Human-induced climate change will challenge the solidarity between peoples that forms the basis of the European Union. Today, solidarity is under pressure from nationalist and populist movements that may prevent urgently needed action on climate change. Populists threaten the recognition of global scientific knowledge and undermine the potential for sustainability-driven modernisation vital for continued economic and social progress. Mission 2020 is a global initiative urging for rapid emissions reductions. Through taking up Mission 2020’s call for a just transformation, the European Union can renew itself and expand its purpose.
From droughts and wildfires in Portugal, Spain, and Italy and flooding events in the Czech Republic and Hungary, to extreme storms in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany, recent climate extremes suggest that a rise in global mean temperature over 2 degrees Celsius would cause overwhelming social pressures in Europe. This could become an existential threat to the solidarity that holds the European Union together. Europe would also be indirectly affected by unabated climate change if countries around Europe are destabilised by climate-induced social unrest or European Member States become divided over policies towards climate migrants. Furthermore, climate change is likely to disrupt global trade and financial flows.
The 2-degree limit to the increase in the global mean temperature, established by more than 190 countries in the Paris Agreement in 2015, is more than just a political red line. It carries deep implications for the environment. Limiting global warming to below 2 degrees aims to avoid catastrophic and irreversible damage to planetary systems that support human life and society. Time is running short however, as the increase in global mean temperature is reaching 1 degree Celsius. The EU has the tools to make the necessary changes and turn the tide already. In cooperation with regional actors, existing instruments can be redirected to keep the planet in its safe operating space – if there is a political will to do so.
By 2020, the turning point in the global emissions curve will have to have been reached. With this deadline looming, a group of scientists, politicians, and institutions have launched the Mission 2020. The group proposes feasible transformations sector by sector to be implemented by 2020 to achieve this goal. If however, emissions continue on the same trajectory as previously, planetary systems could collapse or reach degradation states from which recovery is unlikely.
Mission 2020 provides one narrative of future events: a set of possible and necessary actions in key areas taken in time to avoid dangerous climate change. These areas are energy, infrastructure, transport, land, industry, and finance. The message of the mission is that while it is not an easy task to implement the industrial and societal changes required by the Paris Agreement, neither is it impossible. The challenges of unabated global warming would be insurmountable. Because humanity today has the capacity to understand the problem and because the necessary technology is available and economically viable, the transition is feasible.
While it is not an easy task to implement the industrial and societal changes required by the Paris Agreement, neither is it impossible.
The European Union has a crucial role to play in this transition. To start with, the European Union has the moral responsibility to take leadership, given its position as the world´s third largest emitter of CO2 and the threat that inaction would represent for its citizens. What’s more, the EU can implement this change within its existing institutional frameworks. The European cohesion and regional funds already play an important role in reducing regional inequality and promoting sustainable development. But their application to climate action needs to be enhanced for the EU to make the 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, as it intends to. As the European Commission is currently discussing its next seven-year budget, it is time for regional development and climate policies to be properly aligned.
Europe already has the tools and experience to confront difficult transitions. Many European regions already went through similar types of transformation during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when traditional industrial regions, such as the Ruhr Area in Germany, Wallonia in Belgium, Piedmont and Lombardy in Italy saw decline in traditional industrial production due to global restructuring of industrial production. Although some of these regions are still not in a position of economic strength, the measure of success of these transitions cannot be restricted to economic indicators alone. Complete outmigration from those regions was avoided and local culture and identities were protected nonetheless. While those transitions are not perfect, they demonstrate that transformations can be steered. These are especially valuable lessons because this time, the transition to green regional economies will have to happen much faster.
Fortunately, there is already a demand from society for economic change. The task is to build economies in Europe that can operate successfully in a globalised world and still provide dignified livelihoods for people. This demand has often been misinterpreted and misused for nationalistic, populist and neoliberal agendas. However, it can also be viewed as a mandate to abandon old forms of productions and consumption and focus on low-carbon energy sources, sustainable land use and industrial production.
