Europe faces a mountain of challenges in the coming years concerning climate change. The task at hand becomes more and more arduous when we consider the war in Ukraine having a knock-on effect on energy prices, inflation and the cost of living, with many Europeans feeling the strain.
This has become a major headache for the European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius, who is navigating Europe’s climate course in the hope of reaching its climate neutrality targets by 2050.
But can he convince European member states to keep to its objectives? And persuade citizens to keep the faith? Sinkevičius spoke with Euronews’s Grégoire Lory on The Global Conversation, to tell us about the task at hand.
Interview in full:
Grégoire Lory: You’ve presented some proposals to restore nature. What are the targets of this Nature Restoration law?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: So today we really made a huge step, from not only protecting nature but also nature restoration. And the main target is going to have 20% of nature restoration action around the EU by 2030. Then we have different ecosystem targets, which include peatlands, grasslands, pollinators and so on, even urban areas, which I think is now very, very important to the hearts of Europeans, especially realising during the lockdowns how we really miss green coverage in urban areas. So our goal is to increase by 2030, 5% of urban areas’ green coverage.
GL: According to your assessment, what would be the cost of inaction and what are the benefits of restoring biodiversity?
VS: So we did a really thorough impact assessment. It’s almost 700 pages. And the most important thing probably if we speak about action and inaction is actually benefits. We should stop living in the myth that acting for nature, and restoring nature is just costs and no benefits. And our impact assessment shows that one invested euro brings €8 of benefits. And those benefits come directly, for example, through our farmers in increased yield, because I really don’t know who could produce if you don’t have a fertile soil which has a high efficiency, if there is no pollination. So for example, €5 billion of direct agricultural output is actually dependent on pollination. So with pollinators declining, this is a threat for this agricultural output. So I think there are very clear benefits of investment in nature restoration. And I’m really happy that we have the solid numbers backing our legislation.
GL: What kind of measures can be done to restore nature?
VS: For example, forests, they could be managed but in a sustainable way so that there is no threat to the soil. That soil is able after forest management to still absorb carbon and water and so on. If we look at the peatlands, of course, the obvious thing is rewetting lands and restoring peatlands. Basically, you know, most of the time leaving them and then the nature does its thing. So it very much depends on the ecosystem. And here I think what’s very important is that after the legislation is adopted, member states are going to have two years to prepare their plans, looking at which ecosystem for them are the most important ones, which are the priorities and how we are going to restore it. So we leave, let’s say, ownership to member states and stakeholders in member states.
GL: Next to this Nature Restoration Law, this package, there was also a question of reducing pesticides. Some member states want to water down this ambition. How do you react?
VS: No, I wouldn’t say that member states wanted to water down [this legislation]. It’s probably that members were raising a very important point that there is a big difference. If you look at the usage of pesticides per square metre in member States. So we have really intensive use in some member states and then very low use in others. And then if you have this overarching target of 50% within the EU, so is it 50% for everyone? So from the small [users], to cut 50% can be a huge challenge and[for those] using it intensively, that might not be as of a big challenge.
GL: Given the economic difficulties and the war in Ukraine, is the Green Deal still a priority for the EU?
VS: Our energy dependence is extremely dangerous, which today Russia is openly using to try to use as a tool of chantage (blackmail) against the European countries. So the Green Deal proves that it’s not only good for our climate ambition, for saving our ecosystems, but also for our geopolitical choices, freedoms and ambitions.
GL: You were talking about chantage, some member states – Germany and Austria – are considering reopening some coal power plants. Is this something you can accept? I mean, it goes against the carbon neutrality target.
VS: That’s true. But we need to also, ensure that there is a stability in the market to our consumers. So if it’s a last resort, or necessary action, we need to consider it. What’s most important that we so far see that is not going to have an impact to our 2030 or 2050 goals that is most important. Green Deal is not here in for a short run. Green Deal is a long haul. And of course, in that long haul, we see very unexpected things happening. You know, if you asked me two and a half years ago how this Commission mandate would look like, I would be completely wrong. First of all, we had a pandemic for almost two years. Now we have war in Europe, Russia attacked Ukraine. So, of course, it changes the dynamic and we need to also adjust. But in the long haul, our goals remains unchanged.
GL:The climate transition will have a cost for the citizens and the cost of living is already rising. When will the bill go down?
VS: That’s a very good question. So clearly the costs that are increasing, are not directly linked to the European Green Deal. First of all, we saw what happened with the energy prices. So again, you know, our dependency on fossil fuels and in particular on gas was the first and most important issue of rising costs. Then on top of that. Russia, of course, attacked Ukraine. It was a huge shock to global value chains. So, of course, all these events, they’re going to have a pressure on prices in Europe. First of all, we have to ensure that we have a sufficient packages in member states to support the most vulnerable groups, socially vulnerable groups, especially when the heating season starts in member States so that the member states prepare targeted measures. The same goes for fuel prices. But at the end of the day, I think the answer is very clear. When are we going to have our energy resources completely independent from third countries that will make us less vulnerable and that will add security to the prices to consumers.