How green is the Recovery and Resilience Plan?


This article examines the specialisation of the general European directions in programmes and projects, at European and national level, whether they are actually green and whether the investments are coherent and achieve the goals set for a just, green transition. 

Green field aerial view

At the heart of an unprecedented EU recovery effort is the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), a 672.5 billion euros instrument, under the 750 billion euros EU COVID-19 recovery plan (NextGeneration EU Recovery Plan). It is a historic step forward for European Union as it gives continuity and perspective to the ambitious goals of Green Deal by attempting to spark a fundamental green, healthy and fair recovery for Europe.

Thanks to Recovery and Resilience Facility, Member States will be able to cope with the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, while at the same time their economies will be able to move to a green and digital transition and become more sustainable and resilient.

In this context, all EU countries were asked to draw up their own national package of programmes, reforms and investments, in order to receive support and financing under the Facility, focusing on six key policy areas:

  • (a) green transition,
  • (b) digital transformation
  • (c) smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, development and jobs,
  • (d) social and territorial cohesion,
  • (e) health and resilience, and
  • (f) policies for the next generation, including ducation and skills

With European Green Deal  as its compass and roadmap, Commission has developed a recovery strategy that seeks to strengthen the EU targets for climate neutrality by 2050 in order to become a world leader in action for climate and environment, thus creating millions of new jobs, improving health and protecting the quality of life.

At the same time, this new development strategy aims to make the EU economy modern, resource-efficient and competitiveA place where economic growth would be disconnected from resource use and where no people and no region would be left behind, thus implementing the main objectives of the sustainable development strategy and the principles of the circular economy.

And all this in terms of intentions, goals and main structure. Because, when it comes to the true substance of the matter, there seem to be some gaps left. And there are concerns that still spark the open debate at EU level, a debate that is still in progress and revolves around the nature of investments and their selection criteria in order to be the ones that can effectively meet the challenges and provide the immediate answers that will serve to achieve the viability of the EU economy. Investments that will make a clean and circular EU economyrestore biodiversity and reduce pollution, turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities in all policy areas, with a focus on resource efficiency and Just Transition for everyone and without exclusions.

Environmental organisations and European civil society in general agree that the Commission’s proposals are an important step in the right direction and they have realised that the proposed investment actions are, to a large extent, incomplete, leaving critical unresolved issues such as the huge problem of toxic pollution (which is a major threat to health) the ongoing destruction of habitats and the loss of biodiversity (which have been widely identified as the main causes of new diseases), etc. In addition, there is a lack of detail and, above all, clarity, about what green investments really mean. Let us give an example: While the high costs of shared and electric mobility are going in the right direction, the plan leaves the door wide open for polluting engines, even planes, into the RRF and thus receiving funding and other incentives.

The Recovery and Sustainability Plan for European Countries, as presented, remains unclear and mainly incomplete and deficient in terms of “green” actions and attitudes, but also in terms of expenditure targets, and mainly those related to the climate, since, on the one hand basic definitions aren’t clear, on the other hand there are distortions, such as what constitutes climate spending or sustainable vehicles, etc.

Another paradox is that the agricultural sector is almost ignored at European level, even though it is a sector that already receives the largest share of the budget (36% since 2014), with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) costing 60 billion euros a year. The Plan’s inadequacy in relation to the agricultural sector is impressive because this sector it accounts for 52% of the Commission’s climate spending over the last six years and is the only one that has increased emissions since 2012. So, instead of having sufficient criteria and conditions to make agricultural funds dependent on achieving climate, environmental and social targets and to reorient them to support farmers in need, Commission proposes to strengthen the budget for the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development by 15 billion euros. It aims to support past green goals such as the “From Farm to Fork” strategy, which seeks to significantly reduce fertilizer and pesticide use and aims to keep 25% of EU farms organic by 2030. Unfortunately, even in this area, the CAP is the EU’s sacred cow and is defended by strong representatives of agro-industry interest groups in Brussels, so that the subsidies provided for intensive agriculture that harm the environment have remained intact.

And in fact, despite all the commitments and the relevant announcements, most of the 2 trillion euros of state money currently given as aid to EU countries do not meet the above conditions.

It is no coincidence that until today, 1.3 million citizens have signed a call for a green and fair recovery. It is called the report and sends messages to EU and national governments which “rescue” polluting industries related to sectors such as gas, oil, coal, chemicals, cars, airlines, etc., emphasising that “any investment stimulus must depend entirely on the degree of alignment of companies with social, environmental and climate objectives”.

There are similar problems in the National Plan for Recovery and Sustainability, which has just been officially presented by the political leadership. It is a four-pillar Plan that mobilises 57 billion euros, includes a total of 170 projects, investments and reforms, aims to create 200,000 jobs and increase GDP by 7 points over the next 6 years.

