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While far from perfect, the European Green Deal unveiled today in the European Parliament joins similar US and UK initiatives in employing an economic transformation to kickstart real climate action.
The climate crisis is the burning issue of recent times, the fuel for the biggest mass protests in decades. But the focus has been reactive, a response to the failure of elected leaders to enact and carry out sufficient action. The Paris targets are woefully inadequate. Emissions continue to rise when they should already be falling. The president of the world's second-largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter calls climate change a hoax. Governments around the world are being held hostage by the fossil fuel lobby.
But there is a way forward: A deep scale decarbonization revolution. Failed, piecemeal carbon reduction targets must become part of a far-reaching economic transformation that will create millions of new green jobs, will lift living standards through better access to public transport or cheaper sustainable heating and electricity. In other words, something akin to the Green Deal that the European Commission unveiled today in Brussels.
Billed as a "new growth strategy for our economy, people and planet," the EU Green Deal's headline goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 is backed by a web of related policies concerning biodiversity loss, resource use and waste, sustainable agriculture, transport and penalties for polluters.
Echoing initiatives such as the Green New Deal promoted by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, and the Green Industrial Revolution policy of the UK Labour Party, the EU deal also commits to achieving the topline Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, and upgrading 2030 emissions reduction targets of 40% to between 50-55%.
Compromise or climate action kickstarter?
But the deal, if it is to be rubber stamped by 28 diverse EU member states — including pro-fossil fuel governments like Poland and Hungary who might be assuaged with some of the €100 billion "just transition fund" — is inevitably riddled with compromise. European Environmental Bureau secretary-general, Jeremy Wates, rightly complained that a leaked copy of the deal does little to deal with microplastic and nano chemical pollution. Environment groups also want the 2030 targets upgraded to 65%.
Aiming high is the best way to justify a green revolution that will become the bedrock upon which climate mitigation targets can be conquered. The EU Green Deal lays down the structural basis for a unique multilateral action plan encompassing 49 key policy measures that create a potential blueprint for broader economic growth in a stagnant EU.
Incremental change is no insurance policy for the looming specter of 3 or 4 C warming, for a scenario that, in the case of the US, is estimated to cause one trillion dollars worth of damage to coastal real estate alone by the end of the century. Or for life in the permanent smoke haze that has engulfed my hometown of Sydney, a conflagration unseen in my lifetime — in any lifetime.
We have to go deep, to make car transport (even when electric) secondary to seamless, equitable, zero-emission mass transit and mobility that is further integrated with higher density cities; to fast track the renewal energy transition, and its promise of new well paid jobs; to further enshrine biodiversity protection in law. Such a vision demands the kind of transformational approach embodied in the EU deal.
Ursula von der Leyen, incoming President of the European Commission and champion of the Green Deal, is talking up the fact that "we have to act now," that the initiative represents "a generational transformation we have to go through."
But after decades of inaction, who will believe her? Today at Madrid's COP25 climate summit, Greta Thunberg was right to call out politicians and CEOs who "make it look like real action is happening when, in fact, almost nothing is being done."
But the concept of a Green Deal, however insufficient in its current guise, focuses the combined weight of our social, economic and political institutions, not on mere goals, but on making sustainability something that is lived, that is part of our DNA. The risks are too great if we don't embrace such a green revolution.