Science-policy solutions for a more sustainable Europe

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. 

Open letter after open letter, scientists are warning us that we are running out of time: the more we wait, the more likely it is that damage will become irreversible. The more we procrastinate, the more painful the decisions we'll have to make. What is at stake is simply the capacity for humanity to thrive and live in peace.

Four years ago, the European Union and its Member States, alongside other countries of the world, took a bold step. They committed to transform radically the way we work, move, eat and consume goods and services by 2030 and to leave no one behind. In policy time, 2030 is tomorrow: with only 4000 days left to turn the entire economy and society around, decisive leadership is needed now.

In spite of its many achievements, the European continent has a tough road ahead to achieve sustainable development. We would need almost three Earths to support the global economy if European consumption patterns were replicated throughout the planet.

The European project is facing an existential crisis. Diverging views among member states, together with increasing political polarisation within many of them, are increasingly paralyzing progress, creating a temptation to “take back control” at the national level. While still supportive of the European project, most European citizens believe the European Union is largely irrelevant to their daily reality. In fact, 64% believe their lives would be the same without the EU.

During the recent elections, it was tempting to focus debates on more or less Europe and to propose quick fixes to citizens’ calls for greater security, prosperity and democracy.

For parliamentary candidates, parties and European officials, focusing on sustainability felt like discussing fire prevention when your own house is burning down around you. Yet it has never been so urgent for Europe to take a long-term view. In the words of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”.

In 2030, our children and grandchildren will be in their prime, trying to lead peaceful and meaningful lives. The question which should inspire all of us is what world do we want to create for them?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be presenting excerpts from the Think 2030 action plan published in November of last year. The action plan is based on a series of papers and exchanges among more than a hundred European leading experts from civil society, the private sector and public institutions.

The plan is aimed at those decision-makers who will be bold and visionary enough to face Europe’s sustainability challenge and leave a legacy of prosperity, well-being, peace and security. The plan includes 30 concrete proposals for action by 2030, which, if enacted by the new European Parliament and Council, could chart Europe and the world on a safer course.

Prosperity 2030

The EU needs to adopt a transition framework for the coming decades, reaching deep into economic goals and production systems. High-level measures should include:

  1. A clean macro-economic, monetary and growth framework enabling decarbonisation, promoting greater resilience to financial shocks and natural disasters and mobilizing public and private investments necessary for the ecological transition.
  2. A coherent mid-century decarbonisation strategy, aimed at achieving net-zero emissions before 2050, taking the urgent early steps needed to put us on track for that objective, and supported by sectoral industrial strategies and a carbon floor price.
  3. A comprehensive European policy for sustainable consumption, covering nutrition, mobility, housing and lifestyles, as a complement to the current circular economy package, and aiming at an 80% reduction in per capita material footprint by 2050.
  4. Align the EU’s budgetary resources to sustainability through tighter environmental conditionalities on the use of European funds, greater alignment of the Multiannual Financial Framework to National Energy and Climate Plans, and measurable targets for the environmental outcomes of each programme.
  5. Greater use of targeted economic instruments such as green taxation and public procurement policies at all levels of governance to shift individual and collective behaviours.
  6. Accelerated implementation of the sustainable finance action plan, in order to reorient capital flows towards a more sustainable economy.
  7. Increased support for eco-innovation, starting with a more ambitious eco-design directive and supported by mission-oriented goals and adequate instruments within Horizon Europe.
  8. A new generation of concrete waste prevention targets within the circular economy package and the plastic strategy based on an absolute reduction in annual waste.
  9. A new approach to Europe’s food systems (both production and consumption) ensuring coherence with relevant EU strategies (such as those on decarbonisation) and supporting farmers through results-based payments combined with support for knowledge transfer and innovation.

Wellbeing 2030

The social dimensions of Europe’s environmental policy must be recognized as central to delivering a legitimate sustainability transition. Critical measures at the EU level should include:

  1. Design a comprehensive environmental health strategy, providing a coherent framework for addressing public health threats linked most urgently with air pollution, which disproportionately harms the life chances of poorer communities, and supported by new regulations for chemicals and medicines.
  2. Strengthen the European Social Pillar of Rights to support a Just Transition, through a range of social interventions needed to secure jobs and livelihoods covering all potentially affected sectors, communities and regions.
  3. Integrate sustainability considerations in the reforms of income and wealth taxation and social protection systems, which will be necessary to address rising inequalities and demographic changes.
  4. Build the resilience of cities, rural communities and the wider environment through more effective adaptation strategies and action plans to address climate change.
  5. Ensure the adequate representation of the interests of both youth and future generations, by establishing an EU Guardian for future generations.
  6. Close the knowledge gaps regarding the connections between poverty, multidimensional inequality (generation, geography, gender, race, income) and sustainability in Europe through research and funding for socially innovative projects.

Nature 2030

The EU and its Member States need to work together to halt the deterioration of Europe’s natural capital, embark on an ambitious and credible restoration pathway.

  1. Adopt an ambitious EU biodiversity 2030 strategy, with smarter targets, specifying how biodiversity will be valued, further loss halted and large scale restoration achieved as well as a binding global agreement on biodiversity conservation, equivalent to the Paris climate agreement.
  2. A new Value-Based approach to the ocean, addressing both the needs of different stakeholders and the array of policies which have a bearing on the marine environment.
  3. A sustainable bioeconomy strategy, ensuring that the transition from fossil to bio-based resources remains within the scale compatible with SDGs and planetary boundaries.
  4. A fresh review of the challenge of improving soil management in Europe, exploring the option of a common policy.
  5. An increased focus across the Member States on implementing their Water Framework Directive commitments more fully and rapidly and stimulating more investment in water conservation.

Peace and Security 2030

To protect global peace and security, Europe needs to support a worldwide transition towards greater sustainability through the following means:

  1. Adopt a comprehensive horizon scanning and early warning system for environmental and climate change risks for Europe’s neighbourhood and other regions of strategic interest.
  2. Broaden the scope and increase the ambition of European climate diplomacy to include other major interrelated environmental risks, for instance by strengthening the focus on water issues.
  3. Adopt specific initiatives to improve the awareness and capacity of the EU and Member States’ military forces regarding the role of climate and environment in conflict prevention and resolution.
  4. Use the EU’s trade policy to push for harmonized and ambitious environmental standards worldwide and cooperation agreements around low-carbon and other environmentally friendly technologies.
  5. Carry out an assessment of the EU’s performance and also sharpen the targeting of EU external assistance vis-à-vis delivery of SDG implementation in third countries, whilst addressing the negative spillover effects of its own economic model.

Governance 2030

Achieving the transition will require major changes to Europe’s current governance system:

  1. Establish a European Panel for Sustainability (EPS), an independent, high-level scientific multidisciplinary body, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) model, reporting to the European Council, to provide guidance and monitor progress.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Incentivize businesses to go beyond compliance through a new sustainability certification scheme for European companies aligned with SDGs, independently verified and based on best available environmental footprint methodologies.
  5. Utilise Europe’s semester process to increase momentum, coherence and transparency in the transition, integrating well-being metrics into the process.

Think2030 is an evidence-based, non-partisan platform of 100 policy experts from European think tanks, civil society, the private sector and local authorities.