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We can, and must, act to stop climate change in its tracks

By Peteris Ustubs      

Climate action is the defining issue of our times. We must also take urgent action to fight climate change.

Students gather on Parliament Hill to call for government action on climate change in May. Young people have been rallying around the world for climate action, and Canada and the European Union have an important leadership role to play in meeting the Paris Agreement targets, writes Peteris Ustubs. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Today we think the coffee we enjoy every morning is a given. But is the supply of clean water and coffee beans inexhaustible and readily available in the decades to come? Many take it for granted that it will. Unfortunately, facts say otherwise.

A recent UN report on the state of our natural world shows the extent to which we are eroding our environment—at our own peril. The report paints a dire picture of the health of ecosystems—and our future—with far-reaching implications for our livelihoods, economies, and health.

According to a 2016 World Health Organization study, some 12.6 million people worldwide die prematurely every year due to exposure to environmental risk factors.

In the European Union, despite significant progress made, air pollution still causes more than 400,000 premature deaths every year. The economic costs of air pollution are estimated at well over $30-billion per year.

But we can act.

A few weeks ago, one of the first pieces of environmental legislation in Europe—the Birds Directive—marked its 40th anniversary. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the EU, governments, organizations, and volunteers, iconic species like the white-tailed eagle and the bearded vulture have recovered from the brink of extinction.

The EU is one of the major actors leading efforts to protect the environment. Environmental policy is a transversal element that all other European policies must take into account. Before the European Commission finalizes a proposal for a new law or a new financial program, it will carry out an impact assessment, which looks at the likely economic, environmental, and social impacts of the proposal envisaged. This provides the necessary evidence to inform and support the decision-making process, ensuring that the environmental dimension of a project is systematically taken into account.

Our priorities are to protect, conserve, and enhance Europe’s natural resources; turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy; and safeguard Europeans from environment-related risks to their health and well-being, such as those caused by plastic pollution.

Studies show that billions of people are drinking water contaminated by plastic particles. The European Union recently adopted ambitious measures to drastically decrease plastic pollution. Very soon single-use products made of plastic—for which alternatives exist, such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, or straws—will be banned; and so will plastic food containers and beverage cups. What’s more, by 2029, 90 per cent of the plastic bottles will be collected separately for recycling. These measures aim to reduce 70 per cent of the marine litter produced by plastic products most often found on European beaches and, as a result, avoid environmental damages that would otherwise cost an estimated $33-billion by 2030.

As highlighted at the Nature Summit in Montreal last April, more must be done to step-up nature preservation worldwide. Canada and the EU are leaders in this matter. Thanks to such initiatives as the recently established Edéhzhie Protected Area and Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area, Canada has succeeded in preserving 1.66-million square kilometres of land and oceans. Stretching over 18 per cent of the European Union’s land area and almost 9.5 per cent of its marine territory, Natura 2000 is the largest co-ordinated network of protected areas in the world.

Climate action is the defining issue of our times—as the students rallying in the streets worldwide make a point in reminding us. We must also take urgent action to fight climate change.

In November, the European Commission presented its strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive, and climate-neutral economy by 2050. This strategy builds on the Paris Agreement objective to keep temperature increase to well below 2 C and pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5 C.

The strategy shows how we can achieve climate neutrality by investing in realistic technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance and research. In January, the EU and Canada co-hosted a conference in Brussels that brought together business, civil society, and policy communities from both sides of the Atlantic to explore how best to leverage the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and encourage further joint actions in support of the Paris Agreement implementation.

Reaching a climate-neutral economy by 2050 is feasible from a technological, economic, and social perspective. But the challenges we face are global and they demand a global response. The EU and Canada have an important leadership role to play in guaranteeing the Paris Agreement objectives are met and in reversing the fate of biodiversity and ecosystem loss.

Peteris Ustubs is the ambassador of the European Union to Canada.

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