Four years ago, as countries across Europe were still suffering the full effects of the financial crisis, they were forced to dig deep to help the economic recovery.
On these occasions, less important matters can be put on hold until more pressing concerns have been put to bed.
So it was a significant move for José Manuel Barroso, when forming his second European Commission, to take a step to ensure at least one key topic did not drop off the radar – climate change.
For the first time, his team of commissioners would include one whose task was to ensure the threat of man-made climate change was at the heart of European policy.
Connie Hedegaard, a Danish politician and former journalist, was chosen as the first climate commissioner.
In 1984 at the age of 23, she had been the youngest member of the Folketing, the Danish parliament and during two spells in politics had served as minister for environment; climate and energy; and Nordic cooperation.
For her new role as European Commissioner for Climate Action she had one simple task – keep climate in the mainstream.
Now in the last year of her five-year term, her focus is on ensuring the EU leaders pass the EC’s 2030 package – which includes an aim to reduce greenhouse gases across Europe by 40 per cent, increase the share of renewable energy to at least 27 per cent, improve energy efficiency including a review of the energy efficiency directive and reform of the EU’s emissions trading system.
The year before her appointment and still in the Danish government, she had been president of the Copenhagen climate summit.
The build up to Copenhagen was huge and while the Conference of Parties is held every year, this was billed as a landmark event.
Ahead of the conference, she wrote that the summit was a defining moment “where the world can choose to go down different paths.”
She said: “We can choose to go down the road towards green prosperity and more sustainable future or we can choose a pathway to stalemate and do nothing about climate change, leaving an enormous bill for our kids and grandkids to pay.”
Next year in Paris another landmark COP is to be held and Hedegaard said the need for a specific commissioner targeting climate change was as important now as it was then.
“While we have been busy solving the economic crisis in Europe, climate did not solve itself,” says Hedegaard. “We are really busy now getting the 2030 package through the European Council, so it is still very important that there is a portfolio where our focus has to be on this.”
The next EU budget, spanning the next seven years, includes a proviso that at least one fifth will go to climate change efforts, which Hedegaard calls a “major achievement.”
“That will force the research commissioner, the transport commissioner, the development commissioner, the agriculture commissioner to think about climate.
“We need the 2030 targets; we need to mainstream climate into all sorts of policies and we also still need Europe to play a strong hand in the international climate talks.”
She adds: “From the outset, the job description simply was to make it legitimate that someone can remind the transport commissioner when he is preparing a white paper on transport that it also has to take climate targets into consideration, the same with the energy commissioner, or the research commissioner and all the others.”
She points to the European Semester, which makes recommendations to member states ahead of yearly budgetary processes.
“Last year 17 member states got recommendations in the field of climate and energy. Honestly, I don’t think we would have had that had it not been for a portfolio which is cross-cutting but of course very practical.”
At a time when Europe has still been concentrating on financial considerations, with bailouts for Ireland, Cyprus, Portugal and Greece, Hedegaard said it was helpful having both her and the Environment Commissioner, Slovenian Janez Potocnik, able to support each other and give the issue an even stronger voice.
She said: “In the former commission, one person had to cover both environment and climate and all the international climate talks and all the international environment conferences, meaning having to do a lot of travelling.
“We have been two people, two commissioners, who have also mutually been able to support each other in the internal deliberations in the commission.”
Her native Denmark has already a track record on pursuing renewable energy and thinking about its environmental impact and during Hedegaard’s time in government when she was minister for energy and climate change – she believes that it was the first time these two had been combined worldwide.
She sees the two as a natural fit and the same cabinet role exists now in the UK with Ed Davey – although in Scotland, climate change is included in the environment brief.
However, she says the key thing is ensuring it cuts across other areas.
“The way we normally structure government, portfolios, administrations, ministries is very much in silos,” she says. “Many of the challenges we face are going across these silos. We need cross-cutting answers and solutions.”
She adds: “There is a paradox between the big challenges we are faced with as societies and the way we have structured societies – and by the way, how we structure science.
“If you take an area like climate change – yeah, you need to make the natural science case, but you also need to make the economic case – but when you have done all that, you also need to think what about the behavioural.
“What makes people change their behaviour so that tomorrow they have other practices than they do today?”
Europe has positioned itself as a world leader in the fight against climate change, whether by signing up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, or putting pressure on major global powers like the USA or China to up their game.
