Margrethe Vestager, a competitive approach to environmental policy

Although a convinced liberal, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, said the market alone cannot solve the climate crisis. [ALDE Communication / Flickr]

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

EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a Liberal candidate to be the next Commission President, believes the key to improving Europe’s environment and fighting climate change will be implementing the laws already on the books.

During her time as the EU’s competition watchdog over the past five years, Margrethe Vestager has shown she’s not afraid to take on powerful corporate and government interests. Some decisions have angered Silicon Valley and Washington, while others have angered Paris and Berlin.

Now voters want to know – would she show the same determination in fighting for the main issues they care about?

Vestager is running as a Liberal lead candidate for European Commission President at a time when environment and climate change issues are coming to the fore. Following the high-profile student strikes for climate and extinction rebellion protests, voters in this month’s European election are citing climate change as among their top concerns. And they are growing increasingly frustrated with government inaction.

Climate change will be key issue in EU elections, poll shows

As many as 77% of potential voters identify global warming as an important criteria when deciding who to vote for at the May European elections, according to an opinion poll published on Tuesday (16 April).

Implementation, “a big task for the next Commission”

In an interview with EURACTIV, Vestager said she’s ready to take the fight to national governments in the EU to make sure the bloc’s already-passed environment and climate legislation is being implemented.

“Fighting climate change is a given, it’s not something where you can choose whether you want to do it or not,” she said. “It will happen, and we can figure out how to deal with it.”

“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.”

She cites as an example the current Commission’s work to redesign the European energy market design, to make it more efficient and less emissions-intensive.

“This may sound technical and remote from climate change, but it’s one of the keystones for enabling the transition into renewable energies,” she said. “The next commission will have to put this into practice, because this is very complex legislation. The Commission was very ambitious, and Parliament and Council agreed to this.

“But it will take a big effort to put that into practice and harness the benefits.”

Free market environmentalism

This focus on market solutions is not surprising for Vestager’s liberal ALDE political family, who she is representing in the European election.

Known for combining socially-liberal attitudes with business-friendly free-market legislation, the Liberals have been far more in the vanguard of fighting climate change than centre-right Christian Democrats represented in the European Peoples Party.

A recent ranking by Climate Action Network Europe of the European political groups’ action on climate change put ALDE far ahead of the EPP, with a 38% score versus 10% respectively.

Part of this may be geographic, as Liberal parties are far more common in Northern Europe where surveys show people are far more concerned about climate change than in the South.

Vestager’s native Denmark, for instance, has been one of the leading countries fighting climate change – having installed an enormous wind power capacity in the North Sea. However her own Radikale Venstre in Denmark scores similarly to ALDE in general in the CAN ranking – the middle of the board.

Germany's ruling parties rank just above far-right on climate protection

The European People’s Party (EPP) has scored very poorly in an analysis of how MEPs voted on climate policies, ranking even lower than the European Parliament’s far-right contingent. In Germany, it is a similar story. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Climate targets “can release a lot of investment”

At EU level, CAN deems the centre-left Party of European Socialists, the Greens and the far-left GUE groups to be far more ambitious than ALDE on climate issues. This is partly due to the group’s more conservative members from Central Europe such as the German FDP and Czech ANO, who have been sceptical of climate targets and prefer market-only solutions.

For her part, Vestager said the market alone cannot solve the climate crisis. Some, such as the European Conservatives and Reformists lead Commission President candidate Jan Zahradil, have accused the EU of being target-obsessed when it comes to climate change. He opposes the Commission’s proposed target of reducing EU emissions to net zero by 2050.

Vestager wholeheartedly supports the EU’s objective to reach “climate neutrality” by 2050 – though it remains to be seen whether national leaders will approve or reject the plan at next month’s European Council summit.

“I stand by the net-zero target for 2050,” she said. “Setting this target can release a lot of investment into innovation and development. That’s why it’s important that we do set the targets, and we do it in common. Setting targets is part of creating the market.”

In its election manifesto, ALDE says it wants to see the EU’s emissions reduction target for 2030 raised from 40% to 55%.

Vestager noted that markets aren’t perfect, pointing to the problems of the EU’s Emissions Trading System which needed EU intervention to raise the low price of carbon. “Because of the financial crisis there are still too many allowances floating around for the system to be effective,” she said.

“But there are things happening in parallel – 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.”

Carbon neutrality by 2050 makes sense

To stay within the boundaries of the Paris Agreement, Europe needs to accelerate efforts to achieve a carbon neutral future and put climate change at the top of the EU agenda. Frank van der Vloed highlights five key steps that are critical for businesses to make the transition.

Agriculture: green the CAP and protect consumers

Vestager said she supports the Commission’s moves to tie agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy – perhaps all the more so because the CAP, which many accuse of being wasteful and protectionist, remains intensely controversial in Northern European countries like Denmark.

“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.”

Vestager also feels strongly about the use of pesticides in agriculture – an area where Commission decisions have been very controversial. The Commission’s decision to authorise the weedkiller glyphosate for five further years, for instance, has drawn howls of protest.

But Vestager, who was part of taking that decision, said she stands by 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. We want to see 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.”

“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.”

Passionate about facts

Vestager said that the yellow vest protests in France show that the public needs to be brought along with these types of environment and climate targets and restrictions. But she is concerned that an increasing mistrust of science is making getting this public support difficult.

“We need to be passionate about facts,” she said. “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.”

José Manuel Barroso, Juncker’s predecessor as Commission President, tried to overcome this lack of trust in EU agencies like the European Food Safety Authority by appointing a “Chief Scientific Advisor” to evaluate and communicate the science bein produced for and by the Commission. However the position was not popular with NGOs and it was scrapped by Juncker.

Vestager said she would be open to re-establishing the position. “I haven’t thought about it, but that sounds like a good idea.”

In fact, she said, she would like to see an increase in environmental positions in the Commission in general, and would consider establishing multiple environment commissioners for different areas such as biodiversity, air pollution or chemicals. She says she views the “project teams” of multiple commissioners working together on similar areas, set up by Juncker during this Commission, to be a success she would want to emulate.

Competition work

The Competition Commissioner said that her work during this term has frequently intersected with environment issues. For instance, she pointed to rulings she has had to make on member state decisions to auction renewables subsidies.

The Commission’s state aid rulings have helped renewable technologies compete with one another, which has enabled a faster transition to renewable energy, she said. Her decisions on capacity mechanisms, which ensure backup power to the grid in the event of renewable sources going down, have also involved environmental calculations.

Capacity markets: A necessary evil in the energy transition?

Detractors of capacity mechanisms argue they are mere state aid for dirty fossil fuels that should be eliminated as soon as possible while supporters claim they provide vital back-up in the transition to renewable electricity. The fact that both are correct is leaving Europe in a quandary.

The area of pesticides and chemicals has been a particular environmental topic she has dealt with during this term. “We had three gigantic agrochemical mergers in Spring last year – Syngenta-ChemChina, Bayer-Monsanto, and Dow-Dupont.”

One of the things she says was “obvious” in the Dow-Dupont merger was the research and innovation aspect, with 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.”

“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.”

Cleantech boost

Vestager said that this focus on R&D would be a general theme for her Commission presidency. She shares concerns about Europe losing the lead in cleantech to Asia, and pointed to the Commission’s commitment to invest up to €100 billion in research over the next seven years as a way to put Europe back in the lead.

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.

“But first and foremost it’s important that we use the technologies we have already,” she said. “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.”

>> Click here to read the full Q&A with Margrethe Vestager.

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