Science in Society Archive

The EU Agora on Climate Change

Sam Burcher reviews the meeting in Brussels

A third industrial revolution for Europe

The Citizens Agora is an annual meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels that brings together civil society from networks, organizations and groups from all around the European Union and beyond to contribute to the decision making processes of the EU commissioners, on this occasion focussing on Climate Change [1]. The Agora is a word that dates back to 900-700 BC meaning ‘a place of assembly’ in ancient Greek city-states [2]. Thankfully, at the 21st Century EU Agora many women representatives were among the 500 participants.

Gerard Onesta is one of the fourteen Vice Presidents of the EU, a French Green Party member and the organizer of the Agora. He greeted us all in the spacious and high roofed hemicycle, and introduced a ‘key witness’ to the climate issue, Jeremy Rifkin, the President and founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends.  Rifkin is influential in both US and European policy making [3] and is perhaps best known for his commitment to renewable hydrogen technology.  At the heart of his plans for Europe is the “Third Industrial Revolution”, a powerful economic narrative that lays the groundwork for a post carbon future [4]. However, this implies that the economy is to be placed centre stage as it was with the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, which have without doubt contributed to climate change. So profound is the effect of post industrialism on the planet that experts believe that changes brought about by human behavior have ushered in a new Anthropocene era [5].

Climatologist James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that the EU CO2 target of 550 ppm, which is already the most stringent of any Government, must be slashed to 350 ppm if “humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization has developed.” Hansen’s report [6] shows that a rise of CO2 levels to 550ppm would result in a rise of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, double the previous estimates that predicted catastrophic effects for life on earth.

A new energy for Europe

Rifkin is well aware of the threat of climate change as he sets out his stall for a “New Social Europe” to accompany his new economic vision.  He sees oil, coal and natural gas continue to provide the lion share of the EU’s energy well into the 21st century.  But this, he says, will be offset by a commitment to renewable energy to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020 and to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020, a strategy alliteratively known as “20/20 by 2020,” so called to encourage a media hook.

 According to Rifkin, energy efficiency can be achieved by creating a renewable energy scenario where millions of people can collect and produce locally generated renewable energy in their homes, offices, factories, shopping centres and vehicles. The energy can be stored in the form of hydrogen and the power generated can be shared across Europe-wide using smart inter-grids technology.  There is no lack of political will behind his proposed scheme of buildings acting as renewable energy “power plants” as well as habitats. And the money is there too. The European Investment Bank is investing in renewable technologies at the rate of 800 million euros per year. 

Biogas not biofuels key to zero carbon initiatives

Greenpeace has confirmed the urgency of a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 [7].  The EU is willing to take on this added challenge, encouraged by the President of the EU Commission, but is divided on the issue [8]; the strong possibility that the extra 10 percent C02 reduction will be met by biofuels is inadvisable (See Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits [9].)  A truly sustainable way of providing the extra 10 percent of both CO2 reduction and energy efficiency required by 2020 would be to invest in zero carbon initiatives such as biogas, which unlike biofuels (and there was confusion between the two by the translators at the European Parliament) is an infinitely renewable energy resource made from already existing household and farm wastes (see How to Beat Climate Change & Post Fossil Fuel Economy [10].)

The advantage of recycling freely available wastes within closed energy systems meets not just the demands of sustainable living, but also works within an ecologically efficient paradigm. Biogas production by small to medium farming communities in developing countries (See Biogas Bonanza for Third World Development  [11]) has the potential to provide the “energy equity” put forward by Rifkin [4]. His proposal of hydrogen capture and storage as the main source of global energy and the rolling out of a Third Industrial Revolution for developing countries implies a host of cultural, social and political assumptions, not least that local, cost-effective and resource saving solutions may be overlooked,  such as anaerobic digestion of biological wastes to produce biogas. However, Rifkin reassuringly acknowledges the need for all governments to explore zero carbon strategies to deal with the pressing problems of peak oil (See Which Energy? [12], and to establish new economic models. New models for the third world can be brought about by re-orientating development aid, leveraging small and large financing and credit, and favoured-nation trade status to developing nations, he said [4]. He also praised the efforts of people concerned with the protection of forests and proposed that compensation be given to those that had not cut down forest.

Towards the Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009

The EU President and Vice Presidents made a solemn declaration to the Agora that they have drawn upon the international agreements of the Kyoto Protocol, but now seek a consensus on climate decisions for the temporary Climate Change Committee.  The consensus will be handed on to the next EU Government in 2009 and presented as a Climate Change Package to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, and initiated in 2012. To that end the Agora participants were divided into five thematic groups consisting of Resources, Techniques, Solidarities, Economies and Governance to thrash out the working papers. I was directed to Workshop ‘A’ Resources where the search was on for reliable indicators for protecting biodiversity.

