Following the results of the European elections, E&M‘s Jessica Verheij wonders how much the ‘green wave’ can achieve when it comes to concrete action to address climate change. 

During the months leading to the EU elections last May, public debates were dominated by either the Brexit-issue or (the fear for) growing nationalism and euro-scepticism. Voters, however, showed to have other concerns.

Many have argued that the most significant outcome of these elections was not euro-skepticism, but the so-called ‘green wave’: the Greens reinforced their presence in the European Parliament (EP), gaining 75 seats (10%). Many EU countries witnessed a (more or less significant) rise in votes for green parties. Germany dominated, as Die Grünen  gained a steady second position after Merkel’s conservative party, the CDU. In Finland, Ireland and France, the greens managed to become a significant political force. Greens also made gains in countries like Belgium, Austria and Latvia. In Portugal, the party Pessoas, Animais, Natureza (People, Animals, Nature) gained its first seat ever in the EP. If there was one topic dominating discussions on the election results across the continent, it wasn’t ‘less Europe’ but rather a growing concern about environmental issues.

Students strike for climate action in London, February 2019 | Photo: David Holt (Flickr); CC BY 2.0

This ‘green wave’ arrives with a strong momentum: school children are striking, London’s traffic is being stopped by Extinction Rebellion, the UN released a report about how we are literally killing life on earth, and mainstream media are now talking about ‘climate emergency’ rather than ‘climate change’. UN’s secretary general António Guterres called upon European leaders to make a strong move in regard to climate action in order to send a powerful message to the rest of the world.

Climate change has entered the political debate in Europe and politicians can no longer afford to ignore the topic during their political campaigns and mandates. At the same time, the school strikes have added another dimension to the debate, as it became hard to ignore what we already knew for long: climate change is an inter-generational issue. What politicians decide today will primarily affect those who are still too young to vote. As climate scientists, policy-makers and politicians discuss the road ahead, one message keeps coming back: we owe it to future generations to do what we have to do.

We owe it to future generations to do what we have to do.

A perfect opportunity

As the new European Commission will start its activities during the autumn, it seems to be the perfect opportunity for this institution to start putting environmental issues at the very top of its political agenda. Voters clearly asked for it. Besides, the Commission has a particularly important role to play in environmental policies, as many of these policies only make sense if implemented at the EU-level. One single country can hardly make a difference, but if a whole continent starts putting the environment first, we could actually start to see some changes. A perfect opportunity indeed. The start of change, finally. Right?

If a whole continent starts putting the environment first, we could actually start to see some changes.

Unfortunately recent news has not been promising. The ambitious goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 was downgraded to a footnote during the last EU-summit, due to the impossibility of reaching unanimous agreement. In the beginning of June, Greenpeace reported on European leaders’ ‘stubborn reluctance’ to take urgent action, as a draft of the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years was leaked. The European Environmental Bureau and other environmental organisations joined the protests, reason being that the agenda states the supposed four top priorities for the EU to pursue during the upcoming political mandate. Climatic and environmental issues come, not first, not second… but third. The first strategic goal in the draft is about border control and fighting illegal immigration, placing Europe’s defence agenda under the ambiguous heading ‘protecting citizens and freedoms’. The second goal seeks to make Europe’s economy more competitive and innovative on the global stage, prioritising economic growth and the development of the European market. Only after this comes climate and environment. As if this green wave is nothing more than just a wave….

Why is it so difficult for politicians to strongly commit to reducing emissions and promoting sustainability transitions? Citizens are clear in their demands, and young Europeans are starting to realise that the window for action is closing. Considering how public opinion in Europe is changing in favour of strong actions, it would seem like politicians have a lot to win by demonstrating their commitment to this cause. But politicians do not seem not ready to make any bold move.

Oh, but the economy!

