Since the signing of the of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement where do you think we have made progress and where does more work need to be done?
The greatest progress has been made in the public debate. You see everywhere that the way we talk about our climate has completely changed.
For example, until just before the adoption of the Paris Agreement you still had many discussions about the science, also at international level during the climate negotiations. That has completely shifted. You also see that it has become more difficult for policy makers to hide behind the non-action of other countries.
We are all part of the Paris Agreement, we have all committed to the same goals, and the national climate plans (NDC’s) show that the climate efforts of most big economies do not differ that much. Where much more work needs to be done is when it comes to translating this shift in discourse into concrete action.
See for example what happened recently when EU environment ministers adopted, under pressure from the automobile industry, completely inadequate targets for CO2 emissions from cars and light commercial vehicles. Even more worrying, take the vague language on increasing the evenly inadequate EU 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target.
How worried are you by US President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and should we be more positive considering two of the fastest economies in the world, India and China, are adopting strategies to use more renewable energy?
Of course, the election of Trump was a blow. However, when it comes to the international climate negotiations, it is reassuring to see that little has changed. It even created an almost opposite effect; negotiators became more determined to make the Paris Agreement work.
"The election of Trump was a blow. However, when it comes to the international climate negotiations, it is reassuring to see that little has changed. It even created an almost opposite effect; negotiators became more determined to make the Paris Agreement work"
The ‘We Are still In’ movement, also has a positive effect. All those US federal states, cities, business who basically say that even without the national government playing its part they are still committed to the Paris Agreement. And not only when it comes to greenhouse gas reductions, but also to international climate financing.
That the withdrawal by Trump has had less effect than one would expect is also because people realise he is in complete denial of where the future is heading. In the longer term, his anti-climate policies will seriously damage the competitiveness of the US economy.
The development in India and China is indeed something to be more positive about. I would even go one step further: it is something to watch out for. If you see how fast those countries are going when it comes to electric cars for instance, we have to be very careful in Europe that we do not miss the boat through sloppy policies.
Do you think the EU is doing enough to show global leadership on the issue of climate change and where it can improve?
Leading is something you do by example. The coming months are crucial for the EU in that regard. We all know that the national climate plans (NDCs) of the parties to the Paris Agreement are far from sufficient, including the one of the EU.
If all those climate plans are rigorously implemented, we still face a temperature rise of at least three degrees Celsius. The COP24 in Poland is the moment to change that. Countries will be collectively reviewing their climate plans during the so-called Talanoa dilogue.
It’s a very important moment, especially since the next official collective review will only be in 2023. If the EU wants to show global leadership, this is the moment to shine.
Why would other countries make stronger international pledges, if the EU, an economic giant, and with so much historical responsibility, does not manage to increase its NDC of minus 40 percent and bring it in line with what the Paris Agreement requires us to do - at least minus 55 percent?
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called for measures to keep global temperatures not rising above 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels. Considering the Paris Agreement stated the maximum temperature should be between 1.5 to 2.00 degrees, will governments realistically agree to this lower target?
Strictly speaking, the IPCC-report does not call for anything; it shows the latest state of scientific knowledge regarding the possibility to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and the environmental, economic, and social consequences that such a rise would have.
The report concludes that there are huge differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees when it comes to negative impacts on sea level rise, extreme weather events, food security, biodiversity loss, public health and economic losses.
The report concludes that it is still possible to stay below 1.5 degrees, but that drastic policy changes are needed, and that those have to be implemented now.
There are already countries who are willing to go into the right direction. However, much more public pressure is needed to actually get there. For the EU, I advise to target the German government. Germany currently plays a very negative role when it comes to EU climate policies.
The IPCC report also called for a more urgent transition towards using 100 per cent renewable energy. How successful has the EU’s energy union strategy been towards achieving this?
The power sector is the easiest sector to decarbonise because we already have the alternatives there. That is why you see that the power sector has to move to zero emissions within a very short time frame in all scientific decarbonisation pathways. It is so important to have the right policies in place to drive such a rapid transition.
"EU renewable policy is falling short but what worries me more is the EU’s policy on fossil fuels. We do not do enough to tackle the use of coal, but luckily that gets quite some attention. What is less well known is that we also have a huge gas obsession and it is getting worse. We are building gas infrastructure like lunatics"
EU renewable policy is falling short but what worries me more is the EU’s policy on fossil fuels. We do not do enough to tackle the use of coal, but luckily that gets quite some attention. What is less well known is that we also have a huge gas obsession and it is getting worse. We are building gas infrastructure like lunatics.
