European populist trend and climate action: a discussion with Connie Hedegaard
“I wish that European institutions would focus more on climate and environmental questions to show the value of the EU to EU citizens.”
As the European Commissioner for Climate Action from 2010 to 2014, Connie Hedegaard led the negotiations towards the adoption of the EU 2030 Climate and Energy Framework as well as the 2050 Roadmap for moving to a low carbon economy. Ms. Hedegaard has also occupied several national policy maker decision in Denmark. She was a Member of the Parliament, Minister for Climate and Energy and Minister for Environment.
Today, Ms. Hedegaard is the First chair of the Board for the KR Foundation, a large Danish climate and sustainability foundation operating globally.
Are you an optimist with regards to our climate future?
I consider myself a realist. You cannot be a pessimist. A pessimist would just go to bed and pull a cover over the head. You have to believe in the possibility of change to go out there and work on this. Often, you might be stuck are frustrated when things don’t move. When that happens, I take a step back and look at the larger, longer term trends and there I see cause for optimism. Imagine where we were 10 years ago. Who would have believed then China today builds more renewable energy capacity than fossil fuel capacity, that wind and solar are entirely competitive energy generation options? 10 years ago, a corporate CEOs or a mayor would not have had an opinion on climate change. It would have been delegated as a topic to someone in the team. Today, having a position and a strategy on climate change is part of the job description of every CEO and political decison-maker. They now understand what climate change is all about. Yes, change is still too slow for my taste, and certainly much too slow for what is needed. But we do see profound changes happening right now. Things are changing!
You mentioned China. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, much will depend on what the country does. Where do you see China going?
China understood that in order to maintain social stability it needs to address its environmental issues. As a result it is relying less on coal and investing heavily into renewables. Now China is addressing transportation in cities, pushing electric vehicles and public transport. Because of its decision making structures, China can move very fast when the government identifies are need or an opportunity. China also clearly sees the huge market and export potential in low carbon technologies. They became dominant players in the wind and solar industries and are exporting their know-how and products across the world, benefitting significantly from global growth in renewables. I think China will not be withdrawing from its climate commitments for that simple fact: it makes sense geo-strategically and domestically to continue to drive an energy transition. So, if I were China, would move ahead, regardless of what the US is doing.
There is a global populist trend that calls into question international projects like the EU and global trade. As part of that, do you fear that there is a backlash against climate action, too?
In Europe, by and large, climate change is not part of the political, partisan battle and there is still broad political support for climate action. Some of the populist parties, like UKIP in the UK, have voiced that they are against climate action. However, for them, as much as for LePen in France, AfD in Germany, the Danish Peoples Party in Denmark or the Progressive Party in Norway, is not a key political issue. They focus their attention and political capital elsewhere and don’t stop sustainability policies. The problem is a different one. As these parties emerge and as there are many other pressing crises and political battles in Europe, such as Brexit, the future of the Euro or immigration, political attention is stretched. Under these circumstances, politicians and governments might not have enough bandwidth to drive the climate change debate and energy transition forward.
The US is different. Now that Trump is in power, we have to wait and see what he actually does. He is certainly not a strong proponent of climate change action like President Obama was. My cause for optimism is, again, that the business case for renewables is so strong. Re-opening old, uncompetitive coal mines, on the other hand, makes no sense. One would expect that a businessman like Trump can see a good business case.
In Europe, who could take the lead in driving for climate action?
Many countries — Germany, France, Spain — do a lot. No one country takes the lead alone. However, I wish that European institutions would focus more on climate and environmental questions to show the value of the EU to EU citizens. This is an area where it makes a lot of sense for Europeans to work together. Here, European leaders can really show the value of the EU in creating a level playing field and a large market. To give you an example: Denmark has a very high percentage of fluctuating wind power in its electricity mix. On certain days it produces more wind than the power it requires. Yet, the grid is stable and electricity costs are under control. This is possible because of the Nordic energy cooperation where it trades power easily with Norway and Sweden who have complementary power sources like hydro and nuclear. This example should be applied to Europe as a whole. It will be much cheaper and more efficient to create a pan-European energy transition than to do it separately in each country.
Are there any particularly hopeful and striking developments you have recently come across in your meetings and journeys around the world?
Yes, many. For instance, I was at the Mexico C40 meeting of megacities addressing climate change. Several large cities, like Madrid, Paris or Mexico City, simply decided to ban diesel cars by 2025.
This is an example of a push-pull effect: targets come from politics working together with innovation from the market: in this case new transport technologies like electric mobility. Here is another example: Last year, I was working with the Norwegian prime minister to understand how an oil nation like Norway can move into a climate friendly future. Isn’t it interesting how a country rich in oil and gas sets up a vision for a climate friendly future? Let’s see where it will go. Perhaps Norway will become an example for other oil rich countries tries to follow?
Interview by Tobias Engelmeier
Tobias Engelmeier, TFE Consulting GmbH
Tobias Engelmeier is working towards a low carbon world. He believes that this is a great opportunity rather than a sacrifice and that it will be driven by business and economic fundamentals rather than by political directive.