Jacqueline McGlade is executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA).
She was speaking to Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.
European leaders have reiterated that they will strive for 20% emission reductions by 2020, and repeated that they could potentially raise this bar should other countries commit themselves to a comparable effort. Do you think that this position is ambitious enough?
I think that it is realistic. We have to avoid the risk that after Copenhagen the world will again be divided.
The European position underlines that we are all together in the climate negotiations: a single global agreement remains the preferred option. It is crucial to encourage countries to come forth and take part in the negotiations: there is a risk of leaving countries behind or not properly engaged.
The message that we have to get through is that we always have to take responsibility towards mitigation. This responsibility might be sometimes modest, and sometimes significant, like in the case of the EU.
The important thing is that everyone shows commitment at the same time. The European position is consistent in this attempt.
Nonetheless, there are a number of reports showing that Europe will be able to reach its 20% reduction target quite easily, especially thanks to the low level of industrialisation of Eastern Europe, the credit crisis and the Intelligent Transportation System. Wouldn't a 30% threshold be more suitable and desirable?
The issue is not simply reductions in greenhouse gases, but also how Europe and the rest of the world are going to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change. We, in Europe, are doing actually as much, if not more, towards moving Europe to a low-carbon economy as [towards] reducing emissions in today's industrial setting.
Certainly government and industry are very aware of how much they are looking at spending upfront today in trying to make Europe a completely restructured society by 2025-2030. I have been spending quite a bit of time now with industry members and operators.
The crux of the problem is to look at how much it would take in today's investment to operate competitively within the context defined by governments. The latter are sending a strong kind of message, a message which says that we have to review our investment in infrastructure, the way we distribute water and the way we cope with climate change.
Do you see a good investment strategy behind this shift?
Some countries are really starting to mobilise both private and public financing. I see this happening in the Netherlands, partly in the UK, Spain, Germany and Scandinavia. They are looking at unprecedented public spending on things like infrastructure and smart grids. ICT [Information and Communication Technology] remains the main area where we can make a change in saving resources and becoming more efficient.
We are tackling more than one problem at the same time. We are [facing] an increasingly pressing shortage of resources. We are battling against climate change that will make water resources scarcer. All these challenges urge an adaptation strategy and a movement towards a low-carbon future.
In and around the negotiations is where the potential for developing countries lies. Even with generous financial help and the smart-track or the fast-start, the risk of a divide still exists.
We should not say that low-carbon technology is harmful for developing countries. The contrary is true. We should help developing countries to make use of the best-available technology so that they can jump on this growth train and avoid the problems and mistakes that [have been] made in the past.
I have great optimism. I believe that a legally-binding text will be very important and that Europe has been very good at holding the line.
But even in the developing countries' camp, there appear to be major divisions. The main split seems to be over what kind of agreement they want. Some want to continue on Kyoto and others want a post-Kyoto treaty. I was talking to a former EU negotiator for Kyoto, and he was advising not to consider post-Kyoto deals. Shouldn't we simply strive to go back to the emission levels of the 1990s?
All these ideas have been discussed. In the name of the global good, it is always best to have the possible highest aspirations and then start working around them.
I believe that the scenario you have described could represent a pragmatic solution. But if we are committed to meeting the targets that we are fixing or even the two-degree level, then everyone on the planet has a responsibility to work to fulfil this target. I do not see a paradox in this context.
Europe is acting in a good way because it is convincing on the message of inclusiveness, and that this is a global agreement and a global achievement. It is crucial not to give up on that because if you do not have an encompassing agreement, countries would feel legitimised to have a free ride.
In the coming days we might see all forms of compromise. This compromise needs to become effective as of now and it needs to include those countries that are immediately affected by the perils of climate change.
The challenge for Europe is not simply to come up with an efficient technology, but rather with a network of technologies to connect all the technologies together so that they work. I would like to give you a picture of this.
We are getting smarter appliances. We are becoming very conscious about the sources of our energy. We have the potential to ask and choose where our energy comes from: wind, solar, biomass, etc.
Once you start making choices concerning when and how you use energy, this will bring us closer to the potential that the energy grid will fail.
We do not have, even in Europe, the right level of smart sensors and appliance grid and a level of investment that we ought to have. Where we need investment is, of course, in improving efficiency and making sure that we move towards renewables, but also connecting these technologies up so that we make sure that we do not have daily crashes of the network as we saw in the US, where a branch of a tree collapsed in Kansas and in Ohio and suddenly the whole of the electricity grid went down.
Investments have to go on, notwithstanding the political target. The latter states that we want to be in a low-carbon economy by 2020 or zero-carbon economy by 2050. This target is already shaking the industry to its roots.
The most important element for thinking people is, 'How do we put together the technology that we have?', 'How do we work together on it, and how do we make sure that the least-developed people in least-developed countries don't start opening the Pandora's box of the carbon economy?'
What is the best strategy to boost these investments and prevent the shortcomings you have described?
It is very complex. There must be four different elements and they must work in parallel for the strategy to work.
Firstly, there must be a good governance element, which comes from the EU stating clearly what the political ambition behind cutting greenhouse gas emissions is.
Secondly, there is a clear long-term vision that we want to be in by 2030-2035. This will help industry to understand where we are going.
