The way forward for the European greens

, by Alonso Campos

The way forward for the European greens
Countryside, nature and outdoor photo by Jan Kopřiva, Free use under the Unsplash License

As 2023 ends and gives way to 2024, it would seem that the entire world is on fire and the fight against climate change is already lost, as temperatures, weather catastrophes and greenhouse gas (GHG) atmospheric concentrations keep increasing. The picture is dire, and more and more people worried about climate and environmental issues are giving in to doomerism, thinking that the chance to achieve our global climate objectives (in particular, the Paris Accord’s 1.5°C temperature rise target) is already slim and that humankind will not be able to avoid negative environmental scenarios.

But the trends underneath these headlines are more encouraging, and the global (and European) green movement would do well not to let the worsening media headlines discourage it from its vital work – this is not the moment to surrender, but rather to redouble our efforts for the health of our planet.

In fact, it is the green movement’s rising ambition and influence over public opinion that is behind much of the current disillusionment and worry. We are more aware than ever of the threats of climate change, so there is more media coverage of these issues and its impact on public opinion is greater.

As the green movement has grown in relevance and social power, its capacity for action has grown greatly, and this often obscures the progress made in the ambition of ecological targets. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, set binding targets for developed nations to decrease their GHG emissions by 5% for the period 2008-2012 relative to 1990. This target would today be considered laughable by the green movement, but it was a great achievement at the time.

The other great global climate deal, the Paris Accords (2015), set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels by 2100. This target is now believed to be impossible by many, even though scientific analysis shows it is still within reach. What’s more, this target was a hard-fought last-minute addition to the Accords. Up until very recently, the most the global climate coalition was willing to aspire to was limiting warming to 2°C, and it was only thanks to the pressure of the green movement and the scientific community more stringent ambitions were set.

Just in these last months, the COP 28 conference was criticized for its weak language surrounding fossil fuel, only calling for a “transition away” from fossil fuels – instead of an immediate phase out of those energy sources. Meanwhile, just days before, there were very legitimate fears about COP 28 ending without an agreement due to the oil producing countries’ refusal to have any mentions of fossil fuels in the last declaration of the conference. And never since the COP began in 1995 had there been an explicit mention of fossil fuel elimination in final text agreements.

It should be clear. None of this overview is aimed at decreasing the ambition of the green movement, or our outrage at our world leaders’ inability to come up with better solutions to our common problems. But at the same time, we should not let the tough road ahead cloud what has already been achieved. 2014 estimates by climate science group Climate Action Tracker showed a global temperature rise of 3.7°C by 2100 under the “current policies” scenario. Today, this estimate is “only” 2.7°C.

So, while it is not nearly enough, progress is being made, and any evaluation of the future of the green movement should begin by acknowledging this, both to maintain morale as well as to be able to clearly analyse in which areas should future efforts be put.

The road ahead

In its Net Zero Roadmap report (largely adopted by the COP 28 participants), the International Energy Agency (IEA) set two key goals for the world to stay on track to 1.5°C: tripling renewable power capacity and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvement, both by 2030. Together with additional measures, this would keep humanity on the path towards 1.5°C.

With renewable power now being much cheaper than new fossil energy, the IEA’s report estimates that developed economies’ current policies will deploy 85% of the required 2030 renewable capacity. Together with deployment in developing nations and further policy improvements, the world should be on track to meet the renewable power capacity target. This new phase of clean energy deployment requires permitting reforms and other policies to accelerate deployment, but renewable energies have already made their case and won it, both in the market as well as in front of the policymakers all around the world.

Other green technologies (crucial for the IEA’s energy efficiency target) such as electric vehicles, renewable hydrogen and heat pumps are also quickly growing and seeing strong institutional support. For the United States, Europe, and other nations, these new green industries are not only the key to fight climate change, but also to re-industrialize western countries after decades of offshoring, mostly to China (who is also massively developing its own green industries).

With that institutional support, vast amounts of resources and manpower are being poured into overhauling these sectors of our economies. With the main argument won (the benefits of decarbonizing these sectors of the economy), green activism in these areas should mostly focus on ensuring this technological transition is equitable to all and as harmless as possible to the environment.

Instead, the European green movement should focus in those areas where its political pressure can mobilize public opinion and institutional support to achieve policy changes. Firstly, fossil fuel producers need to be held accountable (by removingsubsidies to fossil fuel drilling and exploration and forcing them to invest their profits into anti-methane technologies and the green economy).

