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Taking the lead on climate change


MAY 16 – 31 1998


Taking the lead on climate change


Rift Bjerregaard of Denmark, Member of the European Commission for Environment and Nuclear Safety, was interviewed by Ashali Varma, Executive Publisher of The Earth Times, shortly after she announced that she had signed the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change on behalf of the European Union. The signing ceremony took place during the recent meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Excerpts from their conversation:

What is the significance of the EU  signing the Kyoto Protocol?

I think this is very important. It is, once again, a sign that the EU would like to lead the fight against climate change. As you know, the protocol which we agreed to in Kyoto last December had legally binding reduction targets, for the first time. So it really matters that we move ahead. We are preparing ourselves in the European Union for the Buenos Aires meeting, which will be held in November. That means that we prepare ourselves in relation to the burden sharing  [of emissions reduction], what has been called the “bubble” of the European Union.

It also relates to policies regarding trading emissions, clean development fund, et cetera, but we want to stress that we consider domestic actions to be an essential part of the agreement in Kyoto, and that the other activities are seen as complementary or supplementary. I think this is very important, and this is part of what is going to be negotiated, I think, up to Buenos Aires and in Buenos Aires.

What about the developing countries that say any attempt to reduce emission levels would impede development?

You know, the European Union has been very clear about sticking to the Berlin Mandate, which says that the developed countries should take the lead and they should meet the target before they involve developing countries. Nevertheless, we have also said that, sure, for the future, developing countries should be part of it.

But I can understand that many developing countries would like to see developed countries prove that they are really willing to do something before they commit themselves. From the European Union, we have maintained the level of our aid to developing countries, but many

member states and many countries all over the world have not. So that is why, I think, we have some real problems there.

What are the priorities of the European Union as far as environmental issues are


I think, in general, it is to make sustainability a reality and to make quite clear that you need to integrate the environment in other areas. We do hope that by the summit this year—that means all the prime ministers from the European member states coming together—that they will finally decide on how to move ahead with a sustainable program. That means in the new treaty we put sustainability up in the very top of the treaty, so that it is one of the conditions

for the negotiations, and now we are working to make that much more concrete. So in that respect, you will see environment getting very much into agriculture, very much into transport, et cetera.

What are some of the challenges faced by the EU when dealing with so many different member countries? What can be done for poorer countries that may not want so much regulation?

I think, first of all, we should say that the European Union is  showing solidarity for those countries that have less economy than others. That means that we have funds where we add money to those parts of Europe that are less fortunate. If you look at the economic figures for Ireland and for Portugal, for instance, you can really see that development has been much better than it would have been. Now we are trying to change the rules for the funds and putting environment much more ahead, so that when you go in and report an activity, you also report on what would be good for the environment—and if it will not be good for the environment, you are going to find alternatives. And I am absolutely sure that that will be a debate inside the European Union because some finance ministers might not like the idea but, nevertheless, we will try to push ahead with it.

In your experience, Commissioner, what do you think have been  some of the greatest breakthroughs as far as environment is concerned?

If you look at it internationally, I think I would point to two events.  The first one was Kyoto, where, for the first time, we really had legally binding targets.  I think it was extremely important. And the second I would mention is the Basel Convention, where we succeeded in barring the export of dangerous wastes to third-world countries. I think this was a very important signal and a very important signal to developing counties as well.

Developing countries are of the opinion that if they were to have access to cleaner, more affordable technologies, it would help them develop more sustainably.  Is there a move within industry to do this?  Is this something that you’ve gotten involved with as far as industry is concerned?

Yes, absolutely, and I have been very encouraged by the involvement of industry in this year’s CSD meeting.  We are planning to support all kinds of voluntary agreements from industry.  We do have some experience with this in the European Union.  Right now, in fact, we are negotiating with all the car manufacturers so that they can make available cars that do not damage the air as much.  That means helping to prevent climate change,  So I think that we will see more and more responsibility from the industry.  I was a little concerned up to Kyoto because the feeling I had was that American industry was not showing the same kind of responsibility.  They were lobbying very, very much not to have a result in Kyoto.  That has not been the case in Europe.  I think the European industrialists have been much more responsible.

Is there a move, as far as the European Union is concerned, toward having companies observe in third-world countries the same environmental standards they honor at home?

I would, definitely, love them to be, and I think that is what has been going on here at the CSD.  It is to make industry  more responsible wherever it goes in the world.  We cannot put the same kind of regulations on them as we can in the European Union because, as you know, if member states in the European Union are not following the regulations, we can take them to court and make them follow the rules.  We don’t have that possibility internationally.

In fact, it has always been the point of view of the European Commission that we would like to see our industries, especially our large exporting industries, take with them when they go abroad the same environmental and social standards that they have to home.  And if you look at the CSD text, both in relation to water and in relation to industry, you will see, actually, a couple of mentions of that –the same standards at home and abroad.

I know that European industry and Europeans are deeply concerned about the environment, but since pollution knows no boundaries, how do you get the rest of the world to be equal players?

I think we do it in the way we did it in Kyoto.  That is the only way to you can do it—bringing those industrialized countries together and making decisions that are legally binding.  Part of the problem, I think, which we will now be facing is that although the American administration was willing at Kyoto to commit themselves—because they do care—it seems as if the American Congressional leaders do not.  I think we will all have to try to explain to them that they need to show the same kind of responsibility.