Guest of the IRD department for a lecture on “Europe’s 2050 environment and climate ambitions: reinventing the economy of the 21st century”, the European Environment Agency executive director is also professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, researcher in environmental policies, former policy advisor and president of a NGO. He accepted to give us an interview to develop his views on the need of systemic change in our economy.
Does the Paris Agreement constitute a real breakthrough? Is it going to change anything?
Paris can be considered a breakthrough for two reasons. Clearly the fact that the number of countries with climate policies has risen from 35 to nearly all the countries of the world is crucial. Secondly, the agreement that emerged from Paris is an official agreement, which means there will be a reporting scheme that will allow us to follow what countries are doing.
What this agreement has done is effectively dismantle the old concept of a ‘firewall’ between the industrialised countries and the developing countries, commensurate with how the world has evolved since 1990 the first climate change negotiations took place.
In addition, we now understand that if we want to stay between 1.5° and 2° of global surface temperature warming, there will be impacts on the energy system, the transport system, the agricultural system, and so on, so it really is a breakthrough in terms of the scope of what we have put forward as a global challenge. I think it will have major impact on the key policy areas of all countries.
After the conclusion of the Paris Agreement, commentators spoke about a binding agreement, is this really the case?
In principle, it is binding, but it is well known that one weakness of many international agreements is that they lack strong compliance and sanctioning systems. As such, it will depend to a large extent on the good will of countries and their national policies to ensure the agreement is implemented, as well as on the success of a strong soft compliance mechanism of monitoring, reporting and verification.
Given the seriousness of the issue at stake, a kind of ‘naming and shaming’ will play its role. Were we to have proposed a formal sanctioning mechanism from the European perspective, it would not have been acceptable for many players, not only in the developing world but also in the United States of America, for example.
Is binding only a communication word then?
No, it is binding in the same way that becoming a member of the United Nations (UN) means you also agree with the binding nature of the UN Charter. It is binding under the law of international agreements. The problem is this lack of a strong sanctioning mechanism. I would not emphasise that ‘it doesn’t mean anything’ or that ‘it’s an empty box’, I don’t look at it in this way.
Does it not come too late for the climate and humanity?
We already know that global warming has increased the global average surface temperature by one degree, on average, and that this will continue. We know from science that the window we have to really turn things around is closing. So is it too late? No, but it will require serious, fundamental and deep shifts in some of the key systems, which will have to come rather quickly, so that is the real challenge now.
One article of the Paris agreement is dedicated to forests. Is the ocean the most glaring omission with regards to biodiversity?
Not necessarily. Deforestation can be fought with reforestation. The oceans, however, are on the receiving end of this temperature rise and other impacts of climate change, in the form of ocean acidification, the shifting of species and ecosystems, so there is very little that can be done immediately. The scope for policy intervention is very small. In contrast, forests can be protected and that has an immediate impact on atmospheric CO2 levels.
However, we do need much stronger protection of the marine environment. Last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) produced the first Comprehensive State of the European Seas Report, in which it is made very clear that we are lacking in terms of ocean governance and protection of the marine environment, but this issue is of a very different nature than the protection of forests.
In general, there are several forms that a carbon price could take. The two most prominent ones are the emissions trading system (ETS), developed after Kyoto and applied, with the institutional support and experience of the EU, in China and other places, and the carbon tax. Both have clear advantages and disadvantages, but it is clear that if countries are now serious about implementing climate policies, this will entail some form of price on carbon.
Can we implement such a carbon tax at the EU level?
In theory yes, but for the moment, that is not the method the EU has chosen. We have a policy instrument called the ETS market mechanism instead. This system needs to be as efficient and effective as possible. The current reform of the ETS will hopefully strengthen the functioning of the market mechanism.
The EEA’s state and outlook 2015 report mentions the need for ‘systemic changes’. Can you tell us more?
It’s clear that four decades of EU environment policies have delivered quite significant results if we consider air quality, water quality, waste management and more. However, the global spread of, for example, the transport and mobility system based on individual car use and the combustion engine, requires a much more fundamental reflection on systemic unsustainability. Too many resources are used in a non-circular way. Such a system is too energy intensive and mainly carbon based. Moreover, it has too large an impact on natural capital and human health.
We need to reflect much more about systemic change rather than just looking at technological improvements, although technology is also important. This could mean different business models, different consumption habits, downscaling certain demands through more intelligent use of spatial planning and so on. We need to reflect on how can we build the most energy and resource efficient (including a natural capital) mobility system and not only on how we can build the most fuel-efficient cars. The same is true for the energy system: how can we make the fundamental transition towards a low carbon energy future.
What should the priority be to improve the environment and counter climate change?
