The new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has indicated that she intends to confront the climate crisis head-on. In doing so, she must avoid the mistakes of her predecessor, who did not go far enough in expanding the scope for environmental policymaking within the European Union. In confronting the climate emergency, demonstrated by another record-hot summer, she should acknowledge that rising global temperatures are a threat not just to public health and the economy, but – crucially – also to wildlife.
As a first step, von der Leyen should appoint a climate and biodiversity vice president to work hand in glove with the sector-focused commissioners to properly manage the emergency at hand. Since the Industrial Revolution, roughly half of annual fossil-fuel emissions have been absorbed by the land’s ecosystems and oceans. Without these natural buffers, the world would have warmed by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels long ago. Hence, by preserving and restoring ecosystems and the wildlife that keeps them viable today, we can advance the push for net-zero emissions by 2050. At the same time, stemming climate change will help save the natural world on which we rely for food, clean air and water, medicines, jobs and livelihoods, and much more. By protecting biodiversity, there will be enormous savings in health costs, future jobs, and European competitiveness.
For her part, von der Leyen wants to raise the EU’s emissions-reduction target from 40% by 2030 to at least 55%. But European leaders have yet to grasp that tackling climate change also means protecting nature. Measures to address both issues are mutually reinforcing. If Central and Eastern European countries had only understood that climate policies and environmental protections would create new jobs fit for an increasingly low-carbon economy and help keep extreme weather changes at bay, they might not have vetoed the EU’s 2050 net-zero target earlier this year. And with new leadership in the EU comes a new opportunity to attack the climate crisis head-on.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s strategy had two fatal flaws: it treated climate change as a sectoral policy, combined with energy, while environment sat in a separate portfolio; and it didn’t furnish its vice presidents with enough staff to see through cross-sectoral initiatives. Five years later, the massive scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis is clear, and the von der Leyen-led Commission cannot ignore the public’s growing demand for serious action. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans having protested in the streets and also voters signaled their demand for climate action in May’s European Parliament elections, awarding Green and green-minded parties more seats than ever. Voters understand that climate change is not a standalone problem. Measures to cut emissions will also drive sustainable development, alleviating the effects of droughts, floods, and extreme heatwaves.
The science makes these links clear. A United Nations report on biodiversity published in May warns that one million species are at risk of extinction, with entire ecosystems and the food chains that they supply in risk of collapse. Moreover, last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming will exceed 2°C if we do not halve greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, again by 2040, and once again by 2050. On the other hand, by limiting warming to 1.5°C, we would save hundreds of millions of people from droughts, floods, extreme weather events, and other deadly scenarios. Yet the Earth’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases is already declining, causing the concentration of atmospheric CO2 to rise faster than in previous decades.
The European Commission can’t say it wasn’t warned. At a time of rising populism and declining trust in public institutions, the EU must use its changing of the guard as an opportunity to reconnect with the real world and the people now demonstrating in the streets. Von der Leyen should appoint a vice president with a brief that is broad enough to reflect the economy-wide challenge at hand. And whomever she chooses must be given an army of dedicated soldiers that can get the job done.
‚The Case for an EU Climate and Nature Czar‘ – Opinion by Johan Rockstrom, Anders Wijkman and Sandrine Dixson-Decléve – Project Syndicate.