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Achieving sustainable transition requires major changes to Europe’s current governance system

Authors: Céline Charveriat, David Baldock

This report and its recommendations come from the Think 2030 conference held in October 2018 in Brussels and were originally published in November. Stay tuned as we publish the report in weekly instalments on our website. 

Europe’s 2020 strategy and the 7th Environmental Action Plan were conceived before the SDGs, the Paris agreement and before some of the recent advances in scientific understanding of planetary boundaries, and of the scale of interconnected challenges to come. In light of the severity and urgency of risk identified by experts around the world, a new approach is now needed.

There is a growing sense that the time has come to move forward, underlined by the growing public concern about the pressures on the oceans, especially from plastics and the expanding interest in sustainable food and dietary change. There may be more political space than seemed possible only two years ago. In Eurobarometer’s latest survey, 35% of European citizens indicated that they wanted for the upcoming European elections to include debates around climate change and the environment. Other key stakeholders, such as CEOs, sustainability analysts and policymakers attending the World Economic Forum put environmental challenges very high in terms of their analysis of global risk.

Within this context, Europe faces a number of challenges, which will impact on well-being, nature, prosperity and security, and therefore on its ability to achieve the SDGs.

This requires a new model, with a stronger global framing, and more holistic understanding of the interplay between different social, economic, cultural and technical dynamics. This places “nature” and the environment alongside prosperity, security and well-being as aspirations that are interlocking and need to be addressed together. 

Despite their different foci, six common themes are emerging from the thematic Think2030 papersregarding how Europe should move forward.

Think2050: Europe’s future planning should be framed over a 2050 horizon and governance needs to be conceived as enabling multiple transitions at the scale and speed required. This approach, already adopted in the context of climate change and planning decarbonisation pathways, needs to be applied in other areas, for instance in the circular economy.

Adopt science-based targets: There is a need for science-based targets, addressing all planetary boundaries, with supporting policies and sectoral strategies. Long-term targets risk a lack of attention to short-term action as having a ‘2050’ time horizon can give a false sense of having time. Credible pathways are required, as well as the flexibility to revisit and recalibrate approaches or objectives. This needs back-casting, rapid feedback loops between science and targets which allows ratcheting—either because technology is allowing for more rapid change or because progress on quantifying planetary boundaries or new findings regarding the interaction between different phenomena warrants a new approach. Important questions must be asked regarding the appropriate horizon for the post-2020 strategy and its linkages with budgetary and electoral cycles.

Towards a European Sustainability Panel (EPS)? Adopting science-based targets assumes a much stronger science-policy interface process than what currently exists. Indeed, an effective science-policy interface should include horizon scanning and foresight, address short-term expertise needs, provide consolidated views from science, identify policy-relevant knowledge needs and priorities to inform EU and Member States’ research strategies and communicate to inform public debate on complex issues. 7 It might be time for Europe to build on the success of the IPCC model and establish a similar multidisciplinary body, dedicated to Europe, encompassing all SDGs, whose independence would be guaranteed by adequate statutes and resources, and whose report would be formally adopted by the European Council to ensure necessary political buy-in.

Close the gap: It is high time to find new solutions to the implementation gap of existing European policies in the environmental field and the related accountability gap arising from failures in delivery. The better regulation agenda has not necessarily led to more effective environmental policy, in terms of increasing the likelihood of reaching impacts aligned with what science requires. Given the scale and complexity of the challenge, the engagement of local authorities, including municipalities, regions and macro-regions needs to deepen alongside the established relationship between the EU institutions and the Member States.

Greater engagement: Businesses need to be incentivised to go beyond compliance, by for instance reforming EMAS to become an independent performance-based verification mechanism for businesses’ environmental footprint and by forging on with Europe’s sustainability finance action plan. Exploring how best to ensuring improved access to environmental justice is also essential. To this effect, a Europe wide review of compliance with the relevant EU law, Aarhus Convention access to justice provisions, and the pertinent European Court of Justice case law is required.

Reinventing the policy toolbox: given the scale and the interconnectedness of the challenges, a new toolbox and new decision-making process might be required. Examples include a much more proactive use of economic instruments, such as taxation, as well as new approaches to governance which effectively break siloes, building upon the experience of those member states which have set up effective mechanisms for policy coherence for sustainable development. Aligning the better regulation agenda to SDGs would contribute to improved regulatory efficiency but also contribute to greater coherence of Europe’s agenda. 10 In light of new developments of the CAP, it is essential to ensure that the new focus on subsidiarity and performance-based approaches actually leads to the impact we need, at the scale and the speed required.

Act 2020: In light of the scale of the change needed and the time it takes for policy decisions to be fully implemented, most papers call for a renewed sense of urgency, not only on climate change but also on a number of other issues, such as biodiversity, food or soils.

Recommendations for governance 2030Achieving the transition will require major changes to Europe’s current governance system:Include all levels of government in the design, implementation and monitoring phases of Europe’s new sustainability agenda, and ensure local areas that want to make faster progress are encouraged to do so.Establish a European Panel for Sustainability (EPS) as an independent, high-level scientific multidisciplinary body, based on the IPCC model, reporting to the European Council, to provide guidance and monitor progress.Tackle gaps in the implementation of legislation and in accountability through more effective use of Member State and European enforcement mechanisms and a more systematically facilitated public access to environmental justice.Incentivise businesses to go beyond the essentials of compliance through a new sustainability certification scheme for European companies aligned with SDGs, independently verified and based on best available environmental footprint methodologies.Utilise Europe’s semester process to increase momentum, coherence and transparency in the transition-integrating well-being metrics into the process


  • European Parliament (2018). ‘Democracy on the move: European elections – one year to go’. Eurobarometer Survey 89.2 of the European Parliament – a public opinion monitoring study, PE 621.866. pp. 34-35.
  • World Economic Forum (2018). Global Risks Report 2018 – The Global Risks Interconnections Map. Retrieved from:
  • Nesshöver, C., Ten Brink, P., & Balian, E. (2014). Summary report and recommendations on improving the Science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services in Europe.

About Think 2030

Informing a science-based agenda for European environmental policy beyond 2020, Think 2030 is a new sustainability platform by IEEP that convenes a diverse range of stakeholders to discuss and propose solutions to Europe’s most pressing sustainability issues.

In 2018, Think 2030 produced policy recommendations for the new European Commission, Parliament and for Member States.

For more information visit and follow #Think2030.

Files to download

Executive summaryThink2030 report
30x30 Actions for a Sustainable Europe

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