A series of transformations are revolutionising the fight against climate change: the initiatives of ordinary citizens determined to avert disaster, and the capacity of renewables to be rolled out on an unprecedented scale. But with the result of COP 21 all but determined, will these developments be enough to persuade negotiators to adopt an agreement with enough ambition? An interview with French Green MEP Yannick Jadot.
Green European Journal: The COP21 is not far off. Can we describe this conference as our ‘last chance’ to fight against climate change and, if not, what would you say is really at stake?
Yannick Jadot: For me, the challenge of this 21st COP is to find out whether, at last, the states will begin to catch up with those elements of society and the economy which are taking pro-climate action. I do not share the view that the processes of the United Nations are of no importance or that they are bound to fail. States have considerable responsibilities today regarding combating climate change. It is still up to them to choose which energy and transport infrastructures and what type of farming to adopt, for example. It is therefore not possible to fight climate change without the states.
Almost everywhere in the world today, there is what I call a “citizens’ revolution” occurring in the fight against climate change – citizens who are changing their behaviour, renewable energy cooperatives, consumers who want high-quality food and responsible farming. We see towns and regions with strong greenhouse gas reduction objectives. Part of public opinion is therefore already aware of climate change because they can see its effects – in some cases, personally – and another part is mobilising and is ready to take action against climate change, or has already done so.
Then there is an economic revolution. In the world today, more than half the energy infrastructures installed are for renewable energies – about 80% in Europe. Since the Copenhagen conference, the price of solar energy has probably been divided by four. Therefore, apart from the urgency, we have an economic revolution in the sphere of energy which gives us the means of taking effective action against climate change. Moreover, solar and land-based wind energies are now cheaper than gas, oil and nuclear power. So those two revolutions are on the march. However, we have some states and rulers who are prisoners of both the fossil fuel lobbies and of a concept of economics which cause them to resist this shift from the old ways to those of a new world.
So, for me, COP21 is neither the ‘last chance’ conference nor – as its organisers in Paris see it – the start of a new process. It is, alas, just another meeting where everything positive that emerges will be better than nothing, but where there will be much disappointment about the states’ capacity to hear the scientific alarm bells, and to listen to public opinion (which, as a whole, is ready), and to use the energy revolution that will enable them to combat climate change.
Your Green MEP colleague Bas Eickhout says that public opinion is now way ahead of political leaders, who are dragging their feet – do you agree? Do campaigns such as those promoting divestment in fossil fuels show us that progress can be made without those leaders?
In some aspects leaders are not needed and action should be taken even if they do nothing – but they will always be needed at some point, so this mobilisation must not disregard the responsibility of the states.
In Copenhagen, public opinion mobilised itself in the form of a very strong message to world leaders: we are waiting for you to honour your commitment to save the climate. The situation is different this time – there is a feeling that our leaders are powerless or that they have given up trying to save society (that is also true in other spheres, such as finance) but, above all, citizens have, to some extent, been made into “deniers”; they have lost much of their naïvety, because they can clearly see that the fight against climate change is also a challenge that requires fighting the lobbies and industries that do everything in their power to prevent action against climate change. Thus, there is an understanding of all the stakes involved in this fight: it means changing the energy and industrial systems and greater solidarity between north and south. Then there is the feeling that our leaders lack the courage to make the necessary changes. So the challenge facing today’s movements is not to ask our leaders to show us the way, but rather to tell them: look at what’s happening, look at the science, look at how public opinion is ready to change; the financial and technological possibilities which enable us to make a fundamental change in our system, without causing another economic crisis. See it rather as an opportunity of creating economic activity and jobs. So things have changed. Suddenly, movements are not so much demanding action as saying: we are taking action ourselves.
Renewable energy campaigns are very important to us ecologists because they mean that citizens are taking back the ownership of energy through cooperatives and so on. And then there’s the divestment campaign, which tells us that the fight against climate change can be a war of liberation in the sense that people can collectively free themselves from a destructive industry which supports dictatorships in the world and which is part of a property-owning economy. This divestment campaign – probably the finest environmental campaign for many years – simultaneously involves citizens, consumers and savers who say: I, too, can take action to stop the destruction of the climate. It is an extremely positive and powerful campaign, that is true, but the only difficulty is that, basically, it is not exactly the subject of the COP21. The COP21 will not decide on a proportion of renewable energy or the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels. In the end, this means that renunciation by the states and their lack of courage creates a disconnection between the movements, the urgency of action on climate and action by the states.
