Foreign Affairs

No one left behind in climate change policy

As the world ramps up climate change efforts in a bid to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming, a former head of the EU’s climate action ministry told Laura Walters it’s vital to have everyone at the table, and that includes Trump.

Last week, regions around New Zealand experienced record-breaking temperatures amid the heatwave; a new study found temperatures surrounding the South Island are reaching unprecedented levels; and a report from local government costed the impact on public infrastructure caused by climate change at $2.7 billion to $14b.

These signs of change also come as the West Coast Council’s submission on the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill appeared to question the validity of climate change.

On the other side of the world, the death toll from the polar vortex in the United States continues to rise And Europe’s winters are becoming milder, and summers hotter and drier.

Jos Delbeke, the former director-general of the European Union’s department for climate action, says all the signs are there.

Finally, these signs are backed by consensus from the scientific community in the form of an alarming but motivating report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says “large, immediate, and unprecedented global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases” are needed to avoid catastrophic warming.

It’s not a question of like or dislike, or about belief, Delbeke says. It’s about accepting the “neutral and brutal facts” and getting on with the job of creating a framework where the world could work together to keep warming below that crucial 1.5 degrees Celsius identified by IPCC.

“That’s the raw material - if we refute that, we are no longer in a rational society.”

This is what Delbeke tells those who continue to dispute the validity of climate change and its causes. But as he points out, he’s not a climate scientist – he’s a policy-maker who relies on the latest information from the scientific community to implement regulations and guidelines.

“1.5 degrees doesn’t look very good, so action needs to be taken sooner rather than later, and more action sooner rather than later."

In order to stay within 1.5 degrees, emissions would need to be net zero by 2050. “That’s going to be hell, let’s face it.”

New Zealand’s carbon emissions were 17.98 tonnes per capita in 2015 – the fifth-highest in the OECD, and just behind Australia and the US.

In Europe, emissions are seven tonnes per head, and to respect the two degrees warming limit, the continent would need to get down to two tonnes per person. Lower if the world does not want to surpass 1.5 degrees warming.

This is going to be a challenge, and not all the policies are in place yet, Delbeke says. “But by having a policy, you learn the job through doing the job.”

Despite the challenges, he is confident we can get there, on one condition: the world implements the Paris Agreement and everyone heads in the same direction.

“It’s painful, it’s frustrating, it’s not always fun, but it’s worth doing it. That’s my conclusion.”

No-one gets left behind

That’s easier said than done when the world is seeing a collection of right-wing, nationalist leaders favouring heavy energy industries like coal and steel.

Delbeke refers to US President Donald Trump, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, and Poland as examples of those who have slowed the process.

The lack of pace hasn’t gone unnoticed, as the general public wakes up to the realities of climate change. There has been uproar in Europe over the speed of implementation.

And in the European Parliament, there’s an increasing faction questioning the world’s ability to stay within 1.5 degrees, or even 2 degrees, if major players like the US aren’t on board, Delbeke says.

Those in charge of creating rules for implementing the Paris Agreement and regulating carbon markets have been criticised by climate watchers for this lack of pace, as well as their compromises.

But Delbeke says taking time, and making some compromises, are worth it if it means getting everyone to the table.

“The more the merrier,” he says. “The more players you have, the more emissions reductions can be, and the more you can do that at low cost. And costs really do matter.”

Talking to Newsroom during his visit to New Zealand, Delbeke speaks at length about his experience negotiating with Poland – a country that relies on coal for more than 80 percent of its power. He refers to its leaders as “pig-headed” and “stubborn negotiators, trying all tricks” during negations over the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

But according to Delbeke, the country eventually accepted coal was not the future, and agreed to a subsidy deal for energy saving or renewable energy plans.

“It’s painful, it’s frustrating, it’s not always fun, but it’s worth doing it. That’s my conclusion.”

Compromises don’t need to undermine action, he says.

“Because if you have a conversation and everybody can explain what their problem is, and you find a way of dealing with part of that problem – not dealing with the entire problem; you cannot drop all of your ambition – but if you can carry them with you, you are better off afterwards.”

This approach extends to Trump, who famously pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017.

“Internationally – at a UN level - we should not give up on Trump, because the United States is a big country, and half of the United States is in business when it comes to climate action.

“So let’s not surrender that half that is important, and give up, and leave them in Trump’s hands.”

Jos Delbeke says New Zealand can learn from the EU's carbon market. Photo: Laura Walters

Climate change in NZ-EU trade agreement

The importance of multilateralism in climate policy is why Delbeke’s visiting New Zealand.

The Government is currently working to pass its Zero Carbon Bill in order to enshrine targets in legislation.

New Zealand produces 0.17 percent of the world’s emissions, but its largest emitter is not carbon from transport or energy production; it's methane from belching ruminants.

Similar to the EU, New Zealand has a carbon market, and Delbeke believes it can learn from how things have played out in Europe, including how the EU’s climate action group found a way to overcome low carbon prices.

During his visit, Delbeke met with a range of officials from the Ministry for Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He also had separate group sessions with NGOs, including WWF, Greenpeace, Forest & Bird, Generation Zero, and stakeholders like the Interim Climate Commission, the independent Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, MOTU, Victoria University of Wellington, and Business NZ.

He also spoke to Climate Change Minister James Shaw, and representatives from the National Party.

How climate fits into New Zealand’s free trade agreement with the EU was also expected to be on the agenda, with the EU including the Paris agreement in every FTA it negotiates.

Following Delbeke to New Zealand will be his friend, the EU’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, where climate-related issues will no doubt be discussed.

An uncertain future

The conversation with Delbeke in Wellington is one of two halves.

While he says the jury is still out on whether the world will manage to keep warming below that crucial 1.5 degrees, the climate policy expert is confident it can be done.

Almost a year out of the job, he’s working on a book and has had a chance to reflect on the regulations put in place by the EU.

“When I take a step back, I am surprised by how much we have been doing."

Between 1990 and 2017, Europe has reduced its emissions by 22 percent.

“It’s not a quarter, but it’s not nothing…We could have done more perhaps.

“We can do and should do much more, but we learned to do the job. Through doing, you learn how to do more.”

On the other hand, Delbeke talks about the dire effects of climate change being felt in his part of the world, saying the rapidly disappearing glaciers in the Alps are a stark depiction of how the world is changing.

And upon his expeditions to the Arctic, Delbeke has seen a gradual change in the landscape, with ice no longer present above 80 degrees north in the summer.

“The rapidity at which they’re disappearing is just frightening.”

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