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Ensuring Strong Environmental Safeguards During the Economic Downturn

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 11:46

Jean Lambert MEP, Member, Greens/European Free Alliance

Greece’s economic problems have played out across TV screens and front pages around the world, with untold column inches and hours of screen time dedicated to the unsettling events. Yet, recently, Greece came under fire from a new source – leading environmental charity WWF warned that the austerity measures being implemented in the country as an attempt to stave off the worst of the financial crisis were at grave risk of rolling back important gains in environmental policy. WWF added that Athens and the country’s creditors had failed to address important issues that could have a long term impact on the environment, and thus future well-being, by focusing blindly on short-term economic goals.

Whilst Greece is admittedly an extreme case, a similar tension exists across Europe. It remains a deeply held view that protecting the environment constitutes a net expense to the economy; an expense that is simply unaffordable during times of economic uncertainty. The fact that environmental concerns have historically faded in times of recession indicates that decision makers and members of the public alike believe that environmental protection represents spending money rather than saving money; or in other words, is profligate rather than prudent.

In 2012, it is clear that for some European governments, the global economic crisis and the implementation of tough, financial austerity measures are being used as an excuse to derail essential environmental policy negotiations and to consign crucial pieces of green legislation to the dustbin. We need to look no further than to the UK for evidence. Despite claims to lead what would be the ‘greenest government ever’, the Coalition Government has since branded environmental policy as a “burden” and as a “ridiculous cost” to the British economy.

The Chancellor’s 2011 autumn statement alone saw a £250 million giveaway to the most energy intensive industries, the abolition of a planned rise in fuel duty and a thinly veiled hint at a watering down of the UK application of the EU Habitat and Wild Birds Directive. The Government’s proposed changes to the planning laws, presented to the EU as needed to “address a bottleneck” with regard to economic recovery, talk about “sustainable development” but keep the need for growth as the trump card. This was swiftly followed by a humiliating legal battle over proposed changes to the popular solar Feed-in Tariff – cuts that were then deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal.

The eternal ‘the economy or the environment?’ question is a false dilemma. Strong environmental safeguards and a healthy economy can go hand in hand. For example, the European Commission’s Clean Air Strategy aims to cut the annual number of premature deaths from air-pollution related diseases across Europe by almost 40 per cent from the 2000 level, which could result in longer, healthier, lives, greater workforce productivity and the stimulation of green industry. Similarly, the EU-wide commitment to produce 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 under the Renewable Energy Directive is likely to result in more secure energy supplies, lower fossil fuel imports and job creation in the environmental and renewable energy sectors.

There is no doubt that the financial crisis represents a real challenge, but it also presents an opportunity to make a just transition to the green, sustainable economy that we so urgently need. This ambition is partly reflected in the EU 2020 strategy for the coming decade, which aims to guide Member States towards high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion via the switch to a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The strategy contains one of the most ambitious – yet still inadequate – targets to date on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as well as goals to move towards a 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency – but falls at the last hurdle by failing to make this target legally binding.

The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament believes that Europe is in need of robust and demanding obligations on energy efficiency and renewable energy as well as measures to promote greener economic policy if we are to emerge from the current crisis on a more sustainable and inclusive footing. We cannot go back to “business as usual”. The ‘Green New Deal’ sets out a comprehensive response to overcoming the downturn whilst transforming the economic and industrial framework to provide a healthy economy and decent living standards for all without exhausting the physical limits of our environment [1]. Quite simply, without such an approach, the world isn’t going to be big enough for all of us.

As the current situation stands, the EU is at great risk of developing a severe case of tunnel vision: an overly narrow view and response to the economic crisis will stifle the potential for greater social justice and green investment – investment which makes economic and environmental sense both now and for our longer term future. The response to the crisis can also be the beginning of a more equal, sustainable society, where market rules are never allowed to override fundamental environmental and social needs. Frankly, no other solution will do.