News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice We Can’t Save the Climate without Transforming the Economy

Carola Rackete on the EU climate targets, resource conservation, and the need for global climate justice


Carola Rackete at a hearing in the European Parliament, 2019.
Carola Rackete at a hearing in the European Parliament, 2019. CC BY-SA 2.0, Photo: The Left, via Flickr

Carola Rackete is Die Linke’s lead candidate for the 2024 European Parliament elections. The ecologist first attained prominence as the captain of the Sea-Watch 3, rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean, but she has devoted her campaign to the issues of climate change and how to tie the green transition to a transformation of the economy and society.

She took a break from the campaign trail to speak with Juliane Schumacher and Uwe Witt about the state of EU climate policy, the difficulties tied to carbon offsetting, and the importance of tackling climate change in a just way.

Carola, the EU Commission recently proposed an ambitious climate target for the EU: a 90-percent reduction in emissions by 2040. What is your take on this — is it a step forward? Is the EU’s climate policy on the right track?

I’m very sceptical about that. The EU, and Germany as well, announce a lot of targets — but then do far too little to actually reach them. The problem with these targets is not so much the percentages that are announced but how they are meant to be reached — by way of negative emissions, for example, such as by counting forests as carbon sinks or by using carbon capture and storage (CCS), where carbon is removed from the air or from industrial processes and stored.

So, for you, the reduction targets aren’t the problem, but rather the instruments and measures the EU uses. What is the most problematic aspect of the EU’s climate policy in your view?

Consider the example of transport. This sector generates a quarter of EU emissions, with 71 percent coming from road transport. We could quickly reduce these emissions by adopting measures here that would have a more rapid effect than those being applied in construction, for instance. But now, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) wants to block the phase-out of combustion engines. This would mean Germany preventing all progress in the transport sector in the EU — hopefully, Germany will not manage to push this through.

But the main problem with the EU’s climate policy is that it still aims to promote economic growth — instead of having an honest conversation about the fact that we cannot keep growing infinitely on a finite planet and strengthening those sectors that can actually still grow, such as public transport or health and education. We need a resource conservation law that defines what resources are still available for use and, based on that, asks which sectors of the economy we still need and on what scale. Another problem is that there are hardly any efforts to redistribute wealth.

There are a lot of stakeholders in this field who argue that climate change mitigation and nature conservation are often at cross-purposes. Would a resource conservation law be a way of bringing the two together, to ensure that protecting the climate does not come at the expense of biodiversity?

There are not only problems and conflicts between climate change mitigation and nature conservation, but also quite a few synergy effects. One very obvious one would be to convert industrial agriculture to agroecological systems or to regenerative agriculture, as this would reduce emissions and preserve biodiversity at the same time. If we reduce the number of livestock, we can import less animal feed, which means less tropical deforestation where land is cleared for soybean cultivation, for example.

The production of synthetic fertilizers is also extremely emissions-intensive, and we can significantly reduce emissions if we use organic fertilizers instead. Scaling down the number of livestock would also free up land here in Germany that is currently used for the production of animal feed, for example, which could then be used for other purposes. This would allow us to farm more extensively or to restore ecosystems. A significant proportion of German agriculture is currently practised on drained marshland, such as in northern Lower Saxony, where the country’s industrial livestock production is concentrated, leading to extreme water pollution.

Another important point in this context is that we need to stop sealing surfaces, not just in residential construction but also in the construction of renewable energy infrastructure. Photovoltaic systems should not primarily be built on open spaces, but on already existing buildings. So there are already quite a number of solutions where protecting the climate and conserving wildlife do not contradict but rather complement each other.

What I mentioned earlier is also key here: we need to reduce our overall resource consumption here in the Global North — in proportion to who consumes the most in our society, of course. We all know how much of a burden the rich and super-rich are on our global society. Limiting their overconsumption would have a positive effect on wildlife as well as on the climate.

The EU Commission also sees potential for reducing emissions by land use changes, such as restoring wetlands or reforestation. Around 6 percent of the emission reductions in its proposal are to come from such “natural sinks”. So you agree with the Commission here?