Secondly, the global green movement has to tackle the next challenge in the war for saving our climate: the protection and restoration of nature and biodiversity on a large scale. More and more research is recently showing that the protection and restoration of wild areas is not only crucial to biodiversity conservation, but also to carbon sequestration.

This is crucial, as all 1.5°C scenarios demand net negative emissions after net zero, and the more it takes to get there, the steeper the removal will have to be. Thus, with technological carbon sequestration solutions raising doubts about their cost, scalability and implementation, sequestration into the natural environment is rapidly emerging as the obvious choice. Natural ecosystems can trap vast amounts of carbon, and healthy ecosystems even more, so protecting natural spaces and restoring those that were lost is key to the future milestone of net negative emissions.

This push for ecosystem health should be paired with the promotion of regenerative agriculture, which is a set of agricultural practices aiming at improving soil health while minimizing artificial chemicals use (fertilizers and pesticides). Because healthier soils contain a much higher degree of biodiversity and nutrients, regenerative agriculture also helps sequestrate carbon. This has the potential of turning the global agricultural sector from a net carbon source to a net sink.

While the world is slowly moving in the necessary direction, the global green movement should be prepared for an uphill battle like the one it fought over renewable power until very recently. Even as the EU’s Nature Restoration Law was finally approved, this was done only over the staunch opposition of the centre- and far-right of the European Parliament, in a debate completely clouded with misinformation and bad faith. Similarly, the much-needed push for regenerative agriculture will face the uncertainty of farmers that are used to traditional agricultural practices.

But while opposition is fierce and change slow, this is a battle the green movement must fight – the groundwork for the mass-adoption of these policies in one or two decades’ time must be laid now, just as the groundwork for the expansion of renewable power was fought twenty or thirty years ago. And in the face of a winding path, political resilience, constancy, and pragmatism will be key.

Facing our fears

While this article is trying to make the case for a moderately optimistic view that not all is lost yet in the battle against climate change, it again should be clear that the window to limit warming to 1.5°C is thin. Thus, the green movement (and the whole planet) can not afford to let itself be carried away by old prejudices in the struggle against global warming.

For example, nuclear power, when deployed correctly, is a safe and carbon-free technology that will be crucial to fully decarbonizing energy generation in many countries. The key weakness of wind and solar power is the intermittency of their power generation, and until large-scale power storage options are available nuclear energy is by far the best option to fix this deficiency, given its carbon neutrality. Germany’s simultaneous phase-out of nuclear power and delay of coal plants shut down is a tremendous policy failure and serves as an example to where old prejudices can take us.

Similarly, Europe’s green movement has traditionally been heavily against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, mainly due to health and safety concerns, despite GMOs having been found to not have any adverse health effects. On the contrary, GMOs can provide important climate benefits over traditional crops, such as higher yields (decreasing total required farmland area), better pest resistance (decreasing pesticide need), and even direct nitrogen fixation from air (completely eliminating fertilizer needs).

Combined with regenerative agriculture, next-generation GMOs made with CRISPR genetic modification (which would make for more controlled and even safer genetic modification) could be crucial in transforming and decarbonizing our agricultural sector. Therefore, the green movement should advocate for the use of GMOs while keeping the push for high regulatory and health standards. And if the problem, on the other hand, is with the abusive and monopolistic behaviour by the large agroindustrial conglomerates that widespread GMO use could cause, then that should be address through appropriate policies, not by outright rejecting a safe and powerful technology.

All in all, while the climate crisis is getting worse every year, the underlying trends are improving, and slowly pushing the world to the path to sustainability and mitigating the worst of anthropogenic climate change. The global green movement should keep that in mind, instead of sinking into doomerism. Climate doomerism is, after all, another form of climate denial: if it is believed that the situation is irreversibly lost, then there is no point in taking further action against climate change.

Instead, the green movement should keep on the good work, even in the face of (seeming) despair: should it occur that 1.5°C warming is no longer possible, then the objective becomes 1.6°C, and then 1.7°C, and so on. In the fight against climate change and for the health of our planet, every tenth of a degree counts, and there are no binary win-lose conditions, so we should not give up if 1.5°C becomes unworkable. And to achieve the best possible outcome, the global green movement needs to keep on the pressure (particularly in newer areas where it can have the biggest impact), and face its own prejudices to ensure no tools are lost in the battle ahead.

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