With all the gas-projects that are on the way we are, for example, about to have three times more gas import capacity than we need. Substantial amounts of EU public money are going into these projects, and they get all kinds of regulatory benefits. A
ll this infrastructure will have to earn back its investments. That requires time we do not have under the Paris Agreement. We are creating a huge gas lock-in under our current energy strategy.
Ahead of COP24, the EU is expected to release its draft long-term climate change strategy for 2050. Do you think it will be ambitious enough to meet the targets as specified in the IPCC report? What key policies would you like to see in the strategy?
Under the Paris Agreement, all parties are obliged to create a long-term strategy. Here it is very important that the EU sets the right example and comes with a strategy that is in line with what science tells us.
However, I fear that lots of additional pressure is needed to actually get such a strategy. My key demand is that the EU goes for the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by, the very latest, 2050. And with an intermediate target in 2030 of 55 percent to make sure that we not leave it to the last moment, because that is not only bad for the climate, but also makes it much more expensive.
Furthermore, the long-term strategy should keep dependence on negative emissions (extracting CO2 from the air) as low as possible. There is so much unknown about these technologies or there are such big problems attached to them, that we should not take that gamble. In other words, we need lots of early CO2 mitigation action.
The more early action we take, the less CO2 we have to suck out of the air at a later stage. However, there is one way of extracting CO2 out of the air which only has positive side effects and that is afforestation. I would like to see the Commission announcing policies into that direction. Again, the earlier we start, the better.
Given the drastic changes required by societies in their behaviour and the way we structure our economies is it realistically possible to halve carbon emissions by 2030?
At least 55 percent greenhouse gas emissions less in 2030 compared to 1990, that is what we have to achieve. That sounds like a lot, but do not forget, the EU is already on its way to achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of about 25 percent in 2020.
Moreover, the great thing about the IPCC-report is that it shows that it is possible to meet that target. We already have the technological knowledge that is needed for it. What is missing are the right policies. In order to get those policies in place, we need political courage and we have to make sure that people are on our side.
"The co-benefits of tackling climate change are enormous. Yes, we have to make drastic changes, but let us also focus on what we get in return: clean air, green cities, interesting jobs, more jobs, healthier lives and control over our energy. Policy makers have to make sure that people gain as much as possible from the economic transition"
The co-benefits of tackling climate change are enormous. Yes, we have to make drastic changes, but let us also focus on what we get in return: clean air, green cities, interesting jobs, more jobs, healthier lives and control over our energy. Policy makers have to make sure that people gain as much as possible from the economic transition.
Transport is a big contributor towards carbon emissions. Has the EU been strong enough to take on powerful companies, to introduce ambitious cuts?
No. The EU way too often serves the interests of large companies instead of the broader public interest. I see it very often happening. Take the slow EU reaction against “Dieselgate.” See how the EU fails to take action against the unnecessary free emission allowances for the cement sector. Missed changes.
Because when the EU does stand up for the public, for example on plastic, or on bee killing pesticides, or fining companies who have misused market power, it immediately pays off in public support.
A similar ‘missed chance’ story is now happening within the Commission and Council when it comes to setting CO2 reduction targets for new cars and lightweight vehicles. Much more can and should be done. However, the automobile industry successfully pulls, mainly through the German government, on the brake. Luckily, the European Parliament does show ambition in these files, so not all is lost yet.
Will you be standing in the upcoming 2019 European elections? Do you fear anti-EU populist parties will dominate the next parliament and how will this affect future policies on climate change?
Yes, I will run during the next elections, and I hope to do so as Spitzenkandidat for the European Greens. I do not fear anti-EU populist parties will dominate the next European Parliament.
What will be key is to get the message across that it is possible to be pro-European, but for a different EU. The question is not how the far right on the one side and the Macrons of this world on the other side, phrase it. Are you in favour or against the EU? That debate feeds polarisation, and only brings us further from home.
The question is: how can we change the EU in such a way that people feel the added value? That the EU serves the people and not the multinationals. Instead of being the spokesperson for vested economic interests, the EU has to interfere where the market fails and be a protector of people and the environment. The EU has to become social and green. That is how you win support for the European project.
You see all over Europe that movements which do not bend for the far-right rhetoric and keep standing for policies that bring benefits to society at large instead of solely to corporations, are gaining strength.
I am very confident that the same will happen during the next European elections. And when that comes true, we will also be able to finally start implementing the much needed and very beneficial, ambitious climate policies. To deliver our economy in the 21st century with green jobs and equality for all.