How do you view Europe’s role in particular in the negotiations? Has the “Dieselgate” scandal weakened its position and the way the other players perceive its role?
The Paris conference will not produce any good result if Europe is not leading. Neither the United States nor China will take on the ambition of combating climate change. Therefore, Europe must retain leadership over the architecture of the COP and hence of everything involving monitoring, reporting and verifying undertakings (since the agreement will not be binding, as we already know). Conversely, Europe is no longer the leader in energy transition – understood as a component of the modernisation of our economy and the creation of jobs. From that point of view, the 2030 package is a step back compared with the 2020 climate/energy package.
In that context, the Volkswagen scandal clearly showed that, basically, health and environmental standards are devised and that, with the complicity of states, manufacturers organise the lie and find ways of evading them. The problem is that it was the manufacturers and the states that organised the fraud, obviously creating even more defiance by public opinion of political leaders and companies – a bad thing for everyone. Unfortunately, we see that the scandal is not producing the necessary reaction, which would be for us to undertake to ensure that such frauds are stopped by a certain date. Instead, we see that all the negotiations today between the European Commission, the states and the motor vehicle industry, because they did not apply the rules, concern how to enable them to go on not applying them for many years to come – which is completely insane regarding communication with consumers.
You say that we have not seen the same mobilisation of public opinion for the Paris conference as we did for Copenhagen. Why is that, do you think?
The context is different. It is true that in 2009 the financial crisis was under way, but the present same economic, social and democratic crisis was not. Since the failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009, the strategy of many of those who oppose a genuine fight against climate change has been to say that the economy and jobs are the priorities and that wanting to change the energy or industrial system would mean jeopardising the economy and jobs once again. Thus, in terms of communication, they have won the job-blackmail battles linked to energy transition.
However, what is certain is that, compared with six years ago, I do not see any strong mobilisation of public opinion. I think that nowadays there is a lack of trust in our leaders, meaning that nobody believes they are capable of doing anything much, whereas in 2009 there was the feeling that something worthwhile was going to happen. It was the first big climate conference since Kyoto and there was the sense that we would be able to achieve it.
The movement that the ecologists and associations are organising is strongly oriented towards solutions – the idea that our lives will be better if we fight against climate change and economic activity and that jobs will be created and straight away there will be public services, culture, democracy and harmony – because people need to do something together. To my mind, that is the right strategy. However, it is true that with today’s pessimism, many citizens are victims of a feeling of being crushed; of powerlessness in the face of globalisation, finance, climate change… They now think there is a kind of fatality and therefore they find it difficult to mobilise. In the next few weeks and afterwards, of course, we therefore need to demonstrate that taking action against climate change can be very local, very beneficial from every point of view, and that it is also a way of living better in our communities.
We know that many people, ecologists and others, will be going to Paris to demonstrate. Could that still have an effect on the negotiations or on public opinion?
Mobilisation is important, of course. We have seen the effect of the success of the march in New York, or more recently the march against the TTIP in Berlin. Therefore, the success of the march in Paris will, of course, be an important moment for mobilisation, especially because, at this COP 21, the leaders will be in Paris on the first day of negotiations, 30th November. As the march will take place the day before, there will clearly be a strong connection between the success of the march and the presence of the European leaders.
And how do you feel about this conference as a whole, are you optimistic or pessimistic?
I’m more realistic, or pessimistic, about the COP21. When you look at what the scientists say, and at the development of public opinion, and you see that the solutions are there, the result will be disappointing. Conversely, I am optimistic about society. I believe that many things are evolving today – in energy transition, a more responsible farming model, transport systems and so on, and I believe that, deep down, the world is tilting from the old model towards a new one. So the question is: will the states take so long to make up their minds that, in the end, we shall not succeed in moderating the climate enough, or will we end with responsible leaders who will say that it is impossible not to act in the face of the realities of the climate and of society?