Vestager: ‘We need more commissioners working on environmental issues’

"I feel that there is a renewed momentum when it comes to climate change, but also for environment," says EU antitrust commissioner Margrethe Vestager. [European Parliament / Flickr]

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

Margrethe Vestager, one of the seven lead candidate for the Liberals in next month’s EU elections, views Juncker’s “project teams” as a success and would consider establishing multiple environment commissioners for different areas such as climate change, biodiversity, air pollution or chemicals.

Margrethe Vestager is the European Commissioner for Competition, who previously served as Denmark’s deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt. Before becoming a commissioner she was the leader of the Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre). She is now one of the seven lead candidates for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) for the 2019 EU elections. Vestager spoke to EURACTIV’s Dave Keating.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Vestager supports EU’s proposed net-zero emission target for 2050
  • Wants the Commission to be passionate about science and facts
  • Supports proposed €100bn EU budget for research and innovation in 2021-2027
  • Supports glyphosate renewal decision but wants more research on pesticide impacts
  • Would keep DG CLIMA as a dedicated department dealing with climate change

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There have been two big protest movements taking place right now, on one hand the student strikes for climate and extinction rebellion, and on the other the yellow vests in France. What would you say is the biggest lesson to draw from this surge in protests?

Well I think the first point is to say fighting climate change is a given, it’s not something where you can choose whether you want to do it or not. It will happen, and we can figure out how to deal with it.

Part of that challenge is to protect ourselves from the climate change that is happening already. It’s a very small silver lining that you can now grow wine in Denmark. But that cannot make up for the tsunamis and the droughts. I think we’ve now lost the first mammal because of climate change.

There’s a lot of investment taking place in just being able to manage more water, more droughts and more people on a global scale who have to move because conditions deteriorate.

The second thing is of course to make sure climate change doesn’t get any worse.

And in that it’s very important that we take it from the soundbite level to something specific when we say it has to be done in an inclusive way. Because if people cannot mirror themselves and their future life in the way things are dealt with, you get a revolt against what you want to do in order to fight climate change and reduce our CO2 footprint.

This means that we’ll have to deal with it in a way that’s specific, where municipalities and member states will play a main role, because they can have different discussions with people on how to proceed.

Does that necessarily mean shifting more of the burden towards companies and less on individual taxpayers?

On that it will have to be different. I’ve seen in my own work how you can do a number of things, for instance raising the burden for high energy users. But all member state do not have the same preferences. You may achieve the same result although you have a different approach.

But here no matter what we do individually and in smaller communities, we need a systemic approach.

One of the things we did in this mandate was to finalise the new electricity market design. This may sound technical and remote from climate change, but it’s one of the keystones for enabling the transition to renewable energies. Because if you don’t have an energy system that can cope with shifting power levels, you will not be successful.

The next commission will have to put this into practice, because this is very complex legislation. The commission was very ambitious, and the EU Parliament and Council agreed to this. But it will take a big effort to put that into practice and harness the benefits.

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That reform is creating the market conditions for companies to be incentivised to lower their emissions. What about target setting? Right now member states are debating the Commission’s proposal to lower EU emissions to net zero by 2050, and they will take a decision in June. Do you support the 2050 target?

I stand by the net zero target for 2050. I think it’s important that it’s a net effect, because there will still be a CO2 gross effect, so the important thing is to be able to net it out.

Setting this target can release a lot of investment into innovation and development. That’s why it’s important that we do set the target and we do it in common.

Some have accused the Commission of being too focused on targets and not enough on setting good market conditions. Do you think the approach thus far has been too target-focused?

But setting targets is part of creating the market. Just to make the Emissions Trading System work has been quite challenging, because of the financial crisis there are still too many allowances floating around for the system to be effective.

But there are things happening in parallel because you see more and more businesses, without politicians leading the way or beating them with a stick or showing a carrot, they’re saying climate change is our business model because it becomes more and more obvious that there is a real straightforward business logic to fighting climate change.