For example, the demand for jobs has been used as an explanation for sustaining inviable industries and for the creation and prolongation of direct and indirect subsidies to sectors which should eventually be phased out, such as to lignite coal, cement and diesel. This misallocation of public finances could be replaced by investing in regions in transition with the focus on promising low-carbon technologies. This in turn would favor the next generation of high school and university graduates which in many European countries have to choose today between unemployment and emigration.
This is why the transformation, given the existing technologies and knowledge in Europe represents an opportunity for sustainable value creation in economically disadvantaged regions inside the union and assurance of the existing social contract and European solidarity, beyond the idea of a green economy. The European debt crisis after 2009 provided an opportunity to promote green growth by using debt relief as a tool to drive investment in renewable energy. This opportunity was unfortunately missed under the prevailing economic model of the time that favoured fiscal responsibility leading several European governments to slash green incentives.
We would like to emphasise the importance of changing the narrative of sustainability and mitigation policies in Europe. The currently dominant discourse of sustainability and climate mitigation emphasises their costs and necessary sacrifices. Actually, the IPCC assessments show that the 2-degrees limit could be achieved without significant consumption losses. The challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions should thus be seen as an opportunity for Europe. Unlike other parts of the world, Europe has the capacity to make the transition to renewable energy. By doing so, it could deliver what many European politicians are seeking to promote: a new meaning for the union.
Lessons from modern European history
In order to act decisively against climate change, Europe has to allow renewable energy to fulfill its potential, by adequately supporting both the social and technological steps needed to move away from fossil energy. The foundations of the European Union were built by the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Rome. Energy lay at the heart of these treaties. They were driven by the Schuman’s vision to “make a war in Europe not only unthinkable but also materially impossible.” The historical efforts in the coal and steel community and in Euroatom, are relevant today, as we face a transformational challenge to the energy sector. At that time, cooperation in coal and nuclear energy production were crucial for building a new social order and economic system. In the same way, strong cooperation on renewable energy production must address today’s challenges.
One possible solution at the European Union level would be to implement a common renewable energy policy coordinating action across Member States. The Energy Union, launched in 2015, offers a way to achieve this goal. While effective coal and nuclear energy production required centralisation, the principle of the common renewable energy policy should be decentralisation and subsidiarity. For these principles to be applied, we suggest a focus on community-based energy production and regional initiatives for energy autonomy through renewables.
While effective coal and nuclear energy production required centralisation, the principle of the common renewable energy policy should be decentralisation and subsidiarity.
Community initiatives are increasingly recognised as important in the transition to clean energy. This has implications for and can empower subnational regions and local actors. In some cases, the motivations are environmental; in others economic. Often they are driven by the desire of communities to ‘take back control’ from a system that is perceived not to work in their interests. Renewable energy, by its nature, favors decentralisation but also depends on the cooperation of distribution network operators. Currently, small producers can face prohibitive charges. For example, in Spain consumers wishing to feed energy to the grid are required to pay fees. European governments and regulators need to remove such barriers to community-led clean energy initiatives. While local entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships are important for community-based renewables, the wider picture in the sector needs to be managed, too because many large energy firms have little incentive to invest in smart grid systems. Their interests are best served by shutting the door on small-scale renewables. If governments are serious about clean energy, they should restructure these firms to ensure that they are fit for purpose.
Community-based energy production schemes can shape regional development and a regional approach to the energy transition could better connect local communities with national governments and the EU. Such projects, based on community action and connected to regional agendas could in turn reduce the space for nationalist movements. The EU has already launched the Smart Energy Regions concept which reflects the great potential of low-carbon innovations at the community level, steered by regions
Examples of whole regions adapting to the coal phase-out can be found in Europe. For example, in the Ruhr area of Germany, following the economic dynamism of the post-war 1950s’ boom, the region began to face pressures from external steel producers, coal import prices, and a global competition from the 1960s onwards. In 1968, the state of North Rheine-Westphalia announced a policy package to combat the loss of jobs caused by mine closures. Some policies, such as the creation of universities, were taken at the state level. Nevertheless, what was pivotal to the recovery of the region was the aggressive application of structural funds made available by the European Community and later by the European Union. These same structural funds should today be used to steer future-oriented sustainable development, in line with the Paris Agreement. Given the strong working class culture of the region, culture was also a major focus of government support. This culminated in 2010 with the choice of the city of Essen and the Ruhr region as the European Capital of Culture.
