Hedegaard: The coronavirus pandemic is an “occasion to rethink business as usual”. Photo: Connie Hedegaard Hedegaard: The coronavirus pandemic is an “occasion to rethink business as usual”. Photo: Connie Hedegaard

Interview: Former EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard on the bloc’s low-carbon future

The EU’s first climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard talks to ENDS about her return to the Brussels bubble, why COP15 was not the failure many think it was and why the EU should hurry up and agree on a 55% emissions cut.

Connie Hedegaard has been immersed in climate action since long before it entered the mainstream of European policymaking. First elected to Denmark’s parliament in 1984 at the age of 24, after an interval in radio and print journalism she was appointed minister for environment in 2004, then held the climate and energy portfolio for two years that culminated, in November 2009, with her chairing the UN COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen.

From 2010 to 2014 she served in the second Barroso commission as the first EU climate commissioner. Now she is making something of a return to the world of EU policymaking, having joined the board of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Europe office in October. 

It is the latest in a string of positions that includes, since 2015, chairing the OECD’s Round Table on Sustainable Development and the Danish KR Foundation, which supports action on climate and sustainability.

EDF set up a European office in London in 2016. Hedegaard says she was attracted by the wealth of scientific and economic expertise within the organisation, and by a role that will allow her to engage directly with policy making in Brussels. She acknowledges also the “pragmatic” approach that distinguishes EDF aside to some extent from other environmental NGOs.

While many campaign for a phase out of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, EDF has for a year or more been actively campaigning in Brussels for action to reduce methane emissions associated with gas production.

Hedegaard has also entered the fray when it comes to tackling CO2 emissions from international shipping, responsible for 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the start of this month she took up the position of vice-chair of the board of the new Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping.

“It is a known fact that the IMO has been extremely slow at moving forward on these things,” Hedegaard says. This interview was conducted just days before the International Maritime Organisation reached a preliminary agreement on climate action that was immediately slammed by green groups as inadequate, not least for allowing emissions to continue rising over the next decade.

“It’s not ambitious enough,” Hedegaard says, and that is the raison d’être for the new initiative by Denmark’s largest shipping firm. “It is not a centre to do research for Maersk – it’s a research centre whose results should be accessible for the whole shipping industry.

“They are pouring substantial money into it, identifying a potential number of partners, then trying to identify some of the most promising technologies to do research into,” Hedegaard says.

But against a backdrop of the slow pace of change at the IMO, the European Commission is considering extending the EU emissions trading system (ETS) to cover shipping, at least within European waters. This has echoes of when the EU tried, on Hedegaard’s watch, to extend the ETS to the international aviation sector, prompting an angry backlash from some of the world’s most powerful governments.

“Yes, that was a total nightmare,” she says. “I thought at the time, and still believe, that what we proposed was the right thing to do… you cannot have a big international sector like aviation and have no regulation.”

The episode demonstrated how “tricky” it can be for Europe to assume a role as a global leader on climate. “Actually, for some years almost the only thing that China and the US could agree on in international climate policy was that they did not want to accept… regulation in the aviation sector.”

That applies even more in the case of shipping, where operators can simply “flag out” a vessel, Hedegaard says, referring to the practice of re-registering a vessel in a different jurisdiction – under a so-called flag of convenience.

“So it is extremely tricky, but I think that Europe, now with a new incoming Biden administration, [has] a chance of restarting some of these discussions with the Americans.”

‘Alliance of the willing’

Referring to recent pledges on climate from Japan and Korea to match the EU goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Hedegaard sees opportunities to “have a dialogue” on some of the international sectors. “And Europe could have a natural leadership role there… maybe making some kind of ‘alliance of the willing’ and pushing it forward, giving it a new try.”

Contrary to a decade ago, more and more businesses are beginning to acknowledge the necessity for change to a more sustainable model, Hedegaard says. “And I think that with a Biden administration, there should be a possibility of having the US weighing in a bit more internationally here.”

The election of Biden, with his pledge to recommit the US to the Paris Agreement, has been cautiously welcomed by environmentalists on this side of the Atlantic. But the fact is that it was in 2009, when he was vice-president, that Barack Obama galvanised China, India, Brazil and South Africa to sideline the EU and push through a Copenhagen ‘climate accord’ that contained no legally binding measures.

“You are right that Obama… in his first year in office decided to go for the health reform, for Obamacare, instead of climate. And they considered that they could only land one big reform, so in that sense it made a huge impact on COP15,” Hedegaard says. “On the other hand, when Obama in 2014 decided that now he really wanted to do climate, and decided to personally meet several times with the top Chinese leadership, then we also saw what it meant for paving the way for Paris in 2015.”

“I think that was what Copenhagen really did: it mobilised the world, and the world started to realise how important this issue was,” Hedegaard says. “It moved from the agenda of environment ministers to also being on the agenda of finance ministers, and prime ministers and heads of state.”

She adds: “Von der Leyen could not be elected as commission president before she had pledged to do a green deal to integrate and mainstream climate into all sorts of policy areas.” And that was also what the second Barroso commission tried to do. “If you want me to agree that it has taken too long, of course we can very easily agree on that.”

But the targets in the Paris Agreement – to limit global average temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and ‘pursue efforts’ to halt it before 1.5°C – are not legally binding.

“It was as legally binding as it was possible to get it, and in my view what it’s all about now is to try and really just secure action,” Hedegaard says. “I think that we can discuss the legal character, and we can discuss the ambition level and target setting and all this, but I really think that the most important thing now is to… deliver the ‘hows’.”

Coronavirus impact

For Hedegaard, the coronavirus crisis could prove to be a kind of black swan event, an “occasion to rethink business as usual” in both politics and commerce. “And there I think it is absolutely crucial that the EU, with its recovery programme, has stated that it must be very much linked to the green transition.

“I really hope now that when they actually assess the different proposals coming from member states, the EU institutions can stand firm and reject plans if they are not really delivering on all the nice intentions from the heads of state meeting back in July,” Hedegaards says, referring to a European Council meeting where leaders agreed that recovery spending should be in line with the European Green Deal and Paris Agreement.

Besides a change in the prevailing political wind, Hedegaard perceives a change in public attitudes. “In Europe, we have seen a huge mobilisation of people – citizens, really, they get this,” she says.

While she concedes this is more true of western than eastern EU countries, “even in Poland we recently saw the parliament setting an end date for coal use”. Poland’s nationalist government struck a deal with unions in September to shut down the coal industry by 2049. “It’s late, yes, but five years ago it would have been unthinkable.”

Hedegaard takes a pragmatic stance on the ongoing discussions between governments on the EU’s 2030 target for emissions reduction. The European Parliament wants to set a 2030 target of a 60% absolute reduction in annual CO2 emissions compared to 1990, the commission has proposed a 55% ‘net’ reduction that includes carbon sinks. Governments have yet to sign off on any target.

Most people have yet to understand what delivering a cut of 55% will entail, Hedegaard says. “That is a lot. Of course you could say 60% is better than 55%, but the most important thing now is not [to] spend so much time on this discussion that it delays, the many, many different specific policies that are needed to make it realistic to fulfil the target.”


Interview conducted by telephone on 13 November.

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