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November 21 to 29, 2020 is European Week for Waste Reduction! In celebration, we are republishing a previous Earth.Org piece detailing how the EU is working to reduce waste. In early March, the EU released its Circular Economy Action Plan which requires manufacturers to make products that last longer and are easier to repair, use and recycle. Taking effect in 2021, the plan is a part of the EU’s targets to become a climate-neutral economy by 2050 as outlined in its New Green Deal. How will the average consumer be affected by this plan?

The climate crisis has no borders; it affects everyone at all levels. Most Europeans agree with this. A recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2019 showed that 95% agree that environmental protection is important, while 91% believe that climate change is a serious problem and protective legislation is required. Policies aimed at reducing plastic waste were also widely supported. In response to this support for environmental protection, the EU Commission signalled The European Green Deal in the same month as the Eurobarometer survey. 

The EU says that global consumption of materials such as biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals is expected to double in the next 40 years. 

This deal aims to reset the EU’s commitments on climate change, whilst also serving as their new economic growth strategy. One of the main targets outlined in the Deal is for the EU’s economy to become climate-neutral by 2050, and the Commission hopes to achieve this through legally binding laws, social improvements, and a shift in economic growth thinking. 

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Soon after, the Commission released its proposal for the first European Climate Law which aims to write into law the goal set out in the European Green Deal- to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. With this law, all member states are required to set measures to meet this target, monitor their progress, and make the changes permanent. Hence the EU Circular Economy Action Plan was born.

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is based on the principles of doing away with waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. Under the ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’, the plan will require manufacturers of products like smartphones, tablets, laptops and other electronics to use designs and materials that allow for easy repairs, such as the use of screws instead of glue, and to include parts that are more recyclable, repairable and durable. These standards already exist for some items manufactured within the EU, like dishwashers, televisions and washing machines. 

The plan also attempts to tackle ‘throwaway culture’, by preventing planned obsolescence of products; companies like Apple have admitted intentionally making goods with a shorter lifespan to force consumers to buy a new model. Other initiatives include creating a universal charger that fits all brands of phones and an EU-wide trade-in scheme for electronics. These policies will reduce consumption of raw materials and prolong the lifetime of products. 

Consumers can also expect to receive information at the point of sale regarding a product’s lifespan, where to receive repair services, and repair manuals. This aims to address the ‘right to repair’ movement, a campaign advocating for consumers to fix their electronic items themselves and breaking the monopoly that manufacturers have over repair parts where fixing a broken part is extremely expensive or only available at the brand’s authorised outlets.

Consumers will also start to see restrictions on products that include microplastics, for example, personal care products, paints, detergents, and more. Labels will be placed on products that unintentionally release microplastics, such as tyres and woven polyester textiles, to empower consumers to make more environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. Additionally, plastic products will be required to be composed of a set amount of recycled content. 

In 2017, Europeans on average generated 172kg of packaging waste each, with 116kg being recycled. The plan will require all packaging to be reusable and reduce the complexity of materials so that it is easier to recycle by 2030. Often products are encased in packaging that has multiple layers of plastic, making it extremely difficult to recycle and ending up in landfills or incinerators. While there are options to recycle multi-layered packaged products, most of these are limited in scope or use too much energy. Sorting of these plastics becomes too complex for existing systems and the only viable solution is to reduce the material complexity at the source. 

A study says that manufacturing firms in the EU spend on average about 40% on materials; this ‘closed loop’ model can increase their profitability. 

The plan also bans the destruction of unsold durable goods, likely targeting designer brands and luxury goods, such as Burberry, which has burned £90 million of merchandise over the past five years to prevent them being stolen or sold cheaply. This change follows in the footsteps of France’s recent and similar law

Understanding the difficulty a lot of businesses and countries will likely face in adhering to this plan, the EU has pledged to provide financial and non-financial support to those who need it. 

A study estimates that applying circular economy principles across the EU may increase EU GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 creating around 700 000 new jobs, showing that the advantages of adopting a circular economy are not just environmental. 

The EU is making excellent strides in moving towards a circular economy, reducing intensity of resource use, promoting the use of recycled and secondary materials, and the empowerment of eco-conscious consumers. Aside from environmental benefits, consumers will enjoy more durable, reliable and protected products. The targets and legislative proposals in this action plan will need to be approved by the Members of the European Parliament before going into effect, but with increasing pressure from EU citizens, it will likely be approved. Parts of the legislation will come into effect this year and 2021.

