The EU is billing its 750 billion euro (US$903 billion) Recovery Fund as the opportunity of the century to transform the region’s economy and help it lead the world in reducing carbon emissions.
However, a closer look by environmentalists at the spending plan prepared by Italy — the biggest recipient of EU cash — raises questions about how green Rome’s contribution is to be, how it is to be measured and even what investments can be classed as “green.”
They have criticized the plan presented to the Italian parliament last week as falling well short of the revolution that was promised.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government was to submit the 273-page document to Brussels on Friday last week to obtain more than 200 billion euros from the kitty aimed at making the bloc’s 27-member states more ecological, digital and resilient.
The EU requires the largest slice of the investments in each country — about 37 percent — to go toward projects that would green the region’s economy, but ecological lobbyists and think tanks have said that Italy’s plan does not meet the threshold.
“A Not Very Green Plan,” is the headline of a report by Greenpeace Italia, which gathered outside the Italian parliament last week with other Green advocates to protest against what they see as a lack of ambition on the environment.
Draghi’s document offers 59 billion euros of EU money under the ecological transition heading, to be spent over the six years of the Recovery Plan — about 10 billion less than the draft prepared by his predecessor, former Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who lost power in January.
That amounts to 31 percent of the EU funds, versus the 37 percent prescribed. Draghi has topped this up with 9 billion euros of separate government borrowing, but lobbyists have said that this money would not be subject to Brussels’ scrutiny and could therefore easily be revoked.
Draghi last week told the Italian parliament that green policies feature in several of the six chapters of his plan, not just the “Green Transition” one, meaning that Brussels’ 37 percent target was met.
The European Commission has two months from the moment it gets a national scheme to check that it meets the criteria. EU finance ministers then have another month to evaluate them.
One official last week said that many countries were planning to spend as much as 50 percent of their funds on green projects, but that all plans would be carefully scrutinized.
More specifically, objectors have said that Draghi’s plan offers little for conversion to electric transport, vital for the cities of Italy’s industrial north, which are among the most polluted in Europe, or for a conversion to organic, less intensive farming.
The plan provides just 750 million euros to develop charging stations for electric vehicles and 300 million for electric buses.
Rome has raised doubts about forcing the pace on electric vehicles if batteries are not charged by power from renewable sources.
Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani has said that with a polluting public transport system and aging vehicle pool, Italy’s priorities are clear.
“We need to fix public transport first,” he said. “That’s an absolute emergency.”
Yet that is not being done, Greenpeace Italia said, adding that Draghi’s plan to extend Italy’s urban public transport lines by about 240km is only adequate for Rome.
Germany is to receive much less EU Recovery Fund money than Italy, but plans to use more than 5 billion euros of it for measures to favor electric and hybrid vehicles.
Electric transport is also a cornerstone of the Spanish plan, which dedicates 6.5 billion euros to “sustainable, secure and connected mobility” in cities.
“Draghi has allocated just 3.6 billion euros to developing public transport lines and 24 billion to high-speed trains without any carbon dioxide impact assessment,” said Matteo Leonardi, cofounder of Italian energy and climate change think tank ECCO.
ECCO also accuses the government of having “no strategy for renewable energy.”
Italy’s goal to install 4,200 megawatts of additional power from renewable energy sources is only sufficient to ensure that it meets the quota of renewable energy recommended by the EU for a single year, an ECCO report said.
Italian energy firms have said that the real problem is a labyrinthine process, which means that it can take years to get permits for new solar and wind capacity.
Italy’s biggest utility, Enel, estimates that at current rates it would take about 100 years to reach the solar power targets for 2030.
“We have the strength to install 6 to 8 gigawatts per year, but to do that, we have to change the rules ... and now,” Cingolani said.
Much of the plan’s energy strategy is based around the use of hydrogen, but environmentalists have said that it does not spell out how the gas must be produced.
Hydrogen is not necessarily “green,” because it can be generated from fossil fuels that Italian energy companies continue to invest in.
Green hydrogen, made by electrolysis using renewable power from wind and solar, is currently too expensive for widespread use and Enel has previously said that electrolyzers need to cost six times less to make it viable.
ECCO said that with no decisive push toward renewable energy or electric transport, Italy’s plan risked becoming mere “greenwashing, in the interests of state companies that aim to maintain a system based mainly on fossil fuels.”
On taking office, Draghi created a new Ministry for Ecological Transition headed by Cingolani, a prominent physicist who was previously head of innovation at Italy’s state-owned defense company Leonardo.
Cingolani’s illustrious scientific career has focused on areas such as robotics and nanotechnologies rather than climate change.
Some observers have suggested that he might have been a better fit at the infrastructure ministry, which went to Enrico Giovannini, who is instead a prominent expert in sustainable development.
In his first speech to the Italian parliament in February, Draghi said: “We want to leave a healthy planet, not just a healthy currency.”
Some environmentalists doubt that the former European Central Bank president’s Recovery Plan matches that commitment.
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