Dimas: ‘We need a climate treaty by next June’

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Setting a clear timetable for delivering a comprehensive legally binding climate treaty by mid-2010 is a must, the EU’s Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told EURACTIV in an interview.

Stavros Dimas is the EU’s environment commissioner. 

He was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Looking back at your career as EU environment commissioner, you have been praised for championing ambitious environment and climate legislation. What is your personal assessment of the achievements of the past five years? What are the areas where you feel more could and/or should have been done?

I don’t have any real regrets. Looking back, there are some major milestones, including getting the REACH legislation through successfully, with enormous implications for how citizens and businesses use chemicals, and the success of the ‘Climate and Energy Package’, which will have major consequences for how we run our industries for the foreseeable future. 

The package is going to boost jobs and innovation in the short to medium term, and it lays the basis for a greener, more sustainable, low-carbon economy in the longer term. The measures agreed will cut the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below their 1990 levels by 2020. Just as importantly, it lays the ground for us to scale up our reduction to 30% if, as we hope, other developed countries commit to comparable reductions at the Copenhagen climate conference.

The one thing that hasn’t worked out as hoped is the biodiversity action plan – we haven’t managed to deliver on our pledge to halt biodiversity loss in Europe by 2010. There are many reasons for that, and while we haven’t achieved that target, we have done many good things – like consolidating Natura 2000, our network of protected areas. 

More than 17% of EU land area is now protected – that’s a major improvement on the past, and a solid platform on which we can build a sustainable biodiversity policy. The challenge now is learn the lessons of that failure, and ensure they are integrated into our follow-up initiatives.

The fight against climate change has dominated the EU’s environmental agenda for the past few years. What do you think will be the key issues during the next mandate? What priorities would you set for the next environment commissioner? 

It would be wonderful if we could relax, having solved the problem of climate change, but unfortunately that won’t be the case. Whatever the outcome in Copenhagen – and I am very positive about that – there will be a large amount of work to do to put the commitments into practice. I hope we will be able to move to a 30% reduction, for example, and assuming we do, we will need to look carefully about how we go about it.

As I noted above, halting biodiversity loss is going to be a major challenge for the coming years. If the experience of the past few years has taught us one thing, it is that we will never achieve our objectives with a ‘business as usual’ approach. The time has come to open our eyes to the reality we face, and to the urgent need for an immediate change in our behaviour.

The current rates of biodiversity loss will spell irreversible and possibly catastrophic consequences if we fail to change our ways. Business as usual will mean exposing ourselves to sudden, irreversible damage with far-reaching consequences for the very functioning of our planet. 

One way to turn the tide will be to attach greater importance to the goods and services nature provides for our economies, which are vital for long-term human well-being, and our TEEB study on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity is helping us do that. We need to integrate the value of natural capital into our thinking, for only then can our economies become truly sustainable.

Related to that, we need to identify and promote the connections between biodiversity protection and other policies. This is very clearly the case with climate change, where mitigation and adaptation measures need to be fully compatible with policies for protecting nature.

But there are numerous other areas too, such as water or, more broadly, sustainable use of natural resources. I’m sure the next commissioner will have plenty of ideas.

It is now clear that the UN Copenhagen summit will only deliver a political agreement. What should be the main elements of such an agreement in your view? Do you expect the Copenhagen conference to agree targets for 2020? 

I think a successful agreement will need four essential ingredients. The starting point will be quantified commitments by developed countries to reduce their emissions, and quantified actions by developing countries to slow the growth of their emissions and, linked to this, ensuring the 2°C objective. So targets are essential.

Then, to get developing countries on board, we will need a package of measures to begin almost immediately, including a financing element to help them take early action on adaptation and mitigation. We also need agreement on both the need for a legally binding outcome in the form of a single treaty, and on how that treaty is to be delivered by mid-2010. Lastly, we will need to ensure the treaty features elements, which should build upon the essentials of the Kyoto Protocol.

The US Senate is currently examining legislation to address climate change. However, the process is not expected to finish before Copenhagen. What are the implications for the UN climate talks? How far can these talks go without clearer visibility on the US situation?

Well, the US has now put an offer on the table, and it does contain many positive elements. Although the emissions reduction target by 2020 is lower than we would like to see compared to a 1990 baseline, the offer seems to entail much more aggressive cuts by 2025 and 2030, and they are obviously very welcome. 

