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The European Green Deal and its climate ambitions — ECA audits providing input for action

Source: Herr Loeffler/ Shutterstock

One of the three key focal points of the work of the new European Commission, which took office in November 2019, has been climate change action, encapsulated in the term European Green Deal. The Commission’s promise was to deliver such a deal within the first 100 days, and they did, already presenting more detailed proposals in mid December 2019. This Green Deal touches on many issues covered by ECA audit reports on climate change in the past few years. Joanna Kokot, assistant to the Director of Chamber I, has worked on several audits related to climate change action. Below she analyses which thematic areas of the Green Deal have been covered by ECA audits and what key conclusions have been presented in the audit reports.

By Joanna Kokot, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Directorate

Before the European Green Deal

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the EU and its Member States committed themselves to making its finance flows consistent with climate goals. In 2016, by signing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the EU and its Member States made a further commitment to implementing 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including SDG 13 on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impact.

Sustainability issues, including energy and climate change, are at the core of the ECA’s strategies and its work programmes. Particularly since 2014, the ECA has published numerous audit reports covering energy issues and climate change action.

The European Green Deal — for Europe to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050

The European Green Deal (EGD) is probably the biggest overhaul of EU policy since the foundation of the EU. The Commission plans to reassess nearly every major area of the European economy in light of the climate and ecological emergency. For example, from 2021 onwards it plans to devote at least 40% of the EU’s budget for its Common Agricultural Policy to tackling climate change.

In the Deal, the European Commission sets out 47 actions for 2020 and 2021, for Europe to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. These actions are grouped by thematic area, as shown on the EGD infographic in Figure 1.

Figure 1 — Thematic areas in the European Green Deal

Source: Commission’s Factsheet on Financing Sustainable Growth

Many of the EGD objectives presented in the infographic above build on earlier EU policies and programmes related to climate & energy, agriculture and environment policies. As the Union’s external auditor, we audit spending programmes that support these policies. Below you will find the key ECA reports and reviews — either published or soon to be published — that tie into the EGD and its climate ambitions, presented per EGD objective. However, this is not an exhaustive overview; the policy fields covered by the EGD are vast.

EGD objective of increasing EU’s climate ambition for 2030 and 2050

The EGD lays out an EU plan for tackling climate change. The current targets, to be reached by 2030, are to cut at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels. As part of the Green Deal, the Commission aims to propose raising this target to at least 50% and towards 55%. Other targets are a share of at least 32% renewables in final energy consumption and at least a 32.5% improvement in energy savings. That is by 2030, so ten years from now.

Source: Engel.ac/Shutterstock

In our 2017 landscape review on EU action on energy and climate change, we provided an overview of EU action on climate change and summarised key audit work by the ECA and the EU national audit institutions in this field up to 2017. In this overview, we also identified the main challenges deriving from climate change, in order to both inform the legislative debate and future audit work.

In 2019, we published two reports on the use of environmental and climate data, namely:

special report 16/2019 on European Environmental Accounts that concluded that the usefulness of accounts for policymakers could clearly be improved; and

special report 18/2019 on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) in which we concluded that EU emission data are appropriately reported, but that better insight into future greenhouse gas emission reductions was needed, also since the long-term sectoral roadmaps covered 70% of the emissions reported, with no specific roadmaps available for key sectors, such as agriculture. For further details on this topic, see page 57.

Many EGD objectives tie into this overall EGD climate ambition, and, consequently, so do the ECA audits related to these EGD objectives, as described below.

EGD objective of zero pollution ambition for a toxic free environment

The EGD aims to achieve a pollution-free environment in the EU by 2050. In our report on air pollution (special report 23/2018), we concluded that our health was insufficiently protected. We identified a number of challenges linked to the pollution-free air ambition: 20-year-old standards, weak monitoring and the need to increase public awareness are among the key ones. See also page 85.

In our report on EU action on pesticides (special report 05/2020), we concluded that actions had been taken at EU level to promote the sustainable use of pesticides but there had been limited progress in measuring and reducing the associated risks.

In 2020, we launched an audit on making the polluter pay. This audit aims to assess whether the EU framework ensures that the polluter pays principle is applied in practice in the EU.

EGD objective of preserving and restoring ecosystems & biodiversity

Source: Aliaksandra Post/ Shutterstock

It is now widely recognized that climate change and biodiversity are interconnected and that conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity is critical to addressing climate change (1). In 2019, we launched three performance audits on biodiversity:

one related to farmland to assess whether the EU’s common agriculture policy has contributed to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity on EU farmland (we published an audit preview for this audit in May 2019 announcing it and providing information about its scope);

another audit on EU action to protect wild pollinators to assess whether the results achieved so far, particularly in the common agricultural policy, are in line with the actions announced, and whether measurable targets and good indicators have been established to allow for proper tracking; and

a third audit on protection of the marine environment, to assess whether the EU has successfully preserved 10% of its marine waters through protected areas or other conservation measures, as required by the Aichi Biodiversity targets to which the EU agreed by signing the Biodiversity Convention.

