It’s time to call incremental change, when it comes to tackling our environmental and climate crises, dead. Plastic straw bans won’t cut it anymore – only a full-scale transformation of our economic system will do. That’s the urgent message of this week’s review of Europe’s environmental performance by the European Environment Agency (EEA) published on Wednesday.
According to this comprehensive health check, 29 out of the EU’s 35 environmental and climate targets for 2020 have not been met – including energy savings, air, water and soil pollution, chemical pollution, and the protection of species and habitats.
"Europe faces environmental challenges of unprecedented scale and urgency” and “will not achieve its sustainability vision by continuing to promote economic growth and seeking to manage the impacts,” the report concludes.
The findings set out in no uncertain terms the awesome challenge facing Europe’s decision-makers, including the new European Commission which officially took office this week.
The new EU Commissioners, led by its new president, Ursula von der Leyen, are bound by oath to represent the general interest of citizens – so they must be guided by science and by rising public concern to act on the climate and environmental emergency.
The EEA is not the only one to call for abandoning unsustainable economic growth. Last month, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries warned that human suffering is avoidable only if we make huge shifts in the way we live: “Our goals need to shift from GDP growth... toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality,” they reasoned.
The new European Commission will set out its stall next week with the much-anticipated proposal for a “European Green Deal.” This will be a first test of whether it is prepared to come forward with the courageous, society-wide transformational policies needed. President von der Leyen has so far spouted plenty of green promises. But her proposals must go far beyond the familiar “greening” of economic growth – an approach that is comprehensively failing citizens, as the EEA has shown.
Strong rhetoric to disguise moderate proposals will not cut it. So, what does a genuinely transformative green deal for Europe look like?
Actions need to be commensurate with the scale and urgency of the climate emergency. Mid-century targets for climate neutrality are too late. Rapid action needs to focus on the next 5 to 10 years, cutting greenhouse gas emissions yearly, in line with the EU’s fair share of global action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Any concessions for more fossil fuels like gas, or continued perverse subsidies for fossil fuel projects, will set the world up for failure.
A new EU fund for the transition will be welcome. Communities and workers impacted by the fossil-free transition need support to shift into sustainable sectors and jobs. It must be new money, allocated in a transparent way, which addresses inequality. Any whiff of bailing out industries that caused the climate crisis will undermine the whole concept and waste resources.
Biodiversity protection and nature restoration are fundamental. The EU should act both at home and internationally, tackling imports of food, feed, timber and other resources that cause deforestation. We should look for a full phase-out of synthetic pesticides and a significant switch in subsidies to enable the transition away from industrial farming and towards agroecology. Market mechanisms, like carbon trading or biodiversity offsetting, represent more of the same failing “business as usual” and have no place in a real green deal.
But none of this will be enough without measures to cap overall demand – for energy, resources, or land. And ultimately this has to mean abandoning, once and for all, the fallacy of more and more consumption and growth (even “green growth”). Any good initiatives within a green deal will be undone if they are embedded in a consumption and growth-obsessed economic model. Europe must lead the way in transforming economies for the well-being of everyone within the Earth’s limits.
Such a shift must mean breaking the current stranglehold of corporate interests on our politics, starting with fossil fuel companies. A good place to start would be to limit the access they have to the people charged with making decisions in the public interest.
From now on, President Ursula von der Leyen’s every decision must put our environment and climate first, to bring our societies within Earth’s limits. With this in mind, policymakers must come forward with genuinely transformational solutions; what many of us would call “system change.”
We know there is massive appetite for change. Two-thirds of Europeans believe that their children’s lives will be worse than their own. Protests for environmental and social justice across many parts of Europe show little sign of losing momentum. Scientists are advocating it. People - particularly younger people - are demanding it. Now our institutions must enact it. Nothing less will do.
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