The Earth’s last chance
EU maps climate change plan to halt global warming
Interview with: European Enviromental Commissioner Stavros Dimas
European Commissioner Stavros Dimas is in the driving seat of European Union’s leading role in guiding international efforts to combat climate change, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases and one of the gravest challenges facing humanity.
Commissioner Dimas in a exhaustive interview with Tejinder Singh explains his vision to meet the environmental challenges both at home within the European Union and internationally to provide pragmatic and feasible progress with call for new environmental technologies development and promotion throughout the EU.
Q. You must be very happy with the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore as he symbolises the fight against climate change today. What is your reaction?
I sent my warmest congratulations to Al Gore immediately after the announcement by the Nobel Committee. Scientists and politicians have known about climate change since the 1970’s but it is only over recent years that it has risen to the top of the international agenda here in Europe and increasingly in the United States.
Al Gore’s vision of how we can prevent catastrophic climate change has taken us closer towards a global agreement on cutting greenhouse emissions. Any meaningful solution needs a global response and at the heart of this must be the full involvement of the United States.
Al Gore’s work has shifted American opinion decisively and the European Union is already working with several US states to share our experience in reducing emissions. I look forward to the day, which I am sure will come soon, when the US administration joins in this common effort.
Q. With your immediate attention on the upcoming UN climate conference in Bali, will you like to elaborate on your Climate Change Strategy for the EU?
There are two months left for the Bali, Indonesia meeting in the beginning of December about the United Nations’ Convention on climate change. The meeting is of great importance because the European Union expects there to agree on status launching of 2012 negotiations. This is the objective but there are also certain items for discussion after launching of negotiations.
Q. What are the approaches that you have in mind?
Regarding climate change there is a two-pronged EU approach: international part and domestic approach.
The international part is how to exploit up to Bali the possibilities that the EU has in various possibilities in international fora like G8, Plus 5 or the unofficial meeting in Bogor in Indonesia for climate change and various bilateral meetings that the EU has with US, China, India and other bilateral meetings in order to prepare the ground for Bali.
In Bali the EU expects to agree:
*Launching of emissions for after 2012 regime because then the first period of Kyoto is expiring On certain building block elements that the new agreement should contain. These elements are:
* A common goal to be achieved by 2050 for reduction of carbon dioxide. According to what science tells us we need 50 percent reduction in global levels in comparison to 1990. This should be the goal for all members of the UN members of the Convention.
* How much the developed countries will take to reduce? What obligation the participants including the EU will have for the reduction of carbon dioxide after 2012? This will be a binding obligation.
*The participants will ask developing countries to contribute because after a few years fast developing countries like China, India, Mexico, Brazil will contribute more to the greenhouse phenomenon than the whole of OECD countries. They have to commit also that they will in the common but different negotiated way the reduction of emissions. This can be done by reducing the rate of growth of emissions. This is the difference with the developed countries. The developed countries have to have absolute reduction while developing countries have to reduce rate of growth of emissions up to 2020 and this can be done with measures like energy efficiency for example which is going to be good for saving money because they will rely less on imported fossil fuels.
* The fourth building block is investment in more research, in development, deployment and transfer of technology especially towards developing countries.
* Development of a global carbon market and the use of market- based instruments in order to achieve reduction of emissions in the most cost-efficient ways.
* Inclusion of aviation and maritime sectors in the new global agreement.
* De-forestation: to fight deforestation and find ways to promote anti-deforestation measures because deforestation contributes to about 20 percent of global Carbon emissions. It’s very important and at the same time avoiding deforestation is very good for biodiversity.
* Adaptation is very important because climate change is already occurring. We are already about 0.7 percent above pre-industrial times. We have an increase of temperature so we have to take right measures in order to avoid disasters and catastrophes which could be caused by the warming of the planet.
We have seen we have increasing droughts, water scarcity, diseases from neo-tropical disease coming up North for example – Blue Tongue disease first time seen in Britain and this is a tropical disease coming from Africa, went up to Southern Europe and now to Northern Europe. Another example also from United Kingdom is the floods a month ago and the destruction that was caused there.
The forest fires in Southern Europe that we had this summer. In Greece, we had four heat waves which had never happened before.
In Africa, water scarcity and droughts are causing havoc with movements of populations generating social problems leading to political problems like in Darfur, Somalia. Hence, adaptation is essential.
The domestic part is very essential because what we preach internationally, we need to do at home in the European Union otherwise we will not have credibility at the international negotiating tables.
Here we have the energy and climate change package which was approved at the beginning of the current year. There we have set targets 20 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide in the European Union or 30 percent if we have an international agreement by 2020. So we have a 20 percent target to deliver and we have to take all the measures and legislation necessary in order to implement this. The other target is 20 percent renewables target for 2020 and also we have a 20 percent energy efficiency target.
