Greta Thunberg is an unlikely instigator of a global social movement. The then-15-year-old schoolgirl who started a lone “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish parliament last August suffers from Asperger syndrome – a form of autism that makes social relationships and communication difficult – obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and selective mutism, a severe anxiety disorder that makes it hard to speak in certain social situations.
Yet within a few months, she has become the figurehead of a global movement that has mobilised both young and old to demand bolder action against climate change. She gives TED talks. She makes speeches at rallies in front of thousands of people. And she meets political leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “I only speak when I think it’s necessary,” she says drily. “Now is one of those moments.”
When Thunberg addressed global elites in the Swiss ski resort of Davos in January, she was blunt about the threat of climate change. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” But will they? Will we?
Europe prides itself on being a global leader in combating climate change. From Brussels, the EU sets targets, policy objectives, strategies and plans for member states to cut their emissions of harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. From Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel champions an Energiewende that aims to accelerate Germany’s transition to low-carbon energy. Paris is where the world’s most ambitious global agreement to address climate change was reached in 2016. And Katowice, a city in southern Poland, is where the rules that will govern the Paris Agreement were settled last year.
But despite all the good intentions – and all the hot air from many politicians, EU technocrats and businesspeople – Europe is not as green as it claims to be. And crucially, as Greta Thunberg has highlighted, it is not as green as it needs to be.
The EU’s emissions-reduction goals may sound ambitious. It is targeting at least 40% cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. But if the EU is to do its fair share of keeping global warming below 2°C – a temperature rise that would still cause nasty problems such as rising sea levels and many more heatwaves, droughts, storms and other extreme weather events that the world’s poor would find it hardest to cope with – the target isn’t actually ambitious enough. Worse, emissions in the EU actually rose in 2017 – while they fell in the United States.
Let that sink in: while ostensibly eco-friendly Europe took a step backward, Donald Trump’s America made a small step forward. Although President Trump champions dirty coal, ridicules climate science and is pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, market forces – namely the lower price of American shale gas – are causing US coal consumption to plunge.
Importing and exporting greenhouse-gas emissions
In contrast, while Germany is making eye-wateringly expensive efforts to shut down its zero-emission nuclear power plants, it is burning more filthy coal from subsidised German mines, and its carbon emissions are rising. Perversely, sunny Spain until recently taxed solar panels – because electricity companies feared that private households selling power to the grid would undercut them.
Granted, longer-term trends appear more favourable in the EU. Greenhouse-gas emissions are down by 15% in Europe since 2000, compared with a reduction of only 11% in the US. But considering the US population rose by 15% over that period, and the EU-28’s by only 5%, emissions per person have actually fallen faster in the US, albeit from much higher levels.
Worse, the long-term decline in emissions produced in Europe is much greater than the reduction in emissions that result from consumption by Europeans. The EU increasingly imports goods whose production involve lots of carbon emissions from China and other Asian countries that have lower environmental standards. In contrast, its exports – notably of services such as finance, business consulting and telecoms – often involve fewer emissions. So trade makes the EU look greener than it actually is. European citizens’ carbon footprint is larger than that of EU-based companies.
In Belgium, net imports of carbon emissions were nearly as large as domestic carbon emissions in 2014, according to the Global Carbon Project. In Switzerland (which is not in the EU) emissions produced there fell by 11% between 1990 and 2014, but those “consumed” there rose by 44%!
Or consider Norway, a member of the European Economic Area but not the EU. At first glance, it looks like a green role model. Nearly all its electricity comes from hydroelectric power. It is a global leader in adopting electric vehicles: a third of new car registrations are now battery-powered. It even has fully electric car ferries. All of which is great.
Yet Norway still makes a living largely by exporting North Sea oil and gas. And while the emissions from extracting and producing petroleum products are counted in its production emissions, those from other countries burning the oil and gas that it exports aren’t. Thus Norway is much less green than it seems.
