Tomas Wyns: "Changing the way we live doesn't mean we'll go back to living in mud huts"

Sustainable Development Goal(s): 13. Climate action17. Partnerships for the goals

Priorities for change: MobilityEnergyFoodWork & InclusionRedefining ValueCircular EconomyResourcesInequalityBiodiversity
Tomas Wyns: "Changing the way we live doesn't mean we'll go back to living in mud huts"

Over the past few months, a whopping 267.617 Belgians added their name to the 'Sign for my Future' petition. By doing so, they have given future governments a mandate to do whatever it takes to keep global warming well below 2 degrees and make Belgium carbon-neutral by 2050. Whatever it takes – does that mean we'll need to give up our current lifestyle? "I always get annoyed by the phrase 'changing the way we live'", says climate scientist Tomas Wyns, one of the co-authors of a roadmap for our policymakers.

In the run-up to the elections, four hundred Belgian CEOs, academics and civil society leaders launched the climate campaign Sign for my Future. It was a call to action for future governments, urging them to develop a long-term plan for policies and investments. Those behind the initiative handed over not just 267.617 signatures to Belgium's politicians, but also a roadmap designed by independent experts. Tomas Wyns, researcher at the VUB and the Institute for European Studies, was one of them: "Our roadmap sets out concrete measures to make Belgium carbon-neutral by 2050. It's based on international studies and scientific research we've conducted."

A few days earlier, Sign for my Future's advisory climate panel, chaired by Government Architect Leo Van Broeck and climatologist Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, published its report. Wyns contributed to this document as well: "The climate panel's report emphasises other issues. It pays a lot of attention to biodiversity, for example. The roadmap, on the other hand, focuses more on the transition itself: where do we want to be in 2040 and 2050, and what should policymakers prioritise today to make sure we get there? We want to give Belgium's climate policy more structure and put the broader framework on the agenda."

Enkele dagen eerder publiceerde het klimaatpanel, onder leiding van Vlaams Bouwmeester Leo Van Broeck en klimatoloog Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele, zijn rapport. Ook aan dat document werkte Wyns mee. “Het rapport van het klimaatpanel legt andere accenten. Zo hebben ze veel aandacht voor biodiversiteit. De roadmap legt dan weer de nadruk op de transitie: waar willen we staan in 2040 en 2050 en waar moeten beleidsmakers dan nu prioritair op inzetten? We willen meer structuur in het beleid brengen en het bredere kader naar voor schuiven.”

Transitional thinking

This approach was a conscious decision by Sign for my Future. Wyns explains: "With our roadmap, we want to encourage policymakers to take more thought-through, realistic decisions that are part of a broader shift. That's also the best way of getting the general public on board. Don't say you want to implement a tax on driving because cars are bad for the environment, for example. Instead, say the electrification of cars is right around the corner, meaning we'll be raising less from excise duties on fuel. Then explain you want to prepare for that loss of income by devising a different, better fiscal system, one that – among other things – takes into account travellers' transport methods and the time at which they travel. People are much more understanding when you explain the bigger picture."

Yellow vests

After the elections, however, it became painfully clear again that not everyone is ready to change the way they live. What can policymakers do to convince non-believers? "I always get annoyed when people talk about 'changing the way we live'. Granted, our world will look completely different in 2050. But that doesn't mean we'll need to sacrifice our quality of life. We're not going to back to living in mud huts, chewing on an ecologically produced carrot by candlelight." 

What will the future look like instead? "We'll still be able to enjoy a bit of meat, or a plant-based protein substitute that tastes almost exactly like meat – who knows, there might even be artificially created meat on our plate. We'll still be using plastics and steel, just in a circular way. Maybe we won't have to buy washing machines any longer; we might be paying per laundry load instead. Such a system would give producers an incentive to extend the lifecycle of their products. Cars won't completely disappear from the streets, but their use will be discouraged. That means public transport will have to be modernised. You can't just make people pay without offering decent alternatives. Otherwise you're fuelling protests like the Yellow Vest movement."

Foreign emissions

The roadmap includes a clear call to take 'foreign' emissions into account. Wyns: "Today, we're only paying for what we emit here, on Belgian territory. That may result in the closure of polluting factories here at home – but then we import more products from abroad instead. Looking at the production of consumer goods outside of Europe, our footprint is already multiple times higher than our production within Belgium."[EC1] 

As it stands now, few countries are taking action to address this issue. But indignation is growing. Recently, for example, there was an outcry in the Netherlands over the fact that the country is 'co-financing' the deforestation of the rain forest by importing soy in massive quantities: to meet the growing demand for soy and palm oil, millions of hectares of forest are being cut down. "Our roadmap contains concrete measures to lower these foreign emissions. They'll reduce the number of livestock, for example, which in turn will reduce our need to import soy. And by working towards a circular economy, we'll become less dependent on imported resources."

Belgium as a frontrunner

Are we still only at the very start of the transition? "No, the shift has already begun: electric cars, bicycles and scooters are selling like hot cakes, car-sharing and services like Uber are gaining in popularity. When it comes to spatial planning, though, we're still nowhere. Belgium needs to change its "ribbon development" way of building. Our industrial sector too needs to do its part. We already have everything we need to be able to do this: our country is conducting groundbreaking research into innovative solutions, earning us praise both at home and abroad. We just need to get better at actually applying these innovations on a larger scale. Our industrial sector should become a frontrunner in that field."

In the meantime, the first reactions to the roadmap are in. "I've received mostly positive feedback from environmental movements, academia and certain actors from the corporate sector. Not everyone is entirely on board with all our conclusions, but people agree the roadmap is a great starting point for our policymakers to work with."

Other news