Reaching climate neutrality will depend heavily on the EU's capacity to engage with its citizens, says the EESC

Tackling climate and environmentally related challenges has become a top EU priority.  From climate change to climate emergency, the EU needs to make substantial changes to foster a wellbeing economy and a future that is sustainable, cleaner, safer and healthier.

In order to address those challenges and bring about those changes, the European Commission adopted the European Green Deal (EGD) and opened a consultation to gather views on ways to engage with the public in a “Climate Pact” that should be launched in the last quarter of 2020.

The goal of the European Climate Pact (ECP) is to give everyone a voice in designing new climate actions, by sharing information, launching grassroots activities and showcasing solutions that others can follow.

The Commission is also proposing to put the new target into EU law through the recently proposed European Climate Law (ECL), which sets a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

There can be no more important time for the combined forces of civil society and government to commit to the implementation of the Climate Law as we move into post-COVID recovery. While there will be a lot of pressure to soften our approach, the pandemic has helped us all realise that with effort, we really can do things very differently, stressed Jan Dirx, rapporteur of the ECL opinion.

The EESC, as the representative of organised EU civil society, was called upon to provide guidance on how to build on existing structures like citizens' dialogues and assemblies and social dialogue committees, to achieve the desired societal engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the success of all climate action measures will depend on it.

The EESC reinforces the need to empower citizens in multiple ways, by proposing the creation of a European Climate Pact Stakeholder Platform to organise and facilitate active participation of "all parts of society", based on the principles of inclusiveness, transparency and ownership by climate actors, shifting from consultation and top-down engagement to co-design, co-creation and empowerment.

Dimitris Dimitriadis, rapporteur of the ECP opinion, emphasised that: Europe needs to catalyse a systemic change for climate action through innovation. A shift to a participatory model is required at all levels of scale and, in implementing the Climate Pact, the Commission has an important opportunity and obligation to model an innovative approach which will mirror, support and inspire action already happening in civil society, within communities, cities and regions.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, climate action and sustainability commitments must be at the forefront of recovery and reconstruction policy, and of the corresponding budgets, in order not to lock the EU further into a high-carbon future. Economic reconstruction and recovery from the coronavirus crisis must go hand in hand.

Post-crisis measures must be designed in a way that creates system resilience, protects and restores biodiversity, prioritises public health and creates quality jobs while leaving no-one behind and paving the way for a wellbeing economy, reaffirmed Peter Schmidt, co-rapporteur of the ECP opinion.

The EESC thus supports the call for the European Union to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and accordingly to adjust its greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030, but argues that there are compelling arguments for the aim of a minimum reduction of 55% by 2030, instead of the 50% proposed by the Commission.

Achieving EU and international climate goals will require a strict calendar to cope with the 2030 and 2050 targets. The EESC thus also regards the proposal for a European Climate Law as one important instrument to contribute to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the EU as a whole, taking into account the importance of promoting fairness and solidarity among Member States.

With this law, the EU Institutions and the Member States are committed to taking the necessary measures at EU and national level to meet the targets, mainly by cutting emissions, investing in green technologies and protecting the natural environment.

Achieving the European Green Deal (EGD) goals will also require significant financial resources. The EGD budget (public and private funds), the EUR 750 billion of the recovery fund, including the allocation of funds for the EU semester process, should therefore be focused on sustainable recovery and climate action.

Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala, co-rapporteur of the ECL opinion, pointed out that: One of the reasons why the EU's actions on climate are so important is that as a group of 27 Member States, we are setting the pace for every other nation on the planet. The fact that the governments across Europe and the forces of civil society represented by the EESC can take a common approach is a splendid example to the rest of the world.

Despite the difficult times, Europe and the world were put before a once in a lifetime opportunity: the time to stop, rethink, and bring citizens on board. Now is the time to act before it is too late.