Georgi Stefanov: Fighting climate change requires political courage

To achieve carbon neutrality the EU has to reach compatibility of resources

The raised ambition is the result of the EU elections held in May, of the very good election results of the Greens and the protests of the civil society. On the EU level it was proven that it is possible to ensure economic growth in parallel with decreasing the greenhouse emissions, says Georgi Stefanov, Chief Climate and Energy Expert at WWF Bulgaria, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Stefanov, two important recent events, the UN summit in Madrid which ended without agreement and the European Council meeting which promoted the European Green Deal, showed that the battle against climate change is coming to the forefront, but it will not be an easy task. Have the disturbing reports of the scientists finally put the politicians on alert?

The society, represented by citizens, trade unions and the business community, is extremely worried over the fact that for a quarter of a century now, the global format for seeking solution, such as the Paris Agreement of 2015, has not yielded tangible results. That is why the question whether the politicians will take more seriously the commitment to deal with climate issues, was the greatest challenge during the climate conference in Madrid. The scientific reports show that the efforts of individual states are not commensurable with the expected results. The ecosystems are degrading across the planet, there is a risk that tens or even hundreds of biological species will become extinct. The scientists have proven it, but the worrisome fact is that this problem has been neglected for decades and no measures have been taken to mend the situation. We all know well what the politicians' major concern is - to finish their terms in office while implementing quick changes and policies that ensure their re-election. Whereas the measures which they have to take towards achieving climate neutrality surely are not popular and will put at risk their popularity and prospects for being re-elected.

What raises an even bigger concern, though, is the fact that far and wide the politicians do not even realise what the scientists tell them, and how critical the situation is. This communication breakdown, in combination with the politicians' wish to postpone unpopular measures for a next term, leads to a crisis of confidence. Instead of a real solution, we witness rampant populism, both far-right and far-left. However, apart from the Paris Agreement there is no other global pact that would make the political leaders take commitment to this cause.

 What is the solution after all?

For sure it lies in a constructive dialogue. There is one unwritten rule observed at the UN meetings, which I like: an effective agreement is reached when all parties are dissatisfied. That is where the politicians' task is: to strike the balance between the business community, the trade unions and all other parties involved in this process. I believe that the fight against climate change may catalyse the coming together of the left, right and centre. So far, half of the countries have not stated what their priorities will be, i.e. their nationally determined contributions for achieving the global goal: to limit the global average temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The fact that this goal is not achieved five years after the ratification of the Paris Agreement means that the leaders of dozens of countries do not feel committed to this cause.

The world's biggest polluters, such as China, USA and India, did not send their leaders to the Madrid climate forum. But without them it would be impossible to achieve global results, wouldn't it?

 In my opinion, those who say that these countries don't do anything for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, simply resort to populist rhetoric. I agree that Trump's policy is focused on the US only, he heeds no global pacts; however, the greater part of the Americans stand in opposition to it. And these are not only Democrats. When in 2017 Trump announced that the US would cease participation in the Paris Agreement, a broad coalition was formed comprising US states, cities, business companies, churches, syndicates and scientists. The coalition embraced more than a half of the US economic community, over 150 million Americans support this coalition, and its members keep on working towards the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Yes, Trump has promised to revive the coal industry, but in actuality it hasn't happened. On the contrary - in the past two years so many mines and coal-fired power stations have been shut down that the number is unprecedented in the history of the US. If we take into account the three countries which emit over 50% of the pollutants, we will see that as far as the concrete solutions are concerned, they are the leaders of the change. Eight years ago, China was generating only 1% of renewable power for its needs, while in 2018 the country was a global leader in terms of quick achievement of climate neutrality results, with 26% renewable sources of energy in its mix. India also keeps on working towards more green energy on a local level.

There's one more aspect, though. If we compare the carbon emissions of Great Britain, which has been using the steam engine and coal fuel during the last 200 years, with those of contemporary China, which has been developing at full steam during the last three decades, we will see that even if China keeps developing at the same pace and doesn't take any efforts towards climate neutrality in the coming 30 years, its emission rates will not be on a par with those of Great Britain. Namely these historical factors underlie the Paris Agreement, along with the contribution of each country to the global climate issue solution. This is the reason why countries like China and India were given a chance to increase carbon dioxide emissions in the next decade. It is important that the world in the aggregate stops increasing the emissions by 2030 and begins reducing them year-on-year until we strike a balance by 2050, when the emissions will not exceed the quantities that ecosystems can absorb. The problem is that the upward trend in carbon emissions stands at the average of 2% over the last 10 years, and this is what raises great concern.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU will not achieve the larger part of its environmental goals set for 2020, while the prognoses for 2030 are even more pessimistic. Why are these goals not being met?

The EU has three goals to achieve by 2020: to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by 20% as compared to 1990 levels, to increase the share of renewable energy sources to 20% of the total energy mix, and to boost energy efficiency by 20%. However, already in the remote year 2008, when the 20/20/20 European targets were approved, it was apparent that some countries will not be able to make this transition. It was pointed out in advance as an identified risk that it would not happen, particularly in the developed, highly industrialised countries which within the EU produce the larger share of greenhouse emissions. Germany and Belgium, for instance, are far from fulfilling their goals.

It was also clear that there are rather ambitious countries, such as Denmark, Sweden and Luxemburg, as well as Spain and Portugal, who said, “We will make effort to achieve these goals.” But there appeared vociferous opponents, too, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the entire Visegrad group.

