Manfred Weber: ‘Environmental issues are one of my areas of expertise’

Manfred Weber says a CO2 tax pushed by the socialists will not solve climate change. "Only new innovations and clean technologies will do that." [© European Union 2019 - Source : EP]

This article is part of our special report EU elections: The environmental issue.

The lead candidate for the centre-right in this week’s European elections says “Europe must move towards net-zero emissions by 2050,” voicing his belief in innovation and new technologies to drive the decarbonisation agenda if he becomes the next president of the European Commission.

Manfred Weber is a German politician from Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament. On 8 November, Weber was elected to be the EPP’s lead candidate in the race to become the next president of the European Commission. Weber responded in writing to questions sent by EURACTIV on 12 April. The replies were sent back on 17 May.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Weber says he became aware of environmental issues at an early age
  • Says “Europe must move towards net-zero emissions by 2050”
  • Wants “more money” for investment in research and clean technologies
  • Calls for “Marshall Plan” to bring clean tech to Africa
  • EPP approach on environmental policy is “to merge environmental protection, entrepreneurship, and the creation of global standards”
  • Says Europe must manage the green transition “in a socially sustainable way”
  • Rejects new CO2 tax proposed by EU socialists
  • Recognises agriculture’s potential to address climate crisis
  • But says “only economically viable farms” are in a position to contribute to sustainability goals
  • Wants more transparency on pesticide approvals

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You began your political engagement with the youth organisation of the Catholic Church. Did that raise your awareness about questions related to the ecology?

Yes indeed, I became aware of questions related to ecology from an early age on. During my studies in mechanical engineering, I specialised in environmental technology (Technischer Umweltschutz). I founded a consultancy firm specialised in this field after my studies.

Environmental issues were one of my areas of expertise also in the Junge Union, the Youth organisation of the CSU. This was not something very common at that time! When I joined the Bavarian Parliament, I also chose to specialise on environmental policy and was a member of the Environmental Committee of the Bavarian parliament.

A few years ago, Pope Francis published an encyclical, Laudato Si, calling on humans to take greater responsibility to curb global warming. What was your reaction to this publication?

I was deeply impressed by the encyclical. Christians have a duty to help preserve our environment and all living beings on our planet. This is at the heart of my concept of Christian Democracy: organising, in a democratic manner and by integrating all members of society, a sustainable future for our planet.

The IPCC issued a report last year warning about the consequences of global warming beyond 1.5°C, saying unprecedented action needs to be taken in every sector of the economy to address this challenge. What do you think should be the response at global and EU level? Is Europe doing its fair share under the Paris Agreement?

We are absolutely committed to the target in Europe. But we must also understand that we can do a lot more in addition to fulfilling our own commitments!

By investing in developing sustainable low-carbon technologies we can develop the technologies which will help us and the rest of the world make the transition to a sustainable future.

We are world leaders in clean technologies but we must keep pushing because the Socialists’ CO2-tax is not going to solve climate change, only new innovations and clean technologies will do that. We face a big challenge but I believe in Europeans and our innovation potential.

The UN says climate change will lead to unprecedented human displacements and expose humanity to increasing levels of insecurity. How serious do you think is the security threat? And how should Europe respond to it?

There is no doubt that climate change is now felt all over the world, and particularly so in the poorer countries. Africa, for example, is a key priority for Europe, not only but also because of climate change.

That is also why we want to have a real Marshall Plan for Africa to help them as partners to create jobs, prosperity and security. We will need to take a look at the problem from a holistic perspective, and we must engage with Africa and other partners from the European level. No single Member State can do that on his own.

This is a textbook case for why we need Europe!

The European Commission has made the case for Europe to move towards net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the IPCC report and the Paris Agreement. Do you subscribe to that goal?

Yes absolutely. Europe must move towards net-zero emissions by 2050. But we must understand that we can do more than just cut emissions. By developing new sustainable low-carbon innovations we can multiply our impact and help the whole world make the transition.

Europe is considered a leader in clean technologies. But China is catching up fast and even overtaking Europe on technologies like solar power or electric vehicles. Some now even say China is the “absolute winner” of the clean energy transition. So what should Europe do to stay ahead in the global race for clean technologies?

Well, I am not so pessimistic. The EPP approach is to merge environmental protection, entrepreneurship, and the creation of global standards. We will only be successful if all three go together. I want more money dedicated to future-oriented research.

Secondly, this research needs to be put into practice much more quickly with the help of a modern framework for our economy and a deepened single market. If we do that, we will be such a big economic player in the world that we will effectively set global standards for new technologies.

This example shows why the populists – the far-left and the far-right – are wrong. They want to go back to purely national markets. If we were to do that, China and others would dictate to us new technological standards.

We can do better than that, and we must do better than that. I want Europe to be ambitious. A global leader in the economy, including in environmental technology.

The G20 and the G7 countries have pledged to stop subsidising fossil fuels by 2025. But little progress has been achieved since the pledge was first made ten years ago (in 2009). Do you support a firm cut-off date to end fossil fuel subsidies?

My priority is to include also international flights into the European emissions trading system (ETS). I believe in innovation, modern technology or price incentives. They are the better way to reach our climate protection goals than taxes and bans.

Germany pledged to phase out coal by 2038, which many scientists consider as being too late. And countries like Poland do not yet have a clear date to phase out coal. Should Europe act more vigorously to phase out coal?

We are moving in the right direction but we simply have to acknowledge that this cannot be done overnight. We have set ambitious targets for each member state to achieve, and I believe they are achievable.

We have to re-fashion our economy together with the people, not against them; together with the member states not against them. We must manage the transition in a socially sustainable way and help affected people get new skills and jobs.

