The European Green Deal’s main objective is the transition towards a modern, healthy, resource-efficient and competitive economy. The Recovery Plan for Europe focuses on boosting the green and digital transition in order to create a more resilient and more sustainable Europe for all.
Because the return to “business as usual” after the pandemic would be a compromise on people and the planet’s health, we discussed with European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius about the implications of the COVID-19 crisis and young people’s expectations of a greener future.
Virginijus Sinkevičius has been the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries since 2019. He was formerly the Minister of Economy of Lithuania (2017-2019). Before this, he led the Economic Committee of the Parliament of Lithuania and was elected to the Parliament in October 2016.
1.You have been the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries since 2019, inspiring younger generations to be more sustainability-focused. How are you planning to keep sustainable development in the spotlight and turn it into an attractive topic for all generations?
I would first like to say how excited I am that sustainability, protecting our environment and combatting climate change have leapt into the political and media spotlight. It gives me great pleasure to see that people all over Europe and the world are pushing for a greener planet. While younger generations have certainly been influential in putting climate change, sustainability and environmental issues in the world’s media spotlight, they are joining many older people who have been involved in the same fight for decades.
Young people are also reminding us that we have responsibilities towards future generations. On a personal level, I have two children and I want them to live on a healthy planet – full of biodiversity and without pollution. I am convinced that by working together, and through the transformative, structural changes proposed in our European Green Deal, we can create a more sustainable, healthier and fairer world for all. This is a whole-society endeavour, which will very much be fuelled by bottom-up initiatives and solutions as much as policy and economic changes.
2.The EU has committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. Reaching this objective will require a transformation of Europe’s society and economy, but won’t it be difficult to be cost effective, just, and socially balanced at the same time?
We announced our European Green Deal in 2019 as our strategy for jobs and sustainable growth and set our target to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The Deal has also become our recovery pathway from the COVID-19 crisis.
”The recovery is a historic opportunity, a chance to fundamentally rethink not just our policies, but our economic system. We should use the Green Deal as our compass, our route to a green recovery. We can build back better, and ensure we move to a clean, climate neutral and regenerative economic model.
Ensuring that this transition is fair and just is firmly embedded in all of our policies. We recognise that some regions will be particularly affected and will undergo a profound economic and social transformation. We have been very clear that we will support them to make sure that we leave no one behind. This is why we have introduced the Just Transition Mechanism of at least 100 billion euros to help support those most affected by the transition. It is our pledge of solidarity and fairness for those who face the deepest challenge to make this journey with us.
3.It is crystal clear that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic draws attention to the urgent need to address biodiversity and climate issues. Have the numerous lockdowns had a positive or negative effect on wildlife?
The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways changed our relationship with nature, bringing increased awareness and understanding of how much we depend on green spaces and cleaner air for our mental health and our physical wellbeing.
We now know that pandemics are driven by our destruction of nature, so the risk of future pandemics will increase unless we fix our broken relationship with nature. When we destroy nature, we bring wildlife, livestock, and people into closer contact, enabling animal microbes to migrate to people and increasing the risk of pandemics. On the other hand, the economic recovery from the pandemic is a unique opportunity to build back better – to reduce the risk of future pandemics by protecting nature and biodiversity.
”When it comes to impact, there is a misperception that nature is “getting a break” from humans during the COVID-19 pandemic. While numerous lockdowns throughout the pandemic may have led to some short-term positive effects for nature mostly in urban areas, on global level processes that are devastating for wildlife did not stop. Many rural areas in the tropics are facing increased pressure from land grabbing, deforestation, illegal mining and wildlife poaching.
We need to address the protection of wildlife and biodiversity in the long-term. This is why, last year, we proposed our Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, which is essential to set European nature and biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030. Healthy nature and ecosystems underpin our health, wellbeing and economies, and are crucial allies in fighting climate change. The Strategy contains a number of commitments concerning nature protection and ecosystem restoration, including measures to tackle illegal wildlife trade.
4.Is the circular economy one way forward for Europe as it seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic? What are your arguments for that?
We know that if our society continues to consume resources at the current rate, by 2050, we will be consuming as if there were three Earth planets. Global material consumption and waste generation will also increase dramatically. We cannot allow this to happen. We must decouple growth from resource use.
COVID-19 has underlined the urgency of stopping the destruction of our natural environment and exposed the fragility of the current economic model.
”Circular economy, with its underlying principles of changing the way we produce and consume, is the model of the future, for Europe and the world. It brings balance back to our relationship with nature and reduces our vulnerability to disruptions in global, complex supply chains.
In a circular economy, the value of products is kept in the economy for as long as possible, and waste is minimised. The idea is to reduce material consumption while creating economic value, for example through repairing and re-using products such as clothes, furniture and electronic devices, or through designing products that last longer and are easier to repair and recycle.
By extracting more value and functionality from products and materials, the circular economy also has the potential to create local jobs at all skills levels. In addition to addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, the transition to a circular economy is also an exciting economic opportunity. It drives innovation, can contribute to price stability, and secure access to raw materials, diversifying and localising supply chains.
5.What is the link between the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy, since they are adopted at the same time?
Biodiversity and our food production are closely linked and interdependent. Farmers depend on fertile soils and insect pollination to grow food. More than 75% of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables, rely on pollination. Biodiversity loss, extreme weather and climate change all negatively affect farmers’ livelihoods. So working towards more sustainable farming, farming that is in balance with nature, is a win-win strategy.
On the other hand, unsustainable agriculture practices are one of the leading drivers of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity is crucial to safeguard food security, it underpins healthy and nutritious diets, and it improves rural livelihoods. We want farmers to become once again stewards of nature. They have to become part of the solution to the biodiversity crisis, and not the problem.
The two EU strategies look at how this could be achieved, for the benefit of people, nature and the planet. While Biodiversity Strategy aims to put our biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030, Farm to Fork looks at the sustainability of the whole food system, from producers to consumers.
Both strategies are core parts of the European Green Deal. They will support the green economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen our societies’ resilience to future pandemics and threats such as climate impacts, forest fires, food insecurity or disease outbreaks.
The interview was initially published in November 2021, in the bilingual yearbook Community Index Magazine no. 3, printed edition. It can be ordered here: https://communityindex.ro/community-index-magazine-2021/