Guest view: Inside the EU's green recovery debate

MEP Billy Kelleher argues that Brussels must resist political efforts to sideline a Green New Deal because of Covid-19.

Above, MEPs applaud Greta Thunberg as she urges them to show climate leadership during a speech in March. Photo: European Union 2020.

By Billy Kelleher

(About the author: Billy Kelleher (Renew Europe) is a Fianna Fáil MEP for Ireland South and serves as a full member on the ECON Committee and as a submember on the ENVI Committee. Prior to his election to the European Parliament in 2019, Billy was a member of the Irish Parliament for over 20 years, and previously served as Minister for Trade and Industry.)

CORK (Callaway Climate Insights) — Recently, a letter was circulated from a member of the European Parliament effectively arguing for the European Green Deal to be put on ice while our countries respond to the current Covid-19 health crisis and the resulting economic crisis.

Makes sense, right? Not in my opinion.

While the Covid-19 crisis is taking up much of the oxygen in terms of debate around the world, the damage to our planet is ongoing. It hasn’t gone away, you know — to paraphrase one Irish political leader.

The European Green Deal

There is actually now a greater opportunity to address climate change, through the Green Deal, than before. Why? Because there is now the impetus to make big strategic changes. In recent days, we have seen Angela Merkel open the door to some form of Eurobonds, and in Ireland we have created a single-tier public health system overnight. There is an appetite for change, and the Green Deal represents one of the biggest opportunities for change in the past 50 years.

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If we are realistic, we need, at least, a 7% per annum cut in carbon emissions. That isn’t going to be easy. Certain communities bear a disproportionate amount of the burden of change. Jobs will be lost if the hard decisions that are needed are taken.

In my own constituency of Ireland South, thousands of jobs are at risk from the potential closure of the traditional turf-cutting energy sector. The real role for those of us driving the European Green Deal forward is to ensure that everyone who loses their job in the old industries has the opportunity to transition into a new, better paying and more secure job in a new industry.

That is one of my main criticisms of those from the radical green side of the European Parliament. To my mind, they do not see the Just Transition part of the Deal as being equal to the emissions’ cutting element.

Food security has never been so important. The pandemic has shown us that when a crisis hits, people buy what’s most important to them — good quality, affordable food. Alienating those who produce our food — our farmers — is both reckless and short-sighted.

Farmers are not the enemy; They are the guardians and custodians of the land and it is in their interests to champion and adopt increasingly sustainable and greener practices, so let us work with them and not against them. Surely, it is not beyond the ability of our citizens, our politicians, and our brightest minds to find a solution to save our planet, and keep our farmers in a job.

If Covid-19 has taught me anything, it is that we really do not need to be traveling across the planet as much as we do. Now, before people accuse me of canceling family holidays to Spain, that’s not what I’m saying.

Should we not be holidaying at home more than we already do? And are the weekly business flights to London from Brussels for 45-minute face-to-face meetings necessary when we know there are better, greener, digital alternatives? I certainly think it is important to travel and explore new cultures, but surely, we have now learned how to conduct business remotely and efficiently.

The ENVI Committee

The ENVI (Environment, Public Health & Safety) committee has a broad mandate covering everything from climate action to public health and food safety. It is now the largest committee in the parliament with one of the most ambitious workloads. As a substitute member, my ability to get involved with every debate and every file is limited, so I am focusing on synergies between the ECON (Economic and Monetary Affairs) Committee and ENVI, and also making use of my background as a dairy farmer with over 35 years of experience. Recently, I have been granted my first ENVI shadow rapporteurship as I am helping draft an opinion on the financing of the European Green Deal which will inform the ECON committee's report on this topic.

Like any large body, the committee has a diverse range of people and views. Importantly, it reflects broadly the views of most people in society — a strong majority in favor of saving our planet, a radical and vocal minority whose sole political goal is the green agenda, and those on the far right who have their heads stuck in the sand on the issue of climate action.

Last week, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president responsible for the European Green Deal, addressed the committee. One of his standout comments was that the South Korean government is now using the Green Deal as a template for their own actions on climate action, and expects other countries to follow.

Europe has a strong role in the world that is not based on the size of an army, or even the size of its economy, but on its principles and its commitments to core values.

It is this leadership and soft power role globally which we must capitalize on and deliver a fair Green Deal and just transition for all.

The next six months are crucial in terms of the Green Deal. The financial projections underpinning its roll out are hopelessly out of date, and there is uncertainty about how member states will respond as they grapple with the outcome of the pandemic. However, the threat to our planet, and our children’s futures, is still there and is growing day by day. There is no alternative. We must save our planet.

The plan for Europe's recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to implement strategic changes and a strong plan for Europe's future. These objectives are a central part of the European Green Deal. Let us get on with implementing them.