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Editorial by EEA Executive Director, published in the EEA Newsletter, no 1/2021, December 2021
2021 was marked by Covid-19 and climate change impacts. Faced with higher energy prices and health concerns, Europe’s recovery requires difficult decisions in 2022. Delayed action or lower ambitions are more likely to have higher social and economic costs in the long run. Addressing social inequalities in this sustainability transition is the key to a better future for us all.
No matter how difficult our day-to-day decisions may be in 2022, we should be brave enough stay on course towards the sustainability target set in the European Green Deal and delivered through legislative packages, such the Fit for 55 package. The key lies in social solidarity. Europe has already put in place some funding mechanisms to help those affected. We need to strengthen this social component of our efforts and address the social inequalities the economic transition may generate.
As 2021 comes to a close, our day-to-day conversations are still dominated by Covid-19, its latest variant Omicron on the rise, booster shots, vaccine efficiency, and new lockdown measures and restrictions. All of us have been affected by the pandemic and its consequences. The number of lives lost is measured in millions. With each new wave, we fear not being able to deliver medical care to those in need. The risks and the human and social costs are real.
For Europe, 2021 was also marked by deadly flooding disasters across several countries and forest fires in the south. Sadly, this comes as no surprise. Research, including our latest report on climate hazards, points to ever increasing frequency and severity of these extreme events, due to climate change. These events impact our health and well-being while reducing nature’s resilience. It is clear that we need to adapt and do our outmost to minimise the increase in global average temperatures. Even decimals of a degree Celsius count. This was reflected in the climate COP held in Glasgow this year, which resulted in the completion of the Paris Agreement rulebook and kept the Paris targets and the chance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius alive.
Europe’s policy ambitions on the rise
Yet, 2021 was not marked only by the pandemic and extreme weather events. A massive amount of policy initiatives were put forth in Europe to achieve the vision outlined in the European Green Deal, including the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the new Climate Adaptation Strategy, the Forest Strategy and, most recently, the Soil Strategy.
One of the most significant policy efforts of the year was the European Climate Law, the European Union’s legally binding commitment to achieve climate neutrality and become climate resilient by 2050, and to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below the 1990 levels by 2030, as a milestone towards climate neutrality. To achieve the 55% target, the European Commission proposed a number of initiatives – known as the ‘Fit for 55’ package.
The Fit for 55 package consists of a set of inter-connected proposals on pricing, targets, standards and support measures to deliver the transformative change needed. Transforming Europe’s economy or society to achieve climate neutrality was never deemed an easy task. And the pandemic and its recovery may make it even harder.
Nevertheless, as our latest ’Trends and projections’ report shows, the 55% reduction by 2030 target is not an unrealistic one. With additional efforts and policies, Europe can achieve this target. Our new website Climate and Energy in the EU provides detailed information on the EU’s Member States’ progress towards their 2030 targets.
Difficult choices: the answer is social solidarity
We are still living with the economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. The sudden halt in many economic activities due to Covid lockdowns created unemployment or underemployment, reduced output and put strains on public funds. We are currently experiencing an unexpectedly high rebound growth following the initial contraction, while experiencing disruptions in global trade.
Meanwhile, energy prices are rising, ahead of winter months. Gas prices in particular reached an all-time high — up to 10 times the level a year ago. Many European countries rely on natural gas, and the price spike has been felt in many households. This could result in higher use of more polluting fuels like coal or simply, energy poverty. At a time when lower economic activity means lower tax revenue and higher public spending, due to health care and unemployment expenditure putting extra strains on public finances, such policy decisions are never easy.
Faced with such difficulties, do we lower our ambition level or slow down? Not at all.
Delayed action or inaction will not make the challenges we face go away. On the contrary, any delay is very likely to result in higher social and health costs in the long run. Any progress in climate and environment efforts, however, can result in concrete gains. For example, cleaner air helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe. Achieving stricter guidelines by the World Health Organization could have helped us avoid 170.000 premature deaths in 2019. Similarly, we can take climate action while addressing social costs and helping those most affected.
No matter how difficult our day-to-day decisions may be in 2022, we should be brave enough stay on course towards the sustainability target set in the European Green Deal and delivered through legislative packages, such the Fit for 55 package.
The key lies in social solidarity. Europe has already put in place some funding mechanisms to help those affected. We need to strengthen this social component of our efforts and address the social inequalities the economic transition may generate. And I believe, together we can build a better future for us all.
May we use the coming 12 months to step up our ambition to build 2022 as the year of solidarity, courage and hope.