In Europe we share climate change and environmental damage with the rest of the world, but what are we doing about it on our continent? Brian Milne discusses.

I live on the edge of a forest. Each spring when the wild orchids begin to flower I am stunned by their variety and beauty. The odours in the forest when I come across vast patches of edible and highly enjoyable mushrooms, collecting large bags of sweet chestnuts, continually trying to find the secret places where truffles grow, then seeing the young deer, boar and other animals, all still stun me. I grew up in cities, but we had wild and rough areas nearby that satisfied a thirst for a juvenile knowledge about nature. Then we also had a river that was dead and foul smelling, at that time reputedly the most polluted river in England. That disturbed me, but I did not know why.

As soon as I was old enough I left home and the city. Since then I have lived mainly in or very close to the open countryside. I have, however, watched that changing. Where I live the forest is no longer as healthy as it was a decade ago. It may be the exceptionally strong winds that have become a regular event or the long, very hot and dry summers that make drought an ever worsening matter.

I also chose a profession that put me in contrasting environments. In some places I worked in part in poor parts of vast cities in developing cities, often heavily polluted places at that, whilst in contrast going out to where migrants had originated from in mountainous areas, forests, savannah, deserts or by ‘untouched’ seas. Thus, over time I imagine I have become a kind of ‘environmentalist. Scientifically I am by no means an expert and really do not see myself as an activist or campaigner. However, I feel that there needs to be something done rather than talking or writing, as in fact I am doing here, to stop what is clearly happening to our world.

The Paris Agreement

In a rather extraordinary way I feel a bit embarrassed by where I live. Not the area I am in but the country. The reason why is that it is the country in which what should be a meaningful treaty was signed by the vast majority of nations on this planet, most have become state party to it, but nothing much seems to be happening. That includes here in France where promises were made, but environmental activists are expressing their discontent with how little and slow things are done and many not at all. The Paris Agreement is an international agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that deals with the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, how that will be adapted and financed, that was signed in 2016. The language used in the text of the agreement to lay down agreed terms, timetables and other details was negotiated by the representatives of 197 state parties at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC just outside Paris, then adopted by consensus on 12th December 2015. It entered into force on 4th November 2016, 30 days after the date on which at least 55 parties to the Convention, or an estimated 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, had deposited their instruments of ratification. At present, 195 UNFCCC members have signed the agreement and 187 have become party to it. The agreement requires all parties to present their best efforts through nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that they will commit themselves to strengthening over coming years. Part of that is that all parties to the agreement report regularly on emissions and implementation efforts.

The long term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The next objective is to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, recognising that this will significantly reduce the risk and impact of climate change. The commitment is to peak emissions as soon as possible, then to move on to a balance between anthropogenic emissions and greenhouse gases in the second half of the 21st century. It also aims to increase the ability of parties to the agreement to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, making the flow of necessary finance consistent with a way of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and increasing climate resilient development.

Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to alleviate global warming. There is no instrument in place that compels a country to set a specific target by a fixed date; however each target is intended to go beyond previously set targets. Whilst countries were slowly setting a latest date, Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the USA from the agreement. Under the agreement, the earliest effective date for that withdrawal is November 2020, which is a very short time before the end of his current term. The changes in USA policy that are contrary to the Paris Agreement have already been put in place.

For us the question must be how Europe is doing?

The EU is at the forefront of international efforts to fight climate change. After only limited participation in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 that became effective in 2005 and general lack of unanimity in Copenhagen in 2009, the EU contributed to building up a broad coalition of developed and developing countries committed to an ambitious programme that helped arrive at the successful outcome of the Paris conference. Thereafter, the EU was the first major economy to submit its intended contribution to the new agreement early in 2015. The joint NDC was agreed with all key legislation for implementing this target intended to be adopted by the end of 2018 although some member states are still in the process of putting national legislation in place.

