The European Green Deal: paradigmatic shift or incremental step?


In December 2019, the European Commission presented the program for the “European Green Deal”(GD) to the parliament, the council, but in general to the European public and citizens. “An ambitious set of guidelines, aiming to transform the European Union (EU) into a fair and prosperous society with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy that will generate no net greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.” In short, just reading this small part of the program’s introduction, we can already understand that the targets set are ambitious, and aim to profoundly change not only the EU’s production and economic apparatus, but also the ways in which small everyday actions are carried out by European citizens. In order to pursue this transition, which should ultimately result in carbon neutrality by 2050, the EU tends to focus mainly on four key points: affordable and secure energy in multiple aspects, smart transport, high-quality food and clear and targeted programs within the education system for the society of tomorrow. 

I find this stimulating and exciting in many ways. The history of the EU tells us that it has always been among the most attentive realities to the environmental and climate problems caused by anthropocentric activities on the world geopolitical scene, but never before in the history of the Union has such an ambitious program been drawn up, over such a vast territory (the program concerns all the member states, and among them we recall that many are leaders at world level), and with such substantial investments (the allocated figures will amount to 1 trillion euros). Yet questions remain, and they all lead to a fundamental one: is the European Green Deal a paradigm shift or just another incremental step in the long list of climate policies?

To answer this question, I will try to contextualize European GD through the historical development of environmental policies in Europe, the ambitions of the program in relation to the international context, and the political and institutional challenges that GD requires. 

Historical development of environmental policies in Europe

The first time environmental issues appeared on the international political agenda was at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Humans and the Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm in 1972. Generally speaking, it can be said that environmental policies started to become more widespread and increasingly central to political decision-making in the last decades of the 20th century. Since that first conference, more and more conferences have been organized over the years. Other important milestones were the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2002 Johannesburg conference, the 2012 Rio+20 summit and the last and very famous Paris climate agreement in 2015. All these conferences, acronyms and dates may not say much if read simply as such, but when placed within a context of historical, social development in relation to the world stage, they do lead us to two important conclusions. The first, in simple terms quoting Kate O’neil “at the same time that humanity was realizing the benefits of technological progress, we also began to realize that some of these technologies carried serious risks on a scale that could threaten the planet”. The second conclusion relates to the numbers of participants. In progressive order, each conference that followed the previous one, the number of participants increased (and not only states, but also NGOs, research groups such as the IPCC, companies), this leads us to understand the global and multidimensional aspect of the problem in its complexity. These two conclusions help us to understand the change of approach in environmental policies. In fact, if initially environmental policies were more about the single state or the single productive/economic sector, today these policies try to be transnational and cover society holistically. It is in this perspective that it is important to understand the European Green Deal. It is the result of decades of discussions within environmental and climate policies. It is the logical consequence of a historical process of development, in which, as the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, has declared, the EU wants to be a leader on the world geopolitical scene, so as to lead the transition that our society, but above all our planet, so desperately needs. 

Ambitions of the European Green Deal in the international context

I think everything has to be contextualized to understand its importance, and the Green Deal is no exception. To understand the ambition that the GD represents, I think it’s useful to look at the global landscape and briefly see how other major global players are doing. I intend to report on the environmental programs of the USA, Russia and China. From these brief comparisons, important answers will be given.. 

  • United States of America:

In the USA, there has been talk for years of the Green New Deal (GND), a transition of the social system towards sustainability. On 7 February 2019, Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presented the GND Resolution. A fourteen-page program, which is not intended to be legislation or a bill, but brings together a shared understanding of the problem and what is needed to solve it. Within the GND we find two ideas: the first is a set of goals to avoid a global disaster by looking at the problem from a scientific perspective. The second emphasizes the way in which this must be done. It underlines that the transition has to be implemented in a way that the “average” American is not penalized, but rather has advantages within his social status. To date, the resolution has been rejected by the Republicans, but with the change of presidency in Washington, the tables seem to have turned. President Biden has put the climate issue at the centre of his election campaign. To date, the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement, but given the pandemic emergency, other issues have taken priority. New developments are expected. 

  • Russia:

When you try to look at Russia, it is never easy to find clear and precise information. To date, it still remains one of the countries with the highest pollution rates in the world, and this is largely due to the exploitation of its raw materials, above all natural gas and coal. But in the last two decades something is moving, at least formally. The Russian Federation has adhered to the Paris climate agreements and also to the 2001 Stockholm convention on POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants). But there are still too many questions about a real Russian environmental protection program. Ecological disasters, including the most recent one in October 2020 in the Kamchatka region, are still too widespread, highlighting the strong contradictions with Russia’s formal stance on environmental policies. 

  • China:

We cannot fail to mention China. Indeed, if for long periods China has been at the centre of environmental criticism (images of Chinese cities submerged by smog have gone viral), today many things are changing. Since 2015, President Xi Jinping has implemented a very ambitious environmental program, focusing on six important points: the new environmental law, the Action Plan for the Prevention of Water Pollution, the reform of Public Utilities Concessions, the “Integrated Reform Plan for the Promotion of Ecological Progress”, the national scheme for the issuance of Green Bonds and the drafts of the 13th Five-Year Plan. These programs accelerate investment in environmental protection and the development of circular economy models, creating an unprecedented market space and propelling China to the forefront of global green finance. China has reached an irreversible turning point, bringing its entire economic and social development model into play. It is focusing on sustainability as a driver of more moderate, more balanced and widespread growth, more inclusive and decidedly more open to foreign markets.

