On Sunday December 2, 75 000 people walked together in the ‘Claim the Climate’ march in Brussels, urging bolder climate actions ahead of the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland (COP24). Three years ago, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, but increased climate efforts and a Belgian National Climate Plan are still missing.
Largest Belgian climate march on the eve of the UN climate summit (COP24) demonstrates broad support for sustainable transformation.
By contrast, the latest UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) report states that climate efforts must multiply fivefold to keep us to a maximum 1.5°C warming compared to pre-industrial levels, in line with the Paris Agreement. Beyond this threshold, there will be devastating impacts on human wellbeing and ecosystem stability. The march represented a wide public mandate to Belgium’s policymakers to take courageous decisions in line with the IPCC and UNEP reports, in order to safeguard our common future.
Point of no return
We are facing numerous social, economic and ecological challenges worldwide. Extreme weather events, fluctuating food supplies, forced human migration and political instability are all increasing at an accelerating rate, threatening livelihoods all over the world. In Belgium, the continued drought and the demand for clean air and water put the spotlight on the effects of climate change and increased environmental awareness across the country.
‘The facts could not be clearer,’ Prof. Dr. Wayne Visser from Antwerp Management School states. ‘According to UNEP, our global carbon emissions will have to be 55 percent lower by 2030 to avoid the world tipping over into dangerous climate change by exceeding the 1.5 degrees warming threshold.’ A healthy economy and society can only exist within planetary boundaries - and we are severely testing those boundaries.
At the opening of the COP24, British broadcaster and environmentalist David Attenborough urged world leaders to tackle climate change ‘now’. Known for his countless nature films, Attenborough recently gained prominence with his Blue Planet II series, that highlighted the devastating effect of pollution on the oceans. ‘We are facing a manmade disaster of global scale’ he said. ‘If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilization and the natural world is on the horizon.’
‘If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilization and the natural world is on the horizon’ - David Attenborough
Lots of people, little political action
Besides the 75 000 people at the ‘Claim the Climate’ march, 9 million Belgians – or 85% of all citizens – are in favor for more climate action from our policymakers . However, they will not manage it alone. ‘Climate change is complex and requires an integrated and collective approach’ says Jan Beyne, researcher at Antwerp Management School’s Sustainable Transformation Lab. We will need to work together. All stakeholders, including policymakers, business, academics, civil society actors, unions and municipalities, must unite to tackle the systemic challenges.
Today, the ball lies in the court of the government, which must take urgent action. On Tuesday December 4, Belgium and the Czech Republic were the only two countries to vote against the new European climate objectives on energy saving. A decision that is not in line with the transition towards a sustainable society. The time for incoherent measures, myopic politics and weak political will is over. We need political leaders who will bring society in line with the planetary boundaries set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land).
For now, the political talk is encouraging. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel called the march ‘a formidable success’ and promised to defend ‘ambitious targets’ at the COP 24. This is necessary, because every delay will cost us more, and increase the chance that our children and grandchildren will grow up in a climate-damaged world.
Tackling climate change through integrating value
Political leadership on climate change is critical, but on its own, it will not be enough. We must persuade all actors in society that there is value to be created and preserved by taking climate action. For example, the replacement cost of all goods and services produced by nature is estimated at 28 trillion euro annually (1997 ). And yet, if the climate and our natural resources are treated as an unregulated ‘commons’, this value will be destroyed .
Value creation is important, since it is a concept that business and politics understand well and through which the importance of our climate can be highlighted. However, putting a price tag on nature is not a panacea. The success of sustainability will also need to be measured in terms of the health of the planet and the wellbeing of people. This includes many benefits with intangible value. We may not be able to count these, but we must make them count.
According to Prof. Visser, creating integrated value means recognizing multiple forms of capital beyond financial value, including infrastructural, technological, social, ecological and human capital. It also means finding innovation synergies that create secure, smart, shared, sustainable and satisfying solutions. ‘It’s a call for action,’ says Visser, ‘as well as a tracker of progress and a guide for creative actions needed to meet our 2030 sustainable development commitments.
We can expect these tensions and opportunities to play out during the UN Climate Summit in Poland this week. We can only hope that wisdom will prevail over realpolitik to ensure that long term global value creation wins the day over short-term national tactics.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse
‘Many people – from business, governments and the public – would prefer to ignore the shocking message of the Emissions Gap report released by UNEP,’ says Prof Visser. As the saying goes: ignorance is bliss. Except that ignorance is no longer an excuse. ‘We have the scientific data – and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it’s controversial or that it’s fake news; it’s not. The inconvenient truth is that our actions today are posing a serious threat to our ability to survive and thrive in the future.’
On a more positive note, as US President John F. Kennedy put it in the 1960s: ‘Our problems are man-made. Therefore, they can be solved by man’. This is also true for climate change, where we have a common responsibility to take action. Belgium’s unprecedented Claim the Climate march suggests that the public is ready for change. And an agreement by Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel to sit together with Climate Express and the Belgian Climate Coalition suggests that maybe the politicians are ready as well.
What remains is to hold our leaders to account – to make sure that not only they have heard our voice, but also acted accordingly. In the past, the mobilization of large groups of people has been triggered by crises in health, access to food or lack of education. Today, we are in the midst of a climate crisis. And the people are mobilized. What comes next? Let’s make sure it is bold leadership – supported by responsible action from all of us. That way, a climate march and a climate summit become something bigger and more impactful – a social movement for change.