Spend it well – the EU’s €1.8 trillion problem

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"Since human behaviour is at the core of climate change, engaging physical systems and social systems effectively, and together, is essential," argues Kirsten Dunlop. [EPA-EFE/Emilio Naranjo]

Europe has to rethink how it allocates resources to reach its climate targets, says Kirsten Dunlop. We need to change the way we do innovation, she argues.

Kirsten Dunlop is the CEO of EU innovation agency EIT Climate-KIC.

As wildfires raged in the West Coast of the United States and floodwater inundated different regions of East-Africa, the European Commission President on Wednesday called on the European Union (EU) to cut climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, more than a third higher than the current target of 40%. Ursula von der Leyen’s new ambition for Europe is crucial – not least because it should spur other regions of the world to raise their game.

But Europe urgently needs to talk about how best it can reach this new goal. The coronavirus recovery plan and the 2021-2027 budget mean the EU will spend €1.8 trillion over the next seven years, a third already earmarked for climate action. But such unprecedented sums also demand unprecedented care and the courage to do things differently. In the interests of our planet – and of our children, who will be paying off the debt we’re currently incurring – we must ask how to spend all this money effectively. This is our last chance.

From conventional approaches to systemic change

“Conventional approaches will not be sufficient,” the Commission pointed out last December when it published the “European Green Deal” proposals to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. Not only did it flag the need for a new 2030 emissions target. It stressed only “experimentation, and working across sectors and disciplines” would allow the EU to reduce and offset its carbon emissions to its “net zero” goal in thirty years’ time.

Europe has to take this cue to openly address the insufficiency of “conventional approaches”. These have mainly entailed energy substitution and one-off projects primarily dealing with direct emissions – and they have produced predominantly incremental change. Our solve for too many cars or buildings producing too much carbon dioxide, too many cows producing too much methane, steelmaking using too much coal has been to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, create low-flatulence animal feed, bring re-use to steelmaking.

These are important steps, but individual solutions, addressing the problem ‘at the surface’, as it were, can only do so much. We have not yet had the courage to change the shape of our lives and our expectations.

The traditional logic of substitution has conditioned us to look for linear – and often technology-driven solutions for what are in reality are multi-dimensional or ‘wicked’ problems, and even more so because they involve changing human behaviour. Climate has been described as a system in which a butterfly’s wing flap in the USA can help form a typhoon in China. It is a non-linear or complex system in which a small change in input can lead to a huge change in output – but mostly in ways that are hard or impossible to forecast. Social systems are likewise inherently complex and unpredictable and since human behaviour is at the core of climate change, engaging physical systems and social systems effectively, and together, is essential.

So we have to start thinking of our world and its climate as complex interrelated systems – and then deal with the diversity and uncertainty of their possible inputs and outputs. And to do that we need complexity friendly tools, methods and incentives, and evaluation frameworks. Our approach can no longer be focused on individual, sector based and discrete solutions. We need to insist on approaches that are multi-faceted and joined up.

As President von der Leyen herself noted during Wednesday’s State of the Union speech, ”the mission of the European Green Deal involves much more than cutting emissions. It is about making systemic modernisation across our economy, society and industry.” Achieving systemic modernisation, or systemic change, will spring from a new type of “systems innovation” that experiments and tests for integrated and exponential solutions and effects in systems – starting with cities, regions, industries, value chains.

'We can do it!': EU chief announces 55% emissions reduction target for 2030

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans on Wednesday (16 September) to target a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of a broader European Green Deal programme aimed at reaching “climate neutrality” by mid-century.

Cities, for example, cover less than 2% of the world’s surface but produce more than 60% of carbon emissions. Systems innovation brings different groups together to defy a city’s complexity by devising projects that join up and deliver more than incremental change. Madrid, Vienna and Krakow and 12 other European metropolitan areas have teamed up with EIT Climate-KIC to work across sectors – integrating innovations and disciplines. In the case of Madrid, this means experimenting with regulatory scenarios, a zero-carbon campus and nature-based solutions.

In Italy’s Dolomites, we are working with local governments and over a hundred local stakeholders to learn from a devastating storm in 2018. These groups have identified three systems as being core to making the region more resilient to weather events: the wood value-chain, forest management and tourism. Together, we are connecting a portfolio of systems-innovation projects that will transform these systems for the better. Multi-faceted and joined up, they will make rapid transformation possible.

As we teeter on the edge of chaos, we have to respond to emerging issues as flexibly as possible and work together in a less transactional and less top-down way. Madrid and the Dolomites embody experimentation and inter-disciplinary approaches that draw on citizen engagement to find the best solutions and apply them widely. We need to press on with technological advance. But we also need to unlock systems transformation through social transformation – getting stakeholders to produce ideas “by the people, for the people”.

The complexity that challenges us demands that we learn our way into the future. We must ensure that we build a transformational capability for the future, not just fix things now, so that our investments enable social and economic systems to take decisions about themselves in an effective and distributed way.

Europe needs to explore unconventional approaches to meet the new target. Given the vast funds available to power the EU’s “green recovery” after pandemic and recession, Europe has never had a better opportunity to be ambitious. The European Commission understands that. Now it needs to give the EU member states, their regions and cities the means to work in a systemic way to achieve the objective in time. We should not be modest.

An EU 2030 climate target of at least 55% is not only necessary – it is also possible

Ambitious climate policy in the EU can underpin a sustainable economic growth that supports the development of a competitive, modern economy that delivers benefits for all, and acts as a beacon of inspiration to the rest of the world, writes Dan Jørgensen.

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