Of course, these measures are necessary — even just for the sake of protecting wildlife habitats. We need to radically transform both forestry and agriculture. And of course, this will also to some extent create carbon sinks. But the most important step towards reducing emissions is to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The EU needs a clear target here.

The energy companies cannot be our partners if we want to phase out fossil fuels.

As far as natural sinks are concerned, we need to take a close look at whether these calculations hold water — and what they are being used for in the first place. Nature restoration projects, for example, are often planned as offsets, as compensation projects. There is not enough money for conservation, and even many large NGOs make deals with corporations and then say that it’s great when oil companies or airlines fund carbon offset projects like this and we can use the money for, say, protecting wetlands.

But of course, that’s total nonsense environmentally speaking. Because even if these deals really lead to a reduction in emissions — which is in 80 to 90 percent not even the case — only emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels are offset, not those caused by their extraction and transportation.

So, nature restoration and land use changes should only ever happen in addition to reducing emissions, not to compensate for existing emissions.

Exactly. I often ask myself whether people understand that there are different carbon cycles, with long- and short-term kinds of storage. When we burn oil or coal, we release carbon within a short space of time that was stored in rock for millions of years. When we plant trees, we are creating short-term carbon storage: the tree stores the carbon for a few decades or centuries until it is felled or dies and releases the carbon back into the air through decomposition.

We are talking about completely different time scales here. We cannot reduce the emissions caused by burning fossil fuels with the help of short-term, biological carbon stores.

It has nothing to do with long-term carbon storage.

Nothing at all. And then there’s the fact that because of the growing climate crisis, we can’t be sure that the trees we plant today will survive, in the face of forest fires and droughts. In Germany today, only one in five trees is healthy. Under present conditions, relying on planting trees so that in the coming decades they will grow into a healthy forest that stores carbon — that’s pretty optimistic. Instead of relying on uncertain sinks, we need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

So far, the EU has shied away from naming a date for the complete phase-out of fossil fuels. It has only stated the goal of being climate-neutral by 2045.

I have a problem with the concept of climate neutrality.

Because you can do all kinds of creative math and then say: in this sector, we do more, less in that one, here we have a few sinks — and come up with zero in the end?

Exactly. And because it often includes risky technology, like Carbon Capture and Storage.

Both the EU and, more recently, Germany are pushing this on a massive scale. But even some environmental NGOs are now of the opinion that we will need CCS in order to achieve the climate targets.

It is alarming that some NGOs are now taking this position. It is a total mistake to move forward with CCS. For one because I fear that it would mean no more of the kind of investment in research and development we need on issues such as how to implement a circular economy or how to really reduce emissions. Because CCS seems to offer a way out that allows us to simply carry on with the current system. And for another because it would be the fossil fuel companies that would implement CCS — in other words, the very ones that have made a fortune from environmentally harmful technologies. In Germany that would be Wintershall, for example, which also has a big CCS division.

The main problem is that measures to mitigate climate change tend not to be accompanied by social policies.

The energy companies cannot be our partners if we want to phase out fossil fuels. They have their own interests in mind and want to keep the option open of using fossil fuels for as long as possible. It is mostly due to the lobbying of fossil fuel companies and their associated industries that CCS is so prominent in plans to tackle the climate crisis. CCS technology is not even marketable yet. It would be better to use the money that is now going into CCS research to promote alternative solutions that will allow us to phase out fossil fuels completely.

The targets that the EU has set itself can hardly be achieved without factoring in carbon sinks. The way things are going, we are likely to just fall shy of the stated goal of reducing emissions by 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2035.

That brings us back to the point I made earlier: the EU can set itself very high targets — but then it must also take immediate and effective action to reach them. That includes making money available to do so.

We need to connect tackling the climate crisis with a debate about massive wealth redistribution. We need something like a special asset levy because of the climate crisis, progressively staggered for the rich and super-rich. Wealth today is more unequally distributed than ever before in history, and at the same time we are in an extreme global emergency, with the climate crisis, species extinction, ocean acidification — a crisis that was mostly caused by the rich. We need a radical redistribution of wealth in order to be able to invest in a transformation of the economy and of society, to transform our energy networks, the transport sector, and many other areas.

