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Editorial published in EEA newsletter, March issue, no.1/2023.
Year 1972: I remember walking home with my father from the Antwerp book fair with loads of books. Three stayed with me: a book about endangered species, the Times Atlas of the World, and Limits to Growth. Over the years, my father continued stimulating my curiosity in nature, a world much bigger than our immediate surroundings, and the type of science that opened critical debates about the future of society.
Threats we face today
Today, fifty years later, we are facing arguably the most existential threats to modern society — climate change, biodiversity loss, rampant pollution, and depletion of the earth’s resources in combination with deeply unethical inequality across the world. We have legislated and institutionalised environmental policy nearly everywhere, have improved our scientific understanding and technology, raised awareness, and have created a vast global governance infrastructure. But we have not succeeded addressing the fundamental unsustainability of our dominant economic model and its systems of production and consumption. As the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans says: “the model is broken; we need a new model.”
Three generations of global goals — from Agenda 21 to the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals — have not fundamentally changed this. We will have to focus not only on doing things better, but primarily on doing things differently.
EU's response: European Green Deal
The European Union has taken the lead in responding to these crises by formulating the European Green Deal. It is without any doubt the most ambitious, integrated, systemic and forward-looking political and policy strategy ever formulated, not only in Europe but also globally. It is a game changer. It connects environmental and climate targets to social and economic dimensions, including the link with the role of the finance world and the industrial future of Europe in ways that were unthinkable in the EU until recently.
It is also remarkable that the European Green Deal has remained such a strong needle on the compass, as we have faced the Covid crisis, the Ukrainian war, serious pressures on our economy and public finances and social tension in Europe. In some areas, these crises have even reinforced the need for urgent change, as it did for the energy transition, the orientation of European budgets and funding and the Just Transition. In our knowledge investments, we see the consequences of living in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). There is more attention for systemic research and action- oriented knowledge production, foresight knowledge and increasingly more attention on the science-policy interface to respond to crisis situations. These crises have also stimulated more debate on the Europe’s role in the world and the external sustainability dimensions of our model.
At the same time, a variety of arguments emerged, pushing back on Europe’s green ambitions. These arguments ignore the fundamental urgency that is needed to address climate change, biodiversity loss and unsustainable resource use. The European Commission’s annual work plan 2023 is unusually clear about this: we need to accelerate the systemic transition of our societies!
Slowing down the transition or scaling back ambitions is making things worse, therefore irresponsible, and only shifting the burden to those who come later.
Our vision, our determination
Back to my father. He was a convinced European. He believed in the unique political project of uniting a continent that has seen an endless number of wars over centuries. To him, Europe was much more than a free market. He would have been enthusiastic and encouraged to see the European Green Deal (and not only because it mentions the Agency’s flagship report SOER 2020 as the knowledge base). Yet, he would have been equally worried about the time lost, the short-term and narrow focus of those trying to scale back ambitions or those still thinking that we can build a future on a planet that we are depleting, polluting and destroying.
To use the words of Jean Monnet, when asked whether he was an optimist, “I am neither pessimist, nor optimist. I am determined.” The vision of the European Green Deal will probably require more determination in the next decades to implement it, than it required in the previous four years to formulate and legislate it.
Over the past ten years, I had the enormous pleasure to work at the EEA with the most committed colleagues and equally dedicated partners in our network and other European networks of top professionals. I am sincerely thankful to all of you and grateful for such privilege.
May I wish us all personal and collective determination!
EEA Executive Director