Asia would benefit from policies such as the EU Circular Economy Plan. Rapid development and population growth has put immense pressure on the continent’s infrastructure. By 2050, the population is expected to rise to 5.3 billion people, however, as many Asian countries work to grow their economies and lift their people out of poverty, it is likely that this will not be the continent’s priority for many years to come. 

Featured image by: Klaas Brumann

A recent study has found that around half of beef exports and almost a quarter of soy exports from Brazil to the EU could be linked to illegal deforestation in two of the country’s most ecologically important regions, the Amazon and Cerraro. This could have detrimental implications for international trade agreements and efforts to combat the climate crisis. 

The study, published in the journal Science, found that 2% of properties in the Amazon and Cerraro are responsible for 62% of illegal deforestation, of which a significant proportion is linked to agricultural exports. “This small but very destructive portion of the sector poses a threat to the economic prospects of Brazil’s agribusiness, in addition to causing regional and global environmental consequences,” the researchers said. 

Cerrado is regarded as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’, marked by savannahs, grasslands, and forests that spans approximately 200 million hectares. Significant proportions of these important ecological areas in Brazil are being cleared to accommodate the global demand for beef by making way for cattle ranches, which are then converted to soy fields with the purpose of feeding livestock or to be exported to other countries.

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The findings demonstrated that about 1.9 million metric tons of soy grown on properties with illegal deforestation reaches EU markets every year- indicating that about 22% of all soy exports from Brazil to the EU could be contaminated. The researchers noted that the true percentage may be higher as their study only covered 80% of the soy plantations, and did not sample the cumulative total.

41% of the EU’s soy imports originate from Brazil, which equates to 13.6 million metric tons per year. Between 25% to 40% of beef imports come directly from properties with illegal deforestation. The study estimates that 12% of the 4.1 million cows traded to slaughterhouses in the states of Para and Mato Grosso in 2017, came from properties potentially engaging in illegal deforestation. 

However, the figure increases to about 50% when considering the suppliers that had indirect contamination with illegal deforestation- such as when a ranch does not deforest but buys cattle from one that does.

In Mato Grosso, contamination of beef exports by illegal deforestation could be as high as 44% in the Amazon and 61% in the Cerrado regions. 

How Did the Researchers Conduct the Investigation?

In order to produce these figures, and draw parallels between illegal deforestation and agricultural exports, the researchers gathered land-use and deforestation data maps for Brazil as well as information on approximately 815 000 rural properties in the Amazon and Cerrado. They also examined cattle transport documents. They then developed software that calculated the level to which each property was complying with environmental and deforestation laws. 

Implications 

The findings of this study could have extensive implications for how countries confront trade agreements in the future knowing a portion of the imports could be associated with illegal deforestation of the Amazon. 

“International buyers of Brazil’s agricultural commodities have raised concerns about products that are contaminated by deforestation,” the researchers said. “Among the concerns is that increasing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Brazil could cancel out EU climate change mitigation efforts.”

Global Demand 

The BBC reported that ‘as the global demand for meat soars, and as China turns to Brazil for its supply of soybeans amid the trade war with the US, experts worry that Brazil’s agricultural boom will come at the cost of habitats like the Cerrado and Amazon’. 

The researchers said that “all economic partners of Brazil should share the blame for indirectly promoting deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions by not barring imports and consuming agricultural products contaminated with deforestation, illegal or not.” They further noted that their investigation is an essential stepping stone in pressing Brazil ‘to conserve its environmental assets’ and encourage international efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  

Deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest is speeding up. In June 2020, it increased by 10.7% compared to the previous year. The dismantling of environmental protections and president Jair Bolsonaro’s economic policies have set the stage for environmental disaster. The international community needs to pressure Brazil into complying with its climate commitments as the country has an important responsibility in the fight against the climate crisis because of the Amazon, a fight it is currently losing. 

According to new data, harvesting in Europe has caused the continent to lose a vastly increased area of forests in recent years, reducing the continent’s carbon sequestration capacity and placing doubts on the EU’s ability to mitigate the climate crisis.

Many of the EU’s forests, which roughly accounts for about 38% of its land surface area, are managed and harvested regularly for timber production. However, according to satellite data, the loss of biomass increased by 69% in the period from 2016 to 2018 when compared with the same period from 2011 to 2015. The area of forest harvested increased by 49% in the same comparison, published in the journal Nature Research

Even accounting for natural events such as fires and heavy snows, this data shows that far more harvesting of forests has occurred in Europe in a short period of time.

Other factors may include increased demand for wood as fuel and expansions of timber markets along with wood products. This data shows that forests are being unsustainably harvested.