But it also regulates many policies which impact on its member states and their own targets to cut carbon emissions, such as fuel efficiency standards for transport.
Speaking to Holyrood for this issue, Scotland’s climate change minister Paul Wheelhouse said it was frustrating Europe did not have more ambitious targets after Hedegaard had said the EU will “substantially overachieve its targets by 2020.
Scotland has set tough targets of a 42 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 – although it has missed the first two annual targets.
Despite this, Hedegaard praises Scotland for both its ambition and its progress, having already lowered emissions by more than 25 per cent.
“Scotland is a genuine good example that it helps when you put up targets because that simply helps government, decision makers, to stay tuned on the message and stay focused,” she said.
She praised the fact that 46 per cent of Scotland’s electricity supply was coming from renewables – up 30 per cent in seven years.
“Those kinds of achievements do not come automatically, it help’s a lot when you set visible targets that the whole administration and the energy sector – and others that have to deliver the results – really understand and accept.”
Hedegaard does not give a view on Scotland’s independence referendum and said she did not see why the outcome would have to change its climate policies, but she said Scotland’s growing renewables sector can prove to the world that green technology is good for the economy.
“In some of the countries who have been front runners in this area – and Scotland, with ambitious targets and a political leadership that wants to do this, has been one of the front runners – we actually have empirical data that shows if you’re actually doing this in a clever manner then you actually can create more exports, [get] more income and by that, more jobs.”
The Copenhagen COP in 2009 saw world leaders sign up to an accord with developed countries aiming to mobilise $100bn per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing nations and a commitment to reduce emissions to hold the increase in global temperature below 2C, but ultimately, it left many environmental organisations disappointed that more progress was not made.
With only days left of the talks and the world leaders due to arrive, Hedegaard resigned the chair to make way for Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. The move took many commentators by surprise – although she insisted then it was simply a matter of procedure.
Hedegaard has been far from sidelined, though; she remained part of the summit and with her commissioner’s role has been readily banging the drum both for Europe to improve its record, but also for other countries to follow Europe’s lead.
One commentator referred to her as the “Mick Jagger” of eurocrats and she has a reputation as a passionate advocate for climate action.
In October a new commission will be announced and commissioners are rarely appointed for more than one term – and even then it would tend to be in a different role.
Hedegaard says that there have been some major successes which she has helped to bring about.
“If the leaders of Europe, the heads of state actually deliver what they promised back in March by October, namely, that they have adopted what should be our 2030 climate and energy targets, then that is a major achievement.
“Coming out of a crisis, Europe can really say loud and clear: this is what we are doing for CO2 reductions – a 40 per cent reduction – this is our target for efficiency, this is our target for renewables.
“That would not have been there had it not been for a special portfolio. People would have said, ‘let’s wait, keep that for the next commission and see what happens and let’s get out of the crisis first’. Then it would have been very, very late for investors.”
She says too that ‘mainstreaming’ climate into the budget has meant a “fundamental way of thinking” and that funding for projects such as roads and buildings across Europe will depend on whether the climate impact can be assessed first.
The larger focus is still on what can be achieved at the UN summits. At the Durban conference in 2011, Europe pushed for an agreement that all nations, both developing and developed, had to do their fair share to reduce carbon emissions.
In Warsaw last year, environmental groups walked out in protest at a lack of action – does she think the all important Paris will finally see a legally binding and universal agreement on climate?
“I think it must,” she says.
“It is incredibly important that everybody understands that there is still a window of opportunity to stay below the two degrees, but that window of opportunity can close very, very fast.
“That is why some of us are insisting that it’s not good enough for Paris just to have a result. It has to be an ambitious result.”
And she warns: “My personal view is that if the world’s governments disappoint in Paris, that will have huge implications for multilateralism in the field of climate change, because people are getting impatient.
“Those who are experiencing the consequences, economic and human-wise for climate change, the NGOs and I think many of the European citizens, are getting impatient.
“We need something substantial coming out of Paris.”
After her first stint in politics, Hedegaard left for a career in journalism, working at the newspaper Berlingske Tidende as director of DR Radio News and then the anchor of Deadline, a late night magazine programme on Danish TV.
It was in that role where she first encountered the issues of climate change – having to work out how to condense a hugely complex subject for a TV feature.
“With me, it always had this reputation of being complicated,” she said. “When I was called into politics again, to go into the government, in my first week as environment minister, one of the civil servants in the ministry said, ‘what are you going to do about climate change?’”