And bold moves are needed. However, two issues are impeding European leaders: the economy and fear of a possible backlash à la Gilets Jaunes. Our economic system is clearly not made for taking good care of the environment. For industries to reduce their environmental impact requires additional investments or reduced productivity – both of which reduce profits. Companies would often rather not take responsibility for their environmental impact, leaving it to governments to come up with the necessary regulation.

However, governments are reluctant to pose limitations to national growth and competitiveness. The EU and its members are well aware that many European countries are still dealing with the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, that unemployment rates are finally recovering and that uncertain times await us as still no one really knows what is happening with Brexit. To place environmental and ecological sustainability ahead of economic growth is a difficult decision. A decision that requires a lot of courage. And currently courage seems hard to find in European politics.

‘Let’s change the system, not the climate’ | Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet (Flickr); BY-ND 2.0

So far, European policy has been mainly focused on ‘green growth’, meaning to re-direct economic growth in order to address environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources: still growing, but towards a green economy. Many have argued that this is, quite literally, too good to be true. What many environmental organisations and climate activists are trying to make clear is that for effective and long-lasting change to happen in favour of the natural environment, we need to rethink how our economic system works. Ongoing economic growth can simply not be combined with a sustainable planet, as the natural system cannot handle infinite growth.

Climate justice

The second issue is that climate change is highly interlinked with social inequality. Not everyone contributes to climate change in the same way and not everyone will suffer its consequences in the same way. In fact, 10% of the world’s richest individuals are responsible for about 50% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Ironically (and unjustly), those same 10% will be best equipped to protect themselves if any sort of climate disaster comes their way.

The term ‘climate justice’ has entered the debate to address this political side of climate change.  ‘Justice’ would be for those contributing most to the problem to also be the ones held accountable for the consequences – but this seems very hard to imagine. Instead, many climate-oriented measures are focused on raising taxes on consumption: taxes on fuel, taxes on aviation, taxes on meat and taxes on CO2 emissions. As the Yellow Vest movement made clear, working class people are not ready to take the burden of climate change upon themselves without structural and profound changes – changes that should ultimately target those that have been able to benefit most from polluting industries.

As the economist Thomas Pikkety recently wrote: ‘it is difficult to see how the middle and working classes in the rich countries as in the emerging economies would accept to change their lifestyle (which is nevertheless essential) if they do not have the proof that the richest are also involved’. Hence climate strategies, including policies targeting emissions, pollution and extraction of natural resources, should be combined with strong social policies that distribute the ‘burden’ in a just way.

Europe’s future in a climate-changed world

If Europe aims to take climate change seriously, it will have to direct its action towards the very source of the problem: an economic system highly dependent on fossil-fuel, the infinite extraction of natural resources, a globalised and heavily-polluting food system and ever-ongoing consumption of goods. Any policy trying to solve the problem without solving its cause is delusional.

Having said so, the greens will face heavy resistance against their political agenda. In order to transform this green wave into more than just a wave, the European Parliament can play a decisive role in holding the European Commission (and to some extent national governments) accountable and to ensure that the state of our planet is placed first in its strategic agenda. Not after border control and economic growth, but before. At the very top of the list.

What we need is not just a green wave, but indeed a green revolution.

Climate action in the upcoming years will be all but simple. For it to be effective, some of the most powerful industries and individuals in the world will have to change their modus operandi. The greens can change the debate, but they cannot (yet) change the system. Courageous and bold action is needed from political leaders across the EU. As António Guterres pointed out, the EU is in a position to send a strong and powerful message to the rest of the world about its climate actions. As its new political mandate is about to start, the time to set priorities and take a position is now.

What we need is not just a green wave, but indeed a green revolution.

Cover photo: Rhi Ph0tography (Flickr); BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • retro

    Jessica Verheij is originally from the Netherlands but has spent a major part of her life in Portugal. After having spent six months in Ghana, she lived in Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm, although always returning to her favorite city Lisbon. She currently lives in Bern, Switzerland, where she is working on her PhD on urban and spatial planning in relation to sustainable development.

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