While there is a growing recognition of the need for climate action, last year taught us that for a sustainable long-term energy transition to be effective, the roadmap to get there needs to be inclusive and citizen-driven, writes Imke Lübbeke.
Imke Lübbeke is head of climate and energy at the WWF European policy office.
2018 was a big year for climate change. The release of the groundbreaking IPCC report last October sent jolts throughout policy circles and civil society, confronting us with the latest scientific information on the widespread impacts to the planet if we failed to drastically cut CO2 emissions. And the European Commission committed to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, a major step forward and a first on the global level.
Public concern of the climate situation grew throughout 2018, as Europe’s summer temperatures broke records, and wildfires ravaged California. The fall and winter months followed with climate marches taking place across Europe, gathering tens of thousands of citizens demanding loud and clear much stronger, quicker, climate ambition. This growing public momentum was palpable at last month’s COP. Embodying this impetus, 15-year old Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg memorably called out the passivity of global leaders, warning them that: “Change is coming”, whether they are part of it or not.
Another 2018 trend that gives some reason for optimism has been the greater involvement of the private sector, with several companies and private sector coalitions taking active steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Danish shipping industry giant Maersk for example committed last month to having carbon neutral vessels by 2030. Over 500 companies, including Ikea and Unilever, have committed to align their greenhouse gas emissions with the Paris Agreement targets. These commitments have been helped by the decreasing costs of solar and wind, and other renewables technologies.
And from a policy perspective the year culminated in the release of the European Commission’s long-term climate plan in November, which laid out several scenarios to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
The commitment of achieving net-zero emissions was a first for climate action within the global community. The strategy rightfully espoused the massive benefits of reaching this target, ranging from the €170bn estimated savings in health cost, to the €2-3 trillion which could be saved in fossil fuel imports.
While this policy impetus in Brussels did not translate into greater ambition from the global community at last month’s UN Climate Change Conference COP24, seeds of hope were nevertheless planted to make 2019 a potentially good year in the fight against climate change.
But to make 2019 a successful climate year, EU member states will have to take on board the lessons learned in 2018. While there is a growing recognition of the need for climate action, last year taught us that for a sustainable long-term energy transition to be effective, the roadmap to get there needs to be inclusive and citizen-driven. The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement that has been rocking France for the last couple of months has reminded us that policy actions need to be supported by a continuous conversation with citizens, and a regular evaluation of the possible effects of said policy on the different sections of society. This will be particularly important in light of the necessary phase-out of coal power, which will affect mining communities across Europe.
The year 2019 will provide member states with important opportunities for such citizen-inclusive climate action and “just transition”. Over the course of 2019, member states will be finalising their final national energy and climate plans (NECPs), but they also need in parallel to produce their national long-term strategy. Both should align with the EU’s long-term climate strategy target of net-zero emissions by 2050. In this process, it is required of national governments to “ensure that the public is given early and effective opportunities to participate in and to be consulted on the long term climate plan and the short-term preparation of the integrated national energy and climate plans”.
This citizen engagement is vital to make any progress stick. By consulting the public on the different pathways to fight climate change and to embrace the large societal benefits of doing so, national governments will be making sure that their policy actions can be effective for the long-term.
The seeds – citizen support, private sector involvement – are there to make this happen. Only political leadership is missing, which for the EU means an endorsement by member states of the net-zero vision. With the price of wind and solar power continuing to plummet, the costs of tackling the problem have never been so low, and the financial costs and dangers of inaction grow with every passing day. If not in 2019, when?