The European Green Deal and the challenge of systemic change in urban areas

Publication date:
Vanesa Castán Broto, Professor of Climate Urbanism, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield

The European Green Deal (EGD) constitutes a three-legged strategy to transform the European economy through public investment, the redirection of private capital towards climate and environmental action, and guidance and regulation to avoid locking in carbon-intensive practices. This effort has been held up by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and member states’ financial demands to prop up existing, carbon-dependent economies (Elkerbout et al., 2020). Nevertheless, at its launch in December 2019, the EGD appeared to be an ambitious effort to activate a transition to a different society that is compatible with our planet’s limits. Its ambition of a just transition that leaves no one behind also came after a decade dominated by austerity measures that have led to declines in social services and healthcare, affecting mostly disadvantaged groups and increasing inequality (Stuckler et al., 2017). The EGD roadmap raised expectations about an entirely new approach to tackling the global environmental crisis.

Initial European Union (EU) policy documents published with the EGD suggested that the initiative is no game changer. Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission President, confirmed that the EGD is a growth strategy – a growth strategy “that gives back more than it takes away”, but a growth strategy nonetheless (EC, 2019b). The EGD seeks to square the circle of sustainable and inclusive growth (EC, 2019a), except growth cannot be sustainable because it continues to use resources and sinks. It cannot be inclusive because it exploits and excludes people while extracting capital from their labour (for a recent critique in the context of the American Green New Deal policy, see Mastini et al., 2021). Addressing global environmental challenges requires a fundamental reorganisation of current production and consumption systems, which means abandoning growth as the main strategy for achieving the wellbeing of humans and ecosystems. For many of us, the EGD is simultaneously a source of hope because of its generative potential in providing a new example of an ambitious green policy and a slap in the face as it renews the European commitment to a growth paradigm.