Q. How are you going to achieve these targets?
We have a series of proposals that we are going to bring by the end of the year hopefully.
* Renewables directive which is going to be from Potochnik but it’s very important because if there is an increase in renewables and if a target of 20 percent is reached in the total consumption of energy, it means there will be less carbon dioxide and there will be a reduction in import of fossil fuels: oil and gas.
* Second one is a Burden Sharing Agreement regarding the reduction of carbon dioxide in which it will be detailed how to distribute among 27 member states of the EU. What reduction each country will achieve in order to have a final result of 20 percent reduction.
* Review of emissions trading system, the carbon market that we have established in the European Union which is the instrument by which we achieve the reduction in carbon dioxide and also the instrument by which you encourage investment in renewables.
These three aforementioned proposals are interlinked and support each other. There is a fourth piece of legislation which is called Carbon Capture and Storage. This is necessary in order to enable use of coal without the production of carbon dioxide. For example, in a power station, if one produces electricity from lignite, one gets emissions of carbon dioxide which will be captured, transported and stored in land, say former oil fields where there is space and one can put it there and seal it and it stays there.
Q. Do you have any more proposals in addition to these?
In addition to these four legislations, we already have inclusion of aviation in emission which is in co-decision procedure; oil quality directive which is also in co-decision procedure. Then we are going to have carbon dioxide and cars: how to reduce carbon dioxide emitted from cars by establishing efficiency standards in cars. This can be seen from the point of view of emissions from the car or by the energy used by the car. This is very important as transport contributes 21 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the EU and passenger cars are responsible for 12 percent of these emissions.
We are going to propose legislation which will limit the carbon dioxide emitted from cars to 120 grammes per kilometre by 2012. These are series of measures and there are more like revision of directive on labeling of energy efficiency of vehicles with a label on the car: what is the consumption of the car which is important because the buyer/consumer will be informed about the efficiency of the car and how much they will spend.
Q. What are your objectives that you want to reach with these proposals?
All these are aiming at the following objectives:
* Reduction of carbon dioxide and contribution in the achievement of our targets
* Fuel and energy security which is very important in the EU with less dependency on imported oil
*Less expenses for fuel/electricity for consumers
* Creation of growth and jobs through innovation for example by developing, deploying clean technologies and in this respect, the EU is world leaders for example wind mills and power generation through wind energy and solar energy.
Q. How much support do you have across the EU for your efforts?
We have full support for our targets and a mandate from the European Council in which all the 27 member states agreed to the decision which was reached in March this year. We also have support in the European Parliament and in the Environment Council.
Of course, regarding the domestic measures and implementation, we are going to have discussions and we are going to take into account the concerns of the various member states regarding their individual commitments, For example, some have doubts about renewables, some have nuclear in their energy mix which other member states do not have, so each member state has its own concerns and its own potential. We are trying to take into account all these concerns so that we will have an equitable solution for all of them. The European Council has given the directions and now the implementing measures are being prepared.
Q. You mentioned implementation and you know that is a tough part. How much optimism you have about this phase of implementation?
We are going to explain to Member States taking into account their views and the consensus already arrived at the European Council in March. We have to reach our targets in a way that will be fair for everybody but I agree that implementation always poses problems.
Q. You mentioned an international part of the strategy. Although the US federal government has not ratified Kyoto Protocol, there are a large number of American cities which are working towards its implementation. Are you aware of this and if there is already any cooperation in this field with them?
In the United States there are several levels, the federal level in which President George W Bush had a conference in Washington of 16 major economies. At the cities level, there is a coalition of more than 600 cities and towns in the US and they are cooperating and taking individual and collective measures to fight climate change at the city level.
There are also states like California and Governor Schwarzneger plus other states like New York and Florida which are taking equally important measures. For example, with California we are in close cooperation as they are planning to establish an emission trading system from 2009 onwards which will be similar to ours and because of our experience and knowledge of emission trading system, there is cooperation to not only help them in setting it up but also to make it compatible with ours. We are also in cooperation with other states on the North-East and West coasts of US which are also planning to launch emission trading mechanisms.
There is great interest at local level and state level and we hope that from the debate and dialogue that is going on in the US, we are going to have better cooperation from federal level as well. There are a number of bills in the pipeline about launching of an emission trade system and very recently the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid have written a letter to President Bush asking binding reductions for introduction of a capital trade system similar to ours and also to have more cooperation to bring on board other countries. So we do see a movement going on in US and, of course, there are efforts by Al Gore to raise awareness among citizens about emission trading scheme and negative impacts of climate change. With so much debate in the US, we hope that the issue will come up with concrete measures.
Q. Do you see a shift in the behaviour of EU citizens?
The citizens not only in the EU but also in the US are acting in two capacities: voters and consumers. Politicians are interested in voters and businesses are looking for consumers. This is the reason we have seen the businesses offering greener products because consumer choices are changing. There is a social shift towards greener products and we see it everywhere.
