Podcast: Floods and ‘Fit for 55’ – is Europe waking up to the reality of climate breakdown?

As the world watches climate breakdown and the billionaire space race occurring side-by-side, is it time for Europe to embrace a radical plan to rapidly reduce emissions and tackle inequality all-at-once? Ben Wray speaks to Dušan Pajović of DiEM25’s GND for Europe campaign about the floods, the EU Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ climate plan and what a real Green New Deal would look like.

While the billionaires are off clowning around in space, here on earth the breakdown of our climate is starting to get very real indeed. A record-breaking heatwave in North America was followed by devastating flooding in Europe, which has since been surpassed by unprecedented torrential rain in China. The death and destruction of all of these extreme weather events are inseparable from a warming world, and have apparently caught authorities in some of the most advanced economies in the world entirely off-guard and unprepared.

Inequality and ecological crisis do not just sit side-by-side, they are entirely intertwined. The figures of the super-rich’s carbon foot print and the tiny number of corporations which are responsible for the majority of world emissions are now widely known, but none of it seems to puncture the belief of states that only by nudging, incentivising and subsidising the self-same climate wreckers – the Richard Branson’s and Jeff Bezos’ of this world – to change direction can we deliver a historic, unprecedented transformation in the global economy in less than a decade. The EU Commission’s new ‘Fit for 55’ climate action plan is largely an attempt at greening Branson, Bezos and co. But is there any alternative?

Dušan Pajović believes there is. Pajović is DiEM25’s Green New Deal for Europe campaign co-ordinator. GND for Europe have published a detailed blue-print for delivering their vision, which seeks to address climate breakdown while tackling chronic inequality.

In this podcast, Bella Caledonia speaks to Pajović about:

2:05: The extreme weather events in recent weeks
6:16: The EU Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ climate action plan
15:09: What’s different between DiEM25’s Green New Deal plan and the EU’s ‘Green Deal’?
20:46: Where next for the climate justice movement?

Bella Caledonia · Interview with Dušan Pajović

This interview is also available below in text form.

BC: How are the increasingly dramatic effects of climate breakdown altering the debate about climate action?

DP: I think it is going to put a lot of pressure on politicians, which are again doing business-as-usual, or politics-as-usual as a matter of fact. I think it’s really sad that the European Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ plan came at this moment, because it is once again half-measures and empty promises. I think we are not really yet aware of catastrophes that are going to come. And by ‘we’, I think first of all Europeans, but especially I think the non-aware are the politicians. That is really problematic, and I think we have to leave the politics of austerity for the many and socialism for the few behind, because this is what got us here in the first place.

I just want to mention that as well as the disasters in Germany, Belgium and China, there are also severe consequences of climate change [right now] in Madagascar, Congo and Chad, and that is something that has not really been mentioned by mainstream media. We are so desensitised that we don’t mention the victims in the global south, that is really problematic. I think the real consequences are only going to be acknowledged by politicians once we get a huge bunch of climate immigrants knocking to our door.

BC: There is increasing talk after the floods in Europe of climate adaptation; that we need to get prepared for that new reality. While obviously true, is there a danger that is going to change the focus of the debate, away from cutting carbon emissions and towards a sort of defeatist mentality which says ‘this is coming now, we’ve missed our chance to do anything about it, we just need to prepare for the worst?’

DP: It’s just one of the strategies to maintain the status quo. I think politicians just want to stay in power and don’t really want to change anything, and that’s why they are talking about climate adaptation in terms of fighting climate change. Ultimately capitalism is the one that is mainly to blame for all of this, and we need to leave it behind. Finally we are at that point of history to imagine the end of capitalism and to act accordingly.

BC: The EU Commission’s action plan to meet its target of reducing carbon emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, called ‘Fit for 55’, was published last week. The EU Commission describes it as “a careful balance between pricing, targets, standards and support measures”. It includes extending emissions trading on road transport and buildings, a new ‘Social climate fund’, a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism which puts a price on imports of high-polluting goods, and phasing out petrol and diesel cars by 2035. I want to ask you about a few different aspects of Fit for 55, but let me ask you about the overall picture first: is this actually Fit for 55, i.e. is it a plan that can actually reduce emissions by that amount in less than a decade?

DP: I think ‘Fit for 55’ is fit for the 1 per cent. If we want to stay in the limit of 2 degrees celsius, let alone 1.5, it is just not enough. Once again it is only a cosmetic measure and a half-measure that won’t lead us anywhere.

