Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The EU’s plan to move toward achieving net-zero levels of emissions in the next 30 years needs bold economic and industrial policies, as put forward in the Commission’s “Fit for 55” package (FF55). Ambitious as it is necessary, the FF55 nonetheless comes with costly trade-offs and multiple checkpoints down the road. In the coming months, the negotiations for such a far-reaching and complicated plan must not be hijacked by ideological beliefs. Apart from climate neutrality, the road to net-zero also needs to circumvent potential socio-economic consequences.
Decarbonisation and emissions reduction are envisaged in ways that do not always allow for industry to transition in the most cost-effective and technologically neutral way. For example, the potential of low-carbon hydrogen, waste-based biodiesel, and other forms of bioenergy to help with our transition to sustainability is arguably underestimated. This will put additional pressure on sectors such as aviation, which were already hit hard by the pandemic. While the financial losses for some multinational corporations and SMEs might be justified, the costs will eventually be passed on to citizens, resulting in an increased cost of living.
Likewise, as industrial production costs increase, the ensuing burden will not be divided equally. The effect of the FF55 will vary across sectors. Some will receive diverse support and the necessary boost to stimulate growth and development whereas sectors like building and transport will have to face ever-growing energy prices and logistics-related costs and taxes. As a result, a significant portion of the population will lose access to affordable housing, heating, and transportation – an outcome that may manifest in an acute stratification of our societies.
Citizens are ready to make sacrifices for the good of the planet. However, they cannot be made the financial instrument for a “green transition” that is closer to a “green utopia”. Rather than running along a “road” towards net-zero objectives, it is better to tackle the “many roads” leading to a new economy that is sustainable, one, that at the same time, can be sustained by a strong industry with all the necessary technologies in place, resulting in a healthy market, whose effects will positively benefit European citizens.
Techno-sustainability instead of a Green Utopia
Neglecting these socio-economic effects will undermine the overall competitiveness and resilience of both the European economy and society. Climate goals should not be a matter of ideological competition, but an eco-pragmatic and realistic approach towards making our future more sustainable and more prosperous. Instead of a Green Utopia, our climate goals need to be based on a realistic vision for a techno-sustainable future.
So far, the “green agenda” echoes the idea of a virgin nature unspoiled by human action. This cannot be the guiding principle for climate targets. “Greening whatever it takes” often implies a neo-Luddite distrust towards technological developments and a neo-Malthusian vision of humanity’s presence on Earth. The environment includes humans plus the technology that humans create. For this reason, technology should be considered as it is: a neutral efficiency engine, to be used in the right manner. Moreover, humans have shaped and will continue shaping landscapes and ecosystems. The priority is not to rewild the planet but to ensure that our footprint is diminished and made sustainable and circular, so that any impact we have on our planet is thoughtfully balanced.
Thus, new and existing technologies are the pivotal point around which to construct the whole discussion about sustainability in Europe. Being “green” or seeking a sustainable future without a strategy that encompasses discussion of the cutting-edge technologies required to implement these processes would represent a risk, both in terms of investments and strategic autonomy. On the other hand, a shared effort among EU Member States to bring together technologies, knowledge, and resources for a techno-sustainable future will contribute overall to a better tomorrow. It will make it feasible to combine the fourth industrial revolution and embed its technological advancements into a concrete sustainability project that delivers technological- and market-based solutions to environmental problems.
Although many might think otherwise, technology is an ally in our fight against climate change. Market-based instruments and advanced technological solutions are key when it comes to tackling climate and environmental challenges. In this sense, techno-sustainability will contribute to creating new business opportunities while boosting the EU’s economy. It will serve as a corrective tool during the transition period and as an instrument for enhancing competition within the EU’s internal market.
The roads to net-zero: new technologies in the energy mix
Overall, this amounts to a matter of using the right technology at the right time, while not hampering the development of new and futuristic tools to be implemented in the new circular and sustainable economic cycles. Existing applications of AI and quantum computing, new generations of networks and IoT can already help in providing data and information to achieve better living standards, preventing energy poverty, and enhancing energy efficiency in housing.
Moreover, the electric revolution which is meant to replace fossil fuels should be strategically organised among Member States in terms of both the supply- and value- chains. It means having a shared approach for the electric vehicles (EVs) industry, prioritising the supply chain of components, while at the same time encompassing new sustainable ways of production that include a common approach in the deployment of charging stations and rethinking the lifecycle of batteries for EVs. All this will have to happen with a bottom-up approach, taking account of stakeholders’ knowledge and priorities, while offering citizen-friendly solutions.
Finally, there is nuclear. The inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy is ambivalent in its nature. On the one hand, it has to do with the fact that nuclear fission-produced energy is de facto the only zero-carbon electricity available on a large-scale across the EU. It represents a valuable resource for a new energy mix and complements intermittent renewable sources during the transition. On the other hand, the discussion concerning nuclear technologies should also look ahead, relying on science to support promising projects for the future of energy: nuclear fusion. Research in this field and the recent successes of the various projects in which Europe is involved must be followed closely. Looking ahead to 2050, one cannot but think of the opportunities offered by this technology, which, despite being at an early stage of development currently, could represent a solution (if not “the” solution) to the energy supply problems of the future.
The EU has the opportunity to foster the development of a flourishing market based on a different paradigm: one that complements environmental governance with advanced technological and market-based solutions. This would enable Europe to secure its place not only as a global frontrunner with regards to “carbon targets” and “emission crops” but also as a provider of best practices in terms of growth, circularity, and sustainability for our future.
Whereas the “green”agenda only offers a single path, trust in the role of technology and innovation means that Europe remains open to new, perhaps unforeseen ways forward for economic and human development. Instead of a narrow, unbending, and dogmatic approach, it’s time we recognised the many roads to a net-zero future.