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Making Europe’s Green Deal as smart as possible

Next week, the European Commission’s new President Ursula Von Der Leyen will present the EU’s Green Deal.

The EU's Green Deal is expected to include a raft of proposals on new laws, commitments and tests for finance. It will be praised for its ambition. But even if it commits to a 55 per cent cut in emissions by 2030, it will also be criticised for falling short in terms of matching the scale of the climate change challenge.

I make no comment on the targets and the specific issues facing energy, agriculture, transport and other industries. Instead, in this blog, I share some ideas Nesta has fed in about how the Green Deal could be enhanced, and how to avoid the temptation of seeing the programme only in terms of law and finance.

Using 21st century methods

Europe’s Green Deal could be implemented using only traditional methods – re-orienting infrastructure spending, and providing new subsidies and regulatory directions, particularly to help countries, regions and industries which are lagging in reducing emissions.

But the Green Deal could also use more 21st century methods that would greatly enhance its impact. In essence, these would ensure that Europe’s collective intelligence of all kinds was mobilised to speed up action and learning (the UK as host of COP 26 next year also has an opportunity to promote these new methods to help ensure the Paris targets are met).

For the EU the immediate task is to combine the emerging Green Deal with complementary strategies, each of which could be supported with a very small proportion of total budgets.

Here we summarise what these are:

A data strategy

To ensure the collection and sharing of key data on emissions and carbon footprints of supply chains, cities and neighbourhoods, and individuals (which in turn would require new standards for data and active curation). A lot of work is underway on this - but it’s fairly fragmented and not integrated with money allocations. Getting a data strategy right will also be key in the long-term to shifting company reporting and the behaviour of financial markets and investors (and giving the public more reliable information on whether their pensions and other assets are either helping or hindering carbon reduction).

An experimental strategy

Funding multiple experiments around things like home insulation, community energy, zero carbon transport, with clear hypotheses to be tested, peer learning between those running similar experiments, and rapid sharing of results (including data). IGL is a good model for this (and Nesta will shortly publish a comprehensive guide to how to run experiments).

An adoption strategy

Systematic promotion of the adoption of lower carbon options for production, distribution, office functions etc, particularly by SMEs, but also municipalities and NGOs. Here too we advocate for an evidence-based and experimental strategy (as demonstrated in the Business Basics Fund as well as good practice in places as diverse as Bavaria and South Korea).

A social innovation strategy

To mobilise communities to play their part in reducing emissions. For example, focusing on reducing food waste or changing eating behaviours, again making use of data and explicit hypothesis testing. I have written in more detail about some of the options, including how to boost place-based action.

Active use of challenges

Ranging from classic technology challenges (such as financial rewards for the first zero carbon flight, with x payload over y kilometres) through social innovation challenges (such as the recent EUSIC on plastics), to challenges for neighbourhoods to cut their emissions (like Nesta’s Big Green Challenge in the 2000s).

Jobs and the circular economy

To accelerate action at national, regional and city level to ensure there are complementary skills/jobs strategies, particularly retraining lower skilled manual workers to take up new roles in refurbishment, retrofitting and remanufacturing. This is a shift that will also be vital in addressing potential political backlashes from parts of the population who fear losing-out from the shift to a low carbon economy.

A skills and capability strategy

To help local and national governments, NGOs and business to implement the other elements of the programme, cultivating not just the crucial formal skills and methods but also a different mindset (as has been done by States of Change, which links organisations across the EU and globally).

There is substantial technical assistance finance within EU regional budgets (though it is often underspent) but it hasn’t in the past been linked to a clear transformation strategy. One obvious starting point would be a more systematic EU version of the C40 – helping medium and larger cities with skills needed to shape and implement decarbonisation strategies. This would need to be supported by Europe-wide Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with easily accessible materials on how best to implement the many elements of the Green Deal, to complement guides to science, data and what works. My recent blog on the data and knowledge infrastructures needed for the SDGs sets out the equivalents that are needed at a global level.

Next steps

The above strategies would all require deliberate support as a small part of a transition fund. They require Europe to take the data and knowledge infrastructure for the Green Deal as seriously as the design of financial instruments.

Europe currently lacks institutions well-designed to do this (by comparison with its very well-established institutions organised around money). But it will increasingly need this capacity in the future, so investment now will pay off both directly in terms of Green Deal implementation but also, longer term, in helping governments adapt to the multiple challenges of the next few decades. These challenges will require very different ways of working that have a longer time horizon and are more systemic, more experimental, and more open to collaboration.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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