Unfortunately I think the biggest aspect of this is that it will again fall on the back of working people because they extended the [green] taxation to heating and to transportation costs, so once again citizens are the ones that will pay for the transition while the fossil fuel industry continues to grow with unprecedented support by private banks and by that same European Union that bailed them out. They are not really focused on phasing out fossil fuels and we do not have time until 2050 to do that, we need to do it by 2030 at the latest if we really want to save our planet.

BC: You’ve mentioned the impact on those on low-incomes of ‘Fit for 55’. A study by Cambridge Econometrics found that this new policy of emission trading on buildings would have “little additional impact on emissions…but would significantly increase living costs for poorer households”. Is there a danger that the Fit for 55 policies is going to lead to a new ‘Gilet Jaunes’ moment, where the French rural working class revolted over a new fuel tax which replaced a wealth tax, so it was seen as an attack on the working class?

DP: I think that’s what happens when you don’t tackle all three crisis simultaneously, which is the economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the crisis of democracy. And they are only trying to tackle the environmental crisis and they even do that poorly. It is clearly a deal between oligarchs and the establishment which possibly will motivate the people to be on the streets. So I think it is something we can say is relatively predictable that will happen. That is what you get when you try to solve everything on the backs of 99 per cent of the people.

BC: Do you have any thoughts on the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism policy, because I have seen differing views of this on the left. I have seen some on the left say that this is a necessary measure to try to push the emissions reductions out to the rest of the world, while I have seen others say that it is a tax on the world’s poorest and won’t reduce emissions that much?

DP: I think this is one small measure that can have an effect, but it depends on how other governments react to this. Nigeria has more than 60 per cent of its revenue from fossil fuels, so it really depends how this is going to play out. I think the EU could do much better on international justice. We need to take a closer look at tax havens and we need to redefine some of the international protocols, like on arms sales. Also this can be done in a different way, via WTO for example. As the continent which has had a lot of impact on the carbon production of those countries we are now trying to influence, and the historical impact of colonialism of course as well, we need to be more responsible towards them and not to leave them to drown on the back of our green transition.

BC: I want to find at least one positive on ‘Fit for 55’; is there anything that you thought ‘this is moving more in the direction of what I want to see’?

DP: Yes, there is one thing, that is including maritime transport and ships into the European trading scheme. That is the only thing I’ve seen as positive to be honest. I’m not being critical for the purpose of criticising itself, that’s just how things are.

Maybe I have too high expectations but it is just a set of proposals which doesn’t match the New Deal of Roosevelt, or our Green New Deal, or the Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They shouldn’t use the name ‘Green Deal’, because Roosevelt’s New Deal made more than 20 million jobs from 1935 onwards. The European Commission mentioned creating more than 160,000 jobs from building new infrastructure, which is not that much and they portray it as a big victory.

BC: Can you outline the fundamental difference between your Green New Deal and the EU’s ‘Green Deal’?

DP: There are really a bunch of [differences] but let’s try to summarise with some concrete examples. So for instance they are talking about something called free allocation of money [free corporate permits to the European Trading Scheme], while we are proposing green public works and an investment programme funnelled by investment banks to fund this transition. And no it’s not something that’s impossible, it’s not something that’s like a utopia, they did it a bunch of times, for example in the 2008 crisis. It’s only impossible when we are trying to save the planet and not the banks, they do it for the banks all the time.

So the EU Commission’s plan is for €250-350 billion [over a decade], and we are talking about 5% of GDP which is about €750 billion [annually], through the bonds issued by banks into this green public works programme which is going to allocate that money accordingly for decent green jobs, healthcare, housing and education for all. We make social inequality as our priority alongside the environmental crisis. We are talking about buying back vacant houses and making them homes. This is a big crisis in Europe and we should act accordingly. Also we are talking about international, intersectional and intergenerational problems. We offer care income to people (usually women) who are taking care of older people and kids, and inter-generationally speaking we need to leave a good planet and good conditions for kids.

That’s just some examples; we also propose to make ecocide a law against humanity, the phasing out of industrial animal agriculture, recognising our responsibility to the global south, and a rapid and complete removal of fossil energy systems in Europe at the latest by 2030. And that is something that can only be tackled if we do it in the way we propose in our plan, which is 95-pages long.