We absolutely cannot leave anyone behind and by doing this in a socially sustainable way we will have less resistance and manage the transition faster.

The concept of a just transition to a low-carbon economy was highlighted by the “Yellow Vests” protests in France. Have policymakers neglected the social dimension of the energy transition? What do you think should be done about it at EU level?

The social aspects of the fight against climate change have to be addressed. We cannot brush them aside.

This is why the creation of a Just Energy Transition Fund is part of a solution, to help support those regions and those people most affected by the technological transition.

Fighting climate change, restructuring our economy, and balancing social interests have to be seen together. It’s a triangle we have to balance, simply going for one side will not be enough and it will also not produce the effects desired.

Supporting people through the transition will make the transition quicker and reduce fears people have about technological change.

The European Commission has tried limiting the environmental impact of farming policy with the “green pillar” of the Common Agricultural Policy. Are you happy with the way discussions are going there as part of the CAP reform proposal?

We believe that maintaining a productive agricultural sector in Europe, and making a real contribution to environmental protection, and fighting climate change are by no means mutually exclusive goals.

We recognise the potential of our agricultural sector to be part of the solution to protect our environment and climate, and we successfully amended the CAP proposals towards a more incentive-based approach to achieve this.

We must remember that only economically viable farms are in position to produce in a sustainable and innovative way.

Farming is the single biggest user of water, ahead of industries like energy. What measures would you recommend to improve the water efficiency of the farming sector?

We are committed in general to helping farmers reduce their dependency on inputs and increase the efficiency of use like water.

We believe that we can achieve this by boosting innovations and by developing and transitioning to precision farming. It is in everyone’s interest that we find the methods which allow us to reduce water use.

We are pushing to increase the budget for agricultural research in the new Horizon programme to help create future sustainable innovations.

Agriculture – including the use of pesticides – is one of the main suspects behind the dramatic decline in biodiversity observed over the past years. What should Europe do about this? How would you reinvigorate the global biodiversity agenda beyond 2020?

Biodiversity is an issue, and it is a European issue. With one million species threatened with extinction, it is also the future of our own species and the foundation of our lives which is at stake.

Europe has already taken up this challenge. As a Christian-Democrat I believe we have a duty to safeguard and protect the species we are sharing our planet Earth with.

We Europeans should lead that fight to preserve biodiversity in the world, just like we are leading the fight against climate change. That is very clear. We must make sure our agricultural policy responds to it; also in the interests of the farmers.

But securing a future for farmers and creating sustainable environmental policies are not contradictions. They can go hand in hand.

Do you support the decision to renew the licence of glyphosate for five years, adopted in 2017? What lessons do you draw from the glyphosate controversy?

This is a very important and big issue for many of our citizens and farmers. We must be sure to listen to all sides on this question and it warrants very careful consideration.

We supported our citizens asking for more transparency and we think that we must further increase transparency and restore citizens’ trust in a thorough science-based approach.

We must evaluate together what policy steps are necessary, prudent and appropriate to take. I think the next Commission and Parliament must learn from the last term to make sure that people’s trust is not shaken by lack of transparency.

Meat has come under the spotlight in recent years because of the vast amounts of water and fodder that are needed to feed the cattle. What should be done in your view to reduce the environmental impact of meat?

We have a long and rich tradition of producing high-quality beef in Europe and we are very proud of our cattle farmers. It is clear that the whole agricultural sector must do their share in combatting climate change. We are convinced that this will require investing in agricultural research and innovations.

Millions of young people have taken to the streets in Europe to protest against inaction on climate change. What lessons do you draw from these protests?

I appreciate the fact that people, especially young people, students, get involved. We are in such a period of transition, economic, technological, environmental, that we have to have this debate. And we need to debate it vigorously and openly. Europe has given life to the Paris Agreement. We need to build on this, but we have to have an overall debate with all in society!

People want more transparent and inclusive politics. We must bring Europe back to the people and deliver tangible solutions and answers to young peoples’ concerns about the future of our planet. We must leave it to them in a better state than how we got it. I believe this the responsibility of each generation to their children’s generation.

To safeguard our planet’s future, we believe that we must perform a well-managed transformation in Europe and globally. This will entail continuing to be committed to the global accords of Paris and Katowice to limit global warming but we must also recognise the need to build on these accords because alone they are not enough.

We must invest in developing new, sustainable and low-carbon solutions in a socially responsible way. We are convinced that Europe can be the one who invents and develops the sustainable and low-carbon technologies which will make the whole world transform to low-carbon mobility and production in a socially sustainable fashion.

The “gilets jaunes” in France have highlighted a disconnect between the political elite and ordinary people when it comes to environmental policies. What are your suggestions to address this?

We have to get our message out and meet people where they are. This means, increasingly — and particularly for young people — communicating on digital platforms in clear, compelling and creative ways. Europe truly is at a crossroads; young people more than anyone have a stake in our common future.  We must bring Europe back to the people. This is why I became a candidate.

Policymaking at EU level is still perceived as complicated and difficult to understand for ordinary citizens. Do you believe transparency should be improved (e.g.: on trilogues)? Or do you believe policymakers need a certain degree of privacy to forge good compromises (e.g.: in the European Council)?

That is precisely why the Spitzenkandidaten system is crucial. Not because of the candidates. But so that the people of Europe know before the election what their electoral choices mean for Europe’s executive, the Commission.

We have already done a lot to substantially improve transparency and the European Parliament is the most transparent EU institution, and certainly much more transparent than many national institutions. But of course, we as EPP are always open to exploring ways to improve.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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