Zahradil: ‘Going too far, too fast on climate risks destabilising society’

"If you compare students and the Yellow Vests, in many respect they promote very contradictory agendas," says Jan Zahradil. [© European Union 2019 - Source : EP]

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

“It’s a good thing that youngsters are getting involved” in climate policy, says Jan Zahradil, the lead candidate for the European Conservatives in next month’s EU elections. But going too far, too fast “could trigger an internal war with other age groups in society,” like the Yellow Vests in France, he warned.

Jan Zahradil is a Czech Conservative MEP who has sat in the European Parliament ever since his country joined the European Union in 2004. He is the lead candidate for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) for the 2019 EU elections. Zahradil spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Zahradil rejects EU’s proposed net-zero emission target, whether by 2050 or a later date
  • Decision to phase-out coal or fossil fuels should be left to individual countries
  • Supports proposed €100bn EU budget for research and innovation in 2021-2027
  • Supports small-scale and organic agriculture over big industrial farms

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

Like you said, it’s a problem that should be tackled on a global level. I believe that Europe has taken this issue seriously. European countries have made their commitments, they have signed the Paris climate agreement. And I think that is a good sign. Europe is leading by example.

However, Europe represents about 10% of overall CO2 emissions.  So I think that we should encourage others to follow because if they don’t, whatever we do will have very little impact.

Isn’t that a bit of a wait-and-see attitude?

No, we have to encourage them. But we have no leverage on them – nor China or India. We have to believe that they will show their responsibility. We have to negotiate with them of course. But if you just take the EU, I think we’re doing pretty well.

So we shouldn’t do more unless other countries move as well?

We should encourage them. But we have very limited leverage on the US, or China or India. We can lead by example, we can try to persuade them that they should follow us, but we can’t force them.

The UN says climate change will lead to unprecedented human displacements and expose humanity to increasing levels of insecurity. How should Europe respond to this threat?

I think that climate change is probably not the only reason for human displacement. But currently, it is not even the main reason. The main reason for massive migration now is local conflicts, national conflicts, religious conflicts, rather than the impact of climate change. Maybe in the future it will be different but now, I believe it is not the main cause for big shifts in populations.

I believe that European politicians are first and foremost responsible for the situation in Europe. They are responsible for the security of European citizens. And when it comes to mass migration, I’m more in favour of a restrictive approach. I think that we should send a clear signal that the number of migrants Europe can accept and absorb is limited. It cannot be millions of people because that will burn our welfare systems, change the very social fabric of our societies and change our demography.

In the long term, of course, external policies might help to diminish the impacts of climate change. We can help countries in Africa and Asia to develop cleaner, green technologies. But when it comes to absorbing big chunks of people, I’m rather in favour of a restrictive approach.

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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?

No, I disagree. I think that aiming for a zero-carbon economy by 2050 goes far beyond our commitments made in the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement doesn’t speak about 2050, it speaks about the second half of the century. And if we go too far, too fast and too insensitively, it will undermine the very fundamentals of Europe’s economies.

And this could have a devastating impact on our way of life, on our social consensus and stability. It could lead to a situation where industry will simply outsource production to other countries that would lead to unemployment and social unrest in Europe.

So I believe we should stick to our current commitments under the Paris Agreement but we shouldn’t go any further.

Do you have another date in mind? Should it be 2060 or 2070?

No. I think setting artificial dates or deadlines doesn’t serve to anything good. So let’s stick with the Paris Agreement.

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 even say China is the “absolute winner” of the clean energy transition. What should Europe do to stay ahead in this global race?

First, I believe it’s good news that China is progressing on environmentally-friendly technologies. It’s a big polluter still and it probably hasn’t reached its peak, their carbon footprint is still on the rise and will reach its peak probably by 2040. So it’s good news, we should encourage them.

On our side, I think we’re still far ahead of China when it comes to quality of life or living standards.

However, the Commission has one or two devices to influence the situation. One is the budget. And I would agree to reshuffle budget priorities so that more funds are offered to support science, research and new technologies so that we don’t fall behind other countries.

That’s the Horizon Europe programme. Are you in favour of the proposed €100bn budget that the Commission put on the table for 2021-2027? That was a big increase compared to the previous budget. Do you support that?

