global sustainable development

Coming together over climate change

The EU needs to unify member states around the sustainability agenda by delivering a bold new vision, writes Nicolas Befort of NEOMA Business School

The EU had to evolve to meet the demands of member states during the Covid pandemic, and lingering criticism of the way it handled the Greek crisis through austerity measures, meant a new approach was needed.

However, emergency policies implemented by the EU to address financial instability caused by the pandemic led to the de facto overrunning of the European treaties, which lay the foundations of the EU’s constitution. In her latest annual State of the European Union address, Ursula von der Leyen spoke of the need for the EU to relaunch its integration efforts through a convention aimed at revising the European treaties while also promoting progress on the climate agenda.

The President of the European Commission drew a stark parallel between the challenges that currently face the EU and those that led to its creation, comparing the need to transform European economies to meet sustainability targets with the task of rebuilding the continent in the wake of the Second World War. Widespread success for green parties in the last European elections emphasised the growing pressure felt by the European Parliament to tackle sustainability issues. Nevertheless, tensions between member states have not been laid aside.

Among the points of contention, a divide has emerged between a group of northern countries, led by the Netherlands, that want to orient economic policies towards reducing state debts, and southern countries tempted to adopt interventionist measures. Further internal friction has been generated over concerns of a lack of respect for fundamental rights and democratic standards in a number of member states.

How to achieve unity?
The EU is, therefore, in dire need of a rallying cry. Since the end of last February, the return of war to Europe’s eastern border has challenged the heart of the union – namely, the post World War Two era desire to wield the common market as an instrument for peace. Dealing with Russian aggression, the resulting energy crisis and looming climate threat all require a united response. Yet how to achieve this unity? A clear objective needs to be established, something member states can collectively mass behind.

Whether or not human-induced climate change is taking place has ceased to be a debate. Likewise, the fact that it will have catastrophic consequences if drastic action is not taken goes largely unchallenged. Yet, sustainability remains one priority among many, and its profile often sinks beneath more “pressing” economic and competition policy decisions.

Revising the European treaties seems an excellent time to introduce a bold new vision for the EU. A way forward could be to make it a target for the union (through its treaties) to make Europe the first ecological continent in the world – a carbon neutral continent that respects planetary limits.

In addition to specific environmental policies, the revised treaties should subject all European policies to the ecological transformation of the continent through cooperation between member states, taking a federalist perspective. In the process, democracy and respect for human rights should be strengthened and individual governments must align policies around a clear set of goals.

As the human origins of climate change have already been accepted, if a European sustainability project is to gain traction, it should instead focus on detailing how nations can establish more sustainable supply chains and choose which sources of pollution are tolerable for the time being. It should also lay out the technologies and policies that will be needed to promote the transition.

Research into the climate emergency has clearly defined planetary limits and shone a spotlight on the most polluting industries. Policymakers must be aware when reorienting their economies that greenhouse gas outputs must fall in line with the 1.5°C pathway outlined in the Paris Agreement and industries cannot therefore be reliant on fossil resources.

The way we think about renewable energy projects needs to change. Instead of being seen as complements to fossil energy resources, they should be viewed as substitutes and successors. The same goes for developing commercial products from sustainable resources.

Joint European energy policies should both support these new development projects and oversee a managed decline in polluting sectors, with a view to them ultimately becoming extinct. As a starting point, power from renewable energy sources should be prioritised for essential infrastructure, including the health and education sectors. Green resources are currently scarcer than dirty alternatives, so they must be implemented in areas where they can benefit the most people first. Their use can be scaled up from there.

Multiple solutions required
When discussing progress, innovation is usually mentioned in the next breath. It has a fundamental role to play, envisaging fresh solutions to tomorrow’s problems. In her speech, President von der Leyen referred to the planned creation of a hydrogen bank costing €3bn.

While I approve of the sentiment behind the plans, pinning all the EU’s hope and money on a single project is unwise. Even dangerous. At the outset of developing new technologies, it is impossible to know whether it can be successfully integrated into the economy. Potential negative rebound effects could take chunks out of returns on investment, crippling or substantially injuring the finances of investors. And nations dependent on the technology and resources for power generation will hardly be able to suddenly do without. Recent history has made that uncomfortably clear.

Moving away from systems that rely on the supply of a single raw material is essential to future sustainability and security. Instead, European economies must draw on a number of resources and, where possible, relocate the production of energy and consumer goods to territories within the EU where these processes can be more closely monitored. Encouraging the development of circular economy systems, where waste is reused as raw materials, will be an important step in providing European economies with greater sustainability in the future. It is at the core of measures such as the Green Deal, launched in December 2019.

The Deal provides a sense of cohesion for subsequent “farm to fork” strategies, exemplifying the role that must be played by international agreements and organisations in providing a framework for climate action.

These frameworks must carefully balance the output of supply chains with demands for greater sustainability. Without demand from consumers and voters for more sustainable products and energy resources, renewables can be a hard sell for businesses and governments.

On the other hand, focusing too heavily on increasing demand before supply chains are ready to provide can leave manufacturers scrambling to find more wind turbines or solar panels, which of course do not grow on trees. Governments that provide little support for suppliers risk causing market segmentation.

In terms of coordinating economic policies, there should be four central objectives. Firstly, to start the process of transforming industries which have the potential to become sustainable. Secondly, to put a gradual and managed end to polluting industries. Thirdly, to support the emergence of new sustainable industries. Fourthly, to develop regulatory systems, for public action and companies, that make it possible to monitor the transformation of existing industries and the emergence of new ones.

To face the challenges of tomorrow, the EU needs to reduce tensions among its member states. A sense of direction can be a powerful unifier. By enshrining a clear commitment to becoming the first ecologically sustainable continent in the revised European treaties, the EU can provide cohesion and purpose to the nations that choose its umbrella.


Dr Nicolas Befort holds the Chair of Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development at NEOMA Business School.