The intertwined democracy crisis and climate emergency demand urgent action. Effective climate solutions require democratic management of resources, engaging citizens as active participants. Top-down approaches are inadequate; broad societal involvement is essential. The EU’s European Green Deal, while promising, has left many dissatisfied. Rapid and profound technological transformation away from fossil fuels necessitates deep citizen engagement. Environmental ownership must prioritise citizens as stakeholders in climate solutions. 21st-century citizenship must evolve to prioritise intergenerational justice, environmental rights, and political participation. The EU must reinvent its approach to citizenship and climate policy, empowering citizens for a sustainable future.

The combination of the democracy crisis and the climate emergency poses the make-or-break societal challenge of this century. The relationship between these two phenomena is all the more important because it is only through deep democracy that the international community can address the climate emergency. This is because the rapidly diminishing global carbon budget – the maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions that can still be released into the atmosphere before global temperatures surpass a certain safety threshold – belongs to everyone. The atmosphere is public property and needs to be managed democratically.

Image of woman in green jacket smiling.
Suzana Carp

The climate-democracy challenge refers to the relationship between two questions. First, on the climate emergency, how much time is left before the world runs out of its carbon budget and, hence, its space for a liveable future? Second, on the democracy crisis, what is the best way to decide how to effectively implement solutions to the climate emergency? The sheer scale of the transformation cannot be driven efficiently from the top down but only through societal involvement in the solutions. Attempts to circumvent democracy to mitigate the climate emergency will only lose more time.

There has never been a more acute need for active citizenship as the avenue through which individuals and communities take part in decision-making on the basis of a set of rights and obligations. Governments and private entities also need to act, but decision-making for the future has to be broadened beyond them, especially when it comes to the implementation of technical solutions.

The European Union (EU) treaties established an important principle of environmental law that polluters are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. But this principle has proved insufficient to manage the climate crisis alone, not least because in the EU carbon market, polluters received a 25-year derogation from their obligation to pay for greenhouse gas pollution. There has been no clarity over how to rectify this fundamental mismanagement.

The transnational nature of climate change means that political involvement in the climate emergency is ushering in a new politics, which is simultaneously more local and more global, as well as a new economics of climate solutions. This novel landscape sets the scene for a new form of environmental and economic citizenship, or a socio-economic climate contract, as the world moves towards mitigating the climate emergency.

Fast and deep transformation

As the planet is now warming at an unprecedented speed and scale, record-breaking temperatures are already affecting agricultural yields, with long-term damage posing a threat to food systems, economic structures, and the stability and predictability of human civilisation. The survival of most species, including our own, is also under threat, and scientists have flagged that the world has already entered the sixth mass extinction.

It is therefore no surprise that the gravity of the situation provides fertile ground for an idea that has gained currency: democracy may be less effective than other forms of political organisation in enabling the efficient and effective mitigation of climate change. Current attempts to deal with the climate emergency through the EU’s lengthy policymaking procedures seem to have left many disappointed, inviting the question of whether current decision-making processes are fit for the task at hand.

The EU’s 2020 European Green Deal promised to overhaul the union to make it fit to deal with the climate emergency. At both ends of the climate action spectrum, whether one favours fast action or slower approaches, citizens have been left dissatisfied. Some are frustrated that economic and industrial processes have not changed since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Others are losing economic options for navigating the technological changes ahead against the backdrop of new carbon levies and other environmental measures. While the manufacturing and production of solutions compatible with the net-zero goal can be expedited in a top-down fashion, there still has to be a demand for these solutions as well as a commitment to implement them locally. That is unlikely to exist at the level required – namely, a technological overhaul in record time – without the deep involvement of citizens and communities around the world. This gap must be bridged to propel faster progress on mitigating the climate emergency.

To combat the worst impacts of climate change, what is needed is a fast and profound transformation of the technological landscape to move away from burning fossil fuels. The sheer scale and speed at which this needs to occur has invited the unhelpful notion that there will be no space or time for public consultation in this regard and that it is therefore necessary to move to a new age of top-down, streamlined decision-making. However, this view misses the point, which is that public consultation is a catalyst for change and that the question on which debates have focused so far – whether or not to move away from fossil fuels – has to be adjusted to the new reality of living through and with climate change: how to adapt to a changing climate while urgently phasing out fossil fuels across the whole economy.

Environmental ownership

The provisions of the European Green Deal could be read as implying that the atmosphere belongs to the polluters: it extends beyond 2030 free pollution permits to some carbon-intensive industries and weakens the treaty obligation on polluters to pay for their negative impact on the environment. This sad reality has invited citizens to press instead for a “real green deal” that brings in the critical missing piece of the puzzle: European citizens, as owners of the atmosphere.

The elected members of the European Parliament have failed to correct shortcomings in the European Green Deal. Two critical examples of this stand out. The first is the EU climate target that greenhouse gas emissions should be 55% lower in 2030 than in 1990. The parliament voted for a 60% reduction target but was ignored by the European Commission and the EU Council. For those sceptical of democracy’s ability to respond to the climate emergency in line with scientific requirements, this example confirms the narrative that deliberations can yield a lowest-common-denominator approach.

