Europe’s Green Deal addresses climate change, but does it reach Pope Francis’ vision of ‘integral ecology’?
The European Union has the ambitious aim of making Europe “the world’s first climate-neutral continent.” The slogan underpins theEuropean Green Deal, a wide-ranging series of new regulations and laws that analysts say is the world’s most ambitious political plan to respond to climate change. The goal, according to the Green Deal strategy statement, is no less than zero “net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050,” “economic growth decoupled from resource use” and “no person and no place left behind.”
Introduced in 2019 by the E.U. Commission—a body of officials that serves as a kind of executive branch and bureaucracy to help the treaty-based union of European countries function—the Green Deal amends the European Union’s climate, energy, transport and taxation policies with the short term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.
The Green Deal amends the European Union’s climate, energy, transport and taxation policies with the short term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.
The European Union has already called for the end of the sale of gas-combustion engines by 2035 and for member countries to fast-track wind and solar energy projects. The E.U. Commission has also widened the scope of its carbon credit system.
Another wave of legislation is in the works, including regulations for ecosystem restoration, changes in agricultural practices, sustainable product design, new standards for aviation and maritime fuel and limitations on waste in the fashion industry. In light of Catholic social teaching, particularly Pope Francis’ call for an integral ecology, that wide-ranging approach seems like the best way to proceed. But is anything—or anyone—being left out of the Green Deal?
While few people deny the need to address climate change and sustainability, almost every provision of the Green Deal has generated some resistance. Under its proposals, European farmers, for example, may have to take large tracts of land out of production and set aside more land for non-crops like bushes and trees to create habitats for birds. Farmers will also have to reduce synthetic pesticide use by 50 percent by 2030.
Many farmers say the E.U. Commission has not fully accounted for the costs of implementing such changes, arguing that programs to assist farmers through the transition are underfunded. Such concerns are shared by the church, according to Johannes Moravitz, policy advisor for ecology, agriculture and energy at theCommission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. While the church emphatically promotes care of creation and efforts to achieve long-term sustainability, in the final ethical analysis, “the human person…has to be in the center,” Mr. Moravitz said.
While few people deny the need to address climate change and sustainability, almost every provision of the Green Deal has generated some resistance.
“The goal [of the Green Deal] in itself is good,” he said, “but we have to be really careful that the costs to reach these goals are not borne by those who are already struggling with rising costs,” he said. “When you read about the Green Deal, ‘leaving no one behind,’ it sounds very nice, but in practice, we can see very often it’s not quite followed.”
Expanded carbon taxes will beginhitting the pocketbooks of most Europeans in 2029. Assistance programs to help pay for upgrades to make homes more energy efficient will be part of the process, but, according to Mr. Moravitz, the new costs will still represent a significant new burden, especially for those least able to afford them.
Centering the human person
“This is an issue where the church has to say, ‘No, the human person has a very unique place in the universe,’ and you have a social-political obligation to ensure that people will really not be left behind.” This concern applies on an international level as well. Developing countries, he said, should not have to suffer the consequences of the European Union’s shift in industrial and energy policies in the name of addressing climate change.
Mr. Moravitz is concerned that Europe’s energy transition will rely on resources often found in or used by poor countries. “This is very concretely important for the Green Deal and especially our energy policies. The price for us ‘going green,’ if you want, or decoupling from gas, can’t be paid by poorer countries,” he said.
Coal reserves can still be located on the continent, but European states are attempting to transition to energy produced by natural gas because of that fossil fuel’s smaller carbon footprint. That pits European nations against poorer countries in competition for liquified natural gas reserves, Mr. Moravitz said. Developing states have been outbid for those reserves by E.U. states, already leading to blackouts in Bangladesh.
“This is an issue where the church has to say, ‘No, the human person has a very unique place in the universe,’ and you have a social-political obligation to ensure that people will really not be left behind.”
Mr. Moravitz suspects the Green Deal’s approach could be fundamentally flawed. It ignores, he said, a pre-existing, “inherent problem” with the contemporary world’s economic model—an assumption of endless growth and accompanying consumerism. “What the Green Deal is trying to achieve is having our same economic and consumer-use models, but based upon different energy resources,” Mr. Moravitz said.
