Converging Tipping Points Call for Europe

FinnishNews/NordicWeek continues to publish important articles on Climate Change from some of the world’s leading experts. 

The column here by Johan RockströmAnders Wijkman, and Sandrine Dixson-Declève set out what the new leadership in European Union should be doing about Climate Change. The paper below was the first draft of an articles published this week in Project Syndicate – here is the link to the published paper.

Since last Autumn, hundreds of thousands of young Europeans and citizens across the globe have demonstrated in the streets urging policy-makers to take the climate crisis seriously and to present concrete solutions to address climate change and the associated dramatic loss of biodiversity. Since then 740 jurisdictions in 16 countries including 4 EU countries (France, UK, Portugal, Ireland) have declared a climate emergency.

On 26 May, the citizens of Europe voted strongly for action on climate change. Green and green-minded parties performed stronger than ever in many of the Member-States.  Increasingly people understand that our home “the earth” as we know it is suffering from irreversible climate change impacts and that destroying nature and destabilizing the climate comes at extremely high social costs. The combination of serious biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline and global warming is leading millions of people, not least students, to react, both in despair and anger at the lack of action from policy makers and business leaders.

The recent UN biodiversity report by IPBES warned that one million species are at risk of extinction. It concludes that we have reached the 6th mass extinction on Earth, caused by all of us, and is an urgent call to action. While biodiversity as a concept may be abstract, what is at stake is the disintegration of food chains and the collapse of vital ecosystems. The richness in species, from insects, top-predators like wolves and sharks, to soil microbes and trees, play a fundamental role in regulating the climate, filtering water flows, producing our food and keeping nature intact. 

The long-term survival of humankind is clearly at risk and inextricably linked to the survival of all species.  Parallel to that the clock is ticking on global warming. The IPCC 1,5° degree report tells us we have to halve GHG emissions by 2030 and then halve them again to 2040 and 2050 respectively to have a fair chance to limit warming well below 2° degrees. The science tells us that the climate system and biodiversity are fully integrated and inter-dependent. Climate change is one of the major factors driving species extinction.

Take this fundamental fact: Since the Industrial revolution, every year, roughly 50 % of all emissions from fossil-fuel burning, have been taken up by land-based ecosystems and the ocean. This is the world’s by far largest subsidy to the world economy. If it had not been for nature, we would have exceeded 2° C of warming long ago. Unfortunately, over the last few years, we have started to see cracks in the Earth’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases. The concentration of greenhouse gases has reached 415 ppm for CO2 and is rising faster than previous decades (now by 3 ppm per year compared to approximately 2 ppm in previous years). The only explanation is that ecosystems on land and in the ocean are taking up less CO2. Why this is happening, is still an open question. But one cannot exclude that the rapid loss of biodiversity and natural ecosystems is a critical contributing factor. This is a serious cause for scientific concern. Particularly when looking into the future. 

Among the 150 or so climate scenarios in the IPCC’s latest 1.5° C assessment, that take us “safely” to “well below 2° C”, all of them assume (1) continued carbon sinks in natural ecosystems on land and in the ocean, and (2) major carbon sinks in agriculture (which today is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases). This highlights not only the state of planetary emergency, but proves the point that without an integrated systems approach where we address all the planetary boundaries, we will fail on climate.

European leaders seem to neither grasp this sense of urgency, nor the need to address both climate and biodiversity with equal force. They have done little to explain the benefits of addressing both in terms of health benefits, future jobs, Europe’s competitiveness and avoidance of greater natural and fiscal capital costs from delayed action.  If such benefits had been properly explained and more attention had been paid to concerns from Central and Eastern European countries and their reticence to engage on climate change policy, maybe we could have avoided the veto from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia on the adoption of a climate neutral EU by 2050?!

The fact is with the incoming new Presidents for the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament, Europe must grab the opportunity to start its new Presidency with an integrated approach to biodiversity loss and climate change at the highest level. Now with the new leadership, time is of the essence to put both issues front and centre on the agenda of the European institutions and ensure that the right governance structure is in place to support both the short and the long-term planning needed and the structural framework for a “just transition”.  This will entail the distribution of climate and biodiversity issues beyond the Directorate Generals in charge of Climate and Environment to the different Commission portfolios and thus across the equivalent Council Ministries and European Parliament Committees.

Most importantly, to demonstrate the prioritization of climate and biodiversity as a human and social emergency it is fundamental that the European Commission creates a Vice-President post in charge of both. Such a move would break the siloed sectoral policy approach undertaken to date and put in place the links between climate and biodiversity with most other Commission portfolios in particular social policy, finance, energy, agriculture, transport and industry. By doing this the EU would demonstrate – internally as well internationally – that neither global warming nor the biodiversity crisis can be addressed through linear models and that both are of concern to human survival and not abstract scientific phenomena.

The Juncker Commission attempted to bust siloed thinking and vertical policy making with the creation of horizontal Vice-Presidents. But two mistakes were made: first, climate change – a horizontal competence was put under energy – a sectoral policy.  Secondly, the Vice-Presidents in the Juncker team were generals without troops as they did not have the support of civil servants from proper DGs to truly apply an integrated approach.

To address these shortcomings, a new Climate and Biodiversity Vice-President would work hand in glove with the sectoral Commissioners so as to develop an integrated approach that reflects todays convergence of key tipping points and truly adopt a systems model that fundamentally applies the SDG’s in the formulation of cross-sector policies.  This would not only enable Europe to reach climate neutrality by 2050, implement the Paris Agreement and halt the loss of biodiversity and vital ecosystems but it would ensure that the human dimension and social implications of such decision are taken fully into account.

The EU suffers from a serious trust deficit influenced by Brexiteering anti-European tactics and the rise of populism to the most recent communication disasters last week around the EU Commission’s top job. 

Now is the time to connect with the real world and the clear voices in the street. A recognition by future President von der Leyen and her Commission on the urgency of both climate change and biodiversity – as well as the need for concerted action on both fronts from a human dimension – would no doubt restore some of the trust among European citizens and show them that the Commission does listen to the demands of Europeans even if some Member States don’t and the future for Europe need not be bleak.

Johan Rockström is Professor and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Anders Wijkman is Chair Climate-KIC, Honorary President Club of Rome and ex-MEP and Sandrine Dixson-Declève is President the Club of Rome, Advisory Council Climate-KIC and Ambassador Energy Transitions Commission.

Graphic: Luc Galoppin

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