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By Horizon Staff
As climate change accelerates, the European Union can offer the world a blueprint to ensure social fairness during the clean energy transition, according to a top EU adviser.
Sandrine Dixson-Declève, chair of the European Commission’s expert group on the economic and social impact of research and innovation (ESIR), said EU countries are well placed to demonstrate that giving up fossil fuels and fighting poverty go hand in hand. hand can go. Neither goal needs to be at the expense of the other, she said.
“The EU generally has a social model in all the countries that is much better than most,” Dixson-Declève, also co-president of the Club of Rome global think tank, said in an interview this month. ‘We know that the social backlash can be huge if we are not careful. Populism can grow.’
The more frequent – and increasingly severe – heat waves, storms and floods linked to global warming require the world to act urgently on several fronts.
Most in the spotlight is reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories, buildings and transportation that are the root cause of the crisis. Quickly gaining more public attention is climate adaptation: adaptation to the effects of climate change that it is already too late to prevent.
But a third, often overlooked, is to guarantee social peace as economies shift from oil, natural gas and coal to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Even in the relatively prosperous EU, “energy poverty” is widespread. Around 35 million people, or 8% of the EU population, could not keep their homes sufficiently warm in 2020, according to Eurostat.
Although the threats posed by climate change tend to be discussed in terms of environmental thresholds that could cause even more fundamental disruption, the impact on societies will be felt before those “tipping points” are reached, according to Dixson-Declève.
“The environmental tipping points will be there, but it’s the social tipping points that will explode and make it very difficult for us to engage in our societies in a healthy and stable and peaceful way,” she said.
Green and social
Europe aims to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. To that end, the EU is deepening its emission reduction target for 2030 to at least 55% from a previously agreed 40% compared to 1990 levels.
The tougher 2030 target is enshrined in a package of EU draft climate legislation known as “Fit for 55”, which the Commission proposed in mid-2021. It is a pillar of the European “Green Deal” to make the EU economy more sustainable, competitive and inclusive.
“The current welfare nets we have are important, but what the EU will have to do is to maintain its status as the leader around the world to take into account green and social issues together,” said Dixson-Declève.
Since the war in Ukraine began 10 months ago, the EU has rushed to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels. The effort meant front-loading elements of the Green Deal, which include greater market shares for renewable energy and European funds to help spur the energy switch.
Nevertheless, with the EU ban on Russian coal and oil in place and gas imports from Russia significantly reduced, potential energy shortages in Europe this winter are a concern for policymakers. In addition, inflation across the EU is high and the European economy is weakening.
“We are in the middle of severe energy poverty, which will turn into transport poverty,” Dixson-Declève said.
In that context, a debate has started in European policy circles about whether the EU should come up with more funds to help member states advance their green goals.
Proponents draw inspiration from an unprecedented European funding program – NextGenerationEU – agreed by heads of government in late 2020 to recover from the economic slump caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and build resilience.
Dixson-Declève leaves no doubt as to which side of the argument she falls on.
“In a moment of stress like we have now, we will probably need to work together across Europe to ensure we bring forward new funds,” she said. “I asked for an EU package – which is a citizen’s package – which we can call a solidarity check or a solidarity financial package that will also enable citizens to feel that they are not only supported by their country , but through the EU.’
In any case, Dixson-Declève said a key to success will be regulation in ways that ensure prices for fossil fuels include their environmental costs and renewable energy becomes more accessible.
“What we need to do is prove to people that cheaper energy can actually be green,” she said. ‘We need to increase the price structures so that we are actually doing cost externalities.’
The broader underlying challenge is that governments need to rethink traditional approaches to the economy based on gross domestic product and GDP growth, according to Dixson-Declève.
She pushed for greater weighting of “well-being” indicators ranging from health care to education, saying they measure real economic resilience and are what people generally care about most.
As the EU continues its Green Deal and seeks to encourage the rest of the world to follow suit, governments in Europe have a crucial opportunity to put the European economy on a healthier footing and to lead by example. according to Dixson-Declève.
“We really have to walk the talk,” she said. ‘This is not only the moment of truth for good government, it is the moment of truth for understanding what citizens want.’
SANDRINE DIXSON-DECLÈVE OP…
In her interview, Sandrine Dixson-Declève also commented on the United Nations climate summit last month (COP27), EU trade relations and the prospects for economic management of “well-being” that goes beyond GDP growth. The following are excerpts from those comments:
‘I am disappointed with the outcome of the COP meeting. From a negotiating point of view, I don’t feel that apart from the “loss and damage” financial facility, we have much that came out of that meeting.’
“I was particularly very disappointed that the European Union’s proposal to have a phase-out of fossil energy was not accepted.”
‘We are still not going fast enough and far enough – and at the scale needed – to really create the shift we need towards decarbonisation.’
‘We absolutely need to have more ambitious commitments from governments.’
EU climate and trade policies
“The EU really needs to show its muscle and continue to be committed to its Green Deal objectives.”
“That will mean probably having some more targeted and robust conversations with China, with the United States, with other countries.”
‘Europe must take a very strong leadership position in terms of its relationship with Africa’, pursue ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘technology exchange’ to help the African continent ‘shift in a way that it can continue to have economic development and be able to follow a path to get its people out of poverty – and yet do so in a way that is decarbonised.’
Beyond the GDP
‘Our surveys have shown that 74% of G-20 citizens want to move towards a well-being economy and I do believe that governments are starting to think about this and look at new indicators.’
‘Well-being governments are those that consider real resilience across their systems.’
‘The emphasis is placed on education, it is placed on social elements, it is placed on the importance of welfare and especially the importance of health care.’
“I think it’s catching on, it’s really starting to generate a lot of movement in different countries.”
“There is new thinking around the world – I think it’s fascinating.”
This interview was originally published in Horizonthe EU Research and Innovation Journal.