Creating a climate for change

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Over the last few months, Greeks have become accustomed to the idea that they need to adjust the way they live in order to survive. In the years to come this may stand them in good stead among their European peers when it comes to environmental, not just economic issues, because the European Commission’s latest targets for emissions cuts are going to require serious changes to daily lives across the continent.

After extensive economic modeling, the Commission earlier this month adopted a “roadmap” for transforming Europe into a competitive low-carbon economy. The proposal, which is now being put to member states, MEPs and EU leaders, calls for an 80 percent reduction in bloc emissions — compared to 1990 levels — by 2050. Unsurprisingly, there is intense debate over whether this target is ambitious enough.

“We think the roadmap is too timid,” Stephan Singer, director of global energy policy at WWF International, told a conference organized by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) in Budapest last week ahead of a meeting of EU environment ministers in the Hungarian capital.

Despite objections about the pace of change, everyone seems to agree that the latest proposals from Brussels are an improvement on the EU’s only commitment so far to emissions cuts, which was to reduce carbon output by 20 percent by 2020. This was part of its so-called 20-20-20 strategy, which has seen the bloc also commit to improving energy efficiency by 20 percent and increasing the use of renewable energy sources by 20 percent by 2020. 

Significantly, the calculations in the roadmap do not include the possible use of international credits to offset emissions, which means the reductions have to be real and have to be achieved domestically. This means that if the EU agrees to follow the Commission’s recommendations, it will have to step up its environmental efforts straight away. The Brussels paper suggests emissions cuts should be at 25 percent by 2020 rather than 20 percent. Greek Environment Minister Tina Birbili was part of a small group of EU environment ministers that had recommended increasing the target ahead of the roadmap’s unveiling.

“We congratulate the Commission for coming up with a broad brushstrokes approach and its decision to focus on domestic issues and to indicate targets for 2030 and 2040,” said Singer. “We don’t think the targets are good enough but at least we have something to munch on. At least they focused on domestic emissions, which the EU so far has not.”

One of the WWF’s key objections is that the EU is moving too slowly in terms of reducing its carbon footprint. It has already achieved a reduction of 16 percent based on 1990 levels and Singer said the debate over whether to increase the 2020 target to 25 percent was symptomatic of a worrying sclerosis within the Union. “If you start between now and 2020 with a low ambition level, how will you then increase your ambition level later on?” he said.

“Even if the EU were to go to 25 percent, if 7 percent of that came from offsets, then the overall reduction is only 18 percent,” he added. “Cutting emissions by just 2 percent in 10 years is not good enough to make the EU a world leader.”

Singer pointed to the Philippines — a novice in combating climate change that is receiving advice from organizations like the WWF — setting a target of getting 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources between 2020 and 2030 as an example that puts the EU to shame. “It’s the country with the most ambitious renewable energy target in the world,” he said. “Those are the kind of ambition levels we should look at if we are going to tackle climate change effectively.

The Commission, however, would argue that the 80 percent reduction target for 2050 would have positive effects in four key areas. Energy consumption is forecast to decrease by 30 percent during this period; fossil fuel imports would be more than halved, saving between 175 billion and 320 billion euros a year; air pollution levels would be on average 65 percent lower by 2030, saving up to 88 billion euros a year; and it would help create jobs — the renewable industry has increased its work force from 230,000 to 550,000 in the last five years.

The prospect of new jobs being created is perhaps the positive side effect of its roadmap that Brussels appears least confident about. “When you look overall, in the longer term, it’s very hard to predict what the employment effects will be,” said Artur Runge-Metzger, director for climate strategy and international negotiations at the European Commission. “It depends on so many other things as well.”

One of the key challenges the roadmap faces is that it is being put on the table at a time of great economic uncertainty and when some actors — oil and gas companies in particular — are lobbying hard for things to remain as they are.

“If you look at the 10 richest companies in the world, five of them are oil and gas companies, so there is a lot of vested interested there,” said Remko Ybema, of the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands.

“What we are not saying in this technical analysis is that it’s easy to reach the targets. That is a political process,” said Runge-Metzger. “There will be losers in this and they will try to bang on the doors of the policymakers.”

