Much like the climate, the European Union is not in great shape. But with momentum for action against environmental collapse growing, it should be remembered that the EU wields the power to propel the kind of action required, in Europe as around the world. Over the next five years, the EU has key decisions to make that will shape the decades to come: will it seize the moment or risk further delay? As part of the Green European Journal’s series on where Europe finds itself today, WWF climate director Michael Schäfer explains what is at stake in the European elections from an environmental and biodiversity perspective. NGOs have been doing the difficult thinking about solutions to this complex crisis for years; now it is everyone’s job.
The current reality is sobering. Droughts and floods have become regular visitors to many parts of the world, including Europe. While nature and people increasingly feel the weight of climate change, little is done to oppose the crisis. After decades of hearing and now feeling the scientific evidence of global warming, countries continue to emit staggering amounts of greenhouse gases every year. Even despite committing to stop global warming at the Paris climate conference in 2015, when it comes to putting in place the right measures to protect the climate, action is missing in many countries. Some world leaders are even turning their backs on common knowledge and understanding.
The good news is that there is an ideal candidate left who could stop the downward spiral: the European Union. It has the opportunity, means, and power to drive change and offer solutions. Given its historic emissions, the EU bears a heightened responsibility too.
The European Union has the opportunity, means, and power to drive change and offer solutions. Given its historic emissions, the EU bears a heightened responsibility too.
Representing some of the biggest industrial players in the world, the EU can set an example of how to build a future that will not be dictated by droughts, floods, mass species extinction, and – heavily intertwined with the effects of global warming – major economic and social upheaval. Instead, it can lead the transformation to a thriving society that lives in harmony with the resources the Earth provides and the limits it sets. If the EU moves ahead, it can create a powerful ripple effect and push others to follow.
Within Europe, the pressure to act is rising. From Stockholm to Milan to Brussels, thousands upon thousands of students are taking to the streets. Week after week. They know their future is under threat. They know that it is because of the inaction of politicians and businesses in past decades. The demand that scientists and environmentalists have been making for years has been taken up across civil society and in parts of the business and investment community: greenhouse gas emissions need to go to net zero, as fast as possible.
The European elections could be a turning point in stopping the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. With the growing pressure from citizens as well as from science, political parties must answer how they can contribute to make the EU an ecologically, economically, and socially sound place to live. It is no longer just an issue for the Greens.
The next decade will be decisive. Over the next European legislative term, important decisions are on the agenda. For one, it will be time to develop the EU’s climate plan, to which it committed as part of the Paris Agreement. In plans known as ‘nationally determined contributions’, each EU country determines how it will contribute to the overall goal of the Paris Agreement: keeping temperature rise well under 2 degrees Celsius, and pursuing efforts to keep it to 1.5 degrees. What is currently on the table will not suffice to reach the goal. Taking all countries’ climate plans together, the international community is on a path to at least 3 degrees of warming.
Taking all countries’ climate plans together, the international community is on a path to at least 3 degrees of warming.
For the EU, that means plans must become more ambitious and the measures it pursues must be effective and well executed. If the EU increases its overall contribution to cutting emissions by September 2019, when the UN meets for a major climate summit in New York, it could trigger a global movement for scaling up efforts. Setting the right example in New York might make more movement possible before the UN’s global climate conference, COP25, in Chile at the end of year.
But nationally determined contributions are not the only instrument in the hands of the next European decision-makers. They will have to agree on their long-term climate strategy – a prerequisite under the Paris Agreement. This strategy will define to what extent the EU will reduce its carbon emissions and build up a sustainable energy system by 2050. To uphold the commitments made under the Paris Agreement and limit the worst impacts of climate change, the EU really needs to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. But comprehensive ideas for how to reach this goal in an economically and socially just way are still missing – this will be an urgent task for the next European Parliament. While some EU countries are showing leadership on climate, and are supporting at least a net-zero goal for 2050, others such as Germany are blocking progress.
Part of the path towards climate neutrality is an ambitious industrial decarbonisation policy. As one of the economic heavyweights, Europe can demonstrate that climate-friendly innovations in industry are not only beneficial to people’s health and the environment, but also create economic prosperity. Being a frontrunner on these innovations will also give European industry a competitive advantage.
Phasing out fossil fuels and their subsidies is an essential part of the journey too. Some European countries have begun, but progress is much too slow. Fossil fuels are relics of the past that no politician with Europe’s wellbeing at heart can credibly defend. Unfortunately, denying the overwhelming scientific evidence for the damage that human use of fossil fuels has on the climate remains part of today’s political debate.
Who comes to power now and how they use that power will have an enormous impact on the biggest challenges of the century: climate crisis and the unprecedented loss of biodiversity.
Last but not least, Europe’s transition to greater sustainability will cost money. The money is already out there, but currently it is not channelled in the right directions. Instead of subsidising fossil fuels, kerosene, or non-sustainable agricultural methods, finance flows should shift towards clean technologies and reward sustainable behaviour. Redirecting resources would also mobilise funds for adaption as well as the loss and damage that climate crisis will cause.
All this is up to the next European decision-makers. Who comes to power now and how they use that power will have an enormous impact on the biggest challenges of the century: climate crisis and the unprecedented loss of biodiversity. Establishing a vice-president of the European Commission for climate protection and natural resources would be one signal that the European institutions have understood the scope of the challenge.
The world is at a turning point. The EU has the means to create change for the good, change that comes with many economic and social benefits. The political will to lead the EU to a better, brighter, and more sustainable future will be decisive.