European Union and Sustainability

Markus Spiske via Unsplash // CC

Today, we hear everywhere about the importance of the SDGs. Multinational companies, NGOs and politicians are talking about how they would implement the UN’s goals. But what is the European Parliament doing about it?

What are the SDGs? It stands for Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goals help us to achieve a better world by putting sustainability at the center. The SDGs have been adopted by more than 193 countries. There are 17 SDGs in total, and they aim to tackle key problems such as poverty and climate change.

In the following article, we look at what the EU is doing to promote sustainability and what role it is playing in the fight against climate change.

The European Union attaches great importance to sustainable development. Both the EU and its Member States know that this is about the future of the planet and the continent, the only way to prevent the coming climate catastrophe and to create a fairer and more humane planet.

Sustainable development has been a key objective for the EU for 20 years, thanks to the Amsterdam Treaty. It is a great milestone for Europe that sustainable development has been integrated into EU policies through the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, the EU 2020 Strategy, and the EU’s Better Regulation Agenda.

It is important to talk about the 2030 Agenda and the UN Millennium Development Goals too. The Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000 and focused on the problems of developing countries, with a particular focus on social problems. The 2030 Agenda Resolution also deals with the case of developed countries and environmental aspects have been given a more prominent role.

The document sets out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with 169 sub-goals. The 2030 Agenda is fully in line with Europe’s vision and plans, and the EU is playing a leading role in its implementation.

It is also important to mention that the European Commission has developed a program for the transition to a circular economy and a climate-neutral economy. In a circular economy, the value of products is preserved for a long time and waste is reduced. This can contribute to a greener Europe. Eventually, a climate-neutral economy will greatly change sectors such as transport and energy.

Let us look at what the EU’s sustainability efforts have achieved so far. Over the past decade, land temperatures have risen from 1.7 to 1.9 degrees Celsius. Without drastic cuts in greenhouse gases, we will exceed the 2°C limit before 2050.

In 2007, the EU set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. By 2018, emissions of warming gases had been cut by 23.2%. The new target is to have a carbon neutral economy by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement. And in the European Green Deal, the European Commission has proposed a reduction target of around 55% by 2030.

It is important to mention that the European Parliament and many environmentalists wanted a 60% reduction target.

The extreme effects of climate change are already being felt today: to mention a few extreme weather events, such as the following:

  • 2003 Europe – hottest summer in at least 500 years
  • 2000 England and Wales – wettest autumn on record since 1766
  • 2007 England and Wales – wettest July on record since 1766
  • 2007 Greece – hottest summer since 1891
  • 2010 Russia – hottest summer since 1500
  • 2011 France – hottest and driest spring since 1880
  • 2012 Arctic – sea ice minimum

Climate change is leading to an increasing frequency of heat waves, which impact ecosystems and human health terribly.

Ursula Von der Leyen announced the following measures and findings at COP26: “It is our opportunity to write history. Even more, it is our duty to act now”.

At the conference, Von der Leyen urged countries to do their utmost to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The European Commission President also spoke about the EU’s partnerships to fight climate change, such as the Global Methane Pledge, the EU Catalyst Partnership, the Global Forest Financing Commitment, and the Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa.

After COP26, Von der Leyen stated that: “They had 3 goals before the conference. The first was that the EU should get commitments to cut emissions this decade so that the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is realistically close. The second was to get $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries. And the third target was an agreement on the Paris climate agreement. Von der Leyen noted that successes were achieved in all three cases.”

The European Commission President also mentioned other notable achievements: the global methane pledge launched with President Biden has already been joined by more than 100 countries and emission reduction targets have been announced by several major emitters. COP26 sent a clear message that time is up for fossil fuel subsidies and unabated coal. Progress has also been made on climate finance.

We can see that the impacts of climate change are getting more severe, which is why it meant a lot that the EU adopted the European Climate Law 2021. What is in it? Below, I highlight some of the many important points.

Overall, the European Climate Change Act will help to achieve the 2050 climate neutrality target. It will set a binding target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It also includes a target for the EU to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels.

The law recognizes that increasing the EU’s carbon sink is an important issue and this is to be regulated through a LULUCF regulation. An important milestone is the establishment of the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change. The process of setting a climate target for 2040 is also a very significant milestone.

It is also important to talk about the European Green Deal, which includes EU climate policy measures. The EU put forward the European Green Deal in 2019. Its objectives are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, to ensure that no individuals or regions lose out on the transformation, and to decouple economic growth from resource use.

Now, is the EU doing the right thing? Some aspects of the European Green Deal have been criticized:

Greenpeace spokesperson Franziska Achterberg said: “Ursula von der Leyen is promising the European Green Deal will tackle the runaway climate crisis and the massive destruction of nature, but the climate targets she’s proposing would be too little too late. On protecting nature, much is aspirational and needs to be fleshed out. The detailed measures that will follow must tackle the production and consumption patterns that have brought us to the brink. The climate, ecological and inequality crises require a fundamental reimagining of the economic system that for decades has rewarded pollution, environmental destruction, and human exploitation. We urge Commission President von der Leyen and her team to put forward legislation that is truly up to the task.”

A 50-55 percent emission cut by 2030 is not sufficient. Nature does not negotiate. The longer we wait to make the necessary changes in our economy, the more damage will be caused and the more difficult and expensive it will be. By delaying its proposal for the 2030 EU emissions reduction target to summer 2020, the Commission risks undermining the Paris agreement and any hope for EU climate leadership.”

When a series of climate change proposals were announced in 2021, Von der Leyen said: “If we act now, we can do things differently… and choose a better, healthier and more prosperous path for the future.”

Some activists though it otherwise. “Celebrating these policies is like a high-jumper claiming a medal for running under the bar,” said Greenpeace EU director Jorgo Riss.

“This whole package is based on a target that is too low, doesn’t stand up to science, and won’t stop the destruction of our planet’s life-support systems.”

Greta Thunberg thinks that unless the EU “tears up” its proposals, “the world will not stand a chance of staying below 1.5C of global warming”.

Overall, environmental campaigners say the EU should take more radical action on climate change and do more before it is too late. Of course, their criticisms are valid, as more can always be done, but it is also important to remember that the EU is not one person, but an economic and political union of 27 countries, home to almost 450 million people, and that the EU must take into account many other factors when setting targets and making decisions.


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Luca Szecsi
Republikon Institute