In the open workshop debate I drew the attention of keynote speaker Jacqueline McGlade, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, to the recently published reports by the IAAASTD [13] and ISIS’s Food Futures Now Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  [14] that strongly recommends a cautious approach to biofuels and fundamental changes in global agriculture to significantly mitigate CO2 emissions by the regeneration of degraded soils and desert lands through organic composting and tree-planting schemes.     McGlade, who is not in favour of biofuels for road transport, thinks that the most cost-effective way of using European biomass is for electricity and heat. And, that feedstock should be used for the appropriate purposes, i.e. feeding people. She said that the OECD Environmental Outlook projects food and biofuel production together will require a 10 per cent increase in farmland worldwide by 2030 to cope with the projected increase in global food demand and agricultural land area due to world population growth from 6.5 billion to over 8.2 billion people in 2030 and increasing average incomes. She believes that Europe should seek to generate as much of its bio-energy as possible domestically, while sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production, and without compromising ecosystem services.

Agora participants against nuclear energy

By far the most hotly debated topic, and one greeted with fear and loathing by the majority of participants at the Agora is the possibility of nuclear energy being misconstrued as a likely candidate for renewable energy. I pointed out that nuclear energy is not a renewable energy and that it is an environmentally dangerous and uneconomical finite energy source (See Energy Strategies in Global Warming: Is Nuclear Energy the Answer? [15]). I was supported by my Agora colleagues; Michel Mosser of SimEurope, dubbed “man in black” by workshop moderators because of his Machiavellian intelligence. Harry Wijnberg of LISER representing environmental refugees from Chernobyl and Serban Miron Copot from the NGO Generatia Verde said that the Russian designers of the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear power plant are presently involved in the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Bulgaria [16].  

The cultural myth that nuclear energy provides an environmentally sustainable and stable source of energy for Europe has been well and truly dispelled (see Which Energy? ). However, the French Government, who depend on nuclear for 80 percent of its electricity supply is relentlessly promoting its nuclear agenda  [17] and underplayed the recent nuclear accident in Avignon where 8 000 gallons of uranium contaminated solution spilled into the Gaffeire and Lauzon rivers about 25 miles from the city of Avignon [18]. The French President Sarkozy has stalked the African states pressing for a nuclear power plant building programme and since the G8 meeting in Japan the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has approved at least eight new nuclear power stations to be built rapidly under fast track planning procedures in the UK [19] some on coastal sites that are vulnerable to flooding and land erosion from climate change [20].

Public and independent scientific opinion in Europe has similarly dismissed the myth of GM crops see Keep GM Out of Europe! [21].) And the transference of industry’s hope for GM crops from food to biofuels has also been debunked (see Food Without Fossil Fuels Now [22], as it is clear that biofuels are made from food crops that would otherwise feed billions of people and the current food and fuel crisis has been precipitated by the huge divestment of maize harvests into producing ethanol in the US.

Renewable energy is on the up

The European Institution’s solemn declarations [1] sets out a positive agenda for sustainable policy on climate change that aims to shrink its own carbon footprint. In an effort to lead by example the EU Parliament itself plans to be the biggest energy self sufficient building in Europe. The EU’s climate change policy must continue to integrate research and investment into safe and clean renewable technologies such as solar, wind and wave power that have been poised to provide Europe’s growing energy needs for almost two decades.

Deep blue solar fields have transformed the economic landscape in Solar Valley, near Leipzig in Germany [23].  Photovoltaic sales have increased 10-fold since 2003 to 5.5 billion euros in 2007.  The Germans are also the biggest users of wind power providing 7.2 percent of electricity from wind.  A total of 14.2 percent of electricity is generated by their combined renewable energy efforts and 250 000 new jobs have been created.  But government subsidies are already being withdrawn from this area and manufacturers fear that production will be outsourced from Europe.

Marine power off the coast of Scotland currently contributes to 4 percent of UK total electricity consumption. It has the potential to deliver up to 20 percent of the UK’s current electricity needs by 2020 [24].  A preference for tidal turbines has been expressed by environmental NGO’s, but the UK Government is not rushing to fund wave power, and this has stymied its development.  In contrast, Norway already provides 99 percent of its electricity through hydropower. Floating wind turbines have realized the dreams of the Mayor of Utsira, Norway’s smallest island and meteorological station [25]. The proposed zero emissions island hopes to combat the 2 degree rise in average temperature since records began there in 1868. 