However, on the EU level it was proven that it is possible to ensure economic growth in parallel with decreasing the greenhouse emissions. The goals set for 2030 are almost twice as high. The raised ambition is the result of the EU elections held in May, of the very good election results of the Greens and the protests of the civil society. The Visegrad group and Bulgaria stand in opposition to the raised ambitions, but the question remains how a country will fulfil the more ambitious goals set for 2030 if it fails to meet the 20/20/20 challenges.

Under these circumstances, how do you assess the chances of the European Green Deal for making Europe climate neutral by 2050?

 Actually the proposed framework is only a backbone. More concrete measures have to be proposed in the individual national strategies. For instance, if currently the Bulgarian government plans to produce 27% of its energy from renewable energy sources, does it mean that the country will have to set a higher goal, i.e. over 27%, in order to fulfil the raised ambitions of the EC. In fact, Bulgaria doesn't want to have more than 25% of renewable energy sources before 2030. The same applies to the other Member States. If the countries themselves do not know on the national level what energy model they can implement then a risk arises of opening a wide gap between highly ambitious Western European states and less ambitious countries in Eastern Europe, which will hinder a pan-European agreement.

Poland boycotts the EU Green Deal, are you surprised?

No, as this country's economy is greatly dependent on coal. But at this point I would like to mention one interesting nuance. At the end of November, I was on a delegation of representatives of interest organisations, trade unions and journalists to Silesia, the largest coal producer of Poland. We were all very surprised to find out that while Warsaw officially blocks the common European decisions, at the local level the big energy firms, which in Poland are huge state-owned companies employing tens of thousands workers, bid for diversification of their production and make heavy investments in green energy. It means that business is a step ahead of the politicians. The proposals stipulated in the Green Deal have to be approved by the trilateral format of the EC - Commission, Parliament and Council.

 Is there a risk that this project will be buried in the complicated labyrinth of EU institutions?

Already in her mission letter in September, Ursula von der Leyen declared that the new Green Deal will include a wide array of new directives, a common legislative act comprising all aspects of the climate change-related policies. The main ambition is for changing the financial models of using public money and attracting private funds to the solution of the climate issue. Another challenge, and I hope we will meet it, is to list all combustion processes in one directive, in contrast to the current practice. We burn coal, gas, petrol, hydrogen, diesel and waste materials, but it is high time to give up our prehistoric way of thinking, according to which - figuratively speaking - a fire in a cave is the only way to generate energy. To solve the problem with both the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other hazardous substances detrimental to human health, we have to find a technological solution and 'come out of the caves'. To achieve carbon neutrality we have to achieve compatibility of resources. Currently, there is no such compatibility. For example, for years it has been believed that natural gas is a kind of a transition fuel and is a solution to our problems, however, it is only slightly less polluting. When natural gas is burnt, a lot of hydrocarbon and other pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere.

 What is the alternative then? Is it the Sun?

The alternative to combustion is electricity. It is not nuclear energy, because it is very expensive and emissions rich. Why do we have to split the atom in a nuclear power plant when it is split on the Sun, eight million kilometres away from the Earth, and the Sun provides us each day with enough energy to meet humankind's needs for one year? The challenge is how to harness it and to find a way to preserve it. This is the essence of the Green Deal - to substitute all combustion processes with electricity. Are there technological solutions? Yes, there are. Are they put in practice? No, they are not. The EC is planning to do it.

There is one more point, though - every day the EU spends €1bn on imported energy resources. This makes for about €290bn per year. If we add to that the subsidies for the conventional energy sources, the sum soars to €1.2bn a day. This is a colossal sum which we all as taxpayers pay. Before 2050, Europe has to break its dependency on imported energy resources.

The European countries also understood that there is no national economy strong enough to tackle the problem alone. Energy connectivity is important. This is factored into the Second and Third Energy Packages. Countries such as Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Poland have a common energy infrastructure, but Southeastern Europe, and the Balkans in particular, are yet to catch up with them. Bulgaria may become a regional leader in this respect.

Big banks, including European ones, continue to provide huge loans for funding projects that contribute to the increase of polluting emissions. When will this stop?

The European Investment Bank set a good example, it took the decision to stop financing such projects. The World Bank also sent very serious signals, so I believe that within the next year it will take the same step. Nevertheless, as of yet this is not a global policy. Profits in the energy sector are very high and the banks are interested in providing loans.

Apart from the loans, subsidies must be stopped as well, because the governments contrive astounding schemes for subsidising the implementation of projects which obviously contaminate the environment. It has already been decided that after 2030 the EU will not subsidise such energy project, but it remains to be seen whether this decision will be put into practice.

How can the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) mitigate the damaging human impact on the environment?

What we are trying to do is restore the natural environment, which in Europe is badly damaged as compared with Asia, Africa and both Americas. WWF is working hard towards it, and in parallel it takes part in the debates on all of the common European issues. Our global campaign Earth Hour is highly recognisable across Europe. When some two billion people back you, it sends a clear and powerful signal to politicians.


Georgi Stefanov leads the Climate and Energy Programme at WWF Bulgaria. He is one of the founders and coordinators of the Bulgarian Climate Action Coalition. He has been implementing international and transnational projects for more than 11 years at WWF and has close to 20 years overall experience with project implementation within the NGO sector in Bulgaria. He is also associate lecturer at New Bulgarian University in the Master's programme Green Management, teaching Sustainable Development and Strategic Management. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Natural and Environmental Science Management, a Master's in International Alternative Tourism, at New Bulgarian University, and a second Master's degree in Governing Skills, at Council of Europe.


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