That comes because things were also happening in the previous mandate. But there’s a completely different awareness now than there was five years ago. Part of that comes from the NGOs, Greta Thunberg, the start of the yellow vests, and the Extinction Rebellion protests that we saw in a number of European cities a couple weeks ago.

Things are changing. People see that global warming isn’t warmer nicer weather, it’s wilder weather. It’s conditions that we’ll have to fight to control.

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Regarding the tools to fight climate change, although Europe took an early lead on clean technologies like electric vehicles and solar panels, it has now been eclipsed by Asian economies. What would you do as Commission President to get Europe back in the lead?

First and foremost it’s important that we use the technologies we have already. It’s not just wind turbines and solar panels, we also need investment in hydro. Using modern efficient pumps makes an enormous difference compared to old school technology. We shouldn’t just sit and wait for a technological fix to be achieved. There’s a lot of things we can do with the technology we have already.

That being said, I think it’s only appropriate what’s been launched by my colleague Carlos Moedas with Horizon Europe – that is to say, an investment in research programs up to 100 billion euros over the next seven years. And a lot of that will be climate change and environment related. Also the environment needs to be factored in the entire execution of our common budget.

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Let’s move on to environmental issues, and in particular agriculture. Right now there’s an effort to add a green pillar to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), following on form the work done in the previous CAP reform to tie payments to environmental stewardship. Do you view the CAP as something that can help Europe fight environmental degradation and climate change?

I definitely think it is part and parcel, because you have to work in a matrix where climate change and environmental issues is something that is relevant for everything else that you do. And agricultural policy and the support and subsidies should be used in that respect as well.

In this mandate we’ve pushed for agricultural support to slightly change its logic, I think that’s part of leading the way. If you look at forestation, this is an important industry when it comes to nature and resource management. It both serves climate change and biodiversity.

So there are a lot of things to be gained if you have a sufficiently broad perspective and never let any of these agendas be hijacked by just one interest. We need to bring people on board in order for nobody to be scared away. It’s important that we get people on board, otherwise we cannot get the results at the speed we need to.

Within agriculture, pesticides have been a big focus at EU level. What is your general take on pesticides and whether the EU has the balance right in terms of the approval process? And specifically on glyphosate, perhaps the most controversial substance, do you support the 2017 decision for a five-year renewal? Would you be open to continued extensions when it comes around the next time?

I was part of taking the glyphosate decision, so yes I support it.

We discussed it intensively before we took it, and it was for good reason that it was a short extension, because we want to have more independent research, especially into cocktail effects.

The interesting thing is how does it work in the real use. We discussed the scientific approach intensively, in order to use these next years in order to get transparent results that can be discussed in a different way.

I don’t think we will have a pesticide-free European agriculture any time soon, but I do hope that we can get less and less toxic pesticides and that we can work to have a coherent plan for how to minimise use so that you only do what is absolutely necessary. At the same time we need to enable the transition into organic farming in between.

One of the very striking things is how careful you should be. Because even decades after pesticides are forbidden, you still find the residue in drinking water. It’s important that you can trust your drinking water. Europe has very advanced economies, but the basics still apply – clean air, clean water, food that you can trust that you can eat.

On that subject of trust, it seems like there has been increasing distrust in some of the EU agencies that are evaluating food-related products, particularly the European Food Safety Authority. Former Commission President José Manuel Barroso tried to deal with this by appointing a Chief Scientific Advisor. The jury’s out about how well that went, but would you be open to establishing a position like that, someone who’s job it is to communicate science to people?

Well I haven’t thought about it, but that sounds like a good idea.

Because we need to be passionate about facts. Sometimes people say it’s just a fact, and you cannot communicate facts. Yes, you can, if you’re passionate about it.

I am passionate about people getting their children vaccinated, because you see the horrible effects if it doesn’t happen. I think we can put a lot of passion into things that are scientifically proven. The strange thing about trust is that it’s not just created with numbers and statistics, it’s communicated by people who for real do believe this is real science. It’s not made to persuade you, it’s made because we want to know what we’re doing.

