By Khaled Diab
The environmental movement has scored remarkable recent successes, but the situation for the climate and nature remains fragile and vulnerable. Overcoming the damaging inertia of business as usual requires the thin green line of activists to be reinforced by the swelling ranks of concerned citizens.
Friday 29 October 2021
As a human being concerned for our collective future, environmental issues have always interested me and I have striven to do my modest bit to reduce my impact on the planet. Although the environment was not my main beat as a journalist, I wrote regularly about the environment, especially where it intersected with social, economic and political issues.
However, with time, this low-intensity engagement grew increasingly unsatisfactory. I wanted to become more closely involved with the quest for change. In 2019, I decided to become a part of the environmental movement when I joined the EEB, where I put my journalistic and communication skills to good use serving the green cause. Now my time at the EEB has come I have joined the team of sister organisation Carbon Market Watch.
As I prepare to attend the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, what have I learned over the past 2.5 years?
The number of dedicated, passionate and principled individuals I have worked alongside has been inspirational. Rather than being disillusioned at the increasingly desperate state of the world and the mammoth challenges ahead, they proactively envision bold, positive change that can transform our negative influence on the planet into something more benign and beneficial.
This includes such bold ideas as a roadmap to climate neutrality a full decade before the EU's 2050 target, transitioning to a wellbeing economy, reinventing work and our relationship to it, retailoring our textile sector away from fast fashion, as well as championing the right to repair, better products and giving new life to existing materials through such initiatives as urban mining.
My arrival fortuitously coincided with a period of rapid and profound change in Brussels. After years of inaction and stalling during the Jean-Claude Juncker commission, the 2019 European Parliament elections delivered what many excitingly labelled at the time a “green wave”.
In addition to the concern of millions of citizens, one important factor that had revitalised and reinvigorated the environmental movement was the influence of youth activists and the Fridays for Future school strikes started by Greta Thunberg, the so-called “Greta effect”.
This groundswell of popular support prodded Ursula von der Leyen, when she became Commission president, to overcome her conservative background and to put the environment front and centre of her term in office. Her flagship European Green Deal represents the most significant policy shift on the environment of our generation – at least in terms of recognition of the problem and the desire to seek out sustainable solutions.
A few short months after the unveiling of the European Green Deal, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, with Europe becoming one of the hardest-hit regions. The ensuing socioeconomic crisis threatened to derail the green transition, and voices could be heard demanding the slowing or halting of change.
To its credit, the EU and many of its member states resisted the temptation to shelve the European Green Deal or put it in the freezer. Instead, they vowed to push on with making the green transition a reality and pledged to make the massive COVID-19 recovery measures compatible and complementary with the Green Deal.
In this, they have echoed the demands and desires of large swathes of the population, especially the young. A pan-European poll – which was conducted by the renowned public opinion research agency IPSOS on behalf of the EEB and its partners in the Climate of Change project – found that the climate crisis and environmental degradation were of the greatest concern to Europeans aged 15 to 35, even at the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, as is so often the case, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the devil is in the detail. Despite the EU's noble words and aspirations, actions have so far fallen significantly short of ambitions.
Although the road to the future is paved with good intentions, it is littered with missed opportunities and disappointments. Examples include the continued use of public funds to support fossil fuels, the abject failure of attempts to reform the EU's nature-trashing Common Agricultural Policy, the lack of resolute policy and action to properly tackle the biodiversity crisis and the deficit of ambition to cut emissions sufficiently by 2030 to avoid catastrophic warming and make the 2050 target of net zero emissions attainable.
Then there is what you can call the fine print. Even though many of the solutions to combat the climate crisis are well-known and widely accepted, including decarbonisation and renewable energy, what many do not realise, or understate, is that these fixes are not environmental free lunches and come with their own environmental price tags.
The limits of technology
One example is the idea that renewable energy is ‘free' and ‘clean'. While the natural energy from the sun and wind and other natural sources is free and clean, the human-made technology required to harness it is not (entirely).