We also recognise – as we have many times before – the major efforts made by the Obama Administration to transform the US position, which bring much needed US leadership back to the table. One element we need to continue to discuss with the US is a finance package to support developing countries’ efforts on mitigation and adaptation, and notably fast-start finance allowing from early implementation.   

The draft US climate bill foresees some kind of border adjustment mechanism to avoid jobs and industries relocating abroad due to different levels of commitment on climate change across countries (so-called ‘carbon leakage’). The idea is strongly supported by President Sarkozy of France and could be compatible with global trade rules, according to a recent WTO report. Would you support such measures? Under what conditions? 

The best way of avoiding carbon leakage and competitiveness problems is to get a comprehensive global agreement in Copenhagen. That would obviate any calls for measures along those lines.

Let’s not forget that border measures have a number of pitfalls. While they may offer some relief to energy-intensive industries, there would be important negative side effects for other industries, sectors and consumers.

Input prices for industry would rise, and this could push up the price of our exports and reduce export competiveness. That could even lead to the price of emission allowances being driven up as well.

Despite what you say about that WTO report, their political acceptability is invariably problematic, because border measures go against the basic thrust of trade liberalisation and are necessarily perceived as protectionist in nature. There is always a risk of retaliation, and they could lead to a race between countries to establish similar measures. BusinessEurope argues against border measures notably on these grounds. 

And then of course they would be complicated from an administrative point of view. Compliance would be burdensome for traders, and that would also push up costs.

Do you think such a border adjustment system is compatible with the EU’s existing agreement to allocate free emissions rights under the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to energy-intensive industries after 2013? Could both systems run in parallel or are they mutually exclusive?  

As I said, we believe that the best way to create a level playing field and avoid carbon leakage is to make sure that we have an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen and later. This said, the revised ETS is addressing the risk of carbon leakage and foresees that allowances will be allocated for free for sectors exposed to a significant risk of carbon leakage.

That’s why the EU is opting to allocate allowances for free instead – on the basis of ambitious benchmarks – in sectors judged to be especially at risk, with a slower phase-in of full auctioning for energy-intensive sectors and sub-sectors. This is definitely one way to address this particular risk.

Now, the revised directive also foresees that the Commission will be looking at the situation in the light of the outcome of Copenhagen and would then consider various options, including a border adjustment mechanism.

Currently, air pollution and climate change are dealt with in different fora. Do you think there is a case for bringing these two policies closer together? What solutions could you imagine, both internationally and within the European Union? 

There are significant overlaps, synergies and potential conflicts between these policy areas. To take one example, the two most significant air quality problems today relate to ground-level ozone and particulate matter in ambient air. 

Both of these pollutants have a serious impact on human health, as they can cause respiratory problems and premature death. But they both also have a significant atmospheric warming potential, especially in the form of particles from fossil fuel or biomass combustion (‘black carbon’).

There are conflicts too – we expect to see an increase in biomass combustion over the coming years, and this will mean higher emissions of black carbon, with implications for air quality and atmospheric warming.

The climate policies we have followed until now have reduced energy and fossil fuel use, and this has delivered substantial reductions in air pollutant emissions.

But measures designed to tackle ozone and black carbon could also have significant benefits for atmospheric warming, particularly in the short and medium term, because black carbon and ozone exert their atmospheric warming over a much shorter period than carbon dioxide.So targeting these air pollutants could be more effective in the short term than controls on carbon dioxide emissions. 

EU air quality targets for ozone are widely exceeded, and background concentrations in the EU are increasing as ozone precursor emissions grow in places such as Asia. This means that future efforts to improve ozone air quality in the EU will have to address the challenge of reducing ozone precursors elsewhere around the globe.

Methane, for example, is one of the most important precursors of ozone and is also a greenhouse gas covered by the Kyoto Protocol. One possible future strategy would be to develop an international legal instrument that tackles ground level ozone and precursors such as methane. 

Most member states do not currently comply with air quality standards for particulate matter. This would seem to indicate that we need to develop instruments in the EU to reduce the emissions of black carbon, especially where emissions are not yet controlled, such as biomass combustion in residential or commercial appliances. 

These new policies would present win-win solutions for air quality, climate mitigation and the economy given the central role of green technologies in the future prosperity of the EU.

In Copenhagen, the first priority will be to negotiate an effective agreement on climate mitigation. But there is certainly scope to develop and exploit the advantages of bringing climate and air pollution policies closer together. 

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