We Only Have One Planet Left to Save

By Guido Montani

The ecosystem is a global public good. Partisan European divisions on the nature-restoration law cannot be justified.

On Wednesday in Strasbourg, the European Parliament adopted its position on the proposed European Union nature-restoration law—generally supportive—by a narrow majority of 336 to 300. Previously, there had been a bitter clash between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the defenders of the law, led by the commissioner responsible for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans. Outside the parliament, groups of farmers were protesting, fearful of constraint on agricultural production and an increase in food prices. A group of young ecologists, on the contrary, supported the defence of biodiversity and restoration of the ecological fertility of soils.

Deep Divisions

The European Commission published its proposal in June last year. Subsequently, the president of the EPP, Manfred Weber, criticised the envisaged directive, causing a split in the alliance of parties that have supported the commission during this parliamentary term. Rejection of the proposal would have put the entire European Green Deal in crisis—despite this having enabled the European Union to take a leading position on environmental issues within the United Nations framework.

This is explained by the approach of the European elections in June 2024. Even Roberta Metsola, president of the parliament, has defended those citizens who fear excessive impositions. According to the Financial Times, ‘Metsola’s stance reflects deep divisions over climate policy within her own political family, the European People’s Party. The EPP … counts among its members European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who has made green legislation a central part of her mandate.

In some EU member states right-wing parties are in power, as in Italy, Poland and Hungary, or can aspire to an electoral victory, as in Spain, France and the Netherlands. The prospect of a majority of the right (perhaps allied with nationalist parties) in the next parliament is therefore not a chimera, even if it would represent a break with the tradition of all past legislatures: since the first European elections in 1979, a majority of pro-European parties (left, centre and right) has managed European policies jointly.

Public Good

The environmental challenge is neither right-wing nor left-wing (if we define these stances, following the late Norberto Bobbio, as respectively defending or opposing inequality). The ecosystem is a public good (being nonexclusive and non-rival, unlike private commodities), which must be sustained in the name of all European citizens, indeed all citizens of the world: an ecological catastrophe could bring about the demise of the human species on the planet. The same could happen with a nuclear war between great powers, on which muscles have been flexed by the Russian side in the war on Ukraine. Security, the defence of life, is the first of the public goods all governments should guarantee to their citizens. Unfortunately, the environmental challenge is not yet understood by national governments on a par with military defence—in which they invest considerable amounts that weigh on public budgets, while investments to combat the destruction of nature are considered an unbearable burden. It is enough to freeze or bury a crucial policy for the salvation of the planet that a section of citizens opposes it.

Heat-Related Deaths

 It is said by economists that growth cannot be stifled. Yet a decisive variable is omitted from their cost-benefit calculations—the loss of life caused by climate change, droughts, fires, floods, forced emigration and so on. According to Copernicus, June 2023 was the warmest ever. Nature Medicine has published research indicating that in 2022 61,672 people suffered heat-related deaths in Europe (4,807 in France, 8,173 in Germany, 11,324 in Spain, 18,010 in Italy). Nor is this an exceptional situation, rather a long-term trend. According to the World Meteorological Organization, between 1970 and 2021 there were 11,778 reported disasters attributed to weather, climate and water extremes; they caused 2,087,229 deaths. How many millions of lives will have to be sacrificed on the altar of political passivity? The affirmation of the seriousness of the climate crisis dates back over three decades, with the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The truth, which governments hide from citizens, is that in the annual conferences of the parties to the convention only promises are made that no one keeps.

Each government lasts maybe four or five years—so the important thing is to win the next election, not to think about future generations. Moreover, the environment is a public good that cannot be provided only at local, national or European levels: it is a global public good that requires binding measures on a supranational scale. It is this constraint national governments reject.

Not Enough

The nature-restoration law, on which the parliament will now enter negotiations with the Council of the EU, representing the member states, will constitute an important step in the right direction. But it is not enough. The EU produces only 8 per cent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. It is a good example, but all other UN states must do likewise. Even that will not be enough. The restoration of terrestrial ecosystems must be accompanied by restoration of their marine counterparts—where the race for the exploitation of mineral deposits in the deep depths of the oceans is unleashed. On this, the 193 member states of the UN finally agreed a legally-binding biodiversity agreement last month, after nearly two decades of negotiations.

Not to forget the regulation of extra-terrestrial spaces, where thousands of private and military satellites circulate. Indeed, a new colonisation of satellites and planets is being pursued by the great powers and aspiring ones, such as India, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and South Korea.

Solemn Pact

Ultimately, the leaders of political parties and governments around the planet must find the courage to make their citizens understand that the salvation of the lives of today’s young people depends on the will to implement the policies necessary to make human civilisation—with all its dramatic contradictions, primarily the wealth gap between rich and poor countries—compatible with the policies needed to save all species not yet rendered extinct after centuries of plundering by Homo sapiens. A solemn pact between humanity and nature, a ‘Constitution of the Earth’, is therefore necessary. History teaches that only through respect for fundamental norms do citizens and political forces commit to the rules necessary to sustain the collective heritage of human civilisation. Think of how what was then western Europe came together after the war in the Council of Europe to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law and so say ‘never again’ to Nazism. A Constitution of the Earth is not a utopia. It is an achievable goal if the four largest polluters in the world—China, the United States, India and the EU—can agree. Their collective CO2 emissions constitute 62 per cent of the global total. If these countries decide that a pact between humanity and nature must be made, their critical mass will mean all other UN member states will have to follow their example.

The fight against climate change can be won. A coalition of states was able to defeat fascism in World War II. Today it is necessary and possible to organise, on a global scale, a coalition of states to save life on the planet.

Guido Montani

Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).

Note: this article has also been published at the “Social Europe”: https://www.socialeurope.eu/we-only-have-one-planet-left-to-save