The EU joint goal is for all 28 member states, which includes the UK at this point in time. It was early to adopt joint climate agreements and renewable energy sources in comparison with most states party and has since raised its targets, which are due to be updated in the Paris Agreement in 2020. The EU’s current objective is at least a 40% reduction in emissions levels from what they were in 1990 by 2030. The EU is currently on track for a 48% decrease and has since voted to legally increase the goal to 55% which is, nevertheless, still not enough. If every participating state adopted similar standards to the EU, the world would still be at risk of seeing 3°C warming by the end of the 21st century. Nonetheless, individual countries in the EU have made progress in the right direction to earn them high ranking in the table of progress for their efforts. Climate action is also an integral part of the EU’s joint foreign policy agenda. By using climate diplomacy and cooperation initiatives, the EU aims to build up the political will and trust needed to promote global action, thus ensure the effectiveness of this aspect of development cooperation and increase their capacity to support partner countries in their endeavours.

Progress within the union itself is not as fast as originally intended. The UK is until now the only G7 country to pass a law mandating the country be entirely carbon neutral by 2050. It has also backed an aggressive coal generated energy phase out, but the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) has said that much more investment is necessary in renewable energy sources and improved low-carbon transport. However, Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven in Cumbria will be the first deep coal mine in England since Asfordby pit was opened in 1987. When approved by Cumbria County Council it was said it would bring jobs to a deprived area but also met strong criticism by green campaigners. At present there is a moratorium on fracking, although the government has not committed itself to that being an absolute ban on this method of gas and oil extraction. France has implemented a carbon tax and there is a plan to phase coal already in place, but emissions levels are still relatively high against their goals, according to CCPI. They have lost two environment ministers during President Macron’s term in office. One resigned out of principle on a radio show because he felt that Macron’s government was ignoring the environment and the other because of a corruption scandal. The country has implemented a carbon tax and there is a coal phase-out plan in place, but the country’s emissions levels are still relatively high for its goals, according to CCPI. Macron claimed he had changed when he explained why he would immediately be prioritising environmental policy during an interview with Konbini, the French media agency, in August. Nevertheless there have been no actual policy changes that reflect his statement. France still has much to do.

Germany has become a leader in the EU and worldwide, including climate change diplomacy. In domestic terms, a high share of energy comes from renewable sources, even when compared to the EU overall, with emissions levels per capita falling. Despite that, Germany still falls short of staying below their 2030 goals and projections for staying under 2°C degrees increased warming. CCPI say they lack essential carbon taxes and other more aggressive policy initiatives that would better align diplomatic efforts with results. Improvements are, however, being made slowly; for example, during 2019 legislation was proposed to phase out use of coal by 2038; on the other hand that still needs to be made into law which will not be easy with stiff opposition from concerns whose primary sources of fuel is coal. Italy has reduced energy use per capita over recent years and has also implemented phase out plan for coal by 2025. Nonetheless, they have failed to implement their goals. They joined the High Ambition Coalition statement in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and CCPI have said that experts hope that this will lead to a more proactive approach in international climate negotiations. Elsewhere in the EU progress is at best steady but generally relatively slow despite joint and individual commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Opposition and advocacy, the movements

The current warming trend is especially particular significant because there is a greater than 95% probability that predictions on the outcome of human activity since the mid 20 century is taking place at a rate that is unprecedented over a number of millennia and only compares with natural phenomena that science has shown made vast differences to this planet, including mass extinctions.  Some anti-environmentalists have argued that this planet is not as fragile as some people maintain, since it maintained itself long before our species arrived and will continue to sustain itself long after we are gone. Another argument climate change and environmental degradation opponents hold is that it is in the interest of the economy, particularly job creation, to be anti-environmental; they include major oil producers and mining companies. They have joined forces to back a political movement that opposes action towards preserving nature and the environment through measures such as the reduction of climate change. It is a view that is often shared by politically conservative and business groups who support expert opinions to persuade people that environmental protection policy impacts them negatively by using public debate that uses cleverly structured pseudoscience. Their intent is to counteract the effects of environmental ideology and movements, diminish public concern about the environment, using attacks on what they call left leaning environmentalists, which many are not, thus dissuade politicians from increasing environmental regulation.

