Europe faces many challenges on the road to climate neutrality. Broad civil-society involvement is crucial for getting there.
The European Green Deal binds the European Union to becoming a climate-neutral territory by 2050. As part of this, the European Climate Law of June 2021 commits the EU to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.
A fundamental transformation of core production-consumption systems, such as energy, mobility and food, is needed. Rethinking and reshaping development and economic policies, investing in research and technologies, and transforming Europeans’ understanding of progress (and how to measure it) will all affect Europe’s economies, societies, territories and people.
In a foresight study, The transition to a climate-neutral economy: Exploring the socioeconomic impacts, Eurofound and the European Environment Agency brought together EU-level and regional experts and stakeholders to explore these socio-economic impacts and the policy implications. Making a genuine ‘green transition’ happen is a challenge, given the lock-ins and path dependencies that characterise production-consumption systems, compounded by the external and internal economic and social pressures Europe faces.
It is crucial to engage civil society and the social partners, particularly in navigating conflicts and deliberating over different pathways, including their potential costs and benefits. Moreover, the sectors that will drive a green future, which currently are relatively small—such as organic farming and activities focused on the ‘circular economy’—need to be given a voice.
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Decarbonisation and digitalisation will reshape the labour market. Strategies to use this transformation to create more jobs than are lost are essential, for instance in the circular economy and renewable energy. This shift to a climate-neutral economy will however impose new requirements on people and labour demand might not match labour supply. It is important to invest in education, skilling and reskilling and to provide the necessary support for job transitions. Welfare strategies and programmes also need to be rethought to ensure a safety-net is in place for those at risk of being left behind.
Ultimately, the economic and social conditions of the decarbonised economy of 2030-50 will be shaped by decisions made today.
A true transition to climate neutrality demands policies that facilitate more responsible consumption. For instance, there is a will to engage with more environmentally friendly transport—public transport, cycling, walking—but barriers include a lack of infrastructure. In Romania and Greece, for instance, respondents to a Eurofound survey rated poor access to walking and cycling routes as the most problematic issue in their area, while across member states poor access to public transport was particularly common. Consumption of organic food could also be stepped up, if its price came more into line with non-organic alternatives and access were improved.
To support people who are negatively affected during the transition, and those already in vulnerable situations, it is important to break the link between employment and fulfilment of basic needs to guarantee the right to ‘a life in dignity at all stages of life and effective access to enabling goods and services’ proclaimed in the European Pillar of Social Rights. For example, access to quality services often depends on income or employer-provided insurance.
In addition to meeting needs, more has to be done to reduce them. Some actions can simultaneously reduce care needs, contribute to addressing climate change and improve built environments. For instance, more effort should go into preventing the need for care by addressing obesity through improved diets and facilitating active modes of transport. Hospitalisation following exposure to excessive cold or heat could be stemmed through better home insulation.
Transport needs could be reduced by looking at why and how people travel, focusing policies on getting them to where they need to go without depending on a car. By facilitating telework, e-healthcare and e-government, digitalisation allied to good homes with proper access to services and work can enhance quality of life as well as reducing demand for transport. Besides helping mitigate the impact of climate change, these measures prevent other forms of environmental degradation.
Politically, meeting needs is often more appealing than preventing needs from arising in the first place. Yet there is so much more to gain from pre-empting problems than addressing them once they occur.
The European Green Deal is a huge test for policy-makers in this regard. They should seek public support for prevention by, for example, raising awareness of the non-economic benefits of the transition. These include improvements in human health resulting from cleaner air, healthier diets and reduced urban heating, and better quality of life overall.
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Such improvements will likely disproportionately benefit low-income groups, who tend to be more severely affected by environmental impacts: they often live in more polluted areas and are more likely to have underlying medical issues that make them more vulnerable to the effects of pollution. Reducing households’ dependence on external energy—by upgrading insulation and installing solar panels—and improving access to active modes of transport also reduces their energy and transport bills, enhancing their resilience to inflated energy and fuel prices.