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The not so radical battle against climate change

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

A story of repeating history

Written by Fenna Nijboer

Initiatives to “green” our industry and way of living are impossible to imagine. More and more, the value of sustainability is taking up space in the public discourse. And, the evidence of its urgency is compelling. Consequently, policymaking surrounding big industry’s emissions becomes more strict, and measurements are taken on a global level, such as the Paris Agreement five years ago. In Paris, it was the first time various countries with different economies joined forces against global warming. And we’re happy about it. Because, as we know, our beautiful planet is facing its end if we continue living like we currently are. So, yes, be it so-called “developed” “Western” countries or the “under-developed” (I’ll come back to this terminology later) countries, they are all needed to tackle climate change. As Remy Rioux, part of the French government team, has put it: “The Paris agreement has proven to be inclusive and at scale, with the participation of countries representing 97% of global emissions, as well as that of non-state actors such as businesses, local government and financial institutions – and very resilient, precisely because it is inclusive. The Paris agreement is a powerful signal of hope in the face of the climate emergency.” Indeed, the cooperation between the 196 nations seems promising.

Yet, already 5 years later, the Paris goals proved to be too ambitious. In 2015, emissions were about 50 bn tonnes while in 2019, this number had risen to about 55bn tonnes. Fossil fuels are still burned at a high rate, and deforestation continues as if our world isn’t in decay. And, not to forget, under Trump, the US withdrew from Paris in 2017. At this time, extreme weather and a risen global temperature convey something about how the measurements have played out. Not too promising.

However, not all is bad. Progress has been made since the agreement as well. Renewable energy makes up a large part of the new energy generation capacity installed, electric vehicles are becoming more common and accessible, and a new target of net zero emissions has been agreed on worldwide. This entails that there is no more carbon emitted than there is absorbed in carbon sinks. These carbon sinks are systems that absorb more carbon than they emit, so for example forests, oceans and soil. Moreover, as Biden took over Trump’s seat at the oval office, the US has also committed itself to a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Altogether, the Paris accord became the driving factor for climate action, globally. For instance, it led to the European Union’s Green New Deal (2019), which announced its goal to be the first continent that is entirely climate neutral by 2050. €1 trillion is supposed to fund the needed policy reform to meet the EU’s economic growth and climate neutrality.

Still, setting these targets doesn’t automatically mean that these are actually met. For such ambitious goals to be accomplished, major changes have to be made. Meaning, without any radical action these promises are, arguably, meaningless.

So, the question is – are the changes made (or planned to be made) “radical” enough?

At a first glance, a €1 trillion investment for climate action, clean energy, sustainable industry, buildings and renovations, farm to fork initiatives, preservation of biodiversity, prevention of unfair competition from carbon leakage, research and development and the elimination of pollution – the main elements of the EU Green Deal – seems progressive. It calls for the reconstruction of almost every aspect of the European economy as our food consumption, energy generation, transport, production and construction are the pillars of its economy, but at the same time the causes for climate change. Moreover, not only money is invested but actual laws have been set in stone that require all EU policies to contribute to the EU Green Deal objectives. So, if a new Climate Law is adopted by Parliament and the Council, the objectives become legally binding. Through a framework of regulation and legislation, the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is supposed to be met. Incentives are used to stimulate private sector investments that would contribute to the Green Deal’ main objectives. This private sector would provide for €279bn of the €1 trillion that needs to be found over the next decade. Here, companies are supposed to be encouraged to make (risky) green investments by loan guarantees from the European Investment Bank.

The way the EU is taking the lead in climate action is crucial to global climate action. The Green Deal pressures the other major emitters such as China to carry out ambitious climate commitments as well. The imagery of the decarbonization of one of the world’s largest economies is a valuable one. It shows that sustainable economies and high standards of living can go together.

However, this is still a story about what is being said, promised, committed to, written, discussed – you name it – and not so much about what is actually being done.

What has actually changed.

Because, as aimed to illustrate, change is needed for the Paris accord and the EU Green Deal to be met, and climate change to be stopped. And let me lay it out for you once again, change implies the act or process through which something becomes different. Something meaning climate change because of human behaviour. Different meaning no climate change because of human behaviour. And, of course, change can occur in various forms. Yet, somewhat logically, this depends on which ends your need for change depends. Is it because you want to sleep better at night? Then, step-by-step dosing down your cups of coffee a day is a particular change to meet your end as drinking too much coffee is proven to be a cause for insomnia. Or is it because entire ecosystems are in danger, ice is melting, sea levels are rising, temperature is rising, droughts are worsening, and indigenous communities’ existence is threatened? Then, more radical change is needed. And, for radical change to occur, it should be detected what it is exactly that needs to be changed. In the context of climate change, it is the continuous exploitation and despoilment of the natural world and labour that has funded human progress that must be denounced. Here, the roots, the fundament, of these mechanisms should be reconstructed to speak of radical change. Here, gradual changes to the pre-existing system are not enough considering the urgency of the problem. Governments should move beyond their current practices and create new practices that, in this context, do not harm the environment and its people.