The environmental movement that includes long established conservation and more recently founded green movements is a diverse scientific, social and political movement that crosses the entire spectrum from left to right. It is made up of a range of organisations, but because of the inclusion of environmentalism in the classroom curriculum it has a younger demographic than in most other social movements. When looked at as a single movement, which is in fact many different movement, environmentalism covers a wide range of areas that begin with growing interest in genuine wilderness which is increasingly rare, thus unmanaged forests, uncultivated grasslands, wild fauna and flora through to the consumption of ecosystems and natural resources into waste, such issues as dumping waste into the midst of poor communities, air and water pollution, the exposure of organic life to toxins, the effect of synthetics, especially plastics, on nature and many other areas. Because of the many separate domains these occupy, the environmental movement can be categorised into environmental science, activism, advocacy and justice, each of which fills the entire spectrum between amateur activists to highly specialised professional.

Contemporary environmentalist politics really took off in the 1970s, the German Grünen being more or less the first to consolidate green or eco politics in political parties known collectively as the Green Party, it began as a political ideology that cultivated the notion of an ecologically sustainable society deeply rooted in environmentalism, but that carried with it a philosophy of nonviolence, social justice and grassroots democracy. Since the 1970s Green parties have developed and established themselves in many countries around the world and have achieved considerable electoral success.

The science

Because science tends to be too far removed from the vast majority of people, it has been the parties that have drawn attention to such matters as our planet’s average surface temperature rising about 0.9°C since the late 19th century, that change driven for the most part by increased carbon dioxide and other human made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming that has raised the status of the issue has occurred over roughly the past 35 years with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. One year, 2016, was the warmest on record, with eight of twelve months from January until September, with the exception of June, the warmest on record ever. Oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters showing warming of more than 0.12°C over 50 from 1969 until the present. Polar ice sheets have decreased in mass, alone Greenland has lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016. Satellite observations reveal the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over five decades and that it is melting earlier. The extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over recent decades. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world; Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa but for us more directly in the Alps.

Science shows us that the climate has changed many time; just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age roughly 7000 years ago to begin of the modern climate era and with it human civilisation. Most of climate changes have been attributed to small variations in our orbit that change the amount of solar energy received. The heat trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other polluting gases was already being demonstrated in the mid 19 century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere that heats the surface of the planet up is now soundly proven. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must be causing the Earth to get warmer.

The Paris Agreement does not single out the responsibility of particular countries damaging the planet, but it does set out a wider agenda. As yet, whilst the scientific evidence referred to above is very easily available to all countries, the level of real terms response is not even moving satisfactorily toward the targets set in 2016. It is, of course, therefore not a specifically European responsibility, however it does not exclude the EU working with any number of countries working together to prevent catastrophe befalling us all. It should be a set part of the agenda that is in all trade agreements and partnerships with the EU and its member states, that as we work to achieve our goals, other nations will follow our example and where necessary turn to them for support and expertise. If the EU itself is to survive, then it will require an environment conducive to its own standards around it. It is, therefore, incumbent on EU nations to begin to work in unison to provide sound evidence for the survival of other nations and, ultimately, the survival of our world. It is also, sometimes forgotten, not simply the effort to protect a frail natural environment but also our own species, which should begin with a duty to look beyond our own bounds to those places already facing disaster such as island nations and lowlands that will be inundated as water levels rise, not simply coastal areas but often inland natural basins where the backflow of rising seas may eventually create inland seas, often displacing very large numbers of people. Europe has the resources and science that could lead in such efforts; they need to become part of a shared European policy instead of simply acceding to an agreement then making promises there are no certainties can or will be met.


Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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