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Of 26 countries studied, this harvesting is most pronounced in Sweden, which accounted for 29% of the increase, Finland for about 22%, and Poland, Spain, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia jointly accounted for about 30% of the increase. 

Guido Ceccherini of the EU Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study, says that the observed increase in harvesting and the subsequent loss of biomass was unlikely to result in the decline of overall forested area in the EU as harvested forests regenerate. However, it would disrupt the carbon absorption capacity of the forests in the short term, he said. 

Ceccherini says, “The forests continue to remain a carbon sink, but less than before. Even if part of the harvested biomass carbon is used in long-lasting wood products, possibly replacing more energy -intensive materials such as steel or cement, most of it will return to the atmosphere as CO2 in a short period of time, [from] months to a few years. Until the carbon stock in harvested areas returns to previous levels, which takes several decades, depending on the type of forest, an increase in harvest is therefore equivalent to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” 

Although Europe’s carbon balance may not be greatly affected in the long term, with harvested forests regenerating, the researchers claim that it is important to find out why harvesting has increased so rapidly, as this may indicate larger underlying issues with regards to the way in which Europe’s forests are being managed. More research is needed in order to establish definitive causes. However, the researchers have hypothesised that an increase in the demand for timber and wood products, such as pulp and paper, and more burning of biomass for fuel may be the reasons for the rapid rise in harvesting observed in the Nordic countries. 

Professor Thomas Crowther, founder of Crowther Lab, who was not involved in the research, said: “It is concerning to see that the increasing demand for forest products may be reducing the carbon stored within living biomass in European forests. It is possibly more concerning that forest removal may also threaten the storage of carbon below ground. These high-latitude forests support some of the largest soil carbon stock on Earth. If forest clearing threatens the integrity of high-latitude soil carbon stocks, then the climate impacts may be stronger than previously expected.” 

Forests offset about 10% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the areas harvested are likely to be replanted and the growth will continue to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a recent study that found that the climate crisis is driving the shift towards younger and shorter trees in forested ecosystems places doubt on the ability of these forests to continue to offset this volume of carbon dioxide in the long term.

Featured image by: Hans Permana

The European Commission intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. To mitigate the climate crisis and meet its targets, the EU has utilised biomass; the biomass feedstock of forestry has become the main source for renewable energy in the EU and is a key part of the European Green Deal. Although the EU nations produce biomass themselves, they have also turned to importing biomass from developing countries, such as Denmark importing from Brazil. While this supports European countries in reaching their environmental goals, what cost does it incur on the environments of developing countries?

In the EU, forestry is the main feedstock (logging, residues, wood chips and fuelwood etc) for bioenergy, accounting for more than 60% of all EU domestic biomass supplied for bioenergy with 96% of biomass produced domestically and 4% imported from non-EU countries, shown below in Figure 1. But to reach environmental targets, several EU countries have subsidised the biomass industry, including Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and the UK, the largest bioenergy consumers.

With this in mind, the European Commission is aiming to conduct a further ‘transformative approach’ to increase their reliance on biomass for renewable energy purposes.

Woody Biomass: A Carbon Neutral Energy Source?

While the burning of forest biomass has been promoted as a cleaner and more renewable alternative to coal and gas, it is believed that biomass is ‘a carbon emission accounting loophole’, which could destabilise the global climate. 

UK-based researchers found last year that burning wood is a ‘disaster’ for climate change as older trees release large amounts of carbon when they are burned and aren’t always replaced and even when they are, it can take up to 100 years to cultivate an area that soaks up as much carbon as was previously released. 

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The Double Standards of Denmark’s Carbon-Neutral Mission

Biomass is the most dominant source of energy in Denmark, embodying more than two thirds of its overall consumption of renewable energy. It represents an important component of Denmark’s mission to make its capital city, Copenhagen, the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Denmark is the second-largest consumer of wood pellets in the EU, using 2.1 million tons in 2018 to generate heat and power with woody biomass usage set to increase by 130% by 2025.

Business with Brazil

Although Denmark is considered the global poster child for renewable energy, driven by its advancements in onshore and offshore wind power, the Danish energy supplier, Hovedstadens Forsyningsselskab (Hofor), has been denounced for wood chip biomass feedstock importations. These imports, approximately 60 000 tons of wood chips since mid-November, originate from Brazil’s eucalyptus plantations in the state of Amapá and are used within the Copenhagen biomass plant of BIO4. The biomass feedstock is produced by AMCEL, a large Brazilian pulp company. 

