Sustainable development must be at the heart of the future of Europe. If we want to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, we need to act now. The time for reflection is over, urges the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in its recent opinion on the Commission's Reflection Paper "Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030". The Commission's document does not go far enough, regrets the EESC. The urgency of addressing today's environmental, social and economic challenges is not matched by political action. This was further debated at a conference that the EESC organised on 2 October with the Finnish EU Presidency and the Committee of the Regions and with the active participation of youth.
Alongside the climate emergency, other environmental challenges, such as biodiversity loss and air pollution, are of increasing concern for our citizens. Social inequalities are also rising in Europe. Over 22% of EU citizens are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, and millions of young people cannot find decent work to start shaping their adult life.
Against this background, the Commission adopted its long-awaited Reflection Paper "Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030" in January 2019. In its opinion, the EESC welcomes this paper, but is concerned that the course of action it charts falls short of accelerating the pace of transition towards sustainability, globally and within Europe. "We appreciate any progress that has been made so far, but it is not enough. The time of beating about the bush is over; we need to act now. Science is very clear about the consequences and costs of non-acting", underlined Cillian Lohan, the rapporteur for this opinion. "We must work to ensure people remain at the heart of sustainable development choices. The 2030 Agenda must be people-centred and deliver for everybody".
The recent developments at EU level are certainly very promising as we can see that the intention of President-elect von der Leyen is to accelerate the sustainability transition in Europe, in particular through a European Green Deal with a dedicated Vice-President. New Commissioners have also been tasked to ensure the delivery of the UN SDGs within their policy area, said EESC President Luca Jahier opening the conference.
We hope that this will lead to the development of an overarching strategy for the implementation of the SDGs, as called for by the EESC to ensure consistency across policies.
During the conference, the Finnish EU Presidency's representative, Sami Pirkkala, highlighted that there is now an opportunity for a sustainability leap in the EU: the momentum is there and support from all EU institutions is strong. This message was echoed by Daniel Calleja Crespo, Director General at the Commission's DG Environment. He stressed that the political guidelines of the Commission President-elect include a commitment to deliver an ambitious European Climate Law and a new Circular Economy Action Plan, to make sure that the transition is just for all and to re-focus the European Semester into a useful tool to deliver on the SDGs. Young people actively participated in the conference with a clear demand: having a structured dialogue with the EU institutions on sustainability issues. The EESC can help create the space to put future generations at the centre of the decision-making process.
EESC calls for a paradigm shift and a new growth model
To achieve the SDGs, we must shift away from the GDP growth addiction and use other indicators to determine prosperity. GDP misses out important elements of individual and social wellbeing, stressed Peter Schmidt, co-rapporteur of the opinion.
Europe urgently needs a paradigm shift and a new economic model - one that is socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable.
Countries have already signed up for the SDGs, and the SDGs have the potential to define growing markets for companies that can deliver innovative solutions and transformative change. The good news is that many businesses are actually ahead of policy. An overarching strategy for Sustainable Development and the appropriate regulatory framework will create a stable environment and certainty to ensure best practice becomes common practice.
Sustainable Development is about the future of people; the economy should, within the planetary boundaries, work for society to deliver prosperity and equity, now and for future generations, said Mr Lohan.
The launch of a European Green and Social Deal will be an important element in the transformation of European economies in a radically more sustainable direction.
The key principle of sustainable development is the integration of environmental, social and economic concerns into all aspects of decision-making. For the EU, this means urgently aligning all existing EU policy and budgetary/financial frameworks with the SDGs and developing credible sustainability-proofing methodologies in order to support SDG implementation in the EU's internal and external action.
The EU needs to use its market power to drive sustainability globally
Sustainable development is a common goal on a global scale. Europe can use its weight as the biggest trade bloc and as a big importer of bio-based resources to push globally for sustainable sourcing and thus support the maintaining of global biodiversity and ecosystems.
We expect the EU to be the world leader on Sustainable Development. We must demonstrate to the rest of the world that a real sustainable economy also advances economic development, ensures ecological well-being, facilitates inclusive governance, and most importantly provides for social cohesion, leaving no one behind, said Mr Schmidt.