Outgoing EU climate chief faces one last battle to assure her legacy as UN emissions deal looms
By Ros Donald in New York
Connie Hedegaard doesn’t look amused when it’s put to her that the EU has lost its mantle of climate leadership to the US and China.
It’s a claim the EU commissioner for climate action has been hearing more of in recent months, due in part to Brussels politics and new moves from Washington and Beijing.
But it’s one she describes as “pure spin” in an interview in New York, where last week over 120 leaders pledged their support for a 2015 UN climate change agreement.
“If you look at who is actually reducing their emissions, we are,” she tells RTCC.
“We are on track to overshoot our 20% [emissions reduction] target when we get to 2020 because we have put in place many very concrete policies on cars, fuels and standards, for example.”
Hedegaard steps down from her position as a commissioner later this year. It’s one she has held since 2010, taken up amid the diplomatic wreckage of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.
The intervening years have seen the EU play hardball at UN climate summits, in 2011 forcing leading emitters – US, China and India – to agree to work on plans for a climate deal that applied to all.
Nearly 200 countries are set to finalise that treaty in Paris next December, but before she quits the gilded halls of Brussels, there is one more battle to fight: agreeing the EU’s 2030 climate and energy package.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this piece of legislation.
It will set the tone not only for the EU’s decarbonisation plans, but also set a benchmark for the US and China as they plan similar proposals, which will be released by March 2015.
Hedegaard wants the 28 member states to support a proposed 40% reduction in domestic emissions by 2030, accompanied by a renewables target of at least 20% and energy savings of 30% and additional carbon offsetting targets.
“That’s not small steps – that’s real substantial steps forward and I expect our heads of state to adopt these targets on 23 October’” she says.
“If we see that, which I believe we will, where in the world do you see anyone do anything similar? We are fighting for ambition up to [the international negotiations next year] in Paris.”
Hedegaard is advocating for the EU to adopt the 40% target with or without a global agreement to cut emissions – with the potential to increase carbon offsetting promises on top if a deal is reached.
She says it doesn’t just make Europe look good but also makes economic sense.
“We believe that in Europe, we have to take our responsibility internationally seriously. But we are also a region with 60% energy dependency. Even in the crisis years, roughly speaking, we spent in the EU member states 400 billion euros net to pay for imported fossil fuels.
“Last year, of these 400 billion euros we sent 140 billion to [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia. So it makes sense for us to reduce our energy bill and our energy dependency and create more energy security.”
She speaks with such conviction and passion it’s easy to believe this is a done deal.
But there are powerful opponents of the package, notably energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, who has called the level of the commitment “arrogant or stupid”.
Last week he said the 40% target should be conditional on an ambitious UN agreement in Paris, a stance Hedegaard fiercely opposes, arguing it could see global efforts diminished and the EU’s diplomatic leverage reduced.
The EU’s energy and climate directorates have also publically clashed over the role of new fossil fuel sources like shale gas should play in Europe’s energy mix.
This is unlikely to happen in the future, given they will now both come under the control of a one commissioner, set to be former Spanish environment minister Miguel Arias Canete.
The news that the two departments would be combined has raised fears that climate policymaking will suffer in terms of support and manpower.
She laughs when asked if it means she has been doing half a job over the past four years, arguing instead that the move should help streamline policy.
And she says that winning the struggle to include efficiency and renewables targets alongside emissions cuts in the 2030 package will ensure the goals of energy and climate are linked closer than ever before.
“People have said to me, you’re the climate commissioner, why do you care about renewables targets? We could just have a CO2 target. But without targets for efficiency or renewables you could say we could just do the whole thing with shale gas or indigenous coal,” she says.
“I believe that it’s incredibly important to have both to show that we’re on a long term trajectory.
“Shale gas can be used as a bridging technology but by 2050 when we have to be down to 80 to 95% emissions reductions then you really need to change your energy systems. That was what we managed to get through the commission and that’s what’s on the table in front of the heads of state next month.”
One significant obstacle to adopting the framework needed to set policy in the direction Hedegaard wants to see is opposition from Poland.