However, these importations of Brazilian wood chips are facing strong condemnation for not being sustainable biomass, deriving instead from monoculture plantations aimed at producing cheap raw materials while stimulating economic growth. Additionally, AMCEL has been involved in illegal land grabbing and deforestation within these specific eucalyptus plantations. 

Biomass in Developing Countries: The Amazon for Sale

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has increased rapidly since the hard-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office. The pro-development president once stated, “deforestation and fires will never end.” From August 2018 to July 2019, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest rose 34.4% from a year before, to 10 129 sq kms. Furthermore, between January and April of 2020, the destruction of the forest by illegal loggers and ranchers rose 55% compared to the same four month period last year. It appears that criminal organisations have expanded their operations, as bulldozer sales doubled in Brazil within this four month period. This increase in deforestation activity comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic strains Brazil politically and economically, exacerbating Bolsonaro’s government policies to expand the commercial development of the Amazon rainforest, enabling illegal loggers and miners to face minimal risk of punishment.

While illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers have directly contributed to the increase of deforestation, Bolsonaro is arguably responsible. When he was running for president, it was his rhetoric that suggested deforestation-related practices in the Amazon could help lift the country out of poverty at the expense of indigenous people. “The Indigenous person can’t remain in his land as if he were some prehistoric creature as where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” he said in February.

It is this attitude that has made it easier for foreign countries to take advantage of the paper and biomass opportunities afforded by the Amazon. Encouraging developing countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia, to cut down their own forests and export their unsustainably harvested wood to meet foreign demand for bioenergy while developed countries protect their own forests is unfair and irresponsible. 

Phasing Out Biomass

While the importation of woody biomass from developing countries is legal, methods used to cultivate biomass feedstock are arguably unethical. Denmark, an apparent global renewable energy role model, should be held accountable for acquiring biomass feedstock from dubious feedstock sources in Brazil, a developing country with an important responsibility to protect the Amazon but which has a president that promised to exploit the Amazon. This showcases how developed countries, such as Denmark, aim to expand their green capacities at the cost of developing countries’ environmental health.

Furthermore, biomass as a reliable energy feedstock remains ambiguous. Unless we can guarantee forest regrowth to carbon parity, recent research indicates that the production of wood pellets for fuel is likely to put more CO2 in the atmosphere and maintain less biodiversity on the land during the next several decades.

If EU countries continue to use biomass to reach their climate goals, they must either closely examine its origins, or phase out all land-based biofuels and devote greater efforts to promoting sustainable renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal processes. 

Featured image by: photoheuristic.info

In March, the European Commission published its proposal for a European Climate Law, the cornerstone of its European Green Deal agenda. The Climate Law proposal, if passed in its current form, will create on the EU as a whole a legally binding target of being climate neutral, or net-zero, by 2050.

What is the EU Climate Law proposal?

The proposal, as part of the European Green Deal, has been hailed by the EU itself as Europe’s man on the moon moment. However, climate activist Greta Thunberg has labeled the proposal as a ‘surrender’ and as ‘empty words’ because reaching net-zero by 2050 is viewed by leading climate scientists as being too little, too late.

The current climate and energy goals of the EU are set out in a non-binding framework dated 2014: the EU aims to cut at least 40% of its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, to have at least 32% renewable energy in its overall energy mix and to have a 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.

The climate-neutrality target laid out in the new law was initially endorsed by the European Parliament in 2019 after new climate models had made it clear that the then current climate trajectory would only lead to around a 60% reduction by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

Climate-Neutrality Objective vs Trajectory 

The overall objective of the law is set out in article 2(1), which states that “Union-wide emissions and removals of greenhouse gases regulated in Union law shall be balanced at the latest by 2050, thus reducing emissions to net-zero by that date.” Article 2(2) imposes obligations on the Union and its member states collectively and individually to take the necessary measures to facilitate this. Union-wide in this context means that the objective is for the EU as a whole to reach net-zero. Therefore some member states will have to go beyond net-zero and achieve negative emissions, while other member states will need more time to adjust their economies. 

Article 3 empowers the Commission, starting from 2030, to set a trajectory detailing how the climate-neutrality objective is to be reached, taking into account, among other things, cost-effectiveness and competitiveness, the best available technology, fairness and solidarity, energy efficiency and energy security, in addition to the best and most recent research in the field, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) being highlighted in the draft text. The trajectory will be set out and updated through delegated acts, but whether or not these will be legally binding or directly enforceable is clear neither from the Commission’s explanatory memorandum nor the draft law.

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Assessment of Progress and Measures – Articles 5 and 6

By 30 September 2023 and every five years thereafter the Commission shall assess the collective progress of the member states and the Union itself (article 5), and the adequacy of individual measures adopted by the member states (article 6). The conclusions of the Commission shall be presented to the European Parliament and the European Council.

