EU Commissioner for the Environment’s Call to Action!
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Dr Renard Siew, Climate Change Activist and ideaXme Climate Change Ambassador interviews Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Amongst the many subjects discussed, they talk of COP26, climate change activism, key objectives for 2022 and the Commissioner’s new legislation relating to deforestation.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:00:03] Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of ideaXme. My name is Renard Siew and I’m a climate change ambassador for this program. Today, we have a very special guest. It’s none other than Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU Commissioner for the Environment. The EU commissioner graduated from Salomėja Nėris Gymnasium of Vilnius, Lithuania, where he was born. He then pursued his undergraduate studies at Aberystwyth University, where he received a Bachelor of Economics and Social Studies degree in 2012. Of course, our EU commissioner has, obviously obtained a lot of achievements and awards. In 2018, he was awarded the “Best Solution for Best Better Business Environment of the Year for the Association Investors Forum, and in 2018 he was included in the list of the 100 World’s Most Influential Young People in Government by Apolitical. Welcome, Mr EU Commissioner for the Environment!
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:01:06] Hi everyone. Thank you for having me.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:01:09] Perhaps we can of zoom straight into our questions. Maybe we can start off by you telling us a little bit about yourself and how did you get into the environmental space or in the current position that you’re in?
From The Economy and Innovation to the Environment
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:01:24] So, you know, to begin with, I was serving as a as a minister of economy and then each EU member state, they nominate one of their politicians for the European Commission. I was nominated by Lithuania. And then, of course, the President of the Commission assigns portfolios. Being assigned the environment was quite a shift for me. Focusing on the economy and innovation to the environment what quite a change. But on the other hand, when we discussed the matters and the goals that we want to achieve, I was actually very happy with this role because I think, seeing the full picture not only from the economic side, but from the environmental side, putting this sort of puzzle together can be a solution for climate change. So, of course, I had to undergo hearings at the European Parliament and after those hearings, the new European Commission was confirmed together with me. In the past two years, I have overseen the environment, oceans, and fisheries in the European Union.
A Tale of 2 COPS
Dr Renard Siew: [00:02:34] That’s wonderful to hear. Speaking about climate change, which some people have called the defining issue of her generation. We know that COP26, which recently concluded a few weeks ago, some people have called this a tale of two COPS calling it somewhere between a blah blah blah and a success. I was interested to know, what are your thoughts are about this? Maybe, firstly as an expert and then secondly, from a public opinion perspective.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:03:08] Of course, expectations are always high, and I think the public, especially NGOs, they always want, and it’s their role to push politicians to go a further step. To begin with, I would say that the European Commission was the only one that and of course, together with the member states, was the only one to have a solid plan. And by solid plan, I mean, not only pledges, aspirations to reach certain objectives in 2030 and 2050, but a climate law, which is a legislation to reach minus 55 percent, at least minus 55 percent of CO2 emissions by 2030 and the full decarbonisation of our economy by 2050. Secondly, we have Fit for 55 package, which puts everything together the whole plan step by step on different sectors, from energy to buildings, transport and even, you know, our forests how we can get to that minus 55 percent decrease. Because if you look at the graph, it’s really a steep decrease to minus 55. And we will need a lot of effort and some member states will not going to equal other than the others. And of course, they will require additional effort. So of course, all that must be accompanied with sufficient funding. We had it all. Secondly, I think what was very important, there were numerous countries calling for help for third countries to developing countries that we need to help them.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:05:03] And we fully agree on that. We actually “walked the talk” and we put additional funding on the table. Madam President Ursula von der Leyen, the first day when she arrived at COP, she assigned additional funding. Other countries that were calling on some to put additional funding in to address climate change. We witnessed that they’re did opposite. They cut funding for climate change mitigation from their national budget. So, this really doesn’t add up. And I think we need to really work more to not only talk, but show showed that we deliver action. And when that action shows that it’s efficient, it’s working, that we still manage to keep the jobs, make them well-paid, reskill people. I think many other countries will follow as well.
Phasing Out versus Phasing Down
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:06:04] Having said that language is important. So, if we look at the language used by stakeholders to convey collective objectives, I think overall, progress has been made. We can always speak about not being ambitious enough and we need more. But if you look at the situation and for example in South Africa and their dependency on coal, they will need significant investment to make that possible. And we need to help them in that transition. So, I think that the language picked at the beginning, such as “phasing out coal” was too ambitious for some regions to tolerate. There were signs that this might be the case from the very beginning.
