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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


23 May 2019 – If the EU is to regain trust and achieve a renewed social contract, the most progressive response to the climate crisis must be at the core of its new mission, writes Martin Porter, Executive Chair in Brussels, The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

No one could have read the UN’s recent global assessment of biodiversity, indicating that one million animal and plant species face extinction, and not be shocked. And last year’s ‘1.5 degrees’ IPCC report was just as stark in its warning that the window of opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change will close by 2030, a mere decade away – making climate neutrality for Europe in advance of 2050 de facto necessary for the global goal to be met.

We clearly continue to have a fundamentally unsustainable global economy and society – and our political system in Europe is struggling to keep pace with and adapt to the need for fundamental change. For all its resilience, successes and continuing potential, if Europe’s current model of development is proving to be socially and politically unsustainable, the evidence that it is environmentally so is now overwhelming.

The urgency and scale of the changes necessary to address climate change alone – and biodiversity and ecosystem damage and resource depletion are now of equal significance – and so intertwined with broader policy areas as to be impossible to deal with separately and require immediate and enormous collective efforts if they are to be properly handled.

In this context, the importance of the European elections and the next five-year agenda they set for the new EU mandate are hard to underestimate. The significance of the likely new European Parliament is as much in its broader rejection of binary left-right thinking and allegiances represented by traditional political parties, as an appeal for new thinking from all parties on issues such as sustainability, where public trust is clearly at stake. But if it is to achieve a renewed social contract, the most progressive response to the climate crisis must surely be at its heart.

Public support for action on climate change by the EU is high and growing; it is an area where international co-operation and collaboration are considered obvious and essential to European citizens from all member states.

Politicians dismissing the incredibly rapid growth in support of the Youth for Climate campaign, initiated by Swedish student Greta Thunberg underestimate the dynamic unleashed when a new generation realises their futures are being decided today and expect their political representatives to take much bolder action on it.  The new Extinction Rebellion movement of civil disobedience reflects similar sentiments of frustration and impatience, as its own rapid progress underlines.

The European election campaign and the debate that has been launched about ‘the future of Europe’ are much less about institutional introspection or another round of Treaty reform than about a search for a new mission. This new mission must be built upon an updated application of the EU’s established principles, be even more clearly relevant to the key challenges of the 21st century, and more genuinely popular. It must inspire solidarity and enable progress.

There are positive signs and a legacy from the current five-year EU cycle which offers hope and a springboard for a bold EU mission for the coming years and a case for the EU to make climate neutrality and sustainable development central to it wider purpose.

The economic case for the transition is stronger and clearer than ever. The Commission’s ‘Clean Planet for All’ strategy confirms that its two proposed net zero emissions scenarios are those most positive for GDP growth, industrial development opportunities, employment increases, health and well-being for its citizens.  But it also confirms the enormous investment needs, uneven impacts of transition across different regions or demographics, and need for transitional measures for businesses to enable them to compete in the current global market place whilst innovating for the transition.

It underlines the need for social innovation that harnesses digital innovation and positive behavioural change rather than seeking ‘technological fixes’ which embed current practices. And it highlights the importance of addressing underlying drivers of demand and consumption rather than focusing predominantly on supply and production-oriented solutions.  And of course, there must be concerted and additional efforts to ensure that this transition is a just one, and seen to be so, in order for the significant and widespread concerns about growing inequality in our societies are addressed properly at the same time.

This can no longer be treated as a marginal or even parallel agenda to the mainstream economic development – it represents a shift to a new model of development, and as in previous eras where Europe has led global developments, Europe once again finds a historic responsibility.

With an economic and environmental impact that is in relative decline due to the growth in other regions of the world, the ability of the EU to have continued global impact will be less through its diplomatic efforts on the Paris Agreement and SDGs, than in demonstrating a successful socio-economic model for global transition.

A version of this blog was first published on the EURACTIV website.



Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.

About the author

Martin porter 254x127

Martin Porter joined CISL from the European Climate Foundation, where he was working as Europe Group Co-ordinator. He has also led their Industry and Innovation programme and has a long track record of working on industry, environment and sustainability issues prior to taking up that role in 2015. He is also an expert advisor to the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 on climate and resource issues, a representative on the Economic and Social Committee’s Commission on Industrial Change, a member of UCL’s European Institute Advisory Board and a member of the advisory board to the Sustainable Biomass Programme.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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