The Commission is allowed to issue recommendations to those member states whose progress is inconsistent with the climate-neutrality target, however the member states are only required to take due account of the recommendation and, if it decides not to address the issues in the recommendation, explain its reasoning in a public report.

International Context — Paris and Aarhus

The EU Climate Law proposal includes direct overlaps, references and allusions to international environmental treaties, in particular, the Paris Agreement and the Aarhus Convention, the latter of which affords everyone the right to receive environmental information that is held by public authorities.

The climate-neutrality objective itself was supported by the European Council with the explicit purpose of achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The temperature goal of the Paris Agreement may be interpreted as the ultimate goal for which the EU Climate Law and the European Green Deal are striving. In the preamble, the long-term climate-neutrality goal is described as crucial for achieving the economic and societal transformation the Paris Agreement’s 1.5/2°C goal requires. 

Article 4 of the draft law contains a direct reference to article 7 of the Paris Agreement and an obligation to make continuous progress towards improving adaptation strategies and reducing climate change vulnerability. Also reflecting the link between the EU Climate Law and the Paris Agreement, the reporting mechanisms under articles 5 and 6 of the law, together with the reporting procedures in Regulation 2018/1999, are deliberately synchronised with the global stocktake of the Paris Agreement, starting in 2023.

Criticisms of the EU Climate Law

The only substantive binding target or obligation contained in the draft regulation is the climate-neutrality objective. There are no individual targets imposed on the member states that need an extra push, nor does the commission appear to be empowered to take the necessary measures to enforce the collective objective or its trajectory in an efficient way.

The main shortcoming under this heading concerns the obligation under article 2(3) to explore options for a new 2030 target of 50 to 55% emission reductions compared to 1990. The commission is scheduled to present an impact assessment of the feasibility of doing this in a responsible way this summer. The fact that the legal text includes the obligation to consider the impact assessment and to revise the plan later makes it all seem quite rushed. In order to give the new law maximum impact the ambitiously revised 2030 targets should have been included in the draft law and should have been made legally binding.

If the commission wanted its level of ambition to be in line with the marketing of the draft law, the proposal could have included an ambitious and legally binding 2030 target, concrete sectoral transformation and reduction targets, and concrete and ambitious targets on individual member states. Some of these ideas have already been endorsed by a group of climate and environmental ministers from 12 member states in a letter to the commission.

Two main enforcement mechanisms are available to the commission under the draft law. First, there is public naming and shaming, primarily through the public reports and recommendations mandated by articles 5 and 6. The fact that the reports and recommendations of the Commission regarding the consistency and progress of the measures and plans of the individual member states towards achieving the neutrality objective are to be made public could, and ideally will push the member states into compliance. However, certain member states have a track record of not incorporating and enforcing EU environmental law and appear to be unperturbed by pressure from the commission or national green movements. Because of this, there is a question mark over the effectiveness of the naming and shaming procedure, particularly for member states with an existing habit of non-compliance with environmental obligations.

The most powerful tool at the commission’s disposal, and its last resort, is to launch infringement proceedings against a member state before the Court of Justice of the EU. This procedure is legalistic and consists of a number of time-consuming procedural steps that, combined with the workloads of the commission and of the court, result in the average infringement case lasting 38 months from the date the first official reasoned opinion is sent to a member state to the date the court makes a ruling.

Taking into account the limited time from 2030, when the obligations will come into force, to 2050 and the massive societal, economic, industrial, political and economic changes all member states need to implement to be anywhere near reaching EU-wide net-zero within the deadline, 38 months for each infringement is excessive and ineffective. This is especially so when the follow-up proceedings to impose financial penalties are taken into account. Furthermore, the court may only impose financial penalties and has no other enforcement powers to ensure compliance. This underlines the limits of the EU’s constitutional framework to ensure enforcement of its laws rather than a flaw in the draft law, but it is nonetheless a clear danger to its potential success.

The third shortcoming of the draft law is the lack of independent scientific oversight of the climate-neutrality trajectory formulated in article 3. Article 3(3)(j) obliges the commission to consider “the best available and most recent scientific evidence, including the latest reports of the IPCC.” However, ‘considering’ is not the same as ‘following’ and this formulation is merely an obligation to take a look at the latest science. The trajectory is ultimately a political decision and therefore subject to the respective veto powers of the European Parliament and the council.