Thirdly, we have a strong need to put in place a serious regulation of our banking sector, which will be able to unleash private investments to move to a low-carbon economy. A banking sector which is transparent and stable can smoothly create a partnership between the public and private sectors so as to create public goods in a much more effective way.
That is beginning to happen, especially if you look at what Georges Soros stated last week about the special drawing rights. He and his colleagues are already investing in the green sector. And we need genuine spending in research and innovation, to be spent on research which is tailored to the needs of increasing energy efficiency and making them connect up.
The final element is social. It is about creating a social cohesion of what it would mean to live in a low-carbon economy.
These four elements have to play together in our adaptation process. What is incredibly reassuring is that around the world we have a lot of media attention that we did not have before.
What has begun to emerge is a grasp that the problem is more and more about social cohesion and not about our differences. We are collectivising what our competitive edges would be, and working together to find solutions that would not be given in a business-as-usual environment.
Should we stop looking at targets and just focus on policies?
Well, we need targets and benchmarks, because if not, it will not be clear whether we are progressing or not. We need both sticks and carrots. We cannot have just carrots.
Yes, but the problem with sticks is that no-one agrees on what they should be. There is a bit of a jungle in that respect.
You are right, but negotiators and diplomats are very aware of that. We need a common framework to look at verification and progress. I do not think that there is anyone in the Bella Centre who would deny that this is the defining point of the conference.
I was looking at your last report about the impact of climate change in Europe, and adaptation. Do you think that we are well-equipped to fend off the impact of climate change in Europe?
We are getting there. I think that there are some countries that immediately took up the challenge. An obvious example is the Netherlands. They already have very sophisticated plans: concerning possible increases in the sea level, concerning beach nourishment, the plans necessary to face up to possible internal flooding of rivers.
So we have documented responses from populations, local administrations and national levels. There are plans even for floating cities and houses: these are all emerging as part of the plans.
I have been talking to engineers who have explained how, as the water [level] increases, even the stability of the land is affected and thus building on land is like building on water.
It is an interesting behavioural adaptation. You become aware that soil where you build your house is no more stable than water. In fact water can offer more advantages because it represents a heat pump and soil does not.
This represents an example of what is happening already in a number of countries where local communities try to create their energy locally through power sources, so as to supplement their energy needs.
So what we see are positive signals all around Europe. We see that communities are really starting to get it.
Do you see more local rather than national adaptation strategies?
At this moment in time, if I was asked who is doing the most, I mentioned a couple of national adaptation strategies, but where we see the greatest adaptation is locally.
Mayors of communities are really tackling the problems and putting forth solutions. There are a hundred cities that are trying to become carbon neutral. Copenhagen is an example. But Malmö is also another one.
Climate change is also threatening the Alpine hydrological system. What's your feeling on this?
The Alpine region is the place to go: if you do not believe in climate change, you would if you spent a few days there. If you observe historical pictures of the glaciers and you compare them with the situation as it is now, you immediately see the difference.
There is no doubt that this is happening at a quick and accelerating rate. Our research shows that if actions are not taken immediately, by the middle of this century the existing glaciers might be completely emptied of their water resources.
What is also becoming apparent and which will force communal efforts from the authorities in the Alpine region is that the treeline is moving up. In other words trees, forests and habitats are moving their borders upwards.
Then we will reach a point where there is no more water and we will start witnessing a chronic die-back. This is in fact is already happening.
The monitoring of the situation is very detailed. Virtually every tree has been monitored so that the speed of change can be checked.
If this scenario becomes real, then there will be a cascade of negative things happening. The exposure of rock which had been covered by ice will become very fragile and the very fabric of Alps will be endangered.
Exposing the rock will create a number of sediments to crumble into rivers; it will cause problems for hydroelectric power. That is why we need cooperation as it is happening already.
What policies are preferable as far as forests are concerned?
Forestry is crucial. It is crucial for the global agreement, but also for Europe. Forests provide an immense source of carbon sequestration. When he was president of Costa Rica, José María Figueres Olsen managed to convince his citizens that a tree left standing was worth more than a tree cut down.
In Europe we have countries that have much more forest coverage than others. But the fundamental question is, what to do with the forest assets?
We see in Sweden – one of the most effective examples of forest handling – that there is a ingenious system that consists of sequentially removing trees, replanting others, but also leaving certain trees in place so that they maintain not only the diversity of ecosystems, but also the ability to retain carbon and enrich the soil.
Our attempt at the agency is to better document how these techniques can contribute to alleviating our environmental problems.
But there is a bit of wrangling between Nordic countries and countries such as France and Germany on documenting that.
You have to recognise that we are for the first time witnessing the potential of a resource not just in economic terms, but rather for the services that it might provide. This is new territory for Europe and the rest of the world.
Recognising the ecosystem service, as opposed to its commercial potential for the wood, is a turning point for the discourse in the coming years. What is the impact of retaining ecosystem services, retaining water, carbon sequestration and biodiversity?
We are really at a critical moment not only in Europe, but also worldwide. We are starting to recognise the value of ecosystem services and that is why there is wrangling: because there are different ways of doing this and different interests behind this.