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Climate and Energy

Like Stepping Stones in a River: How Renewables Can Help us Win the Climate Battle

By Claude Turmes

The much anticipated Paris Climate Summit is only weeks away. Although there are many obstacles to securing a binding agreement in Paris, Green MEP Claude Turmes feels there are reasons for optimism, such as the changes taking place at the local and regional levels towards an energy transition. Now Europe has to be brave and show real leadership on technology and renewables.

Green European Journal: In the run-up to COP, we’ve seen demonstrations in the streets calling for action and more of these are planned. How do you assess the state of the public debate on the issue at the moment – is there a sense of what is at stake? And how important is this for securing an agreement in Paris?

Claude Turmes: After Copenhagen we have what I call the Copenhagen Syndrome. There was a collective depression of the whole scientific community and the geo-community after the scandalous Copenhagen failure. It took some years to build up momentum. There are two areas where we have very positive momentum – which is commitment of cities and regions. We not only have lower-level support, with more than six thousand big and small local level governments committed to climate change and energy transition, but we have also cities such as New York and Shanghai on board. So imagine when New York, Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Shanghai and other big cities team up and say to their national leaders, “we can move, so you should be able to move”, because, at the end of the day, who decides about bicycling? Who decides about car sharing? Who decides about pushing cities and companies into progressive energy agendas? It’s often at city level, so if cities move, there’s no excuse anymore for governments at national level.

The second positive news comes from technology. PVs [photovoltaics] have seen such a dramatic cost reduction that going to one hundred percent green renewables is not rocket science anymore. We know exactly what we have to do, also especially when we combined with IT and storage capacities – which are there – so hundred percent renewables is the way to go. We could go down that route already for 2035, 2040. The whole of the electricity network in Europe could be green, and if it can be so in Europe, it can be in other places of the world.

Of course this idea of investing in energy in Europe means that it’s also related to strengthening Europe in a geopolitical perspective. In our previous interview, you mentioned that if we make this investment, then it will also have the benefit of not, for example, sending money to a country like Russia. How do think that this situation has evolved?

In a certain sense, the positive side-effect of Putin’s very hostile policy move in Ukraine on taking gas as a strategic political weapon is that state leaders have understood that Europe will be a loser if the game of the future is about who has oil and gas and coal, and who has the military to defend it, versus who has the technology leadership in efficiency technology and an intelligent grip on renewables. So the only way for Europe to be a geo-political winner in the great endgame around energy and energy resources will be if Europe is able to be a technology leader – in efficiency, in renewables, in interconnectivity, and to make renewables, efficiency and this interconnectivity also much bigger and much more important on a global scale. Because, personally, I think that the game is not about anymore more who has oil, the game is who has the industry research to be a winner in PV, on offshore wind, on zero energy housing, and who will devour the storage facilities for the power systems of tomorrow.

In what ways will foreign policy dictate our energy future? Take the Nord Stream pipeline, for example, which is currently being negotiated between the Russian energy firm Gazprom and the EU, with plans for the line to run through Germany. You have been quoted as saying that this, “destabilises Ukraine and the singularity of an EU voice”.

As much as I am with Ms Merkel on the migration problem, as Greens, I think we should welcome the fact that she has declared that she wants Europe to be an open continent. However, I have to really completely go against Merkel and also Hollande when it comes to supporting Nord Stream. Nord Stream Two has to be stopped, doubling the capacity has to be stopped. It is a pure deviant policy of Putin and gas corporations. The transit agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the gas front ends in 2019. Agreeing on Nord Stream Two before 2019 would weaken the Ukrainian negotiation position in the renewables discussions along with the transit of gas through Ukraine in such a way that it could completely destabilise Ukraine, and it is already a highly fragile state. So, Merkel and Hollande have to tell their energy companies involved in Nord Stream that this is a no-go, and the excuse that Nord Stream Two is a commercial project is completely ridiculous – it is political. It is the most divisive energy, climate, geo-political project which Hollande and Merkel are backing, and they have to change position on this.

As you know, in the run up to Paris and during the negotiations themselves there will be lobbyists on the ground from various industries and a lot of campaigners pushing for an agreement. How do you see this playing out, and do you think it’s possible there’ll be an impact on the outcome of the negotiations?

I think we have to be really very vigilant about the oil-gas co-lobby. They will be behind the positions of Saudi Arabia and the OPEC countries, Russia, other gas and coal exporters like Australia, and of course it could also increase the fragility of the intra-EU position, notably through Poland, being a completely co-lobby dominated political establishment. So we have to be vigilant on that, and then there is of course the second point which is that the nuclear industry is hugely in debt. Take the latest gadget, called the European Pressurised Reactor, or the EPR. It has gone from a three billion investment to ten million investment; from three year completion to ten year completion. It is a fallible product and if you are purely rational, you have a reactional approach to energy investment. It’s more expensive than PV and it’s much more expensive than onshore wind. We should be aware that the almost-broken company Areva will of course use their lobby power and the fact that they are like a many-armed Hindu God with hundreds, if not thousands, of branches all over the French establishment. I’m sure at a certain moment in the Paris conference they will try to bring nuclear into the game.

Conversely, are you expecting that we will see a very strong civil societal mobilisation of people turning out on the streets to call for an agreement at Paris, and do you think this will have some impact upon the negotiations as well?

From viewing responsible civil society organisations like trade unions, development NGOs, environment NGOs, and campaigners on divestment from oil and gas, it is that mobilisation matters. There will be a strong pressure from the French government to have an agreement at any cost and if there are not enough people in the street at Paris, Hollande will put his thoughts into a very weak agreement. So we need hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Paris to counterbalance this and we should use, in a certain sense, the solution agenda – which the very same government in France has very wisely pushed ahead in. The solution agenda pushed by the French government is basically the remedy to the Copenhagen syndrome. But we need now to inform people, and what makes me optimistic is that France, and the French, and I would say also a lot of European citizens, will go to Paris. There has been recent success from the grassroots organisation Alternatiba, in particular, who started as a small NGO in Bayern, and who have executed a fantastic bottom-up movement over the last week in France; they have re-motivated a lot of those individuals who were frustrated by Copenhagen.

So, do you feel that we have overcome a lot of the mistakes in Copenhagen and there really is a chance to reach an agreement? If you’re optimistic that trust can be restored in a number of areas, does this give you a sense of optimism overall about the outcome of the negotiations?

Why did Copenhagen fail? Because of the divisions internally in Europe and because the energy leaders had only spoken about the climate problem but not about the climate solution. It’s a bit like standing in front of a small river and you don’t see how deep it is. And then you are afraid to cross it, whereas if you see a stone [in the river], which we will call ‘renewables’, or a stone called ‘efficiency’, or ‘interconnection’, then it’s such stones in the river that make it a small water to cross – you are not afraid to cross it. And that’s all about the positive solution agenda, and the second thing that makes me optimistic is, as I mentioned, is the huge amount of cities and regions who are already on the move. Cities and regions are catalysts of change because they are closer to citizens than national governments. These two elements are already positive. Some [other] elements that are positive are the falling costs of certain technology, notably PV, and then of course we have the fourth dimension, which is: are the leaders of this world really ready to move? That is always the question mark that I think that Paris will be better prepared for than Copenhagen.

Traditionally the Greens have always been at the forefront of environmental issues, and now Carole Deischbourg, a Green politician and of your home, Luxembourg, is set to represent the EU at COP21.

I’m very proud that a Green and female Minister from Luxembourg, who is a close friend of mine, will lead the EU team, and we have done everything from Luxembourg to help Paris be a success and if this will be a success, then it is of course a success of the Green community.

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