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How do you think your time as competition commissioner has influenced you thinking about environment and climate issues? Were there moments in the past term where those issues intersected, where larger environmental issues would effect a decision?

It’s come up on a number of instances. For instance, we’ve been working a lot in the state aid area to help member states to auction renewable energy subsidies. The company says we would like to establish so many gigawatts of renewable energy, and then tender that out. We say if you have similar cost curve, you can have different renewable technologies compete against one another. And that then to a very large degree has lowered the amount of subsidies that people were asking for. The cheaper you can transition into renewable energy the faster you can do it.

We’ve also been working with capacity mechanisms. Member states say yes we want to transition into renewables, but citizens still expect that they can all cook their duck at Christmas time, that there’s always electricity in the grid. So we need to work with them to ensure you get this backup function, that there’s no disruption to a well-working market, in order to give the confidence that yes we can introduce more renewables because we have the backup function if things go wrong.

We also had three gigantic agrochemical mergers in Spring last year – Syngenta-ChemChina, Bayer-Monsanto, and Dow-Dupont.

One of the things that was obvious in the Dow-Dupont merger was that at the beginning there were only five global R&D organisations when it comes to seeds and pesticides. What we saw was that if the merger just went straight through, they would combine their R&D operations and cut their budget. So you would end up with less competition in innovation, in pesticides, and there would be a risk that already existing molecules would not be sufficiently maintained if the innovation capacity was being reduced.

We saw that there is a very high demand for innovation in pesticides, in order to have less toxic pesticides and to have better knowledge on how they can be used in order to minimise the side effects. So we ended up only clearing the merger after they agreed to sell one of their R&D organisations to a third party who didn’t have one already. So we still today have the five global R&D organisations in order to push for innovation in this area.

And that I find to be extremely important. Because, you have the debate about prohibiting neonicotinoids – which are damaging to bees – which I fully support. But then you would want to know, for the part of agriculture that’s still depending on pesticides, you need to have a push for less toxic molecules and less toxic ways of using pesticides.

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A few questions on the next Commission’s composition. The environment and fisheries portfolios are currently combined for one commissioner, would you continue having just one person dealing with those? How well do you think it has worked having two people dealing with energy and climate change, a vice-president and a commissioner?

If anything I think we should have more commissioners working on climate and environmental portfolios. Not only do we need to work with creating new legislation, we also need to make best use of the legislation we have already.

Because you’re working with something where speed is of the essence. You should be sure that you really need legislation, and keep in mind that it may only be passed five years from now, because first you have to prepare, do a consultation, impact assessment, legislative procedure, and transposition into national legislation.

There’s going a big task for the next Commission to work with member states to take action in real life to implement what we have decided already. There’s a number of areas where existing legislation could easily be pushed and be useful for some of the things we want to do.

There ought to be an environment cluster. One of the things that has been successful in this mandate is that we had the project groups. They were not 100% successful, you could still find silo thinking and turf wars of course as in most organisations. But it’s a way of pushing for that not to be the case.

And this is one of the things I find that has worked well, that the vice presidents have had the responsibility to coordinate, to manage the work in a broader scope. But you also have very dedicated commissioners in very specific portfolios. There’s a lot of work to do to inspire member states, to work together and inspire one another.

When you think about biodiversity, you may have precious landscapes that are cross-border.

I feel that there is a renewed momentum obviously when it comes to climate change, but also for environment. Biodiversity is also coming higher on the agenda.

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How well has it worked having a dedicated Commission department for climate change, given that it was only spun out of the environment department not so long ago. It’s the smallest DG, would you keep it?

My inclination is to keep DG CLIMA as a dedicated DG. I really like what the previous climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, did, and what Miguel Arias Cañete has achieved is amazing in a somewhat challenging environment.

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