More than International Hot Air? An Exclusive Interview with Peter Vis

Interview and commentary by Gabriella ATKINS

26th October 2015 witnesses Routledge’s publication of EU Climate Policy Explained, edited by Jos Delbeke and Peter Vis.  Young Europeans Network has kindly been granted an exclusive interview with editor Peter Vis about this technical work regarding the European Union’s climate policy aimed at students and policy-makers.  The significance of the publication date ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris should not be overlooked, therefore prior to the interview, I thought it would be an opportune moment to consider the background and significance of the conference about to take place in Paris.

Why all the hype around another meeting of international delegates in Paris from 30th November to 11th December 2015?

Map of the UNFCCC - Public Domain : - Green & Blue: Annex I countries - Yellow: Non annex countries - Red: Observer states
Map of the UNFCCC – Public Domain :
– Green & Blue: Annex I countries
– Yellow: Non annex countries
– Red: Observer states

The United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris will mark the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COPs) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – also known as the Earth Summit – held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  As of 2014, 196 parties have signed up to the UNFCCC.  Parties are divided and classified broadly according to their economic status and their obligations to assist developing members. The UNFCCC treaty itself did not entail legally binding commitments on Parties, but rather established a framework for the negotiation of specific international treaties.  These subsidiary treaties – known as protocols – can then be legally binding on individual nations, particularly regarding greenhouse gases emissions.  The first of these legally binding protocols – the Kyoto Protocol – was concluded in 1997.  The Kyoto Protocol set emissions targets in two commitment periods for developed countries.  The US is the only Annex I – developed countries and economies in transition (EITs) – country not to have participated in the first-round of targets and 37 out of 43 Annex I countries have committed to second round targets.  The 2009 Copenhagen negotiations resulted in the production of the Copenhagen Accord which expresses that global warming should be limited to below 2.0 oC.  This commitment could be strengthened in the 2015 Paris negotiations to 1.5 oC.

The primary purpose of the 2015 conference is therefore to achieve a legally binding, universal agreement on climate change from all nations.  Secondly, at previous conferences nations have agreed to submit their proposed actions – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – for climate change by March 2015 and these will surely be subjected to interrogation.

The UFCCC has been subjected to criticism that its aims are simply impossible given that policy process is driven by consensus so very small blocs of countries can block proposed schemes.  In particular, the US has openly criticised the Kyoto Protocol’s lack of obligation on developing countries to curb their CO2 emissions, when they are often the largest emitters.  However, the UFCCC must be viewed in light of its original aims and intentions – it never sought to be a comprehensively global legally binding statute, instead it was designed to be an overarching framework within which a highly complex process of implementation would sit.  Climate change is a notoriously touchy subject for many nations but it is one which cannot be ignored.  Economic development cannot always take place along the same traditional forms of industrialisation and instead countries must work together to assist each other in finding methods of advancement which do not create such an impact on the environment.  As the general secretary for the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, stated in her speech to the Climate Change Conference at Oslo in March 2015: ‘We need a new business model[…]There are no jobs on a dead planet’.

Thank you for giving up your time to contribute to our blog, Peter Vis.  Could you explain why this book was produced?

This book was written by a group of climate specialists working in the European Commission for two reasons: (1) to explain why certain policies have been chosen by the European Union rather than others; and (2) to share the lessons learned from these policies so that other countries can replicate the success, and learn from the mistakes we made along the way.

So, in your opinion, would you say climate policy has been successful in Europe?

Cover of the book 'EU Climate Policy Explained' - by Peter VIS
Cover of the book ‘EU Climate Policy Explained’ – by Peter VIS

Yes, I think so. Measuring emissions the way we do under the United Nations methodologies, the EU managed to comfortably over-achieve its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (for the period 2008-2012), and we are also on track to over-achieve on Europe’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in 2020 compared to 1990. Indeed, we’re very close to having already reduced our emissions by that amount in 2015, but we would be wise to go further, anticipating the more ambitious target of 40% reductions that EU Leaders have committed us to in 2030. The most striking statistic is that since 1990, GDP has increased in the EU by 45%, and in the same period, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 19%. This decoupling is not just because of the economic downturn, although that was undoubtedly a contributory factor. It is primarily due to the policies the EU and national governments have put in place, which have resulted in substantial improvements in energy efficiency and carbon intensity, and a leap forward in terms of renewable energy use.

