Watering Down the Concept of an Emergency instead of Ratcheting Up Climate Policies — The EU Parliament’s Climate Emergency Resolution

The European Parliament resolution of 28 November 2019 on the climate and environment emergency (2019/2930(RSP) is not the much needed transformative legislative action to address the daunting challenge of climate change, which, by the way, might be better off without the label of an emergency. Rather, it is an illustration of still relative weak power of the European Parliament, and a fig leaf to hide behind when real bold decisions need to be avoided or societal (read: social media) pressure needs to be deflected.

I will not dwell on the sense and nonsense of declaring a climate emergency in general, other than to point to a good short summary of that debate by Alistair Scrutton, but instead provide a brief comment on the actual resolution.

The resolution dutifully opens with references to numerous relevant international conventions and agreements, to “the latest and most comprehensive scientific evidence on the damaging effects of climate change” and “the massive threat of loss of biodiversity”, as well as to several upcoming crucial international meetings on climate change and biodiversity and the statement that immediate and ambitious action is crucial to limiting global warming to 1,5° C and avoiding massive biodiversity loss. So far so good, so obvious. The next paragraph in the resolution specifies the general requirements for the necessary action:

Whereas this action must be science-based and must involve citizens and all sectors of society and the economy, including industry, in a socially balanced and sustainable way; whereas it must support the competitiveness of our economies and be accompanied by strong social and inclusive measures to ensure a fair and equitable transition that supports job creation, while respecting the need for a high standard of welfare and high quality jobs and training;

It is hard to disagree with this paragraph. For me especially as it opens with the need for a scientific basis. For others possibly because it mentions issues of balance, justice, and fairness; and for some because it underscores that action should not to be at the detriment of economic competitiveness and job creation. But is this the language of an emergency? No, not really, unless one takes into account how in the next paragraph of the resolution the European Parliament frames an emergency:

Whereas no emergency should ever be used to erode democratic institutions or to undermine fundamental rights; whereas all measures will always be adopted through a democratic process;

I am worried about the tendencies in the climate change discourse to ignore or discard democratic processes and institutions when proposing solutions, and therefore welcome this language. However, the combination of requiring the action to be taken to be convenient for everyone, and framing urgency as a variation on incremental business as usual politics, does not leave a lot of space for bold action. Not surprisingly, the actual decisions in the resolution are far from transformational:

1. Declares a climate and environment emergency; calls on the Commission, the Member States and all global actors, and declares its own commitment, to urgently take the concrete action needed in order to fight and contain this threat before it is too late;

Sounds good but declaring commitment to urgently take action has been done already by nearly all mentioned actors in various forms — not at least by concluding the 2015 Paris Agreement.

2. Urges the new Commission to fully assess the climate and environmental impact of all relevant legislative and budgetary proposals, and ensure that they are all fully aligned with the objective of limiting global warming to under 1,5 °C, and that they are not contributing to biodiversity loss;

Unless the European parliament will actually start rejecting any legislation or budget proposals not in line with this resolution, this is just a shifting of responsibility. The upcoming decision on the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021–2027 might be a good starting point for the European Parliament to show its commitment (see related Think2030/IEEP policy paper).

3. Recognises its institutional responsibility to reduce its carbon footprint; proposes to adopt its own measures to reduce emissions, including replacing its fleet vehicles with zero-emissions vehicles, and calls on all the Member States to agree to a single seat for the European Parliament;

A good decision to replace fleet vehicles with zero-emission vehicles, every reduction of emissions counts. However, this certainly could have done in some form of housekeeping decision. Adding this as the only action in the resolution of which implementation is within the sole remit of the European Parliament does not really reflects the scale of the climate emergency.

Similarly, getting rid of Strasbourg as second seat of the European Parliament makes a lot of sense not just in terms of climate (a creative solution here). However, adding a long-standing wish to no longer have the monthly commute between Brussels and Strasbourg as an action in response to a climate emergency is weakening the concept of an emergency and showing the weakness of the Parliament in that they have to try to use an emergency to get closer to a decision on where they themselves will meet.

4. Urges the new Commission to address the inconsistencies of current Union policies on the climate and environment emergency, in particular through a far-reaching reform of its agricultural, trade, transport, energy and infrastructure investment policies;

A more than overdue action, no harm in repeating the call for far-reaching reforms, but nothing new. Like above in point 2, it will now be up to the European Parliament to vote accordingly when such reforms are tabled and skepticism in this regard seems justified. The resolution ends with the boilerplate paragraph at the end of European Parliament resolutions:

5. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission and the governments and parliaments of the Member States.

Given that the only genuinely new point in the resolution is the replacement of the vehicle fleet, this seems an over the top dissemination strategy. Bold transformative actions to address the daunting challenge of climate change are needed. If the European Parliament at some point in the future — preferably sooner than later — would take such bold actions, I suggest that the dissemination strategy in the last paragraph of that future resolution reads as follows: “Instructs its President to take a hammer and nail the resolution to all office doors in the Council, the Commission and in the buildings of governments and parliaments of the Member States, and use that same hammer and nails to board up the Strasbourg seat of the Parliament.

There are many reasons to support the declaration of a climate emergency. There are as many reasons to oppose the declaration of a climate emergency. But none of them really apply to this declaration of a climate emergency by the European Parliament which waters down the concept of an emergency and fails in ratcheting up ambitious climate policies.

mercenary for science and sustainability | science-policy advisor & strategic consultant | ultrarunner

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