Yes. Basically, yes.

Europe ringfences 35% of research budget for clean tech

European Union negotiators struck an agreement late on Tuesday (19 March) to set aside 35% of the bloc’s research funding for climate-friendly technologies, despite ongoing doubts about the overall size of the EU’s future budget after Brexit.

Should independence from fossil fuels be listed as one of Europe’s strategic objective? By when?

I would disagree with any cap or limit on a European level. Because I believe that the energy mix should stay under the jurisdiction of individual member states. I know that Germany has already announced that they will phase out coal by 2038.

But other countries will not do that. My country, the Czech Republic, is quite hesitant because we still have some supplies of brown and black coal. And I think it cannot be done artificially by some kind of European directive.

What I believe is that cleaning technologies – filters to separate particles from the air – you can dramatically reduce pollution from coal. We did it I remember over the last 25 years. Some of our industrial installations were heavily polluted in the beginning of the 90s after forty years of communism.

And since we started to introduce those new cleaning technologies, we reduced dramatically – by several dozen times – the pollution of the air. So I think that if coal is still used as a fuel – and I don’t believe some countries will accept a very quick phase-out – we can substantially reduce air pollution by introducing some technologies.

But the phase-out of coal in itself – do you believe this is a desirable objective?

It should be decided on an individual basis by each and every country.

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?

Again, if it’s socially sustainable. I would agree with stopping subsidies but only if it does not increase living expenses of certain social groups. For instance, pensioners or low-income people. Because if we do that from one day to another, it might cause social problems – for example for people to heat their houses.

So it has to be done very carefully, step by step, and taking the social dimension into account.

The concept of a just transition to a low-carbon economy was highlighted last year 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 lesson is very simple and very clear – environmental policy also has to be socially sustainable. Good intentions to have a clean environment as quickly as possible can lead to a situation where politicians create socially unsustainable situations.

And this is probably what happened to Mr Macron who was led by his environmental ambitions. He wanted to show France as an environmentally advanced country that cares about the future and that is able to act very swiftly. And very quickly, he created problems for himself and for big parts of the population in his country. And the result was the Yellow Vest protests which lasted months.

So everything we do, we always have to take social aspects into account.

How would you have done it? Was the tax itself a bad idea or would you have exempted the poor for example?

Look, taxation is not a European Union jurisdiction, it’s not a competence of the EU. There is some harmonisation of VAT but consumption tax, income tax…  The European Commission has nothing to do with that.

Clean energy transition ‘is a social policy issue’, Poles insist

The social policy dimension was largely overlooked when the European Union decided energy and climate change objectives for 2030, Poles have warned, calling on policymakers to endorse a “just transition fund” to support the country’s coal phase-out.

Moving on to a different topic – agriculture. 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 need to take the environmental impact of agriculture into account. Yes, the CAP budget is a very strong instrument, representing more than 40% of the EU’s annual budget. So yes, it has to be used in a smart way, in an environmentally-friendly way.

We are in favour of capping direct payments. For instance, in the Czech Republic, all former communist cooperatives were privatised and transformed into those big agricultural complexes. And they are focused purely on production, which is not good for the land, the soil and the environment.

So what I would say is that those environmental aspects should be taken much more into account in setting criteria for CAP funding.

And frankly speaking, small farms organic farming and family farming are much better able to provide this careful type of agriculture than the big industrial farms.

This is actually what the Commission’s proposed reform is about. Does that mean you support the Commission’s CAP reform proposal?

Yes, although I would focus more on criteria like land and water supply preservation.  So not just production-oriented goals but also conservation-oriented goals.

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?

Water should be an important criterion for funding under the CAP. There are various ways to fund some new sensible irrigation systems, reforestation of parts of the land that were artificially deforested.

You can encourage a decrease in the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, and encourage farmers to use bio-degradable types instead. So there are a lot of small things you can do, which combined together can have a great impact. And all of that should be somehow put under the criteria for CAP funding.

The Water Framework Directive – do you think it’s working? Should it be reformed in your view?

No, I don’t think it should be reformed. I think it should rather be implemented.

But the targets on water quality are very tough and, according to some Conservatives in Europe, even impossible to meet.