Could you provide us with a brief overview of the book’s content?

The thread of the book is twofold. First, there has been a considerable amount of “learning-by-doing” in the climate policy space at EU level. For example, the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions trading system is the world’s first and largest emissions trading system. The instrument has done what it set out to do, allowing industry and electricity generators to reduce emissions cost effectively. Importantly, the system has been improved over the years in a number of respects: its scope has been extended and the extent of harmonisation strengthened. A legislative amendment is now being negotiated with the European Parliament and Council that will make it more robust. This policy more than any other has been a particularly striking case of learning-by-doing.

Another example is that, in the late 1990s, the CO2 emissions per kilometre of passenger cars were covered by voluntary agreements with car manufacturers, but this did not work as intended, and targets were missed. The EU therefore went on to impose compulsory performance standards per car manufacturer. This regulation has so far worked much better, and has been extended so that by 2021, the average emissions of new cars sold in the EU (per manufacturer) will be 95 grammes of CO2 per kilometre, compared to 124g today. Significantly, also in the context of the Volkswagen’s recent admission that it deliberately misrepresented nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions performance in the United States, the passenger car test cycle for CO2 is expected to be considerably improved from 2017, bringing it closer to “real world” driving conditions. This evolution of policy instruments from voluntary agreements to regulatory standards, and gradual improvement of testing cycles, is all part of this story of the EU learning from practical experience what works best.

Graph illustrating the decoupling of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels - by Peter Vis
Graph illustrating the decoupling of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels – by Peter Vis

The second thread of the book is about how cost-effectiveness has been maximised by allowing certain flexibilities in the application of policies. Flexibility, though, does not mean exemption from the rules. For example, not only must there be sufficient lead-in times, but there are also transitional measures and leeway allowed to the Member States or manufacturers according to their circumstances. For example, taking the CO2 targets for passenger cars again, the targets for the year 2021 were decided in 2013, allowing sufficient lead time; a bonus was allowed for “ultra-low” emission vehicles, such as electric vehicles, and the target of 95g was distributed with allowance made for the average weight of the cars produced by each manufacturer. This takes account of the reality that small car manufacturer are more likely to comply with emissions targets than large car manufacturers. So far, all car manufacturers are on track to comply with their CO2 targets. The policies really appear to be working, even if, as the VW case shows, continued vigilance is needed.

How relevant is all this to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris?

What is happening in Paris in December is that an Agreement should be reached around “pledges” made by more than 150 countries covering around 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These pledges are all different, reflecting that all countries are very different as well. What they are all doing, however, is committing to a certain amount of policy-making. For many countries, this is the beginning of a process of building climate policies, and much can be learnt from the policy experience of the European Union. It would be wrong to suggest that the EU has not made mistakes and its policies are all perfect. But no other region of the world has as many and as effective policies as now exist in Europe. We do not intend to tell anyone what they should do, but we offer in this book an overview of different policies for different sectors, and how each of these policies has developed and been strengthened over time. This policy-making experience is still on-going, and given that we need to reduce emissions in Europe by an enormous 80% by 2050, there is a very long way to go. This book is a snap-shot of where we are in 2015, but much hard work remains to be done, in Europe and across the world.

Peter VIS is the EU Visiting Fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford (UK), for the academic year 2014-2015. Prior to that he was the Head of Cabinet to Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action (2010-14). He has an MA (History) from the University of Cambridge, UK.

Jos DELBEKE has been the Director-General of the European Commission’s Director-General for Climate Action since its creation in 2010 (ongoing). He holds a Ph.D in Economics (Louvain, 1986) and lectures at the University of Louvain, Belgium, on European and International Environmental Policy.


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