World needs EU to lead the way on fighting climate change

World needs EU to lead the way on fighting climate change

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen gives a press conference after EU leaders on December 13 reached an agreement to work for carbon neutrality by 2050. (AFP)
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When it comes to climate change, the world is broadly divided into three camps. The first contains those who grasp, or at least accept, the overwhelming scientific evidence that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is an existential threat to the future of humankind and planet Earth itself. More significantly, they understand that this is caused by human activity, hence containing and reversing it requires a radical change in our habits and behavior as individuals and as societies. As for the second camp of climate change skeptics and, worse, deniers: For them, the evidence is either bad science or natural cycles in our environment that nature will take care of. And then there is the third group of the apathetic and those who “need to be convinced,” which represents a large proportion of humanity. They either have more pressing concerns of day-to-day survival or are too attached to the energy-wasteful comforts of modern life and hence are resistant to changing their lifestyle, even if this is at the expense of future generations.

Considering the near-unanimous consensus among scientists that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and that we are fast approaching the point of no return, when the damage caused will be only partially reversible or entirely irreversible, the need for urgent action is self-evident. Climate change, by all accounts, exacerbates the risk of droughts, floods, extreme heat, poverty and destruction of wildlife worldwide, resulting in human suffering on a massive scale, and with its dire sociopolitical consequences.

Containing and reversing the consequences of climate change requires clear objectives and an action plan, but at this stage it is equally important to have a determined leadership that has a vision of how to address the environmental challenges ahead as well as the courage to tell us some inconvenient truths about the need to make sacrifices in order to save the environment and ourselves.

It is for these reasons that the EU’s unveiling last week of the much-anticipated “European Green Deal” by the new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, must be seen as a positive and historic moment. In it, the EU has set out for its 28 member states the fundamental requirements for reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is particularly critical that the EU leads the way, since the two main greenhouse gas emissions culprits, the US and China, are disinterested. The US is led by an administration that is basically a climate change denier, while China is more concerned with economic growth to sustain its ever-growing population than it is with developing green policies.

If the Paris Agreement set the objective of keeping the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius and is pursuing efforts to keep it to 1.5C, this is an aspiration without the required policies to match it. With the absence of the US and China from this discourse, the onus is increasingly on the EU to carry the climate change mantle — a task made that much more difficult by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

It is particularly critical that the EU leads the way, since the two main greenhouse gas emissions culprits, the US and China, are disinterested

Yossi Mekelberg

In November last year, the European Commission set out a strategic plan for climate neutrality by 2050, titled “A Clean Planet For All.” It takes a holistic and integrated approach that combines investment with “realistic technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance, or research — while ensuring social fairness for a just transition.” There is a recognition that its success depends on substantial investment and bringing together all citizens, while acknowledging that there are segments of society that might be worse off, at least in the short run. Some may suffer economically, as their jobs are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and others will see their standard of living decline, but they all have to be supported and buy into the new environmental conversation. The industrialization of the last two centuries has brought prosperity to large parts of the world, but much of this been achieved unsustainably at the expense of the environment.

As was pointed out by Von der Leyen when she introduced the European Green Deal’s 50 exceptionally ambitious policies — planned to be implemented over the next three years — the path to achieving the goals is bound to be bumpy. However, swinging the climate change pendulum in the direction of saving the planet requires the revamping of rules and regulations. One of the first tasks is to bring on board three of its own members — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — that are yet to be convinced to take part in this program. This is despite plans to raise €100 billion ($111 billion) from the EU budget and investment loans from the European Investment Bank to fund a “just transition,” especially for the poorer Eastern European member states whose economies depend heavily on fossil fuels.

If the challenge of bringing all EU members on board is tough enough, imposing by 2021 a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” which levies taxes on goods originating from countries outside the EU that fail to respect international carbon emission targets, might prove to be a real test of resolve for the bloc and some of its trading partners. It is inevitable that such a levy will irritate major economic powers, and might even be considered a violation of World Trade Organization rules and could potentially trigger a trade war. Similarly, imposing energy taxation, which might lead to jet fuel and aviation taxes across the EU, might face severe resistance from the industry and those who rely on it.

Von der Leyen has described the green deal as “Europe’s man on the moon moment.” It might indeed be a moment that leads to a great achievement but, significantly, the task is not to reach a distant planet, plant the flag and return home, but instead it is about the EU flag being at the forefront of the long journey toward saving our own planet. May it succeed where others have failed.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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