Jytte Guteland interview: For the children and the bees

As rapporteur of the European Climate Law, Jytte Guteland is keenly aware of the climate struggles facing our planet. She tells Lorna Hutchinson of her determination to build a more sustainable future.
Jytte Guteland | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

28 Oct 2020

American essayist, poet and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau said that there are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know; the keeping of bees, for instance.

Swedish S&D deputy Jytte Guteland is very much on the same page with Thoreau. Citing the future of our children and bees as one of the main motivations driving her fight against climate change, she says that bees are a litmus test for the sustainability of our society.

“The day we have no bees means that our biological diversity is so damaged, we have a complete disaster on our hands. One third of our food production depends on bees. We must do all we can to stop the toxic chemicals that are putting the health of our children and bees at stake.”

“The day we have no bees means that our biological diversity is so damaged, we have a complete disaster on our hands. One third of our food production depends on bees”

In early October, Guteland managed to pull off what many had considered impossible – clinching a majority on the European Climate Law, which supports the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2030. With the European Parliament officially in her corner, Guteland now has a strong mandate to negotiate with the Council and the European Commission.

“Overall, I am pleased that the European Parliament has taken a clear stance in support of setting Europe on a progressive course to further cut emissions and move faster in the crucial transition towards climate neutrality. We have improved the European Commission’s original proposal on a number of points and I look forward to commencing negotiations with the Member States and finding a solid final agreement. It is no secret, of course, that the 2030 target is one of the more contested elements of the European Climate Law proposal and I anticipate this will also be reflected in the upcoming negotiations.”

She explains that when she started work on the Climate Law proposals in March, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was taking grip in Europe, she was repeatedly told that it was not the time to push for an ambitious climate policy; that the EU’s focus should be fixed on one crisis at a time.

“We have a health crisis, yes, but the climate emergency did not go away because of the coronavirus. If we do not fight for an ambitious climate policy now, we are going to have to face a crisis far worse than the one we are currently experiencing”

“I responded that this was exactly the right time for ambition, that we must fight these two threats at the same time. We have a health crisis, yes, but the climate emergency did not go away because of the Coronavirus. If we do not fight for an ambitious climate policy now, we are going to have to face a crisis far worse than the one we are currently experiencing. Therefore, it was important for me not to delay work on the Climate Law and not to reduce our ambition and pace. It was important for me to align our ambition with the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Agreement.”

“Looking back on it now, I’m glad I didn’t listen to those who wanted me to slow down, because if I had, we would never have ended up with this strong mandate for the upcoming negotiations with Member States. Now people tell me the same thing - that we must lower our ambition and that it’s going to be impossible to get a more ambitious result than the Commission’s proposal,” she says, referring to the recent announcement by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of a new 55 percent emission reduction target by 2030.

“Well, that’s what they said about a 60 percent target in the European Parliament as well, and we managed that. Yes, the negotiations are going to be tough. Yes, I am aware of the position of some national governments. But I also know that there is a demand for intensified climate ambition among citizens, especially the younger generation in many Member States.”

Asked what brought her to politics in the first place, Guteland says that one of her strongest motivations was the fight for equality - particularly gender equality. “My first priority back then was to ensure a good and equal school system for everyone. This is still important of course, but over the years my interest in global challenges - climate change, biodiversity and human rights - has grown and is now the main reason for my political engagement today.”

“The climate policy that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are pushing is perhaps not so impressive from a European point of view, but if they win we can re-establish the multilateralism that is essential for global climate policy”

First elected to the European Parliament in 2014, she says her election campaign pledged to fight for the kids and the bees “since neither of them are eligible to vote.” “The decisions we make as politicians will have an immense impact on their future. When I face hard decisions, I always try to consider which option is going to benefit our children and bees the most. I am sure many politicians also entered into politics because they want to build a better future for children. But way too often, short-sighted benefits get in the way. We must show solidarity with the weakest in our society as well as future generations.” Guteland says that her six years as an MEP so far have brought many highlights, including “seeing that the decisions we make can have a huge impact on our future.”