This is a serious shortcoming because the setting of the trajectory will be subject to the veto of the council, where climate change-denying member states are represented, and subject to the politics of the commission. This renders the law a highly politicised instrument and most likely an ineffective one.   

Practical alternatives could include creating an independent scientific body that proposes the trajectory based on its expert opinion and then leaves it to the commission and the council to publicly justify any alterations. The commission could follow the advisory structures that already exist in the EU, for instance, the scientific committees established under Commission Decision 2008/721/EC or the High-Level Group of Scientific Advisors. This could depoliticise the trajectory as a concept, increase transparency and ensure accountability for unambitious decisions and choices. Leading researchers in the field, such as Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf of the Ecologic Institute, have called the lack of an independent scientific body a missed opportunity as “Independent scientific bodies support consistency between climate long-term goals and short-term action. They enhance the role of science, and help build the necessary political will to decarbonise economies.”

The draft is now in the hands of the EU’s legislature, where the European Parliament (which is directly elected) and the Council of the European Union (which represents the government of the member states) will discuss, amend and agree on the final text of the regulation. The European Parliament has already signalled that it wants to significantly toughen the law while the Council is more careful.

The European Climate Law is a great step in the right direction but it falls short of the level of ambition the EU is capable of achieving. In its current form, the law is more like Apollo 5 than the moonwalk: in orbit but far from the moon. 

The European Commission has committed to protecting 30% of the lands and oceans in the EU by 2030 as part of the EU Green Deal’s biodiversity strategy. Environment groups have urged that such far-reaching ambitions be enforced stringently so as to not allow them to exist only ‘on paper’. What will be included in this fund and how effective will it be?

The New EU Biodiversity Strategy

The 10-year plan includes commitments to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50%, plant three billion trees by 2030 and reverse the decline in pollinators. Within these 30% protected areas in the EU, a third of land and sea will be under ‘strict protection’, meaning that there will be no human intervention besides minimal management to keep the area in good condition and boost biodiversity.

This follows a text drafted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in January that called for a global commitment to protect at least 30% of the planet in the next decade. 

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Areas under strict protection will include carbon-rich habitats such as primary and old-growth forests, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands. Currently, only 3% of land and 1% of marine areas are under strict protection. 

The Commission aims to raise at least €20bn per year to fund the plan. The report outlining the plan says that the money will come from private and public funding at EU and national level. A ‘significant’ proportion of the EU’s climate budget will also be invested in biodiversity.

Sabien Leemans, senior policy officer for biodiversity at WWF, says that this figure was “probably at the bottom of the scale, but it’s the first time they’ve mentioned a concrete figure, so that’s already good.”

The plan also puts pressure on reworking the common agricultural policy (CAP) which has been accused of driving biodiversity decline through its subsidy scheme that rewards farmers for the amount of land they own, rather than for making environmental improvements. 

10% of agricultural lands will be transformed into ‘high-diversity landscapes’ with the creation of buffer strips, hedges, ponds and fallow land. 25% of agricultural land will be managed organically by 2030. 

Ariel Brunner, senior head of policy at BirdLife International’s Brussels office, calls these agricultural targets a ‘game-changer’ and says that the 2100 biodiversity targets for agriculture were extremely weak because of the strength of the EU’s farming lobby, which resulted in a ‘lost decade’ for wildlife. 

He adds, “When you combine these new targets- and if they are implemented, which is a big if- then you are starting to look at healthy agriculture that can provide habitats for farmland birds and butterflies but also agriculture that can actually provide food at the end of the century.

This new strategy comes after decades of severe loss of biodiversity, with wildlife populations falling on average by 60% in the past 40 years as a result of human activities. The report adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the link environmental and human health, calling for ambitious action.

However, some environmental campaigners are concerned that the commitments lack detail about how these changes will be implemented and enforced. 

Paul de Zylva, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says, “It’s good to see ambition to extend protected areas, boost tree cover, cut pesticide use and to bring back species in decline. But there is a huge sense of déjà vu reading this latest strategy because many of the same ambitions have been set out, and not delivered, by previous nature plans.”

“Europe can’t afford another decade of failure to protect and restore our natural world,” he adds. 

The report acknowledges that not properly looking after protected land was having ‘disastrous consequences’ on biodiversity. 

The Commission promises to outline in 2021 legally binding targets on EU member states to restore nature reserves, such as meadows, peatlands, grasslands and forests, and boost biodiversity. Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU commissioner for environment and oceans, says that without a ‘dedicated binding framework in support of the biodiversity strategy’, there is a ‘high risk that biodiversity loss would continue’. 

The European Commission has been criticised for being ‘too timid’ in taking national governments to court for breaking environmental rules. 