The National Recovery and Sustainability Plan includes a number of impressive investments in cutting-edge sectors, however it still lags far behind the final target, as priority is not given to investments and projects in line with climate and other environmental objectives (circular economy, sustainable mobility, transport, biodiversity, etc.) to ensure that investment are directed to industries and employment that are safe and sustainable in the long run.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that at first sight it is impressive and serves a number of important goals, it is nevertheless characterised by ambiguities and gaps, shortcomings and contradictions, mainly in terms of the specialisation of measures and actions related to the green transition, similar to those of EU Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Both the National Plan and the European Plan, as they are drafted today, leave gaps and ambiguities that weaken the goals, especially with regard to “green” recovery, as the criteria for selecting investments are vague and contradictory and the nature of investments remains unclear.

Mineral gas supply cannot be characterised as “climate expenditure” and be financed by the National Plan nor can technologies and infrastructure whether they are of zero pollutants and emissions or not. Respectively, the “renovation wave” cannot bring the expected benefits if it does not involve massive actions to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, where solar energy, heat pumps and eco-energy design will play their role, and necessary funds will be allocated for this purpose. Only in this way will this important undertaking be able to be more efficient in terms of energy savings and not only, contributing substantially to the improvement of the quality of life, to the reheating of the construction activity, and to the creation of new jobs.

Investments in smart and local networks, with storage capacity, smart distribution systems, “RES development” projects and “clean hydrogen” which can be produced from RES, cannot coexist with investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.

It is a pity to miss this unique opportunity for recovery for the EU countries, because the best tools, capable of transforming the way we consume, are, at the moment, the Recovery and Resilience Facility and, of course, the corresponding National Plan for Greece, so that materials can be safely reused over and over again and thus lead to a truly “circular economy” among other things. However, even in this case, the National Recovery Plan demonstrates an “unprecedented support” in recycling industry over reuse, reflecting a distorted and outdated understanding of what a circular economy means.

Both at European and national level, the world’s most ambitious waste reduction strategy has been developed and we would look forward to seeing the growth of local production business models and innovative technologies leading to more sustainable consumer standards through disposal of the necessary funding.

Especially in our country, where strong legislation for the transition to circular economy has been developed, we expected it to be taken into account by the National Recovery Plan, which, on the contrary, does not give the necessary importance and attention on the matter.

It should prioritise integrated waste management, based on source sorting, and investments in circular business and consumer models that reduce resource use and promote repair, second-hand reuse, and renovation, according to waste prioritisation.

It is sad and utterly odd to ignore key concepts at a time when it has become commonplace that we must go beyond recycling and create new business and consumer models that support consumers’ right to repair and use everyday products for longer time period.

There are similar questions about the inadequacy in other sectors, such as mobility, where transport, as the fastest growing single sector in Europe, has been responsible for the steady increase in emissions by 30% since 1990.

However, it is well known that in order to achieve a result that meets climate and other objectives, serious investments in cycling and walking are required, so that cities can build permanent appropriate infrastructure, financial support for the transition to zero-emission road transport, support system for zero-emission buses, multiple charging points, power supply for docks and port infrastructure, support for supply chains such as batteries and green hydrogen, and worker specialisation.

The National Plan does not support multimodal transport, as we do not see any increase rail transport or investments in modernising public transport over mineral technology, or investments in fleet renewal or a plan to reduce the total number of cars or substantial support for cities regarding electrification of buses, their fleets, the provision of billing infrastructure, etc.

In view of all the above, it is not unfair to say that despite the extremely ambitious aspirations and the significant planned actions, investments and financing, the National Plan is clearly lagging behind in terms of the green side of the recovery, presenting a significant deficit in critical areas.

It is estimated that, in any case, the principle of “do no harm” of the European Green Deal should apply to 100% of investments and state aid, excluding the support of environmentally harmful activities and enhancing environmentally sustainable activities. But this seems to have been forgotten somewhere. And while there seems to be a focus on the transition to a zero-carbon economy and a large-scale restoration programme, there is no matching of eligible investments for 2021-2027, which should be compatible with sustainability goals and specific climate targets.

In this context, the recovery plans, in order to be the largest green investment project in the world, must include in their structure investments that meet clear environmental and climate criteria, taking into account the objectives of climate neutrality and protection of biodiversity, so for the market to move towards that direction too and the expected restart of economies to be based on the ” Green Recovery” pillar following a recent note by the European Parliament which states that all recovery funds must be compatible with the Paris Agreement.

The national recovery and resilience plans, which are due to be submitted to the European Commission by the end of this month, offer an important opportunity to move forward with progressive coal pricing. To date, these plans have focused much more on investment than on reform, and now it is a good opportunity to have clear references to environmentally damaging subsidy reform, green public procurement and, of course, coal pricing.

The ball will then be in the court of European Commission, which will have to negotiate with the Member States to include more green fiscal reforms in their Recovery Plans.

The best legacy will be the best contribution to climate and to necessary ecological transition, and in this context, we demand determination and political will for a reform that will include progressive carbon pricing and thus lay a cornerstone for the release of Europe from carbon emissions, without leaving anyone behind.