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Climate and Energy

Racing to save the earth: will politics catch up with public opinion?

By Bas Eickhout

The EU cannot be a credible leader on climate change when its decision makers are aware of the risks and the alternatives available, yet still refuse to take the actions needed. How much longer can we wait for politicians to catch up to the mood among civil society? An interview with Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout.

Green European Journal: In the wake of the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, how can the EU restore trust in its position as a climate leader in light of this scandal? Does it prove that standards are being routinely flouted?

Bas Eickhout: I still have the feeling that at the commission level and also at the Member State level that they don’t seem to understand how huge this Volkswagen scandal is and what kind of impact it has on the credibility of the EU. I think the best way to restore credibility is, of course, swift and thorough action and I think that’s still a bit lacking, certainly at the European level. There is a very weak link in the way we are processing car registrations – and at the European level, if there is an issue, they can’t even call back a car, because you have to go back through the national authority that allowed the car, so there’s no independent, overarching authority whatsoever in this case. And that is really weak, so there we need proposals on how to change that.

We need also controls of what cars there are on the streets, because even if you have great tests, and even if you have a better independent assessment on allowing cars on the streets, you also need some control later on. They do this, for example, in the US, under some federal governments, where sometimes cars are pulled off the street just for testing, whereas we don’t do that here, so there also needs to be a change in something if the EU wants to restore credibility to the idea that we are leaders in environmental protection and climate legislation. Well, we have to show that we are not only doing that on paper, but also in reality, and I think this Volkswagen crisis is certainly something where a lot of countries will look at Paris and say, “Yeah, okay, you are ambitious on paper, but what does that mean?” and only swift and clear action at the EU level that can restore a bit of that confidence.

Do you think it’s possible, even though obviously embarrassing for the EU, that such a scandal might lead to positive actions, in that it increases the urgency for action to come out of the COP?

It is still very crucial to focus on stressing that we are aiming for a two degrees pledge. If we are not doing that, we have a credibility problem, not only for Europe, but for the entire world. What does it mean if you subscribe to a target you are not achieving? If you get into a comparison with Volkswagen, the only issue with Paris is that we acknowledge that we’re not agreeing that we are not meeting the standards – we don’t even need to cheat. We are just bluntly admitting that we aim at two degrees but we know we won’t achieve it [in Paris]. It’s a very strange message you are putting across to the public.

All the speeches that will be given by the heads of state in Paris, that climate change is a crucial issue and that it urgently needs to be addressed, is also what was said in New York, where leaders gathered to discuss the SDG’s (Sustainability Development Goals). Everyone is talking about the urgency, and they say, “In Paris, we will come together and put something on the table”, but we know it will not be enough for two degrees. I think there, as a Green movement, we should always keep our heads of states accountable: they have to deliver on what they promise.

It’s also important to stress that the longer we wait, the more difficult it’s going to be to keep global warming below two degrees, and the more expensive it’s going to be for the economy to adapt to this. So the longer we wait, the longer are locking ourselves in. The message should become clearer; negotiations should bring us much closer to the debate surrounding why Europe is still talking about a 2030 target, when we really should be talking about a 2025 target. We are already have an agreement that the new treaty will only start in 2020, so why is there still a European focus on 2030? We have to work towards 2025, and we will need urgent, binding reviews, making sure the process after Paris is at least bringing us back on track.

The Netherlands has quite a good track record when it comes to the environment, with initiatives such as the Urgenda case’s victory, the opening of the world’s first solar cyclepath in Amsterdam and a significant PFZW pension divestment. How do you view the Dutch government’s position on climate change, and do you think that the Netherlands can serve as a role model to its fellow EU members?

The Netherlands is already the best example on how the political level is lagging behind what is happening in society. This is really exactly a good example of how the big issues, which you see in many countries, are at the political level, especially in the Netherlands: they’re stuck. There are two different parties in the government right now who totally think differently on climate change, renewables, and so on. They are trying to find a common ground, but it’s always a compromise, so it’s a compromise that is going in the right direction, but terribly slowly.

