the legislative level to finally reach an agreement on the next CAP. However, without a radical change of the business-as-usual scenario, chances of achieving a reform where environmental interests eventually prevail over economic ones are minimal. The CAP’s potentially fundamental role in turning the EU into the first climate-neutral continent by this mid-century should be fully acknowledged through ambitious and innovative legislation, to be swiftly adopted at both the EU and national level, and paving the way for truly sustainable actions.


What does 2021 hold for the EU – Resetting the Transatlantic Climate Agenda
Naomi Burchett | Future Hub Manager

As the tumultuous year of 2020 drew to a close, all eyes turned towards 2021 – and the European Commission is no exception. With their recent December 2nd announcement proposing a new agenda for EU-US relations (the Agenda), this signals a readiness to rejuvenate this partnership.  A centrepiece of this proposal is the establishment of a “comprehensive transatlantic green agenda”. President Joe Biden has already promised to make tackling the climate crisis one of the key pillars of his administration, with the Commission’s proposal indicating that the EU is seeking to reaffirm climate change as a shared EU-US priority and to jointly pursue actions within this sphere.

Therefore, 2021 will be a critical year for action on environmental policy. With the delayed COP26 meeting in Glasgow looming on the November horizon, there is a global “climate” race for countries to update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) towards the goal of reaching net zero emissions in the long-term. The momentum for this meeting is growing: recent commitments to reach (close to) net zero emissions by 2050 from China, Japan, and Korea, in addition to the current EU and possible US commitments, could mean that – for the first time – there is real potential to come extremely close to the 1.5 °C warming limit set by the Paris Agreement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the EU will be at “the forefront of brokering ambitious commitments” and that the US is “well placed to support us” at the COP26 and CBD COP 15 summits. It is no secret that the EU aims to be a global leader in action against climate change, but further comments from President von der Leyen highlight the extent to which the EU is prepared to take initiative in this relationship, describing the Union as “more assertive and capable” and in “a new geopolitical and economic reality”. Some have argued that the EU has been forced into a more decisive role in this regard by the lack of cooperation from the US in recent years, and President von der Leyen’s comments indicates that the EU may continue to assert this influence with the US.

It appears, however, that the US is ready and willing to be an equal partner in pursuit of climate change goals. President Biden has pledged to put the US on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050; promised to re-join the Paris Agreement; and has further outlined a $1.7 trillion investment to aid in green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are questions as to the feasibility of these actions due to the composition of the American Senate and the current nature of the Supreme Court, Biden’s description of climate change as an “existential threat to humanity” demonstrates that he is committed to tackling the issue.

As many observers point out, while both the EU and US have made promising commitments regarding climate action, the real test of this relationship will be as to whether the two can deliver substantial actions in pursuit of their green goals. In particular, the EU proposed trade measures to stop carbon leakage as part of the Agenda, with Biden also mentioning similar plans. A key test of the relationship will also be whether the two can overcome the currently fraught trade relationship to deliver measures (such as carbon border adjustments) in this area. Commitment to climate-orientated trade measures like this would open up many opportunities, including the ability to develop stronger carbon pricing schemes and reduction initiatives without damaging economic competitiveness.

The EU’s proposed Agenda frames the “combined power and influence” of the EU-US relationship as “indispensable to anchor global cooperation in the 21st century”. While the prestige of this idea has taken a battering over the previous four years, a glimmer of hope for a strong EU-US relationship on environmental policy is growing with every step taken in the new year.


Keeping cool: EU Arctic Policy
Doris Wu | Research Associate

Last year, rising temperatures led to unusually extensive heatwaves and wildfires in the far north within the Arctic and Siberia. As the global average temperature rose 1.25 °C above pre-industrial levels, 2020 was on par with 2016 as the warmest year on record, with certain regions of the Arctic circle experiencing temperatures soaring up to 18 °C higher than normal. The Arctic, in particular, is extremely sensitive to climate change – warming at twice the global average – and plays a key role in regulating global temperature. Given the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem, its future relies on a cohesive and strong EU Arctic Policy.

A warming Arctic creates a warmer world via a positive feedback loop between rising temperatures, receding ice, thawing of permafrost, and wildfires that raise sea levels and release harmful greenhouse gases and soot into the atmosphere. Last year’s wildfire season was particularly devastating; by 24 August 2020 alone, wildfires in the Arctic released an estimated 245 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere – 35% higher than all of 2019. The loss of reflective white snow and ice also means higher absorption of heat by the ground and sea, which only further amplifies the warming process. Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, stated that “Twenty-twenty stands out for its exceptional warmth in the Arctic…It is no surprise that the last decade was the warmest on record, and is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future”.

Regularly updated since its first introduction in 2008, the EU Arctic Policy’s Joint Communication from 2016 outlined three top priorities centering around climate change, sustainable development, and international cooperation in the Arctic. Standing to benefit from recent initiatives of the European Green Deal, the EU launched a public consultation (July 2020) to update and revise the current policy and identify new areas to develop. The Arctic Council met virtually in November 2020 to discuss the current program and preliminary plans for the incoming 2021-23 Russian chairmanship, that will further emphasize the inclusion of indigenous peoples and youth engagement, in creating a roadmap with new policy resolutions.

Furthermore, the Arctic represents growing geopolitical tensions. Estimated to hold up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas, climate change is galvanizing the race to the North as receding ice clears the way for shipping passages and providing easier access to natural resources. Meanwhile, economic and political interests balance precariously between the eight Arctic states and indigenous peoples, along with stakeholders from other countries, such as China and non-Arctic European countries, that stake a claim on potential resources by forming partnerships and providing funding. Mitigating these relationships represents the complicated and long-standing battle between (short-term) corporate and (long-term) environmental interests and indigenous rights as exemplified by the Trump administration’s recent auctioning of parts of the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas companies; or ongoing protests of the Arctic railway by indigenous Sami herders.

With the COVID-19 pandemic halting Arctic research (and creating gaps in data), international cooperation and support is sorely needed to continue to provide scientific and evidence-based policy making that will protect international, domestic, and indigenous interests as they converge in the far north. Virginijus Sinkevičius, the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries noted that, “What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic. It concerns us all. The EU must be at the forefront with a clear and coherent Arctic policy to tackle the challenges in the years ahead”. Riding the momentum of the European Green Deal, a revised and ambitious EU Arctic Policy will play a critical role in determining the kind of legacy we intend to leave behind.


A cohesive approach forward

Twenty-twenty, with all its instability and uncertainty, is a reminder that we are the authors of our destiny: individual actions taken collectively can undercut the trajectories of both viruses and emissions; and government decisions can drastically alter our daily ways of living and the course of events. The current climate of “building back better” represents a turning point where countries can (and must) choose to cooperate if we are to achieve ambitious climate goals and create a more just and sustainable future.

Last year’s pandemic-induced anthropause gave us unprecedented time to reflect and observe our effects on nature, including cleaner air and more wildlife sightings. Altering our current path requires creating a new paradigm where we live in sync with nature – rather than dominating it. As naturalist Sir David Attenborough remarked, “In the world, a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too. We can solve the problems we now face by embracing this reality. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing, to establish a life on our planet in balance with nature. To start to thrive.”

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