19 December 2019

Europe is going green from the grassroots up

As we approach the end of the decade, one trend in Europe is clear: climate action is on the rise.

Public sentiment

Europeans are increasingly concerned with the environment and are calling on political actors to respond to the climate crisis.

Results released from latest Eurobarometer surveys, a regular public opinion survey carried out by European institutions, show that Europeans are concerned with climate change and want to see nations and the EU take action.

Survey respondents were asked to indicate the two most important issues facing their countries, and facing the EU. At the national level, “the environment, climate and energy issues” was the fourth-most cited answer, representing 20 percent of responses and a six percent increase compared to a 2018 Eurobarometer survey. At the EU level, “climate change” was the second-most common answer, representing 22 percent of responses, and similarly showing a 6 percent increase from 2018.

Citizens were also asked to choose from a list of 11 objectives, which should be prioritised in a “European Energy Union.” The top three answers were: developing renewable energy (45 percent overall, and a one percent increase compared to results in 2018); protecting the environment (43 percent overall, and a two percent increase); and fighting global warming (37 percent, and a six percent increase). These environmentally relevant factors were prioritised over factors such as guaranteeing competitiveness of EU’s energy industry, and guaranteeing reasonable energy prices for companies.

From public sentiment to citizen action

The European public is not only expressing their views via surveys – they are also taking to the streets! The youth-led ‘Fridays for Future’ movement has spread worldwide, with protests in European cities galvanising thousands of residents to take to their cities’ streets and call for climate action.

These calls began as grassroots efforts and have spread to higher governing levels. Sparked by citizen action, cities across Europe and the world are increasingly declaring climate emergencies. And, critically, many cities are using a declaration of emergency to enact change. ICLEI Member Cork (Ireland), for example, paired its acknowledgement of a climate emergency with a political motion that calls for the foundation of a Climate Action Committee, with elected members of the committee meeting regularly with civil society organisations to discuss measures to combat climate change. The motion also required that a new “trees and biodiversity” policy be crafted and put before the Council for approval by the end of January 2020.

The European Union has heard cities’ calls and, in a remarkable move, the European Parliament declared a “climate and environmental emergency” on 29 November 2019.

What does a European Parliament climate emergency mean?

In sum, with this climate emergency declaration, the European Parliament calls for:

  • The European Commission to ensure that all proposals are in line with global goals of limiting global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels
  • The European Union to cut emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and become “climate neutral” by 2050
  • Reducing emissions from shipping and aviation by, for example, including emissions from shipping and aviation in Nationally-Determined Commitments

In declaring a Climate Emergency, not only did the European Parliament acknowledge and respond to public discourse, but they importantly also set the groundwork for the EU to commit at COP25 to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen did exactly this, by releasing a European Green Deal on 11 December.

“This year of climate activism has clearly demonstrated the power of citizen action,” says Stefan Kuhn, ICLEI Europe Deputy Regional Director. “Civic engagement can and must be at the heart of our transformation towards a more sustainable future. Watching climate action build in this bottom-up manner is heartening and reminds us that communities are central to every step of this process.”

Not only has this highlighted the power of the grassroots, but it also shines a light on the impact of local governments. Cities were among the first governments to recognise the need for ambitious climate action, and thereby to declare climate emergencies. National parliaments – such as in France, Ireland, Portugal and the United Kingdom – were the next to follow-suit with ‘climate emergency’ declarations, clearing the way for the European Parliament to do the same. Cities have led this political response to civic calls for action.

“Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent”

Through the release of its European Green Deal, the Commission has set an ambitious goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Deal is comprehensive, covering areas ranging from clean energy, to industry, buildings, mobility, biodiversity, food and farming, and to pollution. It includes a roadmap with indicative timelines for 47 proposed actions, with actions expected in 2020 and 2021.

Having a timeline is important to ensure that goals are translated to results. Follow-through will be critical to ensure that targets are met and that the historic European Green Deal is as impactful as it promises to be. Because, as Stefan Kuhn concludes, “just handing climate action down to civil society and individual citizens will not be enough.”