Event Report – Adapting to Climate Change: are our solutions working?
On Wednesday 20 February 2019, the White Rose Brussels office held an event in the European Parliament titled, ‘Climate Change: Are our solutions working?’
Hosted by Seb Dance, MEP for London and chaired by Dave Petley, Vice-President for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, the event addressed key climate change policy areas by showcasing some of the excellent research being conducted across our three universities. Seb Dance opened the event by discussing his experience of people’s attitudes towards climate change from his position in the EP, particularly the ENVI committee. He noted that since his election in 2014, the level of public concern for climate change has been growing – especially amongst young people, as indicated by the ongoing school strikes. This clear evidence that the public is willing to go much further indicates that it is ‘time for politicians to start challenging the existing orthodoxies’.
Our keynote speaker, Ms Gerda Verburg, Assistant Secretary-General to the United Nations and Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, used the framework of this movement to illustrate the importance of global partnership. She reiterated Seb Dance MEP’s sentiment, stressing that ambitious climate goals can only be achieved by integrating and coordinating policy areas. For this reason we need strong leadership – ‘politics is about stepping out of your comfort zone’ and ‘this is a people problem as much as this is a planet problem’.
The SUN movement was created on the basis that hunger and malnutrition would never be solved if players, and in this instance countries, remained in their own silos instead of joining forces. When considering this barrier to progress in light of the European Union’s climate policy, Ms Verburg clearly stated that at this stage silos remained, but that she was optimistic because of events like this one. Considering the big picture is particularly crucial now, during the final year in the cycle of the European Commission, ahead of the European election.
Our first academic, Professor Duncan Cameron, Co-Director of the P3 Centre at the University of Sheffield, tackled the area of food security. His team looked at the energy consumption involved in the entire process of turning wheat into bread, and found that it was actually the fertilisers used in wheat production that were the most energy intensive – by a large margin. Each loaf of bread produces 589g of CO2 equivalent, and 43% of this is from ammonium nitrate fertilizers. This was an unexpected result, which revealed just how little is understood about our complex food systems. In order to effectively devise policy that can mitigate the effects of, or help us adapt to, climate change, we need a better understanding of this system. In this case, Professor Cameron shed light on the complexity of a particular strand of the agrifood system and showed that this detail had not been made evident to policy makers. Crucially, he stated that ‘facts aren’t enough […] we need to tell people why we think the way we do and how to change that’.
Our second speaker, Professor Lisa Emberson, Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York emphasised the relationship between decreasing the significant kind of air pollution and mitigating climate change. For the past two decades, the EU has continually developed its air quality legislation, which has led to reductions in air pollution across Europe. Her research showed that the air pollution that does however still exist is causing damage not only in Europe but across the globe as well. This is due, in part, to agriculture, which is both a source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emission; whilst at the same time being impacted by it. She proposed the use of a more coherent ‘climate-smart’ approach to climate change and air pollution that would serve us better towards realising the Sustainable Development Goals implemented by the EU.
Our third speaker, Professor Lea Berrang Ford, Priestley Chair in Climate and Health, University of Leeds, author of the 2017 UN environmental report entitled “The Adaptation Gap” clarified the metrics and the current assessments of adaptation progress being carried out at the global level. She explained that across all the analysis that had been done, across all sectors regionally and globally, we could see that adaptation is emerging through extensive planning and groundwork activities, vulnerability assessment, strategic thinking and prioritising. However, there is very little actual action and implementation, especially outside the EU, and almost no evaluation, and consideration to whether we are effectively adapting, at any level.
Our speaker from the Commission, Ms Elena Visnar Malinovska, Head of Unit, Adaptation (DG CLIMA), emphasised the importance of dealing with, and the complexity of, climate change. She clearly stated that the deep cut in emissions the EU is working towards is the best form of adaptation today. Over the last two years her work as a policy maker focused on negotiating the energy and climate legislation to make the shift in the energy sector. Acknowledging that both the Kyoto Protocol and the EU 2030 target will not be delivered, she was optimistic that they will still provide a much-needed trigger. She said that we had to start respecting natural capital, and pointed to the massive returns on investment that strategic, ‘solution-oriented’ climate policy can bring.
Our last speaker was Declan Sean Kenny, PhD student at the University of Leeds and winner of the 2018 White Rose Brussels Article Competition. He raised a challenge to the Commission: why are big businesses (like Shell and BP) still exempt from having to pay for emitting carbon emissions? Given the urgency of the climate crisis, and the expectation that individuals and cities will have to adapt, he questioned the legitimacy of the Commission’s decision to extend this free allocation of emissions credits for another decade. Read his full article here.
During the panel discussion, the speakers were asked a range of interesting questions from diverse attendees. Professor Berrang Ford noted that although there was excellent primary research being carried out across disciplines, this research needed to be synthesised across domains to give clear policy recommendations. Thus far, this synthesis task has been somewhat of a blind spot within the research-policy nexus. These synthesis processes must be incentivised in research budgets, she argued. Supporting this claim, Professor Emberson added that researchers would benefit from time to discuss with academics from across different fields within their own institutions.
One attendee was interested in Professor Cameron’s opinion on the potential of vertical farming, which sidesteps the issue of soil – and therefore fertilizers – altogether. Professor Cameron told us about an ongoing project in Oman experimenting with vertical farming, which is ‘a local solution to a global problem’. John Howarth MEP for South East England spoke, noting that in the current budget, climate related spending is at 20% (though review indicated that the real spend was actually only 11-13%). From 2021, the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will stretch this to 30%. He expressed that these budget? Or emission reduction targets are ‘wishful thinking’ and need better scrutiny to keep them accountable. Gerda Verburg then responded with constructive suggestions on anchoring targets to real outcomes.
Lea Pilsner from E3G (and a former University of Leeds PhD student) mentioned the tool ‘climate earmarking’, part of the EU budget, which the Commission is currently working hard on. She expressed concern that this tool still failed to distinguish between adaptation and mitigation. Ms Elena Visnar Malinovska responded by noting that mitigation and adaptation have ‘co-benefits’ that would not always be prudent to ‘artificially separate’.
Seb Dance MEP closed the event by reiterating the need for a shift in the way policy decisions are brought about. The changes required are huge, but ‘we can latch on to people’s hope and optimism’, he said. Seb thanked the audience, speakers and White Rose, praising the collaborative research and the work we do to connect higher education and research to the European sphere. He emphasised the importance of bringing research and policy to a level that people can relate to, calling this a ‘fundamentally necessary part of the European project’.