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What is the European Green Deal and what does it mean for freshwater life?

February 10, 2022
The European Green Deal has ambitious goals to transform European economies towards a low-carbon future. Image: Symbolique 2006

In December 2019, the European Commission presented its European Green Deal, a new set of policy initiatives aimed at making the EU climate-neutral by 2050. Described by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, as Europe’s “man on the moon moment,” the Green Deal has wide-ranging ambitions to support environmental protection, green economies, sustainable agriculture and technological innovation across the continent.

What is the European Green Deal?

But what exactly does the Green Deal aim to do, and how might it impact Europe’s freshwater ecosystems? A key underpinning to the Green Deal is its attempt to fundamentally shift European economies from dependence on fossil fuels and environmental exploitation towards low-carbon, sustainable models of growth. “The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy – a strategy for growth that gives back more than it takes away… We are determined to succeed for the sake of this planet and life on it – for Europe’s natural heritage, for biodiversity, for our forests and our seas,” explained von der Leyen.

This strategy will be achieved through a framework of regulation and legislation which sets clear targets for EU countries, including a net zero carbon emissions goal by 2050. As a result, the Green Deal represents a sign that concerns over climate change and environmental sustainability have risen to the top of European policy making. Moreover, it signals European action towards global environmental targets such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Since its initial proposal, the Green Deal has sparked a flurry of new proposals, regulations and changes to EU law, including a Climate Law, Industrial Strategy, Circular Economy Action Plan, Farm to Fork Strategy, Biodiversity Strategy and Zero Pollution Action Plan. Overall, it is estimated that the implementation of the Green Deal will cost over €1 trillion, around half of which will come from EU budgets, and the remainder from national governments and the private sector. This budget includes a new Just Transition Fund which aims to support regions, industries and workers who face socio-economic challenges in achieving the goals of the Green Deal.

A meander on the River Forth, Scotland: tackling water pollution in agricultural landscapes is a key task for the Green Deal. Image: MERLIN

The Green Deal and European freshwaters

For all its ambition, what does the European Green Deal mean for freshwaters? Key aspects of the Green Deal related to freshwater ecosystems include the promotion of environmentally-friendly food production systems and the restoration of European ecosystems and their services. The Green Deal is designed to offer a framework through which existing EU policies such as the Water Framework Directive and Bathing Water Directive can be integrated towards these ambitious goals.

One key new policy, the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, launched under the Green Deal umbrella in 2020, states that at least 25,000km of European rivers will be restored to a free-flowing state by 2030. The Strategy also highlights the role of freshwater protections in stemming biodiversity loss and mitigating climate change, for example through the restoration of wetlands.

Another important link between the Green Deal and freshwater management is a zero pollution ambition for the continent. In May 2021, the European Commission adopted the EU Action Plan: Towards a Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil, which sets out a vision for zero harmful pollution to air, water and soil by 2050, through a series of measures to prevent, remedy, monitor and report on pollution.

However, achieving these goals will require significant new measures, according to Dr. Magdalena Bieroza and colleagues, writing last year in the journal Science of the Total Environment. The authors argue that to achieve significant improvements in freshwater quality, the Green Deal and related policies must address the entire water pollution chain, from sources to impacts. They suggest that at present, existing policies only address the sources and impacts of water pollution in a piecemeal way.

Dr. Bieroza and colleagues highlight the importance of the Farm to Fork and (recently-revised) Common Agricultural Policies in tackling water pollution in Europe under the Green Deal umbrella. More broadly, their study highlights wider challenges of aligning ambitious Green Deal goals with complex and changing environmental pressures across the continent.


This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

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