According to The Guardian, the Commission takes a law-breaking country to the ECJ without four months for a breach of EU’s transport rules, while the same process takes 66 months for flouting environmental standards.

Brunner says, “The real game-changer will be enforcement. That’s the acid-test for all of this- you can set the best targets in the world but if ultimately, people can just get away with criminal activity with no consequences, then it doesn’t hold.”

The plan is expected to be discussed at the UN Convention of Biodiversity, COP15, in Kunming in 2021. 190 countries will discuss biodiversity targets for the next decade, and it is likely that the EU will put pressure on other countries to follow its lead. 

The EU has been called to account for its poor treatment of livestock exports, after a new report has found that the welfare of animals, including millions of cattle, sheep and goats exported from the EU is being put at risk due to poor planning and animal facilities at ports, and a lack of information from the destination country. 

EU Livestock Exports: Statistics

The Welfare of Animals Transported by Sea report gathered by the European Commission includes information from Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Portugal and Ireland, among others, in 2017 and 2018, and shows lack of planning for high temperatures and animal facilities at ports. 

Among the major issues as pointed out by the report, is that in summer, the authorities at the port of departure do not take high temperatures into account, and that animals must sometimes ‘endure temperatures over 35 °C’, it says. 

The report criticises the fact that most EU countries do not receive feedback from the destination country about the conditions of the animals on arrival, nor is there any information at any other stage of the journey, from the transporter, ship’s Master or vessel operator.

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Also mentioned in the report is poor contingency planning, incomplete or incorrect departure documentation and failure to prevent recurring compliance problems. 

The report found that only 24% of ships are licensed by ‘white flag’ countries. Ships that fly these flags are recognised as having a low rate of port detentions for regulatory problems. Frequent delays at ports are another issue; out of 13 European exit ports, only six have facilities in the port that allow transporters to unload, rest, water and feed the animals.

There is also uncertainty as to who is legally responsible for the care of livestock at different parts of the journey, particularly in ports or during sea journeys. 

The report singles out Romania as a particular exporting country of concern. In late 2019, more than 14 000 sheep drowned on a Romanian-approved livestock ship which keeled over shortly after leaving the Romanian port. Only 180 sheep survived.

Ireland and Portugal were praised for having better systems in place for livestock approval and health inspection prior to loading. 

The report says that there are gaps in animal welfare regulations, which it claims are not geared to detect issues that could cause vessels to tilt and overturn. 

When asked what action would be taken, a spokesperson of the commission said that it would ‘explore the feasibility of harmonising and strengthening, through a legal act, the inspections of livestock vessels into an EU database in cooperation with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)’.

The spokesperson added that the commission was ‘cooperating with the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) to develop a network of contact points dedicated to animal transport in third countries. The objective is to reinforce our collaboration with these countries on this issue’. 

The EU exports around 1 million cattle and 2 million sheep every year to non-EU countries, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. The EU livestock exports trade was valued at more than €12bn in 2019. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released its Global Renewables Outlook report, which shows that renewable energy could power economic growth post-COVID-19 by spurring global GDP gains of almost US$100 trillion between now and 2050.

Impact of Renewable Energy on Economic Growth

The report says that advancing the renewable-based energy transformation is an opportunity to meet international climate goals while boosting economic growth, creating millions of jobs and improving human welfare.

While the report acknowledges that the path to deeper decarbonisation will require total energy investments of up to USD$130 trillion, the socio-economic gains of such an investment would be ‘massive’. Investing in renewable energy would boost global GDP gains above business-as-usual by USD$98 trillion between now and 2050 by returning between USD$3 and USD$8 on every dollar invested. It would also quadruple renewable energy jobs to 42 million, expand employment in energy efficiency to 21 million and add 15 million in system flexibility. 

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Further, low-carbon investments would yield savings eight times more than costs when accounting for reduced health and environmental externalities, the report says. 

The agency’s director-general, Francesco La Camera, said the global crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the ‘deep vulnerabilities of the current system’ and urged governments to invest in renewable energy to encourage economic growth and help meet climate targets.

Camera says, “Governments are facing a difficult task of bringing the health emergency under control while introducing major stimulus and recovery measures. 

By accelerating renewables and making the energy transition an integral part of the wider recovery, governments can achieve multiple economic and social objectives in the pursuit of a resilient future that leaves nobody behind.”

The report also looked at energy and socio-economic transition paths in 10 regions globally, which are all expected to see higher shares of renewable energy use, despite embarking on different paths. Southeast Asia, Latin America, the EU and Sub-Saharan Africa are poised to reach 70-80% shares in their total energy mixes by 2050.