I decided to take these three protagonists of the global scene as examples because one cannot avoid talking about them. The USA as the ‘cultural factory’ of the world, Russia as the largest state in the world and China as the largest economic power. From our three examples, when related to the EU and its GD, important conclusions are provided to us. Indeed, we can see that, paradoxically from what may be common thinking, it is China that is implementing the most interesting projects. It is pursuing the path adopted by the EU itself, i.e. implementing a real radical change in terms of both production and the economic system, moving towards a circular system, but also and above all a social one in which sustainability is at the heart of the process of change. As far as the US is concerned, the domestic political situation has not helped to pursue a program that is appropriate for a nation that is a candidate for global leadership. Indeed, under the Trump administration there have been many setbacks in the battle against climate change, the most striking being the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The whole world is anxiously waiting to see what changes the new government will bring. It is difficult to frame Russia’s role, but what we can say for sure is that to date it is not a leader in the fight against climate change. So in light of what has been said in this paragraph, what ambitions does the European GD bring to the international stage? Europe (together with China) is preparing to take the leading role on the world stage. The agenda is ambitious and a lot of effort is required, but the problem it faces requires radical change. I also see in the GD a powerful symbolic power, in fact if the EU will show that it is really serious and that it will be able to achieve the goals it has set for itself (short-term goals are an important part of this), then it will be able to involve also its closest strategic partners, and help even the poorest and developing countries to implement a sustainable transition in social, economic and environmental terms. The Green Deal is an ambitious program not only for the participating countries but for the entire international scene, and for this very reason (in my opinion) failure cannot be contemplated. 

Political and institutional challenges of the Green Deal

In this last section we will focus on briefly explaining what are the technical dynamics of the GD, and how the program intends to dialogue with them. It has to be said that it is not easy to frame the EU as an entity with the conventional categories of political analysis, because it is neither a state nor a relatively ‘toothless’ international organization. The EU is a complex political system based on “multi-level governance”, and it is in this context that quoting A. Jordan & C. Adelle “the EU has built a multi-level system of environmental governance that is absolutely unique in the world”, but what does this mean? Starting from the definition of multi-level governance in the White Paper on the Committee of the Regions, multi-level governance is defined as “coordinated action by the Union, the Member States and regional and local authorities, based on partnership, to define and implement EU policies. This mode of governance implies the shared responsibility of the different levels of power involved, and is based on all sources of democratic legitimacy and the representativeness of the different actors involved”. Multi-level governance is an ‘action grid’, a dynamic process of both horizontal and vertical character based on five key principles: openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence.

It is precisely in this type of political organization that the GD can go beyond a “simple” environmental program, but also represent a means for better European integration. The project that the EU has in mind to implement, as can be guessed from our text, is very complex due to the number of different actors involved on different scales, composed of heterogeneous realities and contexts. For this reason, numerous criticisms have been directed at the program by insiders. One important criticism was made by Tadzio Müller of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, who has three major criticisms of the GD: first, that it is only targets that are described, but the targets do not reduce emissions; second, that the project is based on a growth strategy, but it is growth that has brought us to the current situation; third, that it is nothing more than an illusion to maintain our economic growth. To sum up, he defines it as a project to pretend to save the climate, when in fact what the EU is really trying to do is save the economy. For the sake of completeness, it was only fair to also report critical statements in comparison with the European purpose. In my single opinion, climate prevention is closely linked to the economic system, and I think that the survival of the planet inevitably depends on economic change, and this change is also linked to future prosperity. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is the market (the one that brought us to the brink of the abyss) that can save us, but we must know how to direct its flows towards the right and ethical paths. From the centrality that I place in the market, it would be interesting to explore the applications of European GD also within a polycentricity system, as the actors within it have greater autonomy and the system itself is closer to market operations. To apply this, however, we need a scenario of integrated morality with objective actions and a common purpose, a scenario that I realize seems utopian at the moment. 


We have come to the end of our analysis, and there is only one thing left to do: answer our initial question. So how should we view the European Green Deal program? Is it a paradigm shift or just another incremental step in climate policy?

In the text I have tried to highlight the most important points in order to reach a conclusion. In the first paragraph I tried to describe the historical development of environmental policies in Europe and worldwide. In the second part I have described what paths other actors on the world stage are taking, and the design of similar plans has emerged. And finally, in the last part I tried to explain what political and organizational mechanics are hidden behind the GD, reporting also the criticisms made against it. I think the answer to our question lies somewhere in between. Compared to the first environmental policies that started in the 1970s, GD is indeed a paradigm shift. Its approach is more holistic, compared to the individual sectoral or state interventions that took place in the first policies. The reason for this different approach and type of intervention, however, is given by historical development, and as the other international cases highlight, the nations most active in the war against climate change are adopting similar strategies. For this reason, I do not think that the change in the action plan will surprise us; on the contrary, I see it more as a step towards the creation of a society that is more sustainable and attentive to the problems of both today and tomorrow.  


  • European Green Deal  (2019)
  • Jordan & C. Adelle, Enviormental policy in the EU (2014)
  • O’neil Kate, International Enviromental Politics, (2017)

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