She cites her work during the 2014-2019 parliamentary term on the revision of the emissions trading system. “That reform alone managed to cut emissions to such a degree that it would be the equivalent of a country like Sweden having zero emissions for 50 years. It was a huge victory. My recent work with the Climate Law has also been a highlight, seeing the European Parliament adopting such a historically ambitious position.” But on the fl ip side, she talks of the devastation of Brexit, which, among its myriad consequences, also involved saying goodbye to her British colleagues in Parliament.

“It was a huge loss, both politically and personally, as I had many friends in the UK Labour Party delegation. Many committed British colleagues left the Parliament. It was a huge loss of experience and knowledge. I am still not over Brexit.”

Turning to the upcoming US election, Guteland says she is following the campaigns very closely but points out, “it’s sad that climate policy is so absent from the debate.” Yet she describes this particular race for the White house as “one of the most important elections regarding the climate that we have seen in modern history.” She says that a change in administration - from the Republican Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden - would herald a massive change in climate policy globally.

“If Joe Biden enters the Oval Office, he promised that the first thing he is going to do is have the US re-join the Paris Agreement. The climate policy that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are pushing is perhaps not so impressive from a European point of view, but if they win, we can re-establish the multilateralism that is essential for global climate policy. My dream for COP26 in Glasgow would be for countries like the United States and China catching up with the EU with a healthy sense of competition.”

The world needs more, not less leadership in order to limit the ongoing climate crisis and deliver on the Paris Agreement, Guteland explains. “It is obvious that we will only succeed if all parts of the world, especially the major emitters, take responsibility and roll up their sleeves to significantly cut emissions. The US could be an important ally to Europe in this transition and of course I think it is truly regrettable that instead of leading by example, President Trump has chosen to not take responsibility for the ongoing climate crisis. If the US continues to be a laggard instead of taking action against climate change, I am certain that this will come back to severely punish them, both economically and in terms of global political influence.”

As a member of Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iran, Guteland says it would be significant for global security if the United States were to re-join the Iran nuclear deal – something Joe Biden has said would happen under his presidency as long as Iran returns to strict compliance with the agreement.

“What we have seen these past few years has been an escalation in words and deeds similar to that seen during the Cold War. The United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal and its special economic sanctions programme against Iran has been disastrous. The EU has an important role to play in promoting peaceful development in both Iran and Iraq, while at the same time demanding they respect human rights. The task is multifaceted as it requires clarity vis-à-vis Iran in its demand for respect for the nuclear agreement, human rights, and international conventions. At the same time, the EU needs to emphasise that it is unacceptable to breach international law and that US actions have escalated the conflict and led to suffering for a lot of people.”

She says that it has been difficult for the EU to pursue its own Iran policy as it ends up in the shadow of the United States, adding, “The EU must develop a stronger position when it comes to Iran.”

Guteland is also a member of Parliament’s new Committee of Inquiry on the Protection of Animals during Transport, and says that although it is sad that there is need for such a committee, its existence is justified given that some Member States are still failing to comply with EU animal transport welfare laws.

“Egg-laying hens and rabbits raised for meat are kept in a space about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and almost all sows spend half of every year inside cages so narrow that they cannot even turn around. This causes tremendous suffering”

“Animals are still given too little space during transportation and temperature regulations are often exceeded. The result is horrifying, unnecessary suffering. It is not acceptable in our modern society to treat animals in this way. I think we should listen to citizens when it comes to cage-free farming.”

“Every year over 300 million animals in the EU still spend all, or a significant part of, their lives imprisoned in cages. Egg-laying hens and rabbits raised for meat are kept in a space about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and almost all sows spend half of every year inside cages so narrow that they cannot even turn around. This causes tremendous suffering. Some Member States have already introduced national legislation that goes beyond minimum EU standards, but in order to end the inhumane practice of farming animals in cages and ensure a level playing field for our farmers, the EU needs to harmonise these different standards to the highest possible common denominator.”

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