The report also found that renewable energy would help to reduce the energy industry’s carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2050 by replacing fossil fuels. Renewables could play a greater role in cutting carbon emissions from heavy industry and ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ sectors, particularly through investments in green hydrogen.

The agency urges stronger coordination on international, regional and domestic levels, with financial support being directed where needed, ‘including to the most vulnerable countries and communities’. 

Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute, says, “As the world looks to recover from the current health and economic crises, we face a choice: we can pursue a modern, clean, healthy energy system, or we can go back to the old, polluting ways of doing business. We must choose the former.” 

Featured image by: Aaron Crowe

The UK officially withdrew from the EU on January 31 2020, but there is still much uncertainty surrounding what will happen next. While the UK has agreed to the terms of its EU departure, both sides need to decide what their future relationship will look like. This will be worked out during the transition period ending on December 31st, during which time a new free trade agreement will be negotiated. What impact will Brexit have on the environment?

The UK’s environmental policies have been greatly affected by its EU membership. While it would be easy to advocate for remaining in the EU, it is important to consider that the UK has contributed to strengthening the EU’s policies, while having its own weakened in some areas. Moving forward, it is important to focus on post-Brexit scenarios rather than looking back and questioning whether leaving the EU was a good decision.  

Brexit Impacts on Environmental Laws

Although the government has promised a ‘Green Brexit’, it is not entirely clear what that entails. In the short run, it wants the same rules to apply on ‘exit day’ as the day before. The European Union Withdrawal Bill ensures that EU legislation, including its environmental regulations, will be incorporated into the UK’s domestic laws, with some flexibility to ensure that domestic legislation continues to function efficiently. This means that, at least during the transition period, the UK will still abide by EU policies and there won’t be any large differences in the domestic environmental regulations. However, in the long term, the government may wish to make changes and the extent to which they will be allowed to do so will depend on the kind of agreement they come to with the EU. Without knowing the eventual model that will be chosen to determine the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is difficult to predict what Brexit will mean for the environment. 

If the UK was to go through a ‘soft Brexit’ and adopt the Norwegian Model, the majority of the EU environmental policies would have to remain in place in the UK’s domestic laws. The UK will only be able to take back control of some policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries, which have major environmental significance. However, if the UK goes through a ‘hard Brexit’ and leaves without a deal, it would have the right to choose its own level of environmental protection. Although the previous Environmental Secretary, Michael Gove, has given assurance that the UK’s new environmental laws will in fact be strengthened and improved after leaving, it is important to see these words being put into action. 

While there are different arguments for which would be the better route for the government to take, according to a risk analysis of UK environmental policies post-Brexit, the Norwegian Model poses the lowest level of risk to the present standard of environment protection. As mentioned earlier, the UK would still be required to follow most of the EU’s high standards of environmental regulations, and it would be easier to predict the post-Brexit impact on the environment since there would be little to no change apart from a few exceptions. Furthermore, the UK is a leader in implementing  green initiatives within the EU and their strong scientific research has been a significant contributor to understanding environmental issues. The EU may struggle to maintain this standard now that the UK has left and it is therefore in both their interests to come to a mutually beneficial deal. However, as the Norwegian Model allows the UK to maintain access to the single market, it would likely have to contribute to the European Budget, making the Model a very unlikely choice for the UK government. 

Conversely, a ‘no deal’ Brexit poses the highest risk to the present standard of environment protection. This route gives the UK full sovereignty over its environmental regulations and could possibly give rise to some inconsistencies within legislation during the period in which alternative policies are still being processed and implemented. Furthermore, having been known as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ before they joined the EU, giving the UK full control could pose significant risks and spark political resistance. However, there is also a chance that the government will decide to keep the existing regulations; changing regulations may create uncertainty and have a negative effect on local businesses and communities. Leaving without a deal does not necessarily mean that the UK will adopt a lower standard of environment protection policies. As mentioned earlier, the government has actually promised a higher standard of environmental protection but this will only be proven once plans are put into place. Otherwise, they will be constrained to uphold international laws which have a lower standard than those of the EU. 

What Next? The Post-Brexit Environment

Uncertainty surrounding Brexit remains, as does the question of what will happen to the environment post-departure. As Boris Johnson has emphasised that the UK is prepared for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it seems the more likely outcome. The UK will be under no obligation to uphold EU regulations after the transition period and therefore, the impact on the environment depends entirely on whether the UK government decides to maintain or improve its current regulations, or follow only the minimum regulations as stated by international law. 

Featured image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

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