With Poland hosting the next COP climate talks in Silesia this December, a region abundant with coal, the examples of post-coal and post-industrial transformations in Western Europe could be used to inspire the political leadership in coal-dependent regions. Despite the absence of ambitious national climate policies in Poland from central government, local and regional initiatives in renewable energy production are expanding. More than 30 community renewable energy clusters were officially registered at the beginning of 2018. Numerous individual level initiatives are accompanying this development. Local authorities and local entrepreneurs recognise the benefits of renewables including cost and energy saving, jobs creation, local economic growth, increased community income from taxes, and improved air quality.
Mission 2020’s actors of change: cities and regions
COP 22 and COP 23 tried to address the implementation challenges of the Paris Agreement by, among other things, proposing partnerships between different levels of government and the civil society. This strategy contests traditional jurisdictions of government and how policies are normally executed, in the European Union as elsewhere. Regions offer the flexibility needed to support renewable energies. They can be formed through associations of municipalities, but also shaped to include local banks and other actors interested in local development. At the national level, the current focus on technological solutions and the protection of interest groups committed to large-scale solutions needs to be overcome and energy users must be encouraged to enter partnerships as co-producers. Smart grid initiatives cannot prosper unless citizens can be persuaded to participate. Mistrust by citizens, either of operators or of government and regulators, especially around data security, are a key barrier to adoption of smart energy systems.
Other examples of bottom-up methods are likely to play an active role in the transition to decarbonised and sustainable societies too. The Transition Town Movement started in 2006 in the United Kingdom and in 2014 spanned over 41 countries. Its objective is to encourage citizens to take direct action towards lowering energy demand and building local resilience. Communities that joined the Transition Town movement have managed to take bottom-up action reducing city household-related carbon emissions by 13 per cent annually. The divestment movement, whose objective is to encourage financial investors to get rid of stock, bonds, or investment funds in fossil fuels, is the fastest growing movement of its kind in history. The fossil fuel divestment movement has become a key factor shifting societal norms and understandings of climate justice, fossil fuels, and the industry. Such initiatives have the potential to lead to large-scale changes and emission reductions within the time horizon of the next few years.
The divestment movement… is the fastest growing movement of its kind in history.
The citizens of Europe can no longer delegate the responsibility to act solely to government. A re-appropriation of responsibility to the individual and local and regional government levels can advance the Mission 2020 and help protect the planet. Organisations such as the European Union must play an active role too and support them through knowledge and technology transfer as well as by redirecting energy subsidy programmes to help them get off the ground.
A message to the EU
The horizon to bend the global emissions curve in accordance with the 2-degrees limit is approaching fast and requires a rapid transition to an inclusive low-carbon economy. Europe has overcome tremendous historical challenges of structural change and has the tools to manage the coming phase-out of the fossil fuel industry. A decisive application of regional cohesion funds by the EU is key and the moment is crucial, as the multiannual financial framework is being discussed for the next seven years. The application of these funds in combination with community involvement can strengthen and renew the meaning of the Union and counteract its democratic deficits. Mission 2020 is a mission for the globe. Mission 2020 is a call to Europe.
The authors have been brought together by the Praxis Europa initiative.
Art by Nika Dubrovsky (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Member of the Leibniz Association, and James Hutton Institute).
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 Examples of community-led renewable energy schemes in the European Union are abundant, and the list is growing fast; e.g. Fintry, Scotland, a community-led carbon-reduction and sustainability initiative (FDT 2017), the Dutch Sustainable Villages Network (SVN 2017), the viure de l’aire wind turbine project in Catalonia, Spain (Viuredelaire 2018) ; there are many others.
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