This implies re-visioning the way our economies function, our governments govern, our societies work together, and our people are living in it, guided by it.

Because, as became painfully visible, how all these aspects were being practiced is not sustainable one.

So, what has changed?

Looking at the Green Deal, its essence seems to be much in line with politics as usual. It takes a so-called Third Way approach which aims to steer the market itself towards decarbonization. Meaning, it doesn’t take a clear stance on their approach to politics and governing. It isn’t left, it isn’t right, it’s allegedly somewhere in the middle - whatever that may be. Already existing funds are rearranged in a way that is supposed to mobilize private sector money. As mentioned, these private sector investments play a big part in the funding of the Green Deal, and are thus crucial. To diminish the risk for private businesses to invest, public money will be used to finance a “just transition” mechanism that commits to protect vulnerable social groups whose jobs become at stake because of the Deal. It helps to retrain and re-skill workers, such as coal miners. In this way, the European Commission puts private finance at the forefront to ignite green economics, while allowing themselves to refrain from implementing actual green economics on a macro-level. Yet, again, this relies on public funding to make green investments less “risky”. But, that’s not all. The “just transition” mechanism that is supposed to reach vulnerable social groups affected by the transition is most likely to not reach them. Rather, the taxpayer money will end up into the pockets of ingenious local elites who will funnel the money to their own businesses. The decarbonization firms are benefitted at the expense of its employees. Moreover, the chances that money for green investments will reach actual green investments has also proven to be unlikely. Much of the money would rather be spent on traditional EU policies, like farm subsidies. In that sense, carbon financiers can turn climate change into a profitable business by decarbonizing. And while it may not necessarily seem bad that decarbonizing becomes profitable, the regulations and measurements that the EU holds the businesses to aren’t exactly airtight. What constitutes as “green” activities is loosely defined under the guise of “aspirational talk”, relying on the performativity of such talk. Lobbying has worked its way through the EU list of green activities as it now includes “enabling” activities, perceived as “pathways to green”. In other words, it is easy to continue with brown activities while also making money out of it, under the banner of green. So, not much change at all.

The European green label loses its last bits of meaning at other continents

Whether the discussed European Green Deal is effective or radical or not, it stands that it works hard to be perceived as the green leader globally. Ultimately, one way or another, the aim is to be no longer dependent on the fossil industry. And that goal in itself seems like already a step. A step away from traditional policies and their view on damaging industries. And, apart from the not so radical policy-making, Europe seems to accomplish its decreasing carbon emissions. However, outside its borders, Europe still plays a big part in pollution. In violation of the Paris Climate Accord, the fossil industry is being subsidized by governments internationally. The Netherlands alone is responsible for 2 billion funding for Dutch companies that have fossil fuel projects in other countries. And please note, these countries are often outside the “Western” world. These are the countries that have been extensively exploited and are recovering from European colonialism. As it becomes harder and harder to make fossil investments in Western countries, this industry is moving towards the African continent. The Netherlands and other “developed” - developed according to these countries themselves, because what do we define as developed in the first place - countries protect their own prosperous economies by supporting the fossil fuel industry through cheap loans in other countries. Twice as much subsidy is going to fossil energy than green energy. Moreover, while maintaining their own pollutant economies, these practices negatively impact the inhabitants of where the non-sustainable projects are located. Their land is degraded, without their agency, and used to profit from, without benefits for them. Besides, those countries are made dependent on an export product that has no sustainable future for them. And consequently, those countries are made dependent, again, on the West. Sounds like a familiar story. In this way, the green energy transition becomes a meaningless transition.

While it sounds hopeful, an alliance between almost all countries, global climate action until thus far hasn’t proven to be effective. As radical change is bypassed, the same mechanisms that have allowed for global warming and global inequality are relied on for achieving a green, sustainable society. Rather, these neocolonial and capitalistic structures should be reconstructed, where social ecosystems are decolonized and decommodified. For radical change to occur, structures should be revisioned, re-imagined, beyond business as usual. Although it may not always seem like it, capitalism isn't inevitable, nor is climate change. Maybe alliances are not so much needed, but solidarity. Solidarities go beyond self-interest, market exchanges. There's nothing to win or benefitted from. A complete green and inclusive agenda needs to be imagined beyond the normativity of exploitation and financial incentives.

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