The European Union has experienced some interesting times in recent decades. From the migrant crisis to Brexit, events have left the EU looking weaker in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. It has tarnished its global reputation and its soft power.
But the new European Commission and Parliament have a unique opportunity to redefine the EU’s global position and adopt a new identity: as a champion of sustainable growth, with sustainability at the heart of its new strategic agenda.
The timing could not be better. Public awareness of global warming effects such as biodiversity loss is greater than it has ever been. The current focus on impending climate crisis allows the EU to create a strategic agenda around an idea that both sets the EU apart from other powers and enjoys cross-border support amongst its own people.
Climate change is also an emotive issue that unites people across the political spectrum—unlike other policy issues that remain divisive, such as migration or digitalisation. Even among populists, it is very hard to argue against reducing pollution and promoting biodiversity.
And who doesn’t want clean air? Indeed, it is one of President Trump’s more recent boasts—despite evidence to the contrary—that the US has cleaner water and air since he has taken office, demonstrating that is an important issue even for his supporters.
It is even proving to be something that the EU and the UK can agree on, especially now the latter has declared a climate emergency. The situation presents a unique opportunity for the EU to show that it is capable of listening to a country that has opted to leave, that it wishes to pursue an ongoing alliance and that it cares about future cooperation.
A competitive advantage
The EU also has a major competitive advantage when it comes to sustainable growth. It is already seen as a global power that cares about sustainability more than others due to its recent initiatives. For example, the EU’s Taxonomy for Sustainable Activities is a welcome effort to regulate sustainable finance, and something to build on.
In Europe, too, more private sector businesses are prepared for climate change than anywhere else in the world. It has some of the world-leading cities and initiatives in circular economy, and it is ahead of other regions when it comes to decarbonisation.
The myriad of circular economy and sustainability initiatives by cities and local councils at all levels show that there is support for decoupling economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions.
Its imperfections should be addressed to improve outcomes, as finance will play an important role in the transition to more sustainable growth. With impact investing and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria integration gaining traction in investing, Europe is well placed to attract funding. By taking the initiative, the EU can signal that business as usual needs to change to sustainable business. It has the economic power as a large single market to push for change.
Of course, transitioning will inevitably mean short-term costs and readjustments, but it is nothing that the EU as a rich region cannot afford. Some EU Member States such as Poland and the Czech Republic still rely heavily on coal, but the trend is clear for all to see: coal is on its way out.
The EU should focus on helping these countries to transition from energy sectors that are inevitably going to see a decline. If their own governments are unwilling to face the challenges and admit to their citizens that change is needed, the relatively rich EU needs to incentivise them to help the process along.
Strengthening the economy
Compared to the recent past, the EU has a relatively good macro-economic situation, with low unemployment rates and stable growth—and there is evidence showing that transitioning to a circular economy within the EU would yield further major economic benefits. Technological innovations have begun to mature and scale much faster, making the transition to greener practices easier and cheaper than before. The price of renewable energy has been falling steadily, as have the costs of the technologies generating it.
In 2018, a record 11 million people were employed in the renewable energy sector globally, encompassing a 7 per cent increase within just one year. There are jobs to be created through the transition to renewables, and, in comparison to most, those jobs would be much more secure because of the greater sustainability of the business models that created them.
While harder to measure, more sustainable business models also have positive externalities such as improvements in public health. This means healthcare savings down the line, important for an ageing EU.
Tackling the democratic deficit
Crucially, fighting climate change is something that can help the EU tackle its democratic deficit. The fact that it enjoys popular support at all levels means that it can create an overarching ideational framework that guides policy and bridges the gap between local and global action.
Spearheading sustainable growth is also the best way to improve the EU’s energy and economic security. Reducing the Union’s dependency on energy sources from unreliable or even potentially hostile countries is key to national and energy security.
The EU still imports large amounts of gas and oil from Russia and even Saudi Arabia, funding governments that engage in activities that the EU disagrees with. Diversifying away from such imports makes sense when thought about as a national security issue. As an overarching idea, sustainability can also help the EU focus its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) on creating sustainable growth in developing countries—something that would be in the interests in the local populations.
Climate change is an existential threat. As the by now well-known quote goes, “there is no business on a dead planet.” There will also be no economic growth or national security for the EU on a dead planet.
History’s most successful peace project faces a critical moment in time. It can opt to be a power that puts human welfare and the wellbeing of future generations at heart of its identity. It now needs to rise to the mammoth task of ensuring that actions speak louder than words, and that any commitments to embrace sustainability translate into effective actions on the ground.
This piece first appeared in Prospect Magazine under the title “How a climate change agenda could address Europe’s democratic deficit—and boost the economy, too”.
Author: Linda Zeilina focuses on sustainability at RE-DEFINE and is also a Think Visegrád Fellow at EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.