Having said that, that is if you only look at the capital and the political dynamics at play. If you then look to society, you see, for example, the court case carried out by the Urgenda and the citizens, who are saying, “Government, you’re too slow. We want you to move on, go faster!” So this court case is directly asking the government to act faster than the pace they’re at now. You see a lot of technology developments, whereas the Netherlands’ government is struggling to reach its renewable target in 2020, which it is required to do from the EU side. While we are struggling to deliver on that, if you look to the ground: if you look at cities and technologies that are being developed, the enthusiasm of citizens working together – there’s a lot of passion and a lot of energy out there, but somehow they all feel that they’re being blocked by the government. So, in that sense, yes, I see a lot of very positive signals, but I don’t see them in the capital or in the government. Unfortunately, the Netherlands is probably an example of many countries with the same issue and we still need to resolve how we can make sure that the political level is not blocking but stimulating development, as still, to this moment, that’s exactly what it is doing.

In the Netherlands, everyone is still watching the Urgenda case closely, because the government decided to take it to appeal. Indeed there was a positive outcome in the court case, but this appeal shows, again, the double standards of the government. What they said, more or less, is “Yes, we agree to act faster, but first we want to hear from a higher judge whether this is really not interference in politics at the judicial level. Is the judge not sitting on the chair of the politicians too much?” So, the government want to act faster but also want more clarity, so they are, at the same time, delaying again. This is a blurring compromise from the government, where you have a Labour party, who would probably be more inclined to agree to do more, in contrast to the Liberal party, who want to halt movement. This brings you to a very strange standstill where both parties agree that faster action is needed but demand more time to make the decision to act faster. This is something that will be of interest to other regions, because of course there is the interesting question of to what extent can the judiciary force the government to act on such an issue.

Do you think there’s been enough of a mass mobilisation from grass-roots, civil society and NGOs? Has enough support been generated in the run-up to the COP to influence a positive outcome in the negotiations?

I think it’s still not enough and the problem is that a lot of people active in the field have become disappointed in politics. They feel the political level is not delivering and they have turned away from politics with the attitude that they themselves can affect change without political will. So what you see is that there is a lot happening in society, but you don’t see a mass mobilisation because there is a lot of lost trust in the potential acting power of politics. You see people like, “Yeah, you know what, I’ll just do it myself.” But of course, in the end we all know that to overcome real resistance, mainly from the big multinational players, we need a framework – setting global targets, for example. What we now need to do is somehow get all those people putting sustainability into practice every day. We have to bring them all together, so they realise they will need the political level to cooperate in order to make change happen.

Going back to the Netherlands, referring to the action group Urgenda is a good example. They were very active without the help of the political level, and started selling solar panels themselves, for example. The government was terribly slow, too slow, in arranging sales with subsidies, etcetera, so Urgenda took control of sales. They were instrumental in getting solar panel sales off the ground in the Netherlands, but they were very much in the frame of mind that they were doing it without politics, so questioned why they would need politics. But slowly, they themselves realised that in the end we do need it – we do need the political level. Yes, we can do a lot without it, but to really get things moving – to get the mass moving – we need the political level. So they turned to the court case. It’s a good example of organisations thinking they can do without the political level, but in the end realising they can’t do without. But that realisation is not broad yet – there are still a lot of people out there thinking to act on their own, and that is still something that makes it difficult to mobilise. It’s really one of the biggest problems in getting people mobilised, and will be for Paris.

You have mentioned before that the Greens have the capacity to be a political voice for these other movements that are operating in civil society. Within your political group in the Greens, in the Netherlands and the European Parliament, what has been your approach in trying to become this political voice? Do you think that in Paris there will be an opportunity for the Greens to be present as a strong political voice for these kinds of groups?

Judging on where we stand and looking at how people regard us politically, that was exactly the reason why we developed a campaign towards Paris, which is not the usual, “we demand a -45%” rhetoric, getting into all this pretty bureaucratic language. Of course, we do have our demands, which we work out in the parliament – this is what people expect from us.

