Will the EU Green Deal be Europe's "man on the moon" moment?
Commissioner Borrell’s recent and unfortunate rant against impatient youth asking for real climate action without realising the “price to pay” captures something deep and scary about current European politics.
Politicians accept that we are facing an emergency that requires radical action. But they fall back on old reflexes, smearing those demanding action as brainless radicals, while the defenders of business as usual - a veritable catastrophe - as moderates and normal. For the EU Green deal to be the announced “moonshot moment” our leaders will need to connect with their inner young idealist and manage to turn off the more-of-the-same autopilot. Recent weeks suggest that won’t be easy.
The governments of great nations like the US, Brazil and Australia are currently in a flat out state of denial, celebrating coal exports while some of their capitals are shrouded in forest fire smoke. Or they’re rolling back human rights to open their last wilderness areas to rapacious exploitation. The US is even legalising bird killing to please the energy companies.
The EU offers a bold alternative, making the fight against climate breakdown and ecological collapse the linchpin of its action. The EU Green Deal offers an unprecedented attempt to address the ecological crisis in a fundamental and coordinated way, across all policies. But no sooner has the plan been announced, than numerous dirty lobbies profiting from the status quo have sprung into action trying to stop it in its tracks. The delay in the publication of the Biodiversity Strategy, while not problematic per se, is an indication of the fight raging behind closed doors inside the Commission between those taking the new direction seriously, and those making the Borrell argument: fine in principle, but in practice we should think about the costs and opposition. Think of the recent POLITICO revelations of the battle royal between ENVI and AGRI. As scientists keep sounding the alarm over the much greater costs of inaction, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Here are some of the battlefields worth keeping an eye on.
The EU budget. The Green deal risks being like an electric car with no battery. The EU budget currently being discussed by Heads of State was proposed by the old Juncker commission, completely ignoring the need for an ecological transition. It dedicates virtually no money to saving biodiversity and the modest share dedicated to the climate is mostly fake. Meanwhile, environmentally harmful subsides are being actively promoted by Member States in both agriculture and fisheries. Unless Von der Leyen can convince governments to change their spending, we’ll be continuing to actively dig our collective grave and the vitally critical Green Deal will die on the vine.
The Biodiversity Strategy. Past strategies have faltered because they were long on good intentions and short on actionable commitments. For the new one to offer any hope of saving the living world, it needs commitments that can drive real action from year one, be measured and be controlled. Dedicating extra staff to enforcement, setting a number of hectares to be reverted to natural habitats, dedicating 10% of every farm to natural vegetation that host beneficial insects, protecting a set % of forests from logging and seas from fishing are such measures. Woolly language on “protecting ecosystems” or new “framework legislation” are not. They are more than likely to be used as a smoke screen for more inaction. The recently leaked draft reads like a tug of war between these two tendencies.
The Farm to Fork Strategy. Food and agriculture are at the heart of the ecological crisis. This is one area where doing right by the planet means doing right by people in the most obvious way. Starting to address our overconsumption, especially of meat and dairy, stopping destructive fishing practices and cutting our grotesque levels of pesticides use would yield health benefits and lower health bills, while safeguarding our long term ability to feed ourselves. Recent leaked tests suggest that the business as usual lobby is getting away with it. Much of the draft strategy seems to be rhetorical flourishes with no real action.
The climate law. Enshrining emissions reduction in law is important. But our future will depend on what we do in 2021, not what we promise to do in 2049. It is still far from clear that this simple math has been accepted. One area where the fight is on, as seen during the recent #ForestsEU conference, is the treatment of carbon sinks. The forestry and agriculture lobby are determined to cook the books so that they can keep harvesting and burning biomass, while at the same time claiming credit for sequestering carbon. But you can’t eat the cake and have it too. To increase the amount of carbon we store on the land, we need to harvest less wood, consume fewer agricultural commodities and have less livestock. The best climate law will be pointless if underpinned by dodgy accounting and loopholes allowing carbon to disappear.