We can’t do this with the money that is currently available. And we have to be honest about this: the money has to come from those who have substantially caused the climate crisis. It can come from corporations via excess profit taxes, but also from rich people, such as from a special levy.

We currently have a situation where both the United States, via the Inflation Reduction Act, and China are massively promoting green technologies. Business representatives are now calling for the EU to launch similar subsidy programmes in order to prevent companies from going elsewhere.

I see that differently. The transformation that we need cannot be funded by tax breaks and cash handouts to corporations. Instead of lowering taxes, we need to raise them — not only on private wealth, but also on corporate profits. We urgently need investment, but instead of going to corporations, the money should go to the public sector, especially at the regional and local levels.

If we look at the EU’s Just Transition Fund, it is too small, for one, and for another, the money primarily goes to the federal government and is redistributed from there. At the same time, there is very little money at the municipal level, even though a large part of the structural transformation has to take place there. It is crucial that people can participate in decision-making processes at the local and regional level and help decide how the money for structural transformation is spent. That would also create a form of ownership.

Right-wing parties openly opposed to climate policy measures are currently becoming stronger in many European countries. Would being more citizen-focused also help to prevent the right from winning with its anti-climate policy campaigns?

The main problem is that measures to mitigate climate change tend not to be accompanied by social policies. To some extent, people’s concerns are justified: in recent decades, every major change has meant a redistribution of money from the bottom to the top. We can only respond to this by ensuring that every climate change mitigation measure is socially just — and by making it clear that the whole issue of climate change mitigation is a matter of distribution and justice. So we have to ask: who caused the problem, who got rich from it, and who then also has to pay for it?

A globally just climate policy also has to recognize the role of the climate crisis in people migrating or fleeing their homes.

I think it’s only partly true that the Right is winning by campaigning against climate policy. We have a much greater potential for mobilizing people on the progressive side — four out of five people in Germany are actually in favour of tackling climate change. We shouldn’t underestimate our potential here. Both the EU elections and the state elections will be about mobilizing the silent majority — people who actually support protecting the environment, but hardly ever speak out in public. We won’t be able to win over many Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) voters. But we can mobilize the silent majority — by prioritizing questions of distribution and justice when we address environmental issues.

The solutions the EU is proposing, such as renewable energy or green hydrogen, require a large amount of resources — most of which do not come from the EU. People from Latin America and Africa are warning of a “green colonialism”. What needs to happen at the EU level to ensure that climate change mitigation efforts do not reproduce colonial patterns?

This is certainly a danger — in some cases it is already happening. Take lithium mining in Argentina: the previous government (before Milei, the current right-wing president, was elected) began to militarize the lithium mining areas in order to enforce corporate interests there, including against the indigenous population. Similar things are happening in Chile. The danger of a green colonialism is real.

The EU needs a strong supply chain law, which must enshrine the principle of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for all raw materials extraction projects. This is the minimum requirement: the protection of human rights in accordance with international treaties. We also need debt relief for the Global South and a clear strategy for how to repay environmental debt. International climate policy must include a much more ample fund for climate-related loss and damage.

So, the redistribution of wealth is also key for a globally just climate policy.

The top priority is to promote the agency of the countries of the South by means of debt relief and redistribution. Only then should we focus on transferring technology and providing training support in the use of new technologies.

A globally just climate policy also has to recognize the role of the climate crisis in people migrating or fleeing their homes. We need solutions for people who are forced to cross borders — and we must be clear that, as a rule, people would prefer to remain where they are if at all possible.

And here in the Global North, in Germany and in the EU, we must reduce our resource consumption. If we need less lithium, then less lithium will be mined elsewhere creating pollution and violating human rights. That is the crucial point. We need to reach a level of resource consumption that is sustainable in the long term and stop, as we do now, consuming far more than our global share.

Translated by Millay Hyatt and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

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