In addition, in 2020, we launched an audit on EU forestry to assess whether EU action for EU forests has promoted biodiversity and tackled climate change.

Climate change is an aggravating factor for floods in the EU, triggering changes in precipitation and weather patterns, sea level rises and, consequently, more frequent and severe floods. In the report on the Flood Directive (special report 25/2018), we found that the implementation of flood prevention measures suffered from weaknesses in allocating funding and that major future challenges remained concerning the need for much fuller integration of climate change, flood insurance and spatial planning into flood risk management. In our report on combating desertification in the EU (special report 33/2018), we concluded that it was a growing threat in need of more action.

EGD objective of ‘Farm to fork’ strategy — greening the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)

Agriculture and climate change are closely interlinked. Green House Gas emissions caused by agriculture account for 15% of all EU GHG emissions. In the EU, the majority of the actions aimed at mitigating GHG emissions in agriculture are implemented under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The EGD speaks about the examination of Member States’ draft CAP strategic plans with reference to the Green Deal’s objectives and announces the Farm to Fork strategy that is aimed at reducing the use and risk of pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics.

In 2019, we published three audit reports relevant to the EGD Farm to Fork strategy announcements, namely the reports on:

food safety (special report 02/2019) concluding that as regards the chemical hazards in our food, the EU food safety policy protects us but faces challenges;

organic food (special report 04/2019) stating that the control system for organic products had improved, but some challenges remained; and Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) (special report 21/2019) noting progress in addressing the AMR in the animal sector, but sounding an alert that this health threat remains a challenge for the EU.

In April 2020, we launched two audits on climate change and the CAP. One assessing whether the EU’s actions have meaningfully reduced the GHG emissions from agriculture, and the second one examining whether EU actions in agriculture promoted sustainable use of water In January 2020, we published a report on new technologies in agri-monitoring (special report 04/2020). Here we reported that significant changes to paying agencies’ procedures and IT systems are required and we identified several ongoing obstacles to the more widespread use of these new technologies.

Three years ago, we published an audit report criticising CAP greening (special report 21/2017). This report stated that greening was a more complex income support scheme, and not yet environmentally effective. We have recently started an audit on climate change and agriculture, aimed at assessing whether EU actions have meaningfully reduced GHG emissions from agriculture.

EGD objective of accelerating the shift to sustainable and smart mobility

Transport is one of the biggest sources of air pollution. In 2018, we published a landscape review — Towards a successful transport sector in the EU: challenges to be address — describing and analysing what the EU does in the field of transport. This document presented a horizontal review of the key challenges faced by the development and financing of transport in the EU.

Population growth, urbanisation and growing use of private cars in the EU contribute to traffic congestion in the cities and pollution, which raise considerable environmental and health concerns. We have recently published a report on urban mobility in the EU (special report 06/2020) concluding that there was no clear trend towards more sustainable modes of transport in the EU cities.

The EGD says that, by 2025, about 1 million public recharging and refuelling stations will be needed for the 13 million zero- and low- emission vehicles expected on European roads. We have recently started an audit on electrical recharging infrastructure, assessing EU support for recharging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Financing the transition — our audits on tracking climate spending

In our 2016 audit on spending at least 1 euro in every 5 from the EU budget on climate action (special report 31/2016), we sought to determine whether the target of spending at least 20 % of the EU budget on climate-related action was likely to be met. This audit flagged a serious risk of falling short of meeting the 20 % target without more effort to tackle climate change.

In 2018, in line with the Paris Agreement and the commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Commission proposed setting a more ambitious goal for climate mainstreaming across all EU programmes, with a target of 25% of EU expenditure contributing to climate objectives. The Finnish Presidency of the Council asked us to look at the Commission’s methodology to track climate spending in the EU Budget. We will examine how the Commission measures the commitment of spending at least 1 euro in 4 from the EU budget on climate action.

The proposed Investment Plan accompanying the EGD relies on five sources of funding: the EU budget, InvestEU, national co-financing, EU Emissions Trading System funds and the Just Transition Mechanism.

At the beginning of this year, we launched an audit on sustainable finance to assess the effectiveness of the Commission’s contribution to mobilising private sustainable finance for climate action.

Lessons that need to be taken on board

While the European Green Deal is new as a proposal, the instruments it uses and programmes it builds on, are not. In the upcoming years, as the EU’s external auditor, the ECA will undoubtedly audit and review many issues associated with the newly proposed Green Deal. However, some lessons can already be learned now and taken into account when discussing the multiple elements that form the basis of the Green Deal, and should be taken on board by the Commission, but also by the many other stakeholders, both at EU and national level. In the end, it is within the Member States and regions of Europe that the EU’s climate change actions are put into practice and deliver results.

If there is one general theme prevalent in our reports, it is the contrast between policy ambitions and slow and cumbersome accomplishment of these ambitions. Our audit reports on climate change contain multiple findings and common sense recommendations, presented to EU and national policy makers. With these recommendations, we want to contribute to the Green Deal ambition to make Europe a climate neutral continent within the next 30 years.

This article was first published on the 2/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors



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