EU must step up to the plate on climate issues

EU must step up to the plate on climate issues

As Scandinavia ushered in 2020 with its warmest-ever winter temperature, it’s clear that this year is going to prove a critical moment for the EU’s climate policy. The Norwegian town of Sunndalsora saw the thermometer reach 19°C last week—which is not only the hottest it’s ever been in the country during January, but the warmest day on record between December and February in any of the Nordic countries.

The landmark temperature comes just weeks after the COP25 climate summit in Madrid ended in disappointment and what the WWF bemoaned as a “staggering failure of leadership”. Countries all over the world are attempting to recover from that setback, but the EU is struggling to fulfil its role as a global leader on the issue. Seemingly unable to get behind a united plan of action or agree upon a common message, the bloc is facing a “make or break” moment in its history— with next year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow sure to be crucial in the ongoing survival of the EU in particular and, perhaps, the human race in general.

Politics in the way of progress

Ursula von der Leyen, the newly elected president of the European Commission, had barely been in the job for two weeks when she unveiled her much-vaunted European Green Deal last month. Among other talking points, the Deal sought to enshrine a target of making the bloc net carbon-neutral by 2050 into EU law. That commitment had already been rejected in June by four Eastern European states (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland), whose dependence on coal meant they feared being unfairly disadvantaged by such a scheme.

In an effort to win those doubters round, von der Leyen’s latest proposals included something called the Just Transition Mechanism (JTM), which has set aside €100 billion to help vulnerable countries shift to cleaner energy generation practices and remunerate those most adversely affected by the process. The carrot was enough to appease three of the naysaying countries, but not Poland, who once again refused to endorse the goal. Since agreement must be unanimous, the Deal fell at its first hurdle.

The voice of the people

Skittish after Poland’s rebuke, European Parliament President David Sassoli warned policymakers in Brussels not to inundate European citizens with information about climate change. A recent poll by Ipsos and French utility EDF, however, suggests that no such kid gloves are needed. Over 24,000 people from 30 countries across the globe were asked 29 questions about their perceptions of the climate crisis – and their answers were revealing, to say the least.

Far from being overwhelmed about the urgency of climate change, 92% of respondents said they believed climate change was a real threat and 69% blamed manmade activity for the phenomenon. Tellingly, 70% said that they believed governments were primarily responsible for implementing the changes needed to stave off climate catastrophe, but only 48% thought that their own leaders were effective in doing so. Indeed, some of the European countries surveyed, such as France and Italy, were scathing about their governments’ efforts to tackle the climate emergency – only 22% of Italians and 23% of French citizens thought that their leaders’ actions on the issue were useful.

Pulling in the same direction

While the Ipsos-EDF survey is being lauded as a valuable measure of public opinion that can act as a barometer in future years, not all of the results were encouraging. Concern about environmental issues might abound in Europe, but those attitudes weren’t so prevalent in other, more fossil-fuel heavy parts of the world. 59% of Saudi Arabians were sceptical that climate change was happening at all or that humans were causing it, while the percentage of those holding that view was alarmingly high in Norway (49%) and Australia (45%), as well.

Perceptions about government effectiveness also varied wildly. In stark contrast to the French and Italian scepticism mentioned above, the two most polluting nations on the planet were in apparent denial about how well their own leaders were performing, as 75% of Indians and 71% of Chinese were satisfied with governmental initiatives to combat the phenomenon.

Meanwhile, on an individual level, people also appear to be far more supportive of change happening if it doesn’t affect their own lifestyles. 87% of participants in the Ipsos-EDF poll supported greater investment in renewable energy, but only 52% believed they should be taxed for not recycling and a mere 46% backed the introduction of congestion charges in big cities.

EU must embrace role of climate leader

With both individual citizens and national governments so starkly divided on the finer points of the climate change debate – including its very existence in the first place – it’s abundantly clear that strong leadership will comprise an integral component of any meaningful change. As long as Donald Trump occupies the hotseat at the White House, the USA will remain conspicuous by their absence in the role of environmentalism frontrunner.

One result of this vacuum of guidance is a general inertia on the part of countries all over the world and a seeming inability to come together and commit to concrete objectives supported by tangible measures. The EU has the perfect opportunity to become the glue that can hold the global community together, with this year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow set to become a pivotal moment in the future of our planet. Von der Leyen may have labelled her Deal a “man on the moon” moment for the EU, but failure to get all actors on board and set an example for the rest of the world could well end in catastrophic consequences for everyone back on Earth.

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