Outdated framing by the European Commission lessens our chances of keeping to 1.5 degrees

Today a new IPCC report was released that makes a strong case for cutting greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep any temperature rise at or below 1.5 degrees celsius.

The authors believe it may be still possible to do this – which could be (I write this very tentatively) good news for our future. But they also emphasise that we need to take extremely quick and decisive action if we’re going to manage to cut emissions sufficiently.

In light of this, I was particularly jarred by the way climate action was framed in an online questionnaire from the European Commission on long-term greenhouse gas reductions. (The questionnaire’s deadline is tomorrow, and it’s a public consultation.)

Many of the multiple-choice questions and some of the introductory texts for the questionnaire sections imply that decarbonisation can be achieved through a combination of innovation, widespread technology deployment and informed consumer choice.

Parts of the questionnaire also read as though it’s simply a public opinion poll, or even a consumer survey carried out by a business to try to build customer profiles. It seemed very disconcerting to be asked in a multiple-choice format to specify the extent to which we believe recycling, or making buildings more energy efficient, are important to climate mitigation. Surely it’s self-evident that all of these actions can be useful to decarbonisation but cannot achieve it by themselves. A broader, systems-based perspective seems to be missing.

Particularly disturbing were the questions on the relationship between decarbonisation and competitiveness, and on growth (“do you think the low carbon transition can help the EU industry modernise and grow?”), as these gave the impression that the compilers of the questionnaire are unconscious of – or, if aware of it, are badly underemphasizing – the extremely grave threat posed by climate instability. We’re in a situation now in which prioritizing competitiveness and growth is simply not a realistic approach and could actually prove dangerous (see this recent letter, signed by 238 academics).

However, given the European Commission’s overall goals, I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised at the questionnaire’s focus. The goals include “promoting free, fair and sustainable global competition for markets, trade and investments” and “maintaining the EU’s global leadership position on key geostrategic and security issues.”

To reiterate – given the existential threat that we’re facing with regard to the climate, it’s imperative to concentrate on meeting essential needs rather than increasing profits. As implied above, competition can’t ensure that everyone gets what they need to survive (hence rationing in times of war).

In a similar vein: emphasis now needs to be placed on global cooperation, not a quest for continued geopolitical domination (a domination which derives, moreover, from a dubious colonialist history).

Even if we were not facing such severe environmental challenges, the pursuit of free trade as a goal in itself would still be problematic. History indicates that countries don’t become prosperous purely through a removal of trade barriers but rather through a judicious combination of trade and protectionism[1]. Fair and sustainable trade, on the other hand, could have some validity as goals – provided that we bear in mind that in order for trade to be sustainable it will always have to respect ecosystem limits.

If we’re to have any chance if keeping to the 1.5 maximum target, the European Commission will need to be much more realistic about its priorities. I very much hope that the next time the EC does a consultation call on climate change, its framing will have shifted.

[1] See for example Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, Bloomsbury, 2008

Read Feasta’s submission to the European Commission on a strategy for long-term greenhouse gas reductions

Featured image: man in cage. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/man-in-cage-1165395

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