Agora produces coherent results

The Agora on climate change threw up interesting challenges and debates between civil society, the co-moderators and the ‘redactors’ whose task was to edit the multiple source texts into a single work. However, hard fought arguments put forward by participants in the Resources workshop on the big issues such as renewable energy, protection of land, water and forest resources and marine and ecosystem conservation were diffused overnight by a change in co-moderators on the second day of the workshop. This meant that the texts lost their power overnight, and had to be revised and strengthened.  In the general assembly that followed, the redactors presented a coherent set of working papers from all the workshops, and that made the intensity of the process worthwhile.

Rifkin says that the Third Industrial Revolution will require innovative educational reforms [4]. A specific Education workshop would therefore have been a useful addition to the Citizens Agora to examine its purpose within a new social Europe. Current trends in Education for Sustainability suggest that a better quality of life may not be brought about by simply shifting from one Industrial Revolution to another, but must involve a paradigm shift towards the importance of the organic relationship between people and their environment. This entails responsible co-operation with nature [26]. It is the restoration of the organic “missing link” from the era of competitive economics that will unleash the creative potential of the European citizen to create a sustainable society within a secure and peaceful EU.

Overall it must be said that the Citizens Agora is a real opportunity for civil society to have their voices heard and to make direct contributions to the policy making decisions of the European Union.  It’s a revival of a tradition of participation that should continue well into the future, and one that the UK Parliament would do well to emulate, especially on the issue of nuclear energy.

Article first published 04/08/08


  1. Agora on climate change: Parliament asks for Citizens input.  European Parliament 12-13 June 2008
  2. Agora 19 July 2008,
  3. Jeremy Rifkin 3 July 2008,
  4. Rifkin J.  2008 Leading the way to the third industrial revolution and a new social Europe in the 21st Century.  Presented to the Agora on Climate Change European Parliament, Brussels, 12-13 June 2008.
  5. University of Leicester. Press release 25th January 2008 Man made changes bring about new epoch in earth’s history
  6. Hansen J, Sato M, Kharecha P, Beerling D, Masson-Delmotte V, Pagini M, et al 2008 Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? April 7
  7. Greenpeace International 2005 Energy Revolution:  A sustainable pathway to a clean energy future for Europe.
  8. van Wijland G. Biofuels: the 10% question. European Energy Review 2008:92-95 May/June
  9. Ho MW.  How to beat climate change and post fossil fuel economy Science in Society 31 2006 37:39
  10. 1Ho MW.Biofuels: Biodevastation, hunger and false carbon credits Science in Society 33, 2007 36:39 
  11. Ho MW.  Biogas bonanza for Third World development Science in Society 27 2005 28-29
  12. Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders P, Bravo E, Gala R. Which energy? Executive summary
  13. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, the IAASTD report agreed at the Intergovernmental Plenary Session in Johannesburg, South Africa in April, 2008.
  14. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim li Ching 2008 Food Futures Now, organic, sustainable and fossil free,  ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008, ISBN 0-9544923-4-X
  15. Bunyard P. 2006 Energy strategies in global warming: Is Nuclear energy the answer? In Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders P, Bravo E, Gala R. Which energy? I-SIS report 2006 ISBN: 0-9544923-3-1
  16. New Scientist Print Edition December 6 2007. Bulgarian nuclear power plant on shaky ground
  17. de Saint Jacob Y. Nuclear Energy supporters doubtful about wind power European Energy Review 2008:15 May/June
  18. Warning over uranium leak BBC press release 9th July 2008
  19. Webster P. More nuclear plants to be approved within two years. The Times, Monday July 14 2008
  20. The impact of Climate Change on nuclear power sites 12th March 2007
  21. Ching Lim Li.  Keep GM out of Europe! Science in Society 24 2004:26-27
  22. Ho MW Food without Fossil Fuels Now Science in Society 38 2008:8-13
  23. Nicola S. Germany’s green revolution. European Energy Review 2008:20-22 May/June
  24. Preesman L. UK hotbed for tidal power European Energy Review 2008:81-84 May/June
  25. Gatermann R. New in Norway: floating wind turbines. European Energy Review 2008:98-101 May/June
  26. Kidner D.W. 2001 Nature and psyche, radical environmentalism and the politics of subjectivity. State University of New York Press ISBN 0-7914-4752-9

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a cat?