Committing to Decarbonization
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:07:11] The agreed language conveying collective objectives, however, sadly changed from “phasing out” to “phasing down”. And that was quite an upsetting end. Yet overall, if you look at the percentage that 90 percent of the world’s economy committed to decarbonization compared to just, you know, 30, just a few years ago, it is a significant increase. But we still need to do more. I think, pledges are not enough anymore. We need to deliver on those words. And here you have a solid position. But of course, we can’t be on our own. We need to work very hard to bring others to that path.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:08:02] And are you optimistic? The Paris Agreement clearly states that we must keep temperatures from increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius and with the outcome of COP26, some people have said that it’s now a matter of wanting to keep that 1.5 degrees ambition alive. Are you optimistic that we will be hitting that target given the divisive outcomes?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:08:26] I am optimistic about proving that the climate policies really work and that they are not some kind of environmental policies that are ruining or shutting down economies. I’m convinced about that, that we will be able to prove that, and we are already proving it — that with lowering emissions with drastic decreases of emissions, we have still managed to maintain jobs, create additional new jobs, successfully make this transition inclusive, leaving no one behind. And I think this success story can, can be taken as a primary example by others as well. So, I’m optimistic that we will be able to prove it. Of course, with the speed of uptake. I would like to others to do more. But again, I think we also need to help because we are privileged to speak. When we have our infrastructure developed, our energy sector well developed, it needs changes. But overall, it’s developed, you know, so we are very much privileged and countries outside EU countries outside the most developed bloc. They also have the full rights to have the same level of development, so we need to help them ensuring that they also grow. But of course, they do not make the same mistakes as we did, and they do not emit as much as we emitted during those growth phases. And I think, you know, green technologies, they’re coming into place, and we need to do to foster those R&D innovations.
EU Deforestation Law
Dr Renard Siew: [00:10:20] That’s fantastic. I think one of the central outcomes of COP26 as well is the Glasgow No Deforestation Pact, and there have been critiques about this. Some have said that this declaration has been done before, for example, in New York. But, you know, pledges remain pledges. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about EU’s Deforestation Legislation, what it entails and how the EU intends to deliver on this promise?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:10:51] So, first, you’re right. I very much welcome, and I was extremely glad to hear that on the very first day of COP26, when all the world leaders were there? The pledge at the centre of attention was about forests and I think forests, our oceans or ecosystems overall are not included in the picture when talking about climate. Everyone is very keen to speak about fancy things like technological progress, transport innovations, energy innovations. But we forget that we should also do another thing, to take a better care of our nation because the ecosystem did this job of CO2 absorption for many, many years and they did an excellent job. And what prevents them from doing this job is our activities when we harm ecosystems, when we basically kill them. So, one of those most important ecosystems, of course, are forests, and pledge is important about saving the world forests and halting deforestation. But a pledge is not enough, as you said, it rightfully so. We have seen this type of pledge before. So just a couple of weeks after the COP26, the EU stepped in, and we put forward a legislation which bans selling any products that are associated with deforestation. We now included a list of six commodities that our impact assessment showed that are most commonly linked with deforestation. We will be monitoring the market and the list might be topped up with other commodities. What’s most important, probably is that the companies who want to sell in the EU market, they will have to go through the due diligence check and prove that their products or commodities that are intended to be sold on the EU market, they are not associated with deforestation in any part of the world.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:13:25] I think I think that’s fantastic and a much-needed move. Another key outcome from COP26 was this declaration around financing as a key enabler, and I think Mr. Commissioner, I think you’ve also touched a little bit on that, to ensure that net zero future that we spoke about, there was a declaration of a one hundred and thirty dollars trillion being committed as part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance on net zero. In your opinion, what you assured the successful outcome of this funding and really what’s next? Among the NGO bodies, there has been also quite a lot of scepticism about this, especially promises that have been made previously on the need to provide funding, especially to developing countries, but it fell short in that area. Could you maybe share with us your opinion on this matter?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:14:19] I think it’s very important for developed countries to increase their development expenditures, and I already told you about the EU example. And you know, we’re doubling funding for biodiversity projects. So basically, you know, for ecosystems protection and restoration outside the EU, I think other countries must do the same because as I said, you know, we cannot expect our partners to make ambitious pledges, ambitious plans when the reality on the ground there is completely different and without sufficient funding, they just won’t be able to implement it. So, I think we must see and understand their situation clearly and ensure that the funding is channelled and provided to them because otherwise, they have a good reason to return. Next, COP will be in Egypt, I think. If they don’t receive funding, they may return to Sharm el-Sheikh and say: Look, we didn’t get funding. How do you expect us to deliver on those promises? I think there won’t be anything wrong about them saying that. We must not get into a vicious circle, and we must ensure that the funding, which is promised already for not the first time but for probably second time and even more should be channelled and become reality on the ground.