BC: Is there a danger of expecting too much from the EU, in the sense that the EU Commission – at least to an extent – balances the perspectives of the national governments, which have varying degrees of commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Poland isn’t the same as Spain on this issue, for example. Should we not be focused more on trying to change things at a country-by-country level? I know DiEM25’s project is about a European-scale transformation, but is that too utopian?

DP: I don’t think we have time for that anymore. We had time for that in the ‘80s but now we don’t. That’s why we need some kind of central funding, which is why I go back to the green public works. If you say there is going to be €750 billion issued in bonds and directed towards EU member states, and you get that money if you fulfil that criteria, then it’s all sold. Because if the politicians won’t to do it citizens are definitely going to put pressure on their elected prime minister’s and president’s to do so.

We don’t have time to do things piece-by-piece. We don’t have time, for example, for separate policies: a policy for education, a policy for housing, a policy for the environment. We need to tackle them all in the same place; holistically. That’s why we propose a Green New Deal that tackles various aspects of our problems.

BC: Earlier this week, a Global Alliance for a Green New Deal was launched, which included politicians from around the world. Do you think that the Green New Deal idea – which took off in 2019 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started talking about it – still has momentum behind it?

DP: Well, we are thinking about re-branding so this is a nice time to ask me that question! There are pros and cons regarding this name. But I think these type of programmes – we don’t have to call it a Green New Deal – holistic programmes for nature, animals and the planet are going to take more and more momentum because we are going to see more and more issues and we need to battle them at the same time, so we need something as holistic as a Green New Deal. That’s why I think that our time is yet to come.

Regarding the Global Alliance, I saw their livestream and tweeted about it because it seemed really promising to me, but we’ll see what’s going to happen with that. Of course we are open to collaborations. We dare to demand something as radical and realistic as possible, so that’s why we have this policy up front and we want to deliver it with our partners and everyone who’s interested.

BC: I think it’s fair to say there was a lot of momentum on the streets behind the climate justice movement – Fridays for Future, the Green New Deal, Extinction Rebellion – pre-pandemic, but the pandemic has brought that to a halt. What do you think the next steps are for the climate justice movement?

DP: Unfortunately, I think the world and the weather is going to do it for us, instead of us doing something specific. We are doing everything that is in our power to be relevant and to be present, even now during Covid-19 which makes things much harder for us. But I think the world and these weather temperatures will do it for us instead.

BC: We have important political events coming up this year. The German election in September, with potentially the Green Party becoming the leading party in Germany, which would be an interesting development. And there is COP26 in Glasgow in November; I know GND for Europe are planning an alternative online conference to that. Do you think there is a political window of opportunity to move things more in a radical direction in terms of climate action than what we have seen with ‘Fit for 55’?

DP: Absolutely, that’s our goal. We think that only with the combination of civil disobedience, protests, marches on the streets and electoral fights can we do something. So that’s in the end why we decided not only to be a movement organisation but also to have an electoral means. We are going to have our ‘COPOff’ conference, alternative climate conference, in November. So this is going to be a busy time for us and we are going to try to provide a voice for those who are not being listened to.

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  1. Paula Becker says:

    Imagine it’s 2016 and you’re a multi billionaire. Just a few months ago you saw Francois Hollande and Christina Figueres holding their hands aloft as if the Paris climate conference was a huge success. You’re intelligent enough to know that it is, in fact, an abject failure – the latest in a long line of climate conference abject failures. You’re very well educated, scientifically literate, tech savvy, data savvy, politically well connected and you know , therefore, that climate change is real and that the world is heading for 3-4 degrees of warming (at least). You know that it’s too late to fix, that up the road, at some point in the present century, collapse is inevitable. Seas will rise, fires will rage, crops will fail, people will panic. The question then would be how best to manage these last few decades until complete collapse. How to maintain your wealth, power and privilege as things start to unravel?
    Of course it would be important to crack down on protestors – to silence or imprison them – as they are a direct threat to the elite class. The internet and social media are useful for monitoring the sway of popular opinion but can they really continue to be a free for all. More control and censorship are required. Surveillance is also key – so perhaps some form of digital ID is necessary to keep tabs on people. Plus more cctv and facial recognition as they have in China. And a Chinese style benefits system. In fact why not simply ditch democracy, which has become a sham anyway, and embrace a fully Authoritarian style of governance.
    These are massive changes that need to be brought into effect. A shock is needed and a way to get people to buy into this change. How can the elite control people’s movements whilst making them believe it’s for their own good – unless of course you can somehow convince them it’s for the good of their health and the health of their fellow citizens?
    Now how might you achieve that?

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