Sustainability in the European priorities and cohesion policy

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Contemporary global challenges greatly affect all EU policies, in particular regional and cohesion: both directions are having solid sustainability’s implications and therefore are being heavily supported by the European budget. 

The EU’s multi-annual budget allocates about € 392 billion for the European cohesion policy for up to 2027; it represents huge investment and support for national and regional programs, including both sustainability programs and actions aimed at increasing growth, jobs, social integration and better regional cooperation.

Allocations from the EU budget fall under three main categories of programs and funding for the EU institutions and the member states investment facilities:
= 1) Investment for jobs and growth (IJG, with €381 bn), which includes: the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund+ (ESF+); the Cohesion Fund, and the Just Transition Fund (JTF, with about €19.2 bn).
= 2) Interreg: assistance to the European-wide territorial cooperation among the states.
= 3) European Commission is managing the EU’s financial instruments and supporting programs by providing necessary technical assistance to the states.
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Contributing to implementing SDGs
The EU is committed to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: thus all of the UN’s SDGs are reflected in one or more of the six present Commission political priorities.
Cohesion Policy directly supports 11 SDGs, with some categories of funding contributing to more than one: about 94 % of funding contributes to the 11 SGDs, with most allocated to SDG 9 and SDG 8.
= SDG 1: end poverty in all its forms everywhere
About 6 percent of EU cohesion policy allocations support SDG 1 by funding projects that aim to create more inclusive societies and reduce discrimination. With about 55 % of total SDG 1 financing, the most popular area for funding is ‘active inclusion’. This area includes projects that promote equal opportunities and active participation, and that improve employability.
= SDG 3: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Another 6 percent of EU cohesion policy allocations are consistent with SDG 3, contributing to healthier societies through expenditure on both health infrastructure and services. The two largest contributors in absolute terms are Spain and Poland with over € 4.5 billion in allocations.
= SDG 4: quality education
EU cohesion policy supports SDG 4 through 9 percent of allocations, with Italy, Portugal, Poland and Spain being the largest contributors. The EU states are investing funds primarily to reduce and prevent early school-leaving and promoting equal access to good quality early-childhood, primary and secondary education.
= SDG 6: clean water and sanitation
About 4 percent of allocations contribute to SDG 6 by investing in wastewater treatment and water management: this includes support for district and consumer water supply, leak reduction and modernising infrastructure for water extraction, treatment, storage and distribution of water for human consumption.
= SDG 7: affordable and clean energy
With 7 percent of budget allocations, SDG 7 comes fourth by volume of contributions, adding up to about € 27 billion in total. Reflecting the importance of this goal for territorial cohesion, investments cover 16 different intervention fields, from the renovation of buildings and infrastructure to renewable energy, clean transport, etc.
= SDG 8: decent work and economic growth
About 27 percent of funding contributes to SDG 8 by investing in SMEs’ competitiveness and networking, entrepreneurship, access to employment and youth integration in the national and European labour markets.
= SDG 9: industry, innovation and infrastructure
EU cohesion policy also addresses diverse developmental needs of Europe’s regions, leading to about 27 percent of budget allocations supporting SDG 9; this is the top allocation to the SDGs by volume, slightly above SDG 8.
= SDG 11: sustainable cities and communities
Only about one percent of EU funding contributes to SDG 11 by investing, for example, in improving air quality and building cycle tracks and footpaths.
= SDG 12: ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
About 2 percent of funding contributes to SDG 12 by investing predominantly in household waste management and in environmentally friendly production processes in SMEs.
= SDG 13: climate action
Three EU cohesion policy’s funding instruments are predominantly linked to SDG 13: thus the contribution to climate objectives is using a specific “metrics”, i.e. the Commission tracks a wide range of climate actions under the EU climate tracking mechanism. In order to get funding, the EU states provide information on the support for climate change objectives (financial input) using a methodology based on “categories of investment action” under each of the cohesion policy funds. The methodology consist of assigning a specific “climate coefficient” to the financial support provided under the funds at a level which reflects the contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. The following two “weightings” are assigned (with ERDF examples of the investment categories): 100% – in cases where the support makes a significant climate contribution (i.e. sustainable energy, climate related risk prevention, climate related regional actions, etc.), and 40% – in case of a moderate contribution (clean urban transport, rail, intermodal and other public transport, etc.).
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= SDG 15: life on land
Cohesion policy contributes to SDG 15 by investing in the protection of biodiversity and nature, in green infrastructure, and in the development of the tourism potential of natural sites. While biodiversity tracking was not explicitly foreseen in the EU cohesion policy and legislation, the Commission identified and tracked funding for biodiversity.
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Regional and cohesion directions: water policy example
EU’s cohesion policy contributes to the availability and security of drinking water, through water-purification plants and distribution networks, especially in areas where the population has no access to adequate water provision. The Cohesion Fund is the primary EU source of investment in water infrastructure to match the specific needs of benefiting member states: the fund is helping the states to meet the citizens’ basic water needs while supporting compliance with the EU’s environmental legislation in water quality.
Thus, the ERDF invests in developing national infrastructures to provide citizens with basic water services; furthermore, it can support the development of regional water resources’ potential through small-scale infrastructures.
European water policy in general aims at protecting water resources and ensures the safety and availability of drinking water. All aspects of European water policy are specified in the Water Framework Directive, which is contributing to achieving and maintaining good water quality across the EU-27.
Cohesion Policy water investments focus in particular on countries that are working to meet their basic needs. The greatest support is dedicated to wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure in those member states which still need to comply with the EU objectives. This includes the construction or upgrading of wastewater treatment plans and sewerage networks, as well as sewage-sludge management.
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High-quality drinking water and access to sanitation are essential for the Europeans’ daily life and economic activities: due to the EU policy and funding, most citizens in EU enjoy good access to water services. However, there is still room for improvement which is why the cohesion policy continues to invest in this area, allocating about €15 billion to water management both during 2014-20 periods and until 2023.
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