Can you still remember the spirit of excitement and hope engulfing the global community at the end of 2015? Not only had it come together in Paris to adopt an agreement to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C, it also adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a set of 17 comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve prosperity for people and planet by 2030.
Agreeing the 2030 Agenda was a great achievement. What makes it so innovative and transformative is that – for the first time – it recognizes that poverty, environmental degradation, social exclusion and inequalities are connected, and therefore need to be addressed in a comprehensive, interlinked way. Progress in one area cannot be achieved to the detriment of another. As a signatory to the 2030 Agenda, the EU has a responsibility to implement the SDGs in all its policies and legislation, and will soon have to report back to the international community on the progress it has achieved. For the environment, this means that biodiversity and climate protection need to be integrated into all relevant EU policies. And yet, almost four years on from their adoption, the EU still doesn’t have a plan for how it will meet the SDGs, with deadlines looming ever closer and several crises, including the ecological crisis, deepening.
Almost four years from the SDGs’ adoption, why will we be presented with a mere “reflection paper”?
The European Commission has been dragging its feet. After multiple delays, it is finally due to publish at the end of this month a reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030, on the follow-up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change’. But why has this taken so long, and why will we be presented with a mere “reflection paper,” which is EU-speak for the most vague and non-committal form of a communication?
Yet, the urgency to act on the environment has never been greater, and the longer we delay the harder it will be to correct our course. We’re just a year away from 2020, the deadline for many international and European targets on biodiversity and climate, and new ambitions will need to be set. Current data indicates the EU won’t meet most of its 2020 environmental objectives – and that’s not even taking into account whether the goal itself was ambitious enough in the first place to fight against the ecological crisis we’re facing. A recent WWF report found that nature is in steep decline due to human activities: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined, on average, by 60% between 1970 and 2014. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C released last October showed that current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions put us on a 3°C-plus global warming trend and will lead us to breach tipping points that will cause irreversible changes. Simply put, we’re running out of time.
So, we don’t need a paper full of reflections. We need concrete actions by which the EU plans to reach the 17 SDGs by 2030. An overarching EU strategy translating the SDGs into all EU policies is needed, addressing gaps, and assigning clear responsibility for delivery and accountability. Actions to reduce the EU’s considerable environmental footprint need to be included, because at its current rate of consumption, if applied to everyone on the planet, 2.6 planets will be needed to cater to our demand. Unfortunately, there is no Planet B.
Today’s state of play isn’t all doom and gloom: taking up the 2030 Agenda has clear benefits for the EU in terms of delivering safer, more competitive, and more resilient societies. WWF’s call to action issued in October 2018 to the EU’s future leadership urges leaders to act on sustainable development, nature protection and climate change in order to bring about more security, improved health and better jobs, and increase the EU’s competitiveness.
This year will be crucial to set the right course for the future. Reflection and commitment on sustainable development must be part of the Sibiu Summit on the future of Europe in May 2019. And following the European elections at the end of that month, a new President of the European Commission and college of Commissioners will take office. Steered by the EU’s Member States they will set a political agenda until the mid-2020s. This political agenda needs to be firmly rooted in the objectives of the 2030 Agenda and have at its core people’s well-being in a thriving and healthy environment.
It’s time to stop reflecting and start acting to make the vision of a sustainable Europe reality.