It has strongly opposed the proposed emissions and renewables targets, arguing its coal-heavy economy will be unfairly penalised, and warning heavy industry will leave the EU for countries happier to accept their carbon emissions.
Incoming European Commission president Donald Tusk – currently Polish prime minister – will add a powerful voice to this lobby inside Brussels, but Hedegaard says there is room for cooperation.
“I think they realise they are importing more and more fossil fuels … and to be more efficient makes economic sense. Poland has reduced [emissions] a lot from changing their infrastructure from the old Soviet model so they have some nice figures to display.
“The issue then is how they modernise. Even if they didn’t have a climate challenge they would have to invest in the modernisation of the energy system, so the question is why not do that in a future-oriented, low carbon way?”
A quick glance at the state of global CO2 emissions indicates Europe can only do so much. It’s now responsible for 10% of greenhouse gases, and has a lower per capita footprint than China.
While EU negotiators will say they have a fairly clear idea of what the US is planning, China and India, the world’s first and third leading emitters, are far harder to judge.
There is intense nervousness that both countries could hamper progress toward an international deal, stoked by the fact that neither country’s head of state attended Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in New York last week.
Outwardly that’s not something that seems to concern Hedegaard, who recently returned from a visit to Delhi where she met officials from Narendra Modi’s new administration.
“In a meeting with the Indian environment minister at his office, his screens were all running because there was a crisis in Kashmir and millions lost their homes in Pakistan,” she says.
“Climate change is for real, it’s not just theoretical. [Yes,] they still have 400 million people without electricity.
“But I think the approach has changed somewhat with the new government. They are extremely concerned how to pursue another kind of growth. I believe things are starting to change on the ground.”
Across the Himalayas she says China’s renewables sector is expanding rapidly, and points to its seven carbon market pilots, precursor to a national market later this decade.
“Earlier this year, China said it might totally ban coal. You would not have heard that five to 10 years ago,” she said. “Five or 10 years ago if I had said China would sign up to an emissions trading scheme, people would have said, ‘dream on’. But they are doing it.”
China is not the only country to have stepped up its rhetoric since countries failed to agree a global deal at talks in Copenhagen five years ago.
Hedegaard is wary of drawing early conclusions without policies to back them up. What really matters will be national emission reduction pledges between now and talks in Paris next year.
Nothing is guaranteed, but what may prompt heads of state to take this a little more seriously is the onset of weather events linked to rising global temperatures.
“Many of the things that we have been warned of we are seeing. It was the hottest August since 1801 in the US.”
She adds: “Out in the corn belt people feel that something is really changing. The farmer in Mali is saying the same.”
Road to Paris
December’s UN summit in Lima will be a more muted affair without Hedegaard’s impassioned speeches or her willingness to get into a row with countries she believes are impeding progress.
Too combative for some fellow diplomats, journalists have appreciated her passion, her ability to put across her points clearly and coherently, and also a sense of theatre that frequently delivers good articles.
Last year she was involved in a fierce spat with Venezuelan vice minister Claudia Salerno over efforts to ensure all countries participate in a 2015 treaty.
Alluding to Denmark’s hosting of the 2009 UN summit, Salerno accused Hedegaard of having “damaged one conference” and trying to damage another.
The scars of that clash are still alive among some negotiators, but perhaps significantly, the conference concluded with a statement reminding “all parties” to prepare contributions for Paris.
Looking back on her term, Hedegaard said she is most proud that despite the turmoil of the European financial crisis, she was able to keep climate change on the agenda.
“That wasn’t a small thing, and it wasn’t a given,” she says, pointing out that climate change is now under the main EU budget, offering some protection.
Then, of course, there is the 2030 package, which current EC president Jose Manuel Barroso publicly backed during his intervention at the UN climate summit last week.
“We managed to get the 2030 target through this commission where we have been extremely busy for good reasons with the financial crisis,” she says.
“We still got climate targets, and if we manage to get them through the European Council on the 23rd of October then I will be very proud.”