Again, it should be done gradually. As I said before, all methods to purify polluted waters are already there. We’ve known them for 150 years.

We know how to deal with non-organic and organic pollution. So when it comes to small farming or family farming, we can encourage them to build some small waste treatment plants. They can be funded from the CAP budget to decrease the pollution of underground waters. All of that should be put as a pre-condition for CAP funding in the future.

So you wouldn’t reopen the WFD, you would leave it as it is…?

For the moment yes.

There is mounting evidence that agriculture – including the use of pesticides – is one of the main culprits behind the dramatic fall in bees and birds populations observed over the past years. What should Europe do to address this? Should the EU ban the use of certain pesticides?

I don’t think the EU should ban them. I don’t think we should put any upper limit on them. What I would rather see is to encourage farmers to use them less or not to use them at all.

Again, the CAP budget could be a good incentive to encourage that, if we put that in the criteria for CAP funding. So I would use those kinds of incentives rather than just bans or limits.

Do you think Europe should do something specifically to address the loss of biodiversity?

First of all, changes in biodiversity are a part of natural cycles, to some extent.

Except here the fall is dramatic and quite probably linked to human activity…

Yes, that’s true. But again, as always: we can do something gradually, we can improve the situation by improving ways and methods of farming and change CAP criteria to support small-scale family farming and organic farming instead of industrial farming. That’s what we can do with the European budget. The rest stays with conservation agencies of national governments.

Would you support a global pact on biodiversity similar to what the Paris Agreement did for climate change? Would that sound appealing to you?

I don’t know. It sounds nice at first look, but what matters is the content so I’m not sure at this moment.

Meat has come under the spotlight because of the vast amounts of water, chemical pesticides and fertilisers that are needed to grow fodder for cattle. Do you think something should be done at EU level to reduce the environmental impact of meat?

Rather not. I’m a bit sceptical, this would be going too far for me. It sounds to me like we would be directly trying to influence the lifestyle of individual people. And that is something that might have a damaging impact. If people get the feeling that the EU is trying to interfere in a what they consider a personal matter like how much they eat, what they eat, how much they travel, how many hours per day they should watch TV, or whatever else…

These are very personal decisions and if the EU goes this way, it could provoke very anti-European feelings. People would say, ‘Stop it. Don’t tell me what I should have on my table for my lunch or dinner’.

Let’s turn to democracy issues now. Hundreds of thousands of young people have taken to the streets over the past months to protest against inaction on climate change. What are the lessons that you draw from these protests?

Basically, it’s a good thing that youngsters are getting involved. Young people are catchy. Sometimes they can be radical or revolutionary. It’s their role, we have seen that many times in the past. We have to communicate and engage with them. We should certainly not dismiss them and say they’re too young. That would be very unwise.

But we should also explain to them that if we go too far and too fast, we will also endanger other groups in society. And the Yellow Vest protests are a very good example. Because if you compare students and the Yellow Vests, in many respect they promote very contradictory agendas. Youngsters are radically environmental while the Yellow Vests are radically – I wouldn’t say anti-environmental – but they are against measures that would probably be welcomed by Friday marchers.

So we should be able to explain to them that if things are done too insensitively, it could trigger an internal war with other age groups in society. It could threaten the social consensus and destabilise society.

I know some of them wouldn’t listen and say ‘This is bullshit, we’ve heard that a thousand times. You don’t care because you’re sixty years old’, etc.  I hear this. But the fact that someone is sixty years old doesn’t make that person less valuable than someone who is twenty.

You mentioned the need to engage with young people. Do you think there are ways to do that at the European level? The EU is a multi-layered organisation where nation-states and regions also play a role. So how would you structure this dialogue at European level?

In Europe, we have a very colourful fabric of NGOs. There could be conferences, round-tables, and so on.  I don’t think everything should be organised at the European level. If some NGO organises a round-table with Friday marchers and invites me, I’d be happy to come.

Greta Thunberg urges MEPs to ‘panic like the house is on fire’

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, made an impassioned plea for the planet at the European Parliament on Tuesday (16 April), urging MEPs to “start panicking about climate change” rather than “waste time arguing about Brexit”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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