The second example concerns the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities, a classification system intended to clarify which economic activities are environmentally sustainable. This scheme was meant to provide guidelines on which investments are compatible with the Paris Agreement. Against the scientific advice, gas from fossil fuels made it onto the list of green investments, not only undermining the credibility of the tool but also showing that elected representatives failed to withstand outside pressure. If the costs of the transition increase because decision-makers delay determining what is green and what is not, then citizens need to be brought in.

Given these suboptimal aspects of the green deal, one might worry about the future of democracy in the age of the climate emergency. Although the commission has been piloting some innovative experiments in the field of advancing democracy, political decision-making continues to be detached from new citizen panels and other participative forums.

This situation must be reversed, as the only way to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement is to create systemic synergies that allow stakeholders to amplify each other’s contributions, as opposed to operating in silos. Individuals and communities with participatory decision-making agency must come front and centre. Communication exercises are no longer sufficient, as Europe is permanently challenged by extreme weather events and a war on its border in which the aggression is funded by the fossil-fuel economy.

This is not about shifting responsibility onto consumers or citizens, as some would like to understand it. Rather, it is about coming to terms with the fact that to stand a chance of meeting the most ambitious challenge of our times, the EU and the international community more widely must create a new societal model of collaboration and deliberation – with popular ownership of climate solutions. This will require European political actors to shift their climate protection systems from polluters to citizens. Such systems can exist, but they must be drawn up by those at the forefront of the crisis: citizens.

Climate citizenship

The continued influence of fossil-fuel lobby groups has weakened citizens’ overall trust that governments and institutions are able or willing to do what it takes to address the grave economic and societal suffering that is already being felt in the European regions most affected by the climate crisis. Even as trust is being eroded, the climate emergency is accelerating, providing fertile terrain for the dystopian illusion that less democracy could yield more climate action. This is a dangerous and inaccurate proposition that lures the minds of many, from the liberals at the forefront of climate activism to dissatisfied citizens who start flirting with the idea of illiberalism as a way to prevent climate regulation from advancing further.

The climate crisis will not be solved by coercion and top-down policymaking but by deep, bottom-up engagement with the energy transition and ownership of the solutions by the citizens most at risk. The 21st century poses such deep threats to societies around the globe that it requires a genuine 21st-century citizenship to emerge as the voice of collective reason and agency. Citizenship is the key to solving the climate crisis, but what is needed is a new, modern form of it, built on three key pillars: intergenerational justice, environmental rights, and political participation.

In the 21st century, citizenship has to evolve to provide a way through the climate crisis. Since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the EU has developed a form of citizenship that exists beyond the confines of the nation-state. That treaty introduced many provisions on sharing space, in particular clauses that secure equal treatment, non-discrimination, and avenues to involvement in political participation. However, it contained too few provisions that help with today’s climate emergency – and in this sense, the whole EU edifice needs to be reinvented.

The magnitude of the climate issue makes it essential to begin to map out the required set of rights and responsibilities. The notion of intergenerational justice is surfacing in the debate, and the Fridays for Future movement, in which children and teens took to the streets to claim their right to a stable planet, has been the most visible expression of this trend. But it has not been the only example, and this debate has also been unfolding in the legislative world. In September 2023, a group of six children took 32 countries to court for their lack of action on fighting climate change and protecting children’s future.

These cases are no longer isolated exceptions: they are becoming the norm, which should come as no surprise, as it has taken centuries to build up a judiciary whose verdicts yield to evidence. In the case of the climate emergency, the evidence is overwhelming, which is why most climate litigation cases end up in favour of the plaintiffs.

Conclusion

If citizens, courts, and scientists are all asking for protection of the right to life, if today’s economic system is crumbling, if economic instability will be a natural consequence of the breach of planetary boundaries, if insurance companies are no longer offering cover in areas exposed to climate risks, and if pension funds still maintain links to fossil-fuel investments and may collapse as a result, then the question arises: how does the EU correct the blind spots in its climate policies and create a political process capable of addressing these challenges?

The EU needs to devise a new form of socio-economic climate citizenship through a real green deal. This must enable heightened agency for citizens to act and decide on their adaptation options and their economic income. The EU has to create the space for European societies to decide how to move away from an economy plagued by risk because of its reliance on the continued use of fossil fuels. Citizens need to have ways to ensure that their taxes go towards solutions and not towards the destruction of future generations. This requires a fundamental overhaul of EU democracy and can only be managed democratically, with official political institutions playing their part. This overhaul will be best initiated by institutions, driven by citizens, and managed by everyone together for successful implementation. The alternatives to this approach do not offer the dignity that comes with active participation in the choices that will shape people’s livelihoods in the 21st century.

Author

Suzana Carp is a Co-Founder of the Foundation for European Citizens Rights, Involvement, Trust as well as a renown climate policy specialist, currently working as deputy Executive Director at Cleantech for Europe. With one foot in the democracy activism world and one in the climate discussions which sesks to shape the future net-zero economy, Suzana has been one of the most active policy advisors to work on the EU Green Deal design but remains cautiously critical of its shortcomings. Suzana is also the lead candidate in Brussels for the upcoming European Elections in 2024, on behalf of Volt Europa