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis, echoing his predecessor Benedict XVI, called for examining “the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”
“Even theoretically, there is no such thing as endless growth,” Mr. Moravitz said. Perpetual economic growth based on wind and solar technology is not, in the end, any more sustainable than an economic system founded on fossil fuels, Mr. Moravitz warned.
It is a serious conundrum for European politicians, according to Mr. Moravitz. Europe’s voting public has been trained to measure well-being by economic growth and buying power.
“Any political party coming up with proposals to change [consumer] behavior, trying to change the way we live, the way we view the good life, probably will get voted out very fast,” he said. “This attitude leads to the issue of the Green Deal never changing anything actually….It’s a political problem, but also a cultural problem, and it’s very hard to solve the one without the other.”
The contemporary last aim of E.U. politics “seems to have become fighting climate change by reducing carbon emissions to zero.”
The Green Deal envisions a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen. But that transition produces its own challenges, according to Mr. Moravitz. The energy from the sun and wind can be harnessed again and again, but the large-scale technologies—the solar panels and windmills—used to power that energy and the creation of the infrastructure to distribute it require tapping resources that are not renewable.
And how the resources and minerals required by the continent’s energy transformation are acquired will also matter, according to Mr. Moravitz. The experience of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a prime example of how the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by European powers can lead to grave suffering.
The D.R.C. is now in the middle of a cobalt rush. Thehorrors of cobalt mining have been well-documented. The blue mineral is essential for the construction of rechargeable batteries in mobile phones and, increasingly, cars—two goods that are crucial to the economy and lifestyle of contemporary Europeans.
Foreign mining interests have stormed the D.R.C. to acquire its cobalt, and, once again, the extraction of this natural resource seems to be having little effect on raising the standard of living for most Congolese people. But the extraction process is causing both environmental damage and health harms to miners and D.R.C. communities.
“The price for Europe ‘going green’ can’t be paid by poorer countries.”
The European Unioninvested 50 million euros in infrastructure development and mining in the D.R.C. this year. The community has had toacknowledge the bleak humanitarian situation in the Congo. It remains to be seen whether this European investment will truly benefit the Congolese people.
In 2022, the European Union committed at COP27, the most recent U.N. conference on climate change, to contribute to a “Loss and Damage” fund that will support low-income countries grappling with climate change even as they contribute the least to the problem. Africa as a continent generates the least amount of carbon emissions globally but may prove to be the most deeply harmed by climate change.
The Rev. Martin Schlag, a professor of business ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice and author of The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope’s Message on the Economy, also worries that the Green Deal program is not as well conceived as it could be. In politics, he points out, there are always conflicting claims and interests that have to be weighed with the view to a higher goal or good. Over time this final goal—the last aim, as he calls it—changes depending on the cultural and historical moment.
While general prosperity, social equilibrium and European unity had been previous “last aims” in Europe, the contemporary last aim of E.U. politics “seems to have become fighting climate change by reducing carbon emissions to zero,” he said. Like Mr. Moravitz, he is concerned that the commission members seek to reach zero emissions without sacrificing either economic growth or negatively affecting consumer culture.
In tackling the problem, the various conflicts that have to be reconciled become clear, he said, citing the example of electric cars. The modern autos may not emit carbon when driven, but they require extensive mining of minerals needed for their rechargeable batteries.
Even ecologists and other scientists are not always in agreement about the best ways to address climate change and other environmental problems. “However, are the consumers who are the voters willing to pay the bill? Are the tradeoffs thought through?” Father Schlag asks. “Much of climate change politics are formulated as ideals and as economic-social-and ecological win-win-win situations, just like Catholic social teaching promotes ‘integral ecology.’ However, the consequences for industrial politics are unclear.” He likewise cautions that Catholics should be wary of political goals that are not centered on the human person.
Finding the practical solutions to whatever contradictions emerge as European leaders institute the Green Deal is not the place of the church, according to Mr. Moravitz. He notes that Pope Francis recently reminded politicians that they should engage closely with those “on the ground” in solving ecological problems.
Father Schlag adds that Catholic social teaching also emphasizes the important role civic, non-governmental organizations have in society and that such entities will be essential in addressing ecological issues raised by the Green Deal.