The cost of adjusting to a low-carbon economy is likely to be preying on a lot of people’s minds, especially in recession-hit Greece. According to the Commission’s calculations, the EU will need to make an annual investment of 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product or about 270 billion euros on top of current investment over the next 40 years to meet the targets set out in the roadmap. However, Runge-Metzger says this is well within the EU’s capabilities.

“Each year in the EU, we invest 19 percent of our GDP, so the proposition is to raise this to 21.5. Before the crisis, we were investing 21 to 22 percent,” he said. “If you look at China, it invests 40 percent in its future. If you look at Korea, they are at around 30 percent.”

The Commission official stressed that it would be counterproductive to focus on the upfront costs of moving to a low-carbon economy. “We have to think if have our priorities right in Europe,” he said. “Should we put all our money into consumption or should we step back and invest in our infrastructure and things that will make Europe productive in the future? That is what we must think about when it comes to creating a low-carbon society.”

European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, meanwhile, stressed the importance of not allowing the economic crisis to be a barrier to adopting more policies that are environmentally friendly. “The economic and financial crisis is putting more pressure on those who want to protect the interests of the environment and we have to give good and clear examples of why this is still important,” he told the EJC seminar.

“I think it’s of fundamental importance that we understand in which world we live today and what our options for the future are. I am very much in favor of the debate about how to stimulate jobs and growth — those coming from Greece know how serious a question that is. 

“But we have to discuss not only how many but what type of jobs we would like to create. It’s not just the quantity of growth, it’s the quality of growth as well.”

It is clear that if the EU is going to meet the targets proposed by the Commission in its roadmap, there will have to be a change in attitude at both an individual and state level. Governments will have to tread a fine line between taking a didactic approach to what lives their citizens lead and nudging them toward adopting habits that are conducive for the greater good.

“You can’t order people to do things, you have to bring about a positive narrative,” said Singer. “Governments can institutionalize changes, which people do not realize. For example, the expansion of high-speed trains. We do not have any air traffic anymore between Paris and Brussels because we created a high-speed track. Hopefully, we will come to a joint transport policy in Europe and high-speed trains will replace most, if not all, middle-distance flights. I think that’s a vision to work toward.

“The same goes for city planning, if you make cities friendlier toward bikes and public transport, people will choose them automatically.”

On Tuesday, the Commission put out its white paper on transport, proposing a switch to more sustainable modes of transport such as sea and rail. Goals include the completion of a European high-speed rail network and tripling the length of the existing high-speed rail network by 2030.

However, the onus for change clearly falls on individuals. European citizens must understand very quickly that many aspects of their lives will have to be different and that they must instigate this turnaround themselves rather than wait for directives from Brussels or their own governments.

“I think the [Commission’s] analysis has taken on the physical inertia reasonably well but there are other inertias, which are more to do with policy processes, with coordination, with institutions, with the mind-sets of people, with behavior, and they are much slower,” said Ybema.

“Sometimes when I hear people talking about the European Commission, it is like they are describing a good dictator sitting in Brussels that is determining what is going to happen in Europe,” said Runge-Metzger. “If the Commission were to put into the paper that all European citizens would have to halve their mobility, I can imagine the headlines the next day would be ‘Commission doesn’t want you to take holidays anymore.’

“If you want to change behavior, that requires a much deeper debate. Behavior at the moment is driven very much by what you desire and how much you can afford. As a commission, we cannot tell European citizens to behave in a particular way.”

The European Commission, however, can, and to some extent does, make the case for the need to transform the way we live and set ourselves clear targets for the future. Scientific evidence indicates that global warming needs to be limited to less than 2C above pre-industrial temperatures if the world is to have a fair chance of preventing severe climate change. We are currently at about 0.8C above the pre-industrial level. Therefore, the message the Commission has to get across is clear: There is no time to waste.

“We simply cannot continue as before,” said Potocnik “We have to ask ourselves how we can change our behavior when it comes to production and consumption.

“We have to change our structures to accommodate the changing world. We have become a big global interconnected village where we depend on each other and our responsibility has increased individually and globally.”

The economic crisis has taught Greeks and other Europeans that trouble rarely respects borders. It is an aspect of our increasingly integrated Union and world that has hurtled toward us with great speed. The possibility of severe climate change is also gathering pace and it seems that despite differences over the details, most interested parties are in agreement that our strongest response is the only weapon that we have at our disposal to combat our economic problems: to change.

Nick Malkoutzis

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