Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Analysis

Climate-neutral EU by 2050 needs us to change lifestyle

  • EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, seen here biking at the UN's annual climate conference in 2016, said that citizens need to know how their choices affect their carbon footprint. (Photo: European Commission)

European consumers need to change their behaviour, otherwise it will be very difficult to make the EU's collective environmental footprint climate-neutral by 2050.

That much was clear from the European Commission's strategy paper on climate action published on Wednesday (28 November).

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  • Maros Sefcovic said he had previously tried to replace the EU commission's car fleet with cleaner cars - but that this was "a tall order" (Photo: EU2016 SK)

But the commission steered clear of issuing specific recommendations on whether Europeans should eat less meat, take fewer holidays in far-away places, or commute to work by train instead of car.

"Climate change can only be tackled if people actively engage, as consumers and as citizens," said the paper, titled 'A Clean Planet for all: A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy'.

The paper laid down the vision of a Europe that produced net-zero greenhouse gas emissions - which means that any economic activities still producing these heat-trapping gases should be compensated for, for example by capturing and storing CO2.

It discussed the required changes in the EU's energy sector, industry, and the role of so-called sinks that can withdraw greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

It also noted that there was an increasing demand for climate-friendly products and services.

"Personal lifestyle choices can make a real difference, while improving quality of life," the paper said.

A 393-page document accompanying the 25-page strategy paper, discussed the role of consumer choices in more detail.

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by adopting more climate conscious lifestyles, and consumer choice for products/services with lower carbon footprint help to diversify decarbonisation pathways," the "in-depth analysis" said.

It went on to say that without changed consumer behaviour, more "not-yet mature technologies" would be needed to decrease greenhouse gases.

The two members of the European Commission presenting the paper in Brussels on Wednesday also stressed the importance of citizens and consumers.

"To achieve climate-neutral Europe, you need the cooperation of citizens. They take decisions that have a carbon footprint," said Miguel Arias Canete, EU commissioner in charge of climate action.

"If people acknowledge what is their footprint - if they know clearly what they are doing, they can take decisions to reduce it," he added.

But the commission is treading carefully on the subject.

One simple way to reduce your personal carbon footprint is to eat less meat, in particular beef, or by taking fewer flights.

The examples given in the commission's paper were less controversial, however.

"Each person's choice in buying a house, choosing an energy supplier, a new vehicle or domestic appliances and equipment impacts his or her carbon footprint for many years to come," the commission said.

It said nothing about eating meat or flying to New York for the weekend.

The commission's reticence on these issues was no big surprise - it wants to avoid being seen as determining what people should eat or where they should go on holiday.

Civil society should do it

Where the commission referred to the necessity of behavioural changes, it did not point to the role of the EU's politicians, but rather passed the buck.

"Organised civil society will play a key role in the further development of consumer awareness and providing the motivation for lifestyle change," the commission said.

Yet, when reading between the lines, the commission does acknowledge the possibility of the EU playing a bigger role.

"Further work will be necessary to increase the transparency about products and services' carbon footprint and thus capitalise on current consumer awareness," the commission said.

It is not too difficult to imagine an EU-level food label that showed that beef is more harmful to the climate than vegetables.

The strategy paper's addendum did note that in the last decades "shifts in diets already took place", but that "demand for long distance travelling, notably aviation, has strongly increased".

Switch off the light!

When EUobserver asked Canete and EU commission vice-president in charge of energy, Maros Sefcovic, about how they have made their personal lifestyles more climate-friendly, the mood in the press room quickly became jovial.

Sefcovic laughingly told his slightly heavier colleague to take the floor first: "You start with diet, Miguel."

To which Canete replied: "I am in a permanent diet - as you can see with no impact."

But jokes aside, the two did give some examples of how they as citizens tried to reduce their carbon footprints.

"One of the things I do more than in the past is walk," said Canete, adding that he had also started using an electric bike.

Both said that they were fish eaters.

"I think over the last years we ate less beef," said Sefcovic.

"I am the guy in the family who always is reminding my - already very big - children: switch off the lights if you are not in the room! I think you can definitely save a lot of energy that way," Sefcovic added.

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