Putting people first in the green energy transition

13 November 2020

How do we put people first when moving to a green and digital economy in times of crisis recovery? This was discussed by city representatives, MEPs and representatives of the European Commission on 9-10 November during the European Social Affairs Forum.

“Green and digital transitions need to go hand in hand with social investment. We need to balance green and digital targets by adding social targets to it”, said Agnes Jongerius, MEP, who is rapporteur of the European Parliament’s report on a strong social Europe for just transitions. She continued “in our report, we call for a new social agenda, for affordable housing for everyone as part of the Renovation Wave, it is important that the total cost of living should not be higher after the renovation. We need to bring everyone on board in this transition.”

Besides affordable housing for all, just transitions need a strong Youth Guarantee to help youth in the transition, decent working conditions for all workers and access to good education for all children and young people. These points were raised by Samira Rafaela, MEP and Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s intergroup on the EU Green Deal, emphasising “not everyone has the capacity to engage in this transition, so we need to ensure social measures and plans to make it possible for everyone to benefit from the green and digital transition, including the most vulnerable people.”

Cities as frontrunners in bringing social and green agendas together

Cities have had to readjust their priorities in light of the pandemic to help people, save jobs and meet urgent social needs at local level. Many cities admit shifting efforts to the recovery but, at the same time, they continue the work towards the green transition, which is difficult to do while facing shrinking municipal budgets.

Amsterdam adopted a ‘doughnut economic model’ to link social sustainability and environmental sustainability. Marieke Van Doorninck, Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam, explained that steps such as providing digital devices to children and lonely people also creates new jobs for people refurbishing laptops. She said: “We can only have true recovery if it meets both the social and environmental needs, otherwise this transition can lead to eco-elites. And we should not only think of our continent. We need to act locally, change our local economic systems but think globally of the impact we can have elsewhere in the world.”

Glasgow aims to create an inclusive and well-being economy. Universal basic income and gender mainstreaming in all policies are key parts of the city’s recovery plan. Bailie Annette Christie, Councillor of Glasgow, highlighted how important it is to be inclusive in this transition: “All transitions need to have a social aspect. It is vital we get all voices and perspectives from all our local communities; nobody should be left out or left behind.”

Utrecht has accelerated investments in the city’s ‘Healthy Urban Living for All’ strategy linking up investing in healthy urban environment and social infrastructure, all while saving jobs and helping people go back to work.

Gothenburg is putting in place a new green programme to make the city greener by using a ‘digital twin’ virtual simulation tool on the impact that green solutions would have on people and local communities. The city sees ‘green’ issues as social issues because it requires that all people and local companies are on board to make it work.

Zagreb, the virtual host city, shared examples of grassroots organisations that the city supports to link up social and green priorities through local projects. For example, OAZA, an organisation promoting a sustainable alternative community is working with young people and training them to become social entrepreneurs while taking care of the environment. Sfera Visia, a local association for visually impaired people, started producing soaps in a natural, ecological way, and thus creating employment for people with disabilities.

Turning the EU Green Deal into local Green Deals

The role of cities in implementing the EU Green Deal and linking it to social policies was well-recognised by the Members of the European Parliament participating to the debate.

“The voice of cities is heard at the European level”, said Agnes Jongerius, MEP. She continued: “I am impressed at the way cities have pledged to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights and I am happy that cities are our ally in bringing a new social agenda with binding social targets.” Jongerius highlighted the key role of cities in doing the work on the ground and keeping the two green and social agendas together, saying: “We [MEPs] are allies with cities to push the national agenda in the right direction.”

Speaking about the key role of city governments in ensuring just transitions, Samira Rafaela, MEP, said: “We need to have a good insight into specific challenges of our local communities, of low-income families, disadvantaged children and youth, and for this we need to listen to local and city governments who can make the EU Green Deal work on the ground for local communities”. She invited cities: “Let’s do social and green together.”

A just transition

Brando Benifei, MEP, highlighted that the Recovery and Resilience Facility is important for supporting social investments for just transitions in cities, but stressed that it depends on how the member states will spend the EU funding made available. In a resolution passed by the European Parliament this week, MEPs voted to strengthen pre-financing and bring to 30% the share of EU funding for green projects. Benifei stressed: “Green projects should be linked to social investments, to people’s challenges, and cities are key to do this link and work with the European Parliament on this”.

Even if involved in the national recovery plan preparations, however, cities still face a long and bumpy road until accessing EU funding post-2020. This is the case for Berlin, which is facing a big funding gap until 2022 with 4-5 EU-funded projects at risk of disappearing due to the halt of EU funding at the end of 2020 and no implementation of upcoming EU funding programmes until probably 2022. Many cities face the same risk of funding gap for otherwise successful and effective social programmes (funded under FEAD or ESF). Katarina Niewiedzial, Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration explained: “We have three challenges. First, the EU funding is too slow and late to help us with funding the measures we need for the recovery. Second, it is too complex and too many administrative rules. Third, it is too inflexible, we need to be able to adapt according to the new and urgent needs we are facing now.” Niewiedzial continued asking the European Commission: “the EU level should help cities to get a seat on the national level to enhance cities’ voice for social inclusion and needs of people on the ground”.

In response, Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic from the European Commission clarified that “the new EU funding will be implemented according to national rules, we want to simplify cost options and procedures, delegated acts were adopted in most member states, especially to active labour market policies.”

The European Commission also strongly encouraged member states to involve cities in the preparation of the national recovery plans.

You can watch the full debate here