Belgium -Brussels – One of the biggest challenge of our times is climate change. Clear scientific evidence and plenty of alarming tendencies indicate that it is accelerating beyond expectations: increasing acid level of the oceans and their carbon storage capacity radically reducing, soil carbon losses mostly driven by land use change, melting of the permafrost, decreasing carbon stock in forests and other ecosystems, inter alia, resulting in the release of stored carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, aggravating climate change.
Unfortunately, at present no climate models can handle the complexity and adequately simulate the interactions and internalise all relevant processes. With this I am not at all questioning the warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other scientific bodies. On the contrary, in light of the most recent developments, if scientists have made any mistake, it was exactly the use of too conservative assumptions and toning down the climate alarm, without properly calling for action. In fact, the dimension of these changes is considerably bigger than we expected. Hence, there is a huge risk that we underestimate the pace of climate change and the consequences thereof.
Some scientists warn that we have already surpassed the carbon tipping point. At the same time, according the UN several ecosystems are also approaching a tipping point and if the current trends continue, we may never see them recover. The consequences may well be uncontrollable, irreversible and disastrous for our societies and nature.
Current climate, energy and biodiversity commitments are clearly not sufficient to handle the magnitude of the problems, however promising the outcomes of the recent global summits in Paris, Marrakesh as well as in Johannesburg may seem. It is worrisome that the nationally determined contributions collectively lead to global emissions far above the levels needed to maintain warming below 2°C as agreed in Paris, and the 1,5°C pathway remains well beyond reach – even though studies confirm the feasibility of the latter, too.
While the aspirations and intentions of big CO2 emitters such as the USA and China might be unclear, Europe cannot waste more time. We should rather take the initiative and radically speed up our own efforts. This should be our main task in 2017.
In fact, not only our current policies, but also the proposed climate and energy legislation are lacking ambition. The freshly published Energy Union Winter Package basically disregards the Paris Agreement and would slow down the EU’s efforts towards decarbonisation and energy transition, especially in renewables. The investments in renewable energy in the EU already fall behind the US and China, the EU’s intention to be the world nr.1 in this field rather remains in the realm of political declaration, without any content.
At the same time, the most affected, the most vulnerable countries of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and South America already joined the 100% renewable energy movement. If the EU indeed wants to be the world leader, it is time that we also take our fair share consistent with the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal.
We should act now – and not on the basis of direct danger or life threat, but using common sense and with following a clear vision of our sustainable future.
We cannot continue with maintaining business as usual – or even creating obstacles, which seems to be the current trend. Subsidies for fossil fuel or nuclear energy are one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Despite strong voices calling for total elimination thereof, the EU and its Member States keep inventing new forms and backdoor mechanisms for continuing this senseless and harmful support – another aspect where the Winter Package definitely needs to be strengthened.
Nevertheless, smarter and higher targets alone will not save the world. The EU has to put more emphasis on implementation and use all the available enforcement tools such as early warning systems, the application of a comprehensive set of sustainability criteria for investments and development projects as well as the wide recognition of the energy efficiency first principle.
It is also essential to enable local actors, cities, communities, energy cooperatives who have the potential and the capacity to indeed accelerate the transition to green energy systems and the uptake of further sustainable solutions. And while it is crucial to take all possible efforts to mitigate climate change, we must also be prepared for adapting to the inevitable changes – again especially relevant at local level. Such adaptation strategies and measures should comprise revisiting our agricultural and forest management practices as well as multiplying our nature protection efforts. My conclusion is that the current approach of climate alarm advocacy has failed. Aiming for a decent compromise among EU Member States with different backgrounds or between climate change-believers and negationist only leads to inaction and as a consequence, to a complete disaster.
The current geopolitical context, the international developments – the expansion of populism (see Brexit or Donald Trump being elected for US President) and aggression must be the wake-up call for us. Decision makers in the EU have a historical responsibility to break current practices and achieve a step-change.
In all areas from biodiversity through climate and energy to competition policy, EU legislation has to be driver for global transformation, for gearing the world towards a future of cohesion, participatory and transparent governance, sustainability and well-being.
As a first step, the EU should correct its own policies, at least by adjusting them to the highest level of ambition we can aspire for today. This may be seen as radicalism in the current discourse, yet is indispensable for our common future.