By global standards, Europeans are also still big emitters. While Americans who drive gas-guzzling cars and shop in icy air-conditioned malls pollute much more than Europeans do, Europeans are also above-average emitters. The EU accounts for around 7% of the world population but 9% of production emissions.
While China is now the biggest annual emitter, the EU’s contribution to the cumulative rise in stocks of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution is far greater. By 2015, Europe accounted for 22% of the total to China’s 12%.
Young climate activists have been taking to the streets in the past months with regular demonstrations throughout Europe, calling for more immediate and tougher policies to tackle climate change.
Climate change is a global issue. Even if Europe became a zero-net-emissions economy, the planet would not stop heating up unless the rest of the world slashed its emissions too. So Europe cannot stop global warming alone. But it ought to be doing much more.
The good news is that many Europeans care deeply about climate change. The Greens are now the second most popular political party in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Young people like Greta Thunberg who will have to live with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change in later decades are often particularly passionate about protecting the planet.
Europe also has many innovative clean technology businesses, such as Vestas, a Danish company that is the world’s leading supplier of wind turbines. Many mainstream businesses are going greener too – to cut costs, attract talent, appeal to green consumers and anticipate a higher future carbon price.
But there are still huge obstacles to change. European exporters worry that climate commitments will push up their costs, making them globally uncompetitive. Big established polluters tend to be politically better connected than green start-ups; witness German car companies’ clout in Brussels. Politically powerful farmers often pollute with impunity.
Poorer EU member states, notably in central and eastern Europe, view climate commitments as an obstacle to their continued economic catch-up with western Europe. The region around Katowice, the Polish city that hosted the climate summit last year, produces plenty of particularly noxious coal.
People in richer EU member states, who are struggling to make ends meet also object to paying more for necessities such as petrol and electricity. The protests by France’s yellow-vested gilets jaunes were initially triggered by higher taxes on fuel prices.
An action plan for a green future
In short, it is not enough just to call for faster action to combat climate change. Europe also needs a more effective strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. While it’s crucial to sound the alarm about climate change, it’s also vital to highlight that going green can bring broader benefits right now.
Tackling climate change is often portrayed as difficult and painful – not least by some campaigners whose real objection is to consumer capitalism – but it doesn’t have to be costly. On the contrary, it ought to be seen as an engine of faster green growth, good clean jobs and higher living standards, as well as cleaner air and healthier lives.
The EU needs a Green New Deal – financed by European Investment Bank borrowing, not higher taxes – to foster a cleaner economy. Higher investment would not just stimulate the struggling eurozone economy right now; it could propel it on to a faster and more sustainable growth path.
Increased research and development could help create cheaper and better clean technologies. In many places, solar and wind power can already compete without subsidies with fossil fuels. And while a higher carbon price is necessary to spur broader innovation and adoption, the proceeds of carbon taxes should be paid back in full to citizens as carbon dividends.
For sure, carbon-intensive companies will shrink if they don’t adapt. But polluters, such as big oil companies, could still thrive if they invested in green technologies such as renewables. Governments should also provide retraining for displaced workers such as coal miners and regeneration grants for post-industrial areas.
Politicians need to emphasise the broader benefits of going green. Slashing our consumption of oil and gas would reduce our dependence on unsavoury and threatening regimes such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Switching to electric cars would eliminate the toxic diesel fumes that poison city air. They are already cheaper to run than diesel cars; on current trends they will soon be cheaper to buy too. And there could be more generous diesel-car scrappage schemes for residents of small towns and rural areas where public transport is lacking.
Adair Turner of the Energy Transitions Commission estimates that achieving zero emissions in heavy industry and transport by 2060 would make the global economy at most 0.5% smaller than it would otherwise have been. That figure could be reduced to less than 0.3% if the recycling and reuse of industrial materials was increased. That is a trifling cost to save the planet.
“Everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat,” says Greta Thunberg. “And yet they just carry on like before.” It’s time for that to change.
By Philippe Legrain