Solar panels on a roof in Mechelen, February 2021. Early analysis of member states' recovery spending shows they are heavy on clean energy, but light on biodiversity projects. Photo: Belga Photo / Jasper Jacobs / Belga Mag / AFP via Getty Images Solar panels on a roof in Mechelen, February 2021. Early analysis of member states' recovery spending shows they are heavy on clean energy, but light on biodiversity projects. Photo: Belga Photo / Jasper Jacobs / Belga Mag / AFP via Getty Images

Analysis: 3 things to look out for in member states’ recovery plans

As the trickle of member states’ post-covid investment plans turns into a torrent, ENDS takes you through what to look out for to see if the promised ‘green recovery’ can materialise.

Last week the holder of the rotating EU Presidency, Portugal, was the first country to send the European Commission its recovery and resilience plan, outlining how it plans to overcome the effects of the pandemic and kick start a green economic transition.

Germany, Greece, France and Slovakia followed this week, and several others will be notifying the executive at the time of writing. The indicative deadline to secure a share of the €672.5bn Next Generation EU programme is 30 April, although there is time to send proposals until mid-2022. 

The commission will scrutinize the plans based on 11 criteria, which include not causing significant harm to the environment and ensuring that at least 37% of the total investment supports climate objectives.

Common themes are starting to emerge from the first drafts. Not surprisingly, all countries intend to invest important amounts in renewable energy and green mobility. Several (France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia) are preparing to roll out renovation programmes to make buildings more energy efficient. Hydrogen (Germany, France, Italy, Spain), the circular economy (Spain, Italy), water savings (Spain, Italy) and climate adaptation (Italy, Portugal), are other major themes.

Comparing the respective environmental spending might be difficult, as plans have “rather diverse structures”, even within the same sector, economics think tank Bruegel has noted. But environmental groups have already spotted some shortcomings.

An analysis of draft recovery measures in 14 countries by climate and energy think-tank E3G has found a “green spending share of just 24%”, with at least eight national plans currently not meeting the 37% criteria.

“There are significant risks that measures that look green at first glance may end up supporting fossil fuels, and many plans include measures not aligned with the green transition,” E3G warned.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) added that the plans in their current form “suffer from a lack of long-term and transversal approach” and called on the commission to ask for more “transformative” proposals.

Here are 3 things to watch out for.

1 Attention to biodiversity

Several organisations pointed out that the plans set aside minimal investment in protecting biodiversity and harnessing ecosystem services.

WWF’s Italian branch has criticised its government, whose €222bn recovery programme is the largest in Europe, for allocating just €1.69bn, or 0.8% of the total, to land and marine biodiversity.

In Germany, Jörg-Andreas Krüger, president of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), was disappointed that not even a “small part” of the money will be invested in ecosystems. He said that the country was missing out on the “enormous potential” of the renaturation of ecosystems such as moors or near-natural forests, from which “the climate and people would benefit”.

In Central and Eastern Europe, environmental group CEE Bankwatch has warned that Bulgaria is preparing to fund irrigation and dam infrastructure that would “jeopardise wetland health”, while Estonia is planning “measures that disregard conservation and a decreasing carbon sink”, in spite of the commission’s recommendations.

2 Environmental impact

On the other hand, most recovery plans so far include investment in major infrastructure projects, for example the development of high-speed rail lines, or large renewable energy installations. While good for emissions, their overall green credentials will be determined by how carefully their environmental impact is minimised.

“There is a commitment to the green deal in the national recovery and resilience plans, so we would expect the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to play a central role in national spending,” Patrick ten Brink, EU policy director at the European Environmental Bureau, tells ENDS. However, he adds, “the need to spend the money quickly and the ongoing pressure on national governments risk undermining the role of the EIAs”.

This will be another item for the commission’s evaluation. In the meantime, ten Brink notes that “there are plenty of opportunities for countries to select clean investments that deliver positive results for everyone and may not require an EIA, so these projects should be embraced first to help release the funds immediately”.

3 Skills for the transition 

Greening the economy will also require the development of new skills. An analysis by the EU agency for the development of vocational training, Cedefop, on the impacts of the green deal shows that the coal mining and manufactured fuels sectors are expected to lose jobs, the waste industry is expected to gain, and in most other activities “a redirection of employment towards cleaner production” is anticipated.

“Managing the green transition will require significant up- and reskilling, so that people can move to green occupations and away from declining sectors,” wrote Cedefop experts Jasper van Loo and Ilias Livanos, who drafted the report.

In earlier studies, Cedefop has highlighted increasing demand in ICT and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals, including in sectors such as electric-vehicle production. Cedefop also noted that “regulations, policies and strategies with an explicit focus on green skills and employment are rare”.

While some of the recovery plans, such as those of Spain, France and Italy, have a focus on education and on the development of digital and STEM competencies, it is too early to see their overall contribution to the green transition.

Follow-up: Cedefop’s Digital, Greener and More Resilient report (2021), Skills for Green Jobs report (2018) and Skill Shortages report (2016), Bruegel and E3G analysis, CEE Bankwatch press release

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