“I just looked at him and said, ‘well, maybe, we should start to get some information first’.”
As a former journalist, she believes climate change should have a higher profile on news bulletins.
“It would be nice if we did not have a news criteria defining that what you heard yesterday as already old news.
“We have heard about this ‘climate fatigue’. There is important stuff and there is the not so important stuff – and climate remains very important stuff.
“The difficult thing around climate change is that we are handling a long-term challenge in a political climate where the tendency is very much to think for the short term. If you want politicians and government to think more for the medium term and long term, they need to feel the citizens understand why this is important.”
Hedegaard insists this is not all doom and gloom and there are “good stories” to be told.
Since returning to politics in 2004, she has been involved almost constantly in the environmental sphere. But she says it is not just about “melting glaciers and polar bears”.
“In its essence, climate change can only be dealt with if we really think about the way we create the growth we need for the 21st century.”
She adds: “Being a Danish Conservative, I would never say we should go for no growth or stop growth and that will never happen in the world we are living in.
“Yes, we need growth, but we also need to ask ourselves how to make that a more sustainable kind of growth.”
She speaks to Holyrood just a day after the results of the European elections are announced. For supporters of the EU, it is not really a happy one, with UKIP making substantial gains in Britain – including its first seat in Scotland – and other anti-EU parties winning seats elsewhere, there could be a concern that the pressure to reform or even break apart might affect the goals Hedegaard and the other commissioners are trying to achieve.
She says she hopes not, and comments that Britain will have to make its mind up on whether it wants to stay in Europe.
But she says the Eurobarometer, which polls people across Europe on their views, shows that the anti-EU movement will not have an impact on its climate change objectives.
“It seems time and time again that one of the areas where even EU-sceptical citiziens say they would want more European cooperation is on environment and climate.”
Just like the tensions in Russia and Ukraine has seen support increase across Europe for a more united energy policy, she says: “Most people would say when it comes to the environment and climate it makes sense to work together.”
The rise of UKIP also raises the worrying sign of politicians challenging the previous consensus over climate changing – with the party’s European manifesto calling for the scrapping of Britain’s Climate Change Act as well as targets for renewable energy.
However, Hedegaard says: “By and large, the understanding of the need to act on climate change is almost as big today as it was in the run up to Copenhagen in 2009.
“When you take into consideration that we have been through such a significant economic crisis, where of course for good reasons many people have had other things on their mind, I must say that by and large, there is still support for this.”
She highlights the Tea Party wing of the Republicans as an example of where climate scepticism has foundered.
“As far as I have followed the American debate now, it’s getting even more dangerous for even the Tea Party Republicans just to deny climate change because, for instance, they have farmers in the corn belt who have experienced for themselves the impact of climate change.
“The dynamic in the US is changing, it starts to cost something to be denying that climate change is an issue.”
She also highlights the 65 who died in severe floods in Serbia and Bosnia in May and harsh floods that have recently hit the UK.
“I think there are many citizens who voted for all sorts of parties when it comes to the EU,” she says. “You have some vocal climate sceptics, yes, but I think that a very, very large group of European citizens understand that we need to address climate change and it makes sense to do it at a community level.”
The signs are that the rest of the world is indeed listening.
US President Barack Obama has taken personal charge of the push for new stronger regulations, which would see carbon pollution from power plants having to be cut by at least 30 per cent by 2030.
Hedegaard says: “Europe has had the lead here and we have been reasonably successful in pushing and pushing and pushing the Americans.Now it seems that key players, for instance, in the White House way up in the system, the President himself, the Secretary of State and others, they want to join the club of those who are actually contributing here.”
She adds: “I think sometimes in Europe some of the sceptics would say ‘we are all alone in addressing climate change’, no, we are not, in the run up to Copenhagen and after more than 90 countries actually now have their own climate policies and the Chinese are talking about circular economies, setting up for the first time in the last five year plan CO2 targets and increasing their renewable targets.
“China now is having emissions trading schemes piloted in six to seven provinces for 250 million people – they are planning to make it a nationwide system. As late as last week, the commission was in China in order to work with the Chinese authorities.
“Korea has now adopted an emissions trading scheme, so has California. Europe is making an impact by being a front runner, it’s not so that when being a front runner no one is following, actually, some of the big players in the world are starting to follow.”
This is not to suggest that Hedegaard is getting complacent. She adds: “I say that without painting a too rosy picture because of course there is still a lot of work to do…”
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