A Sustainable Europe must leave no one behind

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) believes that tackling the social question is absolutely crucial to achieve the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in the EU. The implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires merging the social with the economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability, bringing about a systemic change and overcoming the silo thinking prevalent in current EU strategies. The "new deal" announced by the Commission President-elect should therefore be a Green and Social Deal ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition to a sustainable and carbon-neutral Europe.

In its own-initiative opinion Leaving no one behind when implementing the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development, the EESC found that for too long the sustainable development agenda has been regarded only as an environmental one, resulting in a gap between the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

We cannot achieve the SDGs without addressing social inequalities. 10% of wealthiest households hold 50% of total wealth – this is not sustainable! We need redistributive policies and a new model of growth to make sure that no one is left behind, stated Peter Schmidt, rapporteur for the opinion.

Both social issues and regional cohesion have so far been seen more as separate policy areas rather than as a truly integral part of sustainability policy. According to the EESC, a more comprehensive approach is necessary to ensure that the transition to a sustainable and carbon-neutral economy is just for everyone, reduces social inequalities and takes into account the most vulnerable groups in society as well as the most disadvantaged regions and territories in the EU. In particular, policies should develop a wider understanding of "just transition" (beyond coal) and fully implement the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) in support of it, while driving reforms of redistributive systems such as tailored taxation, social protection, and sustainable and social investments.

Leaving no one behind also entails re-empowering as many people as possible to actively take part in the transition process. Although society will benefit as a whole, the costs and benefits of the sustainability transition will not be shared equally without policy interventions ensuring that no one is left behind.

The transformation to sustainability cannot and must not be imposed from above; it will only be successful if it is based on broad support and active participation by all, explained Lutz Ribbe, co-rapporteur for the opinion. We need to provide all societal groups and stakeholders with a framework that gives them a fair chance to produce and consume in a sustainable way, maximising accessibility of investments, new lifestyles, sustainable consumption patterns and technology to all.

A sustainability strategy that relies solely on a market where ideally all externalities are internalised (e.g. implementing the Polluter Pays Principle) is not sufficient because it does not automatically deliver sustainable results for society. In addition to internalising external effects, policies that also promote social sustainability need to take a broader approach and remove existing barriers that prevent individual people, communities, cooperatives, specific companies or the public sector from participating in sustainable development, for example in the energy sector. Moreover, there is an urgent need to invest in human capital (education, training, lifelong learning) to equip current and future generations with the necessary skills in green and digital technologies.

Leaving no one behind also extends to future generations. We must give youth a meaningful voice and make them count in sustainability decision-making said Mr Schmidt. The EESC believes that the current European policy framework and economy short-changes future generations and welcomes the fact that young people in particular are now clearly voicing their concerns, e.g. through the "Fridays for Future" movement.

Only if Europe does its homework on this front and takes every citizen, territory and region along in the transition to a sustainable, carbon-neutral and resource-efficient economy, will the EU have the credibility to act as a global leader on sustainability. The transition is a unique opportunity to unfold a forward-looking vision, built on the values of solidarity and human rights, social justice and equality, democracy and participation, entrepreneurship and environmental responsibility, which in the end will benefit us all.