Though I remain convinced that renewable energy is one of our best bets for achieving sustainability, I have grown increasingly aware that these technologies are not entirely benign and, mishandled, can bring their own unintended consequences.
Techno-optimists are convinced that technology alone can save us. This is reflected, for instance, in their attitude to cars. They believe that replacing our fossil-fuel guzzling vehicles with electric or hybrid ones using renewable energy will be enough, and we can continue down the same road with our lifestyles intact.
But the science suggests otherwise. Our partners in the LOCOMOTION project, which seeks to model sustainable paths to a carbon-neutral future, simulated what a large-scale switch to electric vehicles would deliver.
They found that a scenario in which there is a high concentration of electric vehicles without any changes in our mobility patterns would only reduce emissions by 15% by 2050. Although this is better than business as usual, which would result in a rise of 20% in emissions, it is far below the estimated 90% reduction required from the transport sector.
Another related problem is the quest to dig up the minerals required to make the batteries for electric vehicles. Not only is mining a major polluter and causes habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, there is also the likelihood that we would run out of certain metals.
The only way to come close to the required emissions cuts, the simulation found, was to reinvent our mobility systems to rely on walking, cycling and light electric vehicles, such as e-bikes and e-scooters. In addition, economic activity would also need to decline by about a quarter compared with current levels.
Similar challenges afflict renewable electricity, from plummeting energy returns on investment in the context of continued economic growth to surprisingly huge land requirements for space-hungry solar installations. However, with the right determination and policy mix none of these challenges are insurmountable.
The social dimension
There are social aspects to environmental issues that often go unnoticed, underappreciated and, hence, remain unremedied and unresolved.
One gaping example is gender. The social inequality affecting women resonates and ripples into the environmental sphere. Environmental challenges not only hit women harder, but women impact and are impacted by the environmental differently.
Left to its own devices, the European Green Deal will, by ignoring the gender dimension, widen the already significant gap between men and women, not only damaging social justice but also endangering environmental protections, according to a recent report the EEB co-authored.
That is why the EU's environmental policies and frameworks need to recognise the gender dimension explicitly and to establish a framework for tackling them effectively.
Race against time
Another area of social discrimination not explicitly tackled by the European Green Deal is racism. Although the EU has formulated an anti-racism action plan, nowhere does the strategy mention the environmental dimension of racial inequality.
While many people are unaware of the racial dimension of the environment or the environmental dimension of race, it exists and affects people profoundly. This is nowhere more apparent than on the global scale.
While people in wealthy industrialised countries contributed the most to the climate and environmental crises facing humanity, the people most affected and worst-placed to cope are often in countries which contributed the least to the ongoing emergency. This is visible, for instance, in the increasingly frequent droughts and heatwaves afflicting many parts of Africa and Asia.
In Europe, people who belong to ethnic minorities are more likely to be socially and economically marginalised than the majority, which often translates to environmental marginalisation. This is especially the case for Europe's largest minority, the Roma, who are quite literally pushed to the toxic margins of society, as documented in a major EEB report.
Not only are Roma communities too often forced to live in polluted ghettoes, they are also systematically excluded or marginalised from basic environmental services, such as water supply and waste management, as well as healthcare and education. These overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, as well as poor access to healthcare and draconian restrictions imposed on many Roma communities during the pandemic, meant that COVID-19 hit Europe's Roma minority particularly hard.
Given environmental racism's harmful and poisonous impact, the EU needs to explicitly recognise it, put in place policies to combat it and, like with gender, integrate it into the European Green Deal. This will help ensure that the green transition, instead of leaving vulnerable minorities even further behind, enhances and improves their situation.
While the myriad crises and challenges outlined above can be a cause for pessimism, I strive to be a realistic optimist or an optimistic realist. The tide is turning and change is afoot. The situation we face is not insurmountable, but how well we surmount it will depend on our collective willpower to set in motion deep-seated and holistic changes to our socioeconomic systems.
This article first appeared in Meta on 2 September 2021.