Low-carbon economy expert: ‘We must not accommodate Trump’

Normalising Donald Trump could lead to a loss of international trust in the Paris Agreement. [Joseph Sohm/ Shutterstock]

Germany is a rich country that can afford to pay off coal workers and invest millions of euros in the affected regions, E3G’s Sabrina Schulz told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Sabrina Schulz is head of the E3G think tank’s Berlin office.

She spoke to EURACTIV.sk’s Pavol Szalai.

Donald Trump will be inaugurated as US president on 20 January. Is the Paris Agreement on climate change dead in the US as of next week?

The biggest mistake we can make at this moment is to pretend that Trump is the norm. We must not normalise him. We must not accommodate him. It can unravel international trust in the Paris Agreement. Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already said that he is not in favour of leaving the Paris Agreement. Even if the US stays on board, they can do a lot to undermine trust in the agreement. This is the biggest danger. Paris really lives based on faith people have in its delivery.

Can other countries follow the US in not implementing the deal? The whole of the EU, China and India subscribed to the Paris Agreement.

I hope all countries including China and India will understand it is in their own national interest to comply with the Agreement. For many reasons. Power sectors are transforming across the world. Why would they want to lag behind? Especially when they have the opportunity to leap-frog some of the technology developments. China has now stopped a whole new fleet of coal power plants because they understand the end of coal is near. They are doing it because people are in the streets and their children have asthma.

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Florida is also regularly hit by natural catastrophes. Why is the US not convinced if it suffers from climate change like China and India?

The fossil fuels lobby has poured a lot of money into the US to make sure that climate policy does not become something people ask for. Any debate on climate change in the US always has someone denying climate change. As long as we have such a media culture, there is very little one can do to educate the public.

The Paris Agreement is not only about climate change. It is about the future of a rule-based world, a future where diplomacy works. If we cannot make international law and diplomacy work for climate change, I really wonder in what kind of areas we can make it work.

You have come to Slovakia to talk about Germany’s transition away from coal. What will you tell your Slovak colleagues?

The German story is not the most glorious one. We have been burning coal for decades, much more than necessary. We have been subsidising coal for decades. But we have now come to realise that coal is not the way forward for the German economy and energy grid. I will essentially tell the story of the decline of hard coal mining in Germany and of the economic decline of lignite mining. We are now slowly realising that we need to phase out coal and make sure that coal mining regions are not left behind. You do not want to create losers in the climate debate.

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Is it not inevitable that there will be losers?

There will be losers, of course. The question is: Do you treat them with respect for what they have done in their lives? They mined coal to make sure there is money for their children’s education. That is one way to get people on board.

Then it is also about transfers of money. Germany is a rich country. It can afford to pay off coal workers and invest millions of euros in the affected regions to ensure the transformation of their economic base. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe will have to rely largely on European funding.

Given the fact that Germany is a net contributor to the EU’s budget, it will have to fund the transition also in our region. Is it viable to pour so much public money into it?

You can ask the question from the other side. Is it actually fair for so much European money to get lost in the system, when it reaches particular member states? It really matters that the money goes to projects that are future-proof and transformational, and deliver for the people.

Where is the money lost?

I have travelled a lot throughout Central and Eastern Europe. And when we talk about climate change, we also have to talk about corruption. We have to make sure there is more transparency in the way European funds are spent. And there has to be more conditionality.

Are you talking about structural funds?

Yes. But the whole Multiannual Financial Framework is now being set up for the next period (after 2020). We will try to influence that debate to make more targeted money available.

On which level is the money lost in corruption – local, national or elsewhere?

Our local partners are telling us the biggest problem is at national level. The money for regional transitions never really reaches the regions.

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Economic reorientation of regions is difficult because every region is specific. What do you recommend?

The most important thing is that a particular process is followed. It is very difficult to use any case study as a blueprint for other countries. It has never been successful before.

Really? What about Northern England?

There is nothing. In Northern England, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. People live a little bit in a ghetto. We must not replicate that experience.

You have to have ideas on an alternative economic base. Then you need to attract the people who can realise that vision. You need infrastructure, so that the region can be reached, be it by road or train. There must be telecommunications infrastructure – high speed internet. You need hospitals and schools, people who want to move to that region and create new business. To make that happen you need ideas about tapping new funding sources.

Are the new funding sources public or private?

Both. The European Commission is thinking about creating a new fund that will go directly into former coal-mining regions. That is the seed money. Then, hopefully private investors will come in. We have to think from scratch. The alternative is letting the whole region die.

The big argument for sustaining coal mines is employment. Can the workers be retrained or do we just have to pay them to survive after the layoff?

We need studies for every single region to find out how many people can be retrained and for what kinds of jobs. In eastern Germany, many people work in mechatronics. They can be retrained, because their education level is already very high. Their qualifications will be needed in many other industries. The same is not true for every single job in a coal-mining region. Without a very sound analysis, there is no recommendation to make.

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