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Leadership: Creating the space to act 

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By Sandrine Dixson-Decleve

· 7 min read

Europe’s policy leaders at all levels of the political ladder – from the EU institutions to the member states – are confronted daily with short-term economic challenges. As a result, sustainability and climate issues are often set aside, and leadership is waning.

The hallways of the EU’s headquarters in Brussels and national capitals are full of frantic advisers, trying to provide the right expertise for policy leaders who are struggling to keep Europe afloat. Yet among all the Eurozone chatter is the persistent, nagging climate and sustainability buzz created by brave leaders in the public sphere, business and civil society, who keep on unveiling the risks of ignoring climate change and resource depletion. In the minds of these farsighted leaders, the risks of not acting today are just as important as the short-term Eurozone and economic crisis, and, if left unanswered, could be even more catastrophic than regional economic collapse.

Their message is simple: the European response to the crisis cannot be limited to fiscal austerity, structural reform, and saving dinosaur industries. Instead, Europe must come up with an industrial innovation and transition plan, which boosts economic growth and job creation through reform of the economy in parallel with short-, medium- and long-term resource efficiency and low-carbon investments – all of which will stimulate economic development and job creation. We need a logical leadership plan, in a context of economic and political parity, where EU member states are all of the same opinion and understand the true value of a strong and competitive Union. Unfortunately, Europe is struggling to pull the Eurozone and Union together, not only economically, but also politically.

The regional challenge

One cannot underestimate the important differences between Eastern and Western European approaches to governance, political negotiation and economic growth – nor the impact these dissimilarities have on moving forward towards a united and innovative vision. One can also not forget the years of inherent distrust built up in the newly-independent Central and Eastern European countries towards those seen as pushing their perspective over all others – whether the former Soviet Union, or Western European democracies promoting new low-carbon economic development and innovation policies. 

Central and Eastern European nations, in particular Poland, are quick to remind Western European governments that the bulk of environmental and climate legislation was developed before their entry into the Union, and that although the body of EU legislation has to be implemented in their countries, they do not always feel inclined to agree with it. In fact, as I was recently reminded by several Central and Eastern European ambassadors to the EU, policy leaders and citizens in these countries are still sceptical about climate change, and reducing consumption or becoming more efficient is contrary to their new leadership stance on promoting economic growth – a growth which is symbolic of the new ‘Western’ values they embraced when abandoning Communism and centralised economies.

This, of course, is similar to arguments used by developing countries across the world: just because the West used resources inefficiently to fuel its economic development, this does not mean that ‘developing’ or ‘transition’ economies should not grow in the same way now that they are faced with resource depletion and climate change. Of course, the response seems simple: economic development should occur, but differently, and the ‘mistakes’ made by Western governments should not be replicated. The challenge is quite what an appropriate distribution of resources and growth would look like, and how to persuade Europe’s newest Central and Eastern European leaders to accept and sell this solution to their citizens. But to be fair, this is not only an issue in the Central and Eastern European region. One just needs to look at the recent French and Greek elections to realise that all candidates focused their campaigns on economic stability and a rejection of economic austerity, without any consideration for climate change issues or even green growth opportunities

So, how do we re-build Europe’s confidence to lead on sustainability and climate change, when half of the region’s countries are convinced of neither the direct benefit to them, nor the relevance of these issues to their economic growth?

Collaboration towards green growth

On 3 May 2012, some of Europe’s largest companies met with President Barroso, Climate Commissioner Hedegaard, Commissioner for the Environment Potočnik, Director Generals from three Directorates, and Commission staff, to address this leadership vacuum. They discussed the prospects for EU leadership on development and climate issues, in preparation for the UN sustainable development conference in Rio+20, and the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties in Qatar in December 2012. The meeting was organised by The Prince of Wales’s EU Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change (EU CLG) and the Brussels office of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.

At the meeting and in private conversations, President Barroso’s message was loud and clear. He questions how we can move from an era of austerity to an age of prosperity if people do not believe in the benefits of green growth, and is adamant that creating a viable and believable green growth story is the only way forward. The President not only sees the business community and corporate leaders as natural allies in the European Commission’s work towards green and sustainable growth, but also, most importantly, he is convinced that pushing a low-carbon economy is a key growth strategy. Odd as it may sound, he believes, the crisis is an opportunity to make progress towards growth and a new, greener industrial way. But he, along with other key players, agrees that this won’t be easy.

Putting the necessary flesh on this ‘green growth’ story, and leading member states and Europe’s global partners to the table, is today’s key challenge; Europe cannot lead if the member states and countries across the globe do not follow. There are several possible avenues for Europe to truly move forward in its green growth strategy. These depend on building trust and a better understanding of the psyche of the Central and Eastern European region, addressing the growing wave of Western European stakeholders around a second phase of capacity building. The entire project may now be replicated across the Central and Eastern European countries of the entire Danube Region.

Non-European green growth and low-carbon buy-in is essential, not only to decarbonise and preserve our natural capital globally, but also to convince member states hiding behind economic arguments against decarbonisation that non-EU countries will have a competitive lead, if we do not invest in low-carbon technology and services. 

With this in mind, as President Barroso was on his way from our meeting to meet the VicePremier of China, Li Keqiang, I called upon him to continue to build an EU-Chinese dialogue embracing market access for low-carbon technologies in China, and addressing issues around embedded carbon and the fair pricing of all externalities. We all know that the population of China today is 100 times greater than that of the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution, and China will achieve levels of growth in 10 years that took the UK 100 years to attain. So we are talking about a potential resource shock that will be 1,000 times greater, in China alone. 

In order to meet the predicted growth of the world’s population to 9 billion, we will need three times as many resources – 140 billion tonnes annually – by 2050. The demand for food, feed and fibre is projected to increase by 70 per cent. Yet already today, 60 per cent of the ecosystems underpinning these resources are degraded. Without efficiency gains, by 2030, we will need 40 per cent more water than we can access.

The issue of fair pricing and allocating a value to externalities is firmly anchored in the European Union’s 2020 Growth Strategy, which promotes sustainable development as a core factor for economic growth. Last year, under the leadership of the visionary new Slovenian Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik, the European Commission declared that resource efficiency and proper costing of natural resources will actually boost the economy, improve economic performance and stimulate innovation. At our meeting on 3 May, Commissioner Potočnik called upon companies to join him in building the case for an inclusive green economy, which fosters growth and poverty eradication, offering opportunities for all countries around the world in all stages of development. He stressed that leadership must focus on clear goals around five ‘pillars of life’: energy, water, land, ecosystems, and waste. 

This article is also published on the Cambridge University Programme for Sustainable Leadership website. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Sandrine Dixson-Decleve is the current Co-president of the Club of Rome. She is a Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership Senior Associate and faculty member and has been named by GreenBiz among the TOP30 women shaping global green business.

Sandrine is a confirmed keynote speaker at Terra Tuscany, the sustainability leaders offsite powered by illuminem.

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