This article is part of our special report Transition to green economy.
Workers will lose their jobs as Europe shifts to a green economy, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has admitted, amid warnings the world faces political and economic turmoil not witnessed since the 1930s.
Šefčovič made an impassioned plea for national governments to make sure that no one was thrown on the scrapheap of the green revolution. But, he added, “climate change is here and it poses an imminent danger.”
“We should not create obstacles by not taking good care of people who may be intimidated by this transformation,” he said before calling for social programs such as retraining those made redundant as polluting industries were shut down.
Šefčovič, in charge of the EU’s Energy Union strategy, said this generation was the “transitional one from the old carbon economy to the new sustainable one.”
The change could be a goldmine for jobs and growth, he said, but “we do not want to see anyone left behind”.
Some 9 million Europeans work in green industries, with 18 million expected to by 2030, he added.
Failing to ensure what NGOs and trade unions call as “just transition” would sow the seeds for anger and extremism, delegates heard at the Transition to the Green Economy Conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, where Šefčovič was speaking last Tuesday (6 October).
Pier Vellinga, professor of climate change at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said there was much in common between the present day and the 1930s, a period of economic depression that allowed extreme politics to flourish across Europe and ultimately led to war.
“There are many of the signals of the 1930s, such as xenophobia and unemployment,” Vellinga said.
The struggling economy, stubbornly high unemployment, the imperative to embrace new low carbon industries and fears caused by globalisation made people vulnerable to populist politics, much as they were after the Great Depression.
“Our society is facing different insecurities. How are our borders secure? How we protected from terrorism?” said Šefčovič, a Slovak. “Is my job at stake, what will happen to my region in new turbulent times, will my children have better life than me?
“The increased pace of globalisation suddenly put every individual and company on global market to face global competition and we as society are grasping how to deal with this dramatic change.”
“The similarities with the 1930s are very large,” said Raffi Balian, of the US State Department who was speaking at the event in Bratislava.
New technologies in the 1930s, such as jet engines, magnetic recording and FM broadcasting, left many people feeling disenfranchised, he remarked. And populist politicians used that to their advantage, added Balian who is regional director for environmental, science, technology and health for central and eastern Europe.
“The same conversation is happening today,” he continued. “One side of the conversation is very organised and very disciplined, the other is not disciplined and not talking to people,” he said adding that voters would naturally reach back for the old vision of the economy unless they were encouraged to by government and industry.
Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister of climate and environment, concurred. “Politicians reflect voters and voters are not always progressive,” he remarked, adding, “We have never seen a transformation so complex and so speedy as the one we are in today.
“The impact is far higher than anything we have seen before. We need to brace ourselves for much more uncertainty at level of individuals and households and much more uncertainty at the level of politics.”
“There are still government leaders in central and eastern Europe that believe 20th century model is right model and the 21st century model is not right for their citizens,” Balian said.
But change has to come, said Han Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency.
“This is the ultimate challenge of economy and society,” he said before reminding that humanity was using the equivalent of 1.4 planets’ resources every year.
Policymakers were trying to save the European steel industry, Vellinga added, but was protecting an energy intensive industry the right thing to do?
We need to talk about transformation not transition, said Cristiana Pasca Palmer, the Romanian government’s environment chief.
There was indeed a tension between business as usual and the needed transition to a greener production and consumption model, but not to the point where a comparison could be drawn with the 1930s, she said. “We don’t need a crisis to make the transition,” she affirmed.
Professor Vellinga continued drawing the parallel, however. He said that on top of insecurity and new technologies in the 1930s, there was a lot of money but little investment – much as there is now.
A major challenge for national and EU policymakers after the 2008 financial crisis has been to unlock these unused funds so they can be invested into the economy and spur growth.
He called for a programme of government investment blended with private investment to compete with economic giants such as China.
“We ask for investment by governments”, Vellinga said, admitting that this was “not popular in political circles” but that it was “gaining popularity in economic circles”.
The EU needed to loosen its fiscal rules. “Unleash budget constraints to unleash public investment,” he said.
The conference was hosted by the Slovakian Presidency of the EU. The Presidency has said it plans to deliver a deal on the circular economy package of waste and recycling rules and will try to drive member states to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change during its six months at the helm of the bloc.
Both initiatives are crucial in the shift to the green economy.
Policymakers are calling for a transition to a green economy. The change is needed, they argue, because of the threat of climate change, which is aggravated by polluting industries and consumer behaviour.
But the shift is likely to be hugely disruptive and represents an immense challenge in terms of investment, cultural change and global diplomacy.
In December 2015, world governments agreed to cap global warming in Paris. EU policymakers must now translate that commitment into legislation to ensure that targets are hit.