BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union cannot use the economic slowdown as an excuse to delay action on fighting climate change, the bloc’s first-ever chief scientific adviser has warned.
Molecular biologist Anne Glover took on the newly created role reporting to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the start of this year, having previously served as chief scientific adviser to Scotland’s devolved government.
Despite the fact that many EU governments are slashing their public budgets in an attempt to reduce debt levels, and industry is warning against the cost of climate policies, Glover said Europe cannot afford to postpone action to cut emissions.
“It has been extremely disappointing to see many member states cut back on their emission reduction efforts because they say ‘we’re going through a recession’,” she said.
“Make no mistake, if we had unabated man-made climate change, we would go through an absolutely horrible period of conflict and migration, until the world’s population started diminishing very rapidly.”
As Europe’s leaders begin to switch their focus from spending cuts to boosting growth and jobs, constraints on natural resources also mean that the EU cannot just spend its way out of recession as it has in the past.
“The simplest way to think about increasing jobs is to make more stuff and get people to buy more stuff. But my point is that we can’t do that, because we’re running out of resources,” Glover said.
She pointed to estimates from scientists and campaigners that if EU consumption patterns were adopted globally, the equivalent of almost three planets would be needed to keep pace with the current rates of resource depletion.
“We have to think about alternative ways of using science, engineering and technology to live on the planet in a way that’s rewarding but that uses less resources. I think it’s the biggest challenge for humans.”
She sees her appointment, which followed a 2009 pledge by Barroso to improve the way the EU gathers and uses scientific advice, as a positive step in the right direction.
“If you look at President Barroso’s advisers, currently most of them are economists, and that is understandable. But now he has a scientist there too, which was something he decided, and I think that is very healthy.”
Various industry sectors in Europe are currently lobbying against EU policy on emissions and other measures to combat climate change policies, from airlines and shipping companies to energy utilities and aluminum producers.
Glover said she could understand why industries often seek to oppose new regulations, but doing so was ultimately counterproductive.
“Industry is often trying to buy time, that’s why they prevaricate, and you can understand that for commercial reasons. But they’re also setting back their ability to profit first from the opportunity, by only thinking about what they’re protecting.”
She gave the example of Europe’s car industry, where tough negotiations are expected to begin later this year on setting 2020 emission targets for passenger vehicles.
“If we take the automotive industries, if you ask people ‘do you think you’ll have a car that runs on diesel or petrol in 2020 or 2030?’, the overwhelming answer is ‘no’. All of the citizens of Europe think that their cars will be running on some eco-fuel that won’t be polluting the environment.
“That should be a big wake-up for the automotive industry, thinking ‘our consumer wants something quite different in 10 or 15 years’ time, so how are we going to deliver it?’ The Commission could be thinking how to support innovative thinking in these areas.”
Glover accepts that there is still significant uncertainty over the precise level of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere that would trigger dangerous global warming.
But scientific evidence on the need to cut greenhouse gases is sufficient to compel policymakers to act, and Glover believes politicians should be forced to justify themselves whenever they choose to ignore clear scientific findings.
“I accept that there will be times when that evidence is rejected for a number of reasons, they could be ethical, economic or social,” she said.
“But when that happens, there should be an obligation to highlight that the policy differs from the one the evidence would suggest.
“Evidence is quite a precious thing. It’s normally produced at a substantial cost, it’s peer-reviewed,. So you have a very robust valuable resource, and people need to be very certain why they would reject it.”
Editing by Rex Merrifield and Jason Neely