Q. Even your choice of a car was governed with green factors?
Yes, I have a Toyota Prius. In order to get an objective opinion, I asked WWF as they have a list of top ten projects which are top ten products in various categories. I asked them to tell me a recommendation for a car. Using the studies of an environment and energy institute in Germany, they came up with a list and the one that was most recommended as energy efficient and less carbon-dioxide emitter was the car that I got. This is the official car and I do not have a private car as I prefer walking as Brussels is not a big city.
Q. In the energy mix of the member states, there is a thrust on nuclear energy which is talked of as low carbon dioxide emitter but the handling and storage of nuclear waste coupled with safety requirements raises doubts. What is your opinion on the subject?
The European Commission is neutral when it comes to nuclear issue because this is a matter for the Member States to decide how they will compose their energy mix. Some countries do use nuclear energy, for example, France where 80 percent of the electricity comes from nuclear power; there are countries like Finland which are introducing nuclear energy and still some others have nuclear energy but they are phasing out while some do not have nuclear at all. So this is a matter for the member states to decide what energy mix they will choose.
Yes, nuclear energy has problems that you mentioned like what to do with radioactive nuclear waste, questions of safety and security and also decommissioning of the installations at the end of their life span. These concerns have led quite a few member states not to choose nuclear option.
Q. There is a recommendation from the European Parliament to reduce pesticides use in the EU by 25 percent in next five years and 50 percent in next 10 years. How is the European Commission going to monitor it as it seems there is no reference level for present usage?
There’s a lot going on in the field of pesticides currently. The Commission has made proposals, which are now being discussed in co-decision, in particular a regulation introducing new procedures for the authorisation and placing on the market of pesticides, under the responsibility of Health Commissioner Kyprianou, as well as a framework directive and a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, under my responsibility. The latter pieces are new in the legislative arsenal concerning pesticides. They fill the current legislative gap regarding the use-phase of pesticides. Their aim is to reduce the risks linked to the use of pesticides and therefore to address negative impacts on health and the environment from pesticides use. They will play a key role in the environmental acquis as they have a significant impact on environmental compartments (ex., soil, water bodies, air) and environmental issues (ex., biodiversity, climate change, etc.) The European Parliament will have its First Reading vote on these proposals on October 22 in Strasbourg.
Q. With farmland moving to energy crops, biofuels, there is intensive agriculture taking over which is set to affect climate change and water management as set aside land is also being used. What are your comments on this development?
Biofuels is a very important development taking place. Everybody forgets what we have said about biofuels and the direction the European Council gave is that biofuels should be sustainable. When talking of sustainable biofuels, there must be respect for environmental concerns and social factors. Biofuels can be causing various problems like bringing down rain forests to cultivate in third countries because of the demand that will be generated in Europe or elsewhere. If more biofuels are needed, more rain forests could get destroyed in third countries.
Regarding the set-aside land, there is not so much criticism as it is the agricultural land that is coming back but it will require more water and this should be looked into carefully because of water scarcity and droughts that we had. There are also social problems generated by cultivating more crops for biofuels as it means less goes towards food sector thus creating competition between food and fuel thus raising the prices not only in least developed countries but also in Europe. Recently, Italy observed a day without pasta as prices keep rising and even meat prices shot up as crops were channeled towards fuel production. As these problems are felt more in least-developed countries there is a social impact of biofuels. We need to move carefully and bearing always in mind that biofuels should be sustainable, Sustainability has two criteria: environment and social. Sometime ago there was an enthusiasm about biofuels but it’s going down due to these negative impacts.
While looking at biofuels we need to look at the whole cycle of production and look at the positive carbon dioxide and accordingly decide on its sustainability. Some biofuels are really good and they contribute a lot towards better environment.
Q. In China there is one coal-fired new power plant going on line every week. With China saying it needs these to feed its insatiable hunger for energy, how do you plan to engage the Chinese in constructive dialogue to check its impact on environment?
Coal is playing a vital role in production of energy in countries like China and even in some European countries. This is why one of the legislations that we are proposing as mentioned earlier is Carbon Capture and Storage. This technology needs to be developed and commercialised so that we can have production of electricity from coal without the negative impacts on climate. Coal produces normally a lot of carbon dioxide and the fact that these plants are engaged for quite a number of years in future if you start a coal-fired power plant now.
With this in mind, we are encouraging the Chinese to go for Carbon Capture and Storage technology and we are going into partnership with China. There is an EU-China partnership on zero carbon dioxide emission plant which will be established there with our financing and UK financing and we hope it will be up by 2015. It will be a demonstration plant and we are also considering 12 demonstration plants in the European Union as well till 2015.
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