The new president of the European Commission has indicated that she intends to confront the climate crisis head-on. She must avoid the mistakes of her predecessor, who did not go far enough in expanding the scope for environmental policymaking, writes Johan Rockstrom
As Europe roasts through another record-hot summer, it is encouraging to see that climate change is receiving the attention it deserves from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president-elect. In confronting the climate emergency, she should acknowledge that rising global temperatures are a threat not just to public health and the economy, but — crucially — also to wildlife.
As a first step, Von der Leyen should appoint a climate and biodiversity vice-president to work hand in glove with the sector-focused commissioners. The EU needs a dedicated official to ensure that all EU climate policies are also geared toward protecting nature from the existential risk of both these tipping points. Without such a role, we won’t properly manage the emergency at hand.
Since the Industrial Revolution, roughly half of annual fossil-fuel emissions have been absorbed by the land’s ecosystems and oceans. Without these natural buffers, the world would have warmed by more than 2C above pre-industrial levels long ago. Hence, by preserving and restoring ecosystems and the wildlife that keeps them viable today, we can advance the push for net-zero emissions by 2050.
At the same time, stemming climate change will help save the natural world on which we rely for food, clean air and water, medicines, jobs and livelihoods, and much more. We can’t live without biodiversity, and biodiversity can’t survive without our protection. Providing it is not a burden, but will lead to enormous savings in health costs, future jobs, and European competitiveness.
For her part, Von der Leyen wants to raise the EU’s emissions-reduction target from 40% by 2030 to at least 55%. But European leaders have yet to grasp that tackling climate change also means protecting nature.
Measures to address both issues are mutually reinforcing. When Central and Eastern European countries resist tougher climate policies, they often cite concerns about industrial job losses and foregone prosperity. If they had only understood that climate policies and environmental protections would create new jobs fit for an increasingly low-carbon economy and help keep extreme weather changes at bay, they might not have vetoed the EU’s 2050 net-zero target earlier this year.
With new leadership in the EU comes a new opportunity to attack the climate crisis head-on. Looking ahead, EU-level green policymaking needs to be taken up not just by the commission’s designated climate and environmental departments, but by all agencies, as well as the European Council and Parliament. Introducing a climate and biodiversity vice-president would facilitate this.
To be sure, outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker tried to break up the siloes of EU policymaking in 2014, by appointing vice presidents with portfolios spanning multiple sectors. But Juncker’s initiative had two fatal flaws: It treated climate change as a sectoral policy, combined with energy, while environment sat in a separate portfolio; and it didn’t furnish its vice-presidents with enough staff to see through cross-sectoral initiatives. The vice-presidents were essentially generals without troops.
Five years later, the massive scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis is clear, and the Von der Leyen-led commission cannot ignore the public’s growing demand for serious action. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans have protested in the streets since last fall, and 740 jurisdictions in 16 EU countries — as well as the French, British, Portuguese, and Irish national parliaments— have declared a climate emergency.
Voters also signalled their demand for climate action in May’s European Parliament elections, awarding Green and green-minded parties more seats than ever.
Voters understand that climate change is not a standalone problem. Measures to cut emissions will also drive sustainable development, alleviating the effects of droughts, floods, and heatwaves so extreme that they prevent people from working. Protecting and restoring oceans and forests goes hand in hand with safeguarding food supplies and reducing illnesses associated with air pollution from vehicle exhaust.
The science makes these links clear. A UN report on biodiversity published in May — the most comprehensive examination of the planet’s health to date — warns that one million species are at risk of extinction. Entire ecosystems and the food chains that they supply could collapse. Insects, apex predators such as wolves and sharks, soil microbes, and trees all play critical roles in regulating ecosystems, filtering water, and producing our food.
Moreover, last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming will exceed 2C if we do not halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, again by 2040, and once again by 2050. On the other hand, by limiting warming to 1.5C, we would save hundreds of millions of people from droughts, floods, extreme weather events, and other deadly scenarios.
Healthy forests, peatlands, and oceans could absorb carbon dioxide and mitigate further damage from climate change. Yet the Earth’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases is already declining, causing the concentration of atmospheric CO2 to rise faster than in previous decades. Indeed, it has already reached 415 parts per million, and is now increasing by three ppm per year, up from two ppm in recent decades. The only explanation for such an increase, given the trajectory of greenhouse-gas emissions, is that less CO2 is being absorbed than in the past.
The European Commission can’t say it wasn’t warned. At a time of rising populism and declining trust in public institutions, the EU must use its changing of the guard as an opportunity to reconnect with the real world and the people now demonstrating in the streets. Von der Leyen should appoint a vice president with a brief that is broad enough to reflect the economy-wide challenge at hand. And whomever she chooses must be given an army of dedicated soldiers that can get the job done.
Johan Rockstrom is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Co-writer Anders Wijkman is chair of Climate-KIC, honorary president of the Club of Rome, and a former member of the European Parliament. Co-writer Sandrine Dixson-Declève is co-president of the Club of Rome, a member of the Climate-KIC Advisory Council, and Ambassador for the Energy Transitions Commission.