To stay within a 2°C limit, we will have to move rather quickly to an energy system that does not emit greenhouse gases. This means moving to a renewable energy system. Consider the sectorial distribution of greenhouse gas emissions. The only major sector that has increased its contribution is the transport system, so we really need to focus on designing a different transport and mobility system that uses fewer resources and emits less greenhouse gas. In Europe, we need to reflect much more on the trans-boundary nature of this. The energy union offers a gateway to think at a much more integrated European level when it comes to moving to a sustainable energy system.
So you partly agree with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who considers that the European Commission should prioritize the fight against air pollution?
Air pollution is the largest environmental cause of human health impacts and premature death. It is estimated that about 440 000 air pollution related premature deaths occur every year in Europe. This has a significant impact on healthcare systems, healthy life years lost, absenteeism, work quality and quality of life. As such, it is an important issue.
Tackling air pollution also has co-benefits when it comes to climate change because most of the things we can do to fight air pollution or to fight climate change have a reciprocal positive impact. But to say that we should single out this area is incorrect. Resource scarcity and the future circular economy are also a huge priority if you look at global demand for resources and Europe’s impact on this.
Is the Circular economy package going in the right direction?
The Circular economy package clearly gives a sense of direction. Just the fact that there is a major policy initiative to fundamentally shift from a linear model to a circular model indicates that a major shift in nearly all sectors of the economy is needed. In that sense, it’s certainly a move in the right direction. It will now have to be implemented in multiple, more concrete policy interventions and I think that will happen over the next several years. So yes, I think it’s a fundamental piece of legislation.
What do you think of the role of energies like coal and nuclear?
In order to achieve a sustainable energy, low carbon future, there are several options. In the next decade, we need to move away from the carbon-based system. However, we have to work with the current energy system. In Europe, this means that for a limited number of countries, nuclear is an important part of the energy mix for the electricity generation.
Now, certain nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their time and decisions will have to be made on where and how to invest. It’s clear that investment in nuclear requires public support and a careful long term cost benefit analysis. The nuclear waste question also needs to be answered and the risks involved considered.
A number of countries have made fundamental decisions. Germany’s Energiewende sent a very clear signal and a number of other countries have made the same statement, Austria for example. Again though, Europe allows the Member States to have their own energy mix and it is obvious that in order to reach the 2050 greenhouse gas and climate goals, it is essential to focus on more than just nuclear. But we must accept that nuclear is a part of the European energy mix for the years to come. We will need to ask fundamental questions regarding the impact and price of nuclear energy, and what happens after the end of the nuclear plants’ useful lives.
Is the Energy Union a step towards clean energy?
The Energy Union certainly contributes to the development of clean energy, and part of it supports the climate energy goals. But we definitely need a strengthened and more integrated grid in Europe that allows us to work more flexibly with different sources of energy.
And should Europe be converted to the German ‘Energy turn’ (Energiewende)?
Europe should not be converted to anything. Germany has labelled its own transition process, but it’s clear that every country will have to adapt to the local conditions within the framework of an integrated European grid system and an integrated European policy. Conditions for a landlocked country that is fairly flat are not the same as those for a country with coasts, mountains and vast areas. We will all have to define our own “Energiewende.” If we copy anything, it would probably be the philosophy behind it and the sort of long term inspirational vision, rather than the concrete policies.
What could we do to develop the green economy more quickly?
Increasingly, externalities need to be integrated into the prices of goods. Also, we need to work with the right tax incentives, and deal with subsidy systems in order to make the economy less environmentally harmful and more sustainable. We must use the economic tools, both in a macro- and microeconomic sense to help us move in the right direction. Governments in general have very strong tools to give a sense of direction to the economy. This will be needed to develop a low carbon and circular economy.
What could the EU do to tackle the challenges of the blue economy?
Our State of the European Seas report was rather conclusive on the fact that marine ecosystems are not in good shape, so we need to be realistic. If we want to develop economic activities in the marine environment, we need to make sure that they do not put further stress on that environment and they respect the qualities of the ecosystems in question. As such, we should move to the ecosystem-based management of the marine environment. This means that to have healthy fisheries over a long period of time, sustainable fisheries, fish grids, and sustainable yield management must be considered. Economic activities must not ruin the sea and crucial species in the marine ecosystem. In essence, to have a strong blue economy, make sure to keep a strong blue.
Climate change is global, what more could the EU do to help third states making progress?
We have a lot to offer: technology, policy approaches and experience. We can also provide capacity building and can work along the value chains of European companies that operate abroad. And of course, what Europe can do is to implement strong policies at home, because these create the space for other countries to develop in a certain way and to use the opportunities that they offer.
Interview conducted by Nathan de ARRIBA-SELLIER