But our campaign in the outside world is really more about this Paris moment [My Climate Moment]. It’s really about mobilising people about safeguarding our beloved planet Earth, in Paris, the city of love. We have lost a bit of the positive vibe, and we question why we are doing this. It has become too much of a legalistic, bureaucratic approach. Too much focus on getting to the legal text, the legal binding of the treaty, and all that. Like I said, that work still needs to be done in parliament, but to really get people motivated again, we developed a campaign that is more aimed at the heart and not at the mind. I know that’s difficult for the Greens, as that’s always been where the Greens struggle as rational actors. It’s pretty difficult to mobilise people on the legality of the legally binding text yet. We can be very influential, but really, you get people mobilised by aiming at their hearts and that’s deliberately done in our campaign. We really go for the Paris moment, and we have asked people to send in their Paris moments as we want to encourage people to think: when was my climate moment? When was the moment that I realised, “Damn, I want to fight for this world. I want to fight for this earth. I want to fight for the people living on this earth.” We really need to show that people can make a difference themselves, so we are pushing the 100% renewables and the divestment campaigns – indeed, in the Netherlands for example, one of the biggest pension funds is now moving on and divesting [PFZW].

Touching on divestment, is this to you evidence of a trend that the political level is getting left behind, and that it’s ordinary citizens who are showing the way? If so, do you think that the political class in general, not just the Greens, but others, are aware of this, and is that likely to influence them? Or are they just oblivious to what is going on?

Yes, I think there’s still a lot of sleeping among the political parties. The Greens are probably realising at best that the momentum is not at the political level, it is at the societal level, but still, a lot of political parties and groups need to realise that there’s something going on in the world and that they are still dragging their feet. They are slowly starting to realise it but I still think that a lot of politicians really have no clue how fast this divestment movement is changing the world, because as soon as the big investors start shifting their big investment portfolios, then it will move real fast. It’s hilarious to see, for example, in the European Parliament, if we are having a debate about carbon pricing, 90% of the remarks from the other political parties are about carbon leakage and international competition. “We should not go too far ahead of the rest, take it step-by-step, blah-blah-blah,” and you’re like, “Guys, the world is changing.” China is moving fast and in the US they’ve changed. There are countries out there going for one hundred percent renewables, like Morocco. The idea that Europe is leading and that we should not go too far ahead of the rest is so outdated. On top of that, the financing world is shifting quickly now. The Bank of England last week announced that one of the biggest threats to investments is climate change. The Dutch Central Banker was asked what he thought of the statement from the Bank of England, and he agreed with their position. So it’s so hugely shifting on all fields, whereas in the European Parliament, the Democrats are still only talking about carbon leakage, so it’s painful to watch. But I think the only chance we have as Greens is being this transmitter of the societal movement into the political arena. That is a difficult one – I’m certainly not pretending that we are having an easy job here.

You’ve mentioned all these things happening, but of course there are also huge obstacles. How do you see the mood among Greens, and what is also your outlook personally, with Paris around the corner?

I’m pretty sure there will be an agreement coming out of Paris, so there won’t be the same massive depression that we had after 2009 following Copenhagen, so in that sense I am optimistic. But, like I said, the ambition level will not be very impressive. What is going to be key is determining what will be a bad outcome. Some of the forces trying to create a bad outcome are trying to lock us in. That needs to be prevented in Paris, because of the pressure of societal development. But if you look the investors in technological development, they’re going way faster than the world political level is realising. So if we are at the political level, locking ourselves in too much, then at a certain stage the Paris agreement can be a blockade of advancement, instead of trying to get the slow actors moving. Paris really should be setting a kind of bottom-line, so we know that even those who are lagging are still moving. But most importantly, it should also start a debate on how can we progress and how can we speed up the developments. That needs to be done at the bottom line, with a potential development acceleration into the future. We need to avoid something that is not a bottom line, but becomes a straightjacket, so that the actors that want to go faster do not feel hindered by the deal.

This power struggle will be happening in Paris. The outcome: what will it look like? We know what the pledges are and more or less how it will look, but the design in the details must be really to help the actors who want to move faster and to accelerate the speed of everyone else. We want to avoid it being too restricting. I think that it will be a subtle, subtle power play in Paris. I’m not sure exactly how we will come out of it, but I do hope that with public pressure and with all the developments out there – legal, technological, societal – more and more, those at the political level will start to realise that the world is going way faster than what we will be deciding on in Paris, and I hope that the Paris outcome will be a facilitator of that momentum, instead of a blockade.

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