EU Green New Deal
Dr Renard Siew: [00:16:02] Obviously, the EU is seen as a key leader in this area, especially with regards to the EU Green New Deal that has come up to the fore. Is this the promise that you think the world needs to replicate, especially in developing countries? What can we learn from the EU Green New Deal, but also before that? Maybe you can also give us a bit of rundown on what encompasses this deal?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:16:32] Even though the EU New Green Deal was adopted before the pandemic, it’s as relevant as it was, I would say, even more relevant than it was at that time, because now we need to make sure that we rebuild back better, more resilient, greener, more digital. And this is what the Green Deal provides. It’s not an environmental or climate agenda. It’s the horizontal policy across all policy areas because if we want to reach decarbonization in 2050, we must ensure that the change is happening in all areas, in all spheres, starting from the way we produce food, to our consumption patterns, to our trade, to our transport, our energy. So, it is really an inter-policy. What’s probably most important, as I said, that it has a very strict commitment, but not only commitments, they are legislations. So, our 2030 commitment or our 2050 is legislation. It also accompanies needed changes. So how we reach those goals, what sectors must do and go through. What must be implemented by when, to reach those goals.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:18:07] Last but not least, is, of course, the social part. All that massive change will require, of course, close work with our social partners, with people who inevitably are going to have to change the way they live. It will affect fishermen and women. It will affect foresters. It will affect people who have worked all their lives in mines. So, we need to ensure that we have effective tools to reskill people and bring them back into the labour market quickly and efficiently and leaving no one behind. So, this is a massive change. Is not an easy walk in the park. It will require massive resources, a lot of balancing and so on. But I think it is already a solid plan which can be replicated, of course, each country has their own story. And I don’t think that you can just copy paste something. But I think what’s most important is for all of us to agree on goals. And if there is someone who can achieve those goals of economy decarbonization even faster than 2050, I think that’s great.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:19:30] I like what you said about how the EU Green New Deal is not a walk in the park like I was just wondering whether there are any key challenges that you foresee would you set this deal back? You know, are there any key barriers at this point in time?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:19:52] We have 27 member states in the EU and not all member states are at the same level. I think the ambition is agreed and shared. But of course, the level and the amount of work that needs to be done for some is bigger in some areas than others. It is necessary to work more closely with certain member states than others. Secondly, of course, we still need to spread the word amongst people, raising awareness and understanding of why this change is crucial because there is still a lot of scepticism among people. Some even feel there is no climate — they still see the snow on the mountains in Winter. But on the other hand, I think one should look broader than that, and you cannot ignore continuous forest fires not only here in the EU, around the world, from Siberia to California. You cannot ignore the recent droughts and floods, in Europe and even more devastating ones in other parts of the world. And the third thing which I would like to point out is, of course, that we shouldn’t forget the biodiversity angle, the ecosystems angle because you cannot be ruining or destroying ecosystems in the oceans and in the forests and then expect that you will successfully fight climate change. It’s just impossible. You must ensure that ecosystems are well maintained and well kept.
Environmental Law Suits
Dr Renard Siew: [00:21:45] I think that’s a very good point about the interconnectedness as well of the climate crisis and the fact that different countries face different challenges. You know, we are seeing an increasing number of environmental lawsuits, not just governments, but also to its corporations in both EU and Asia and in many parts of the world. I was just interested to hear your opinion on this matter. And some of these lawsuits are also primarily championed by youth advocates or activists in the environmentalism space.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:22:24] First of all, governments should look at ensuring that “polluter pays principle” is enshrined into legislation, into first, taxation, so that those who decide to pollute rather than invest into clean technologies, they would pay their price. And of course, the environmental pressure must be calculated. It’s a big mistake, when we rely on certain data, which of course, shows the company expenditures, but doesn’t show that how much we lose in nature, in ecosystems, and those expenditures are not encountered. So, I think if we want a drastic change, that must be considered. And then when it comes to damage to nature, the Environmental Crime Directive will be in operation soon, which is our new policy filling the gaps left by older policies and ensuring that those who damage to nature can’t escape.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:23:42] I’m very happy about the NGOs, young people who are extremely active, who devote their time to this cause. They are the advocates of nature because it cannot speak for itself and defend itself in court. We must ensure that nature is well protected, and companies take responsibility for their activities.
Climate Change Action and Activists
Dr Renard Siew: [00:24:23] I think that’s a very positive and encouraging message for younger people to continue to strive and take action. I just wanted to also home in a little bit because you mentioned earlier about the need for strong partnerships and alliances. I think especially among what we call the triple helix — the role of government, civil society, and the private sector. Are you satisfied with the current partnerships or alliances that are currently being built? And what can we do better?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:24:56] I wouldn’t say that we need to improve. I think there are plenty of formats. I think however, we need greater understanding of each other differences. I think the most important thing is to make sure that the pledges made, the words that are spoken, are delivered. I think the successful cooperation, the multilateral work, is first, built on trust.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:25:40] Yeah, I think trust is such an important currency, as you’ve rightly pointed out. If I could ask, what’s currently on your wish list? What are the three things that you would like to see happen in this space that you are championing?
COP15 and the Need to Step up Protection for Nature
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:25:57] Looking ahead for the next year, I think first, the most important thing will be COP15. So first, for COP 15 to happen and then to have an ambitious outcome and by ambitious outcome, I don’t mean 30 for 30 target. I think that’s fine, but it’s what’s beyond it — so funding, monitoring tools, maybe some territories already prescribed. I would like to see that we step-up nature protection and restoration. So that’s number one for next year. Secondly, we are going to go ahead with our Sustainable Products Initiative, where we’re going to make a major step forward in really looking at all the stages, from product design to manufacturing to use and what happens afterwards. So, I think this is not only good for circular economy, for new jobs to be created because of course, repairability, reusability and so on will be new opportunities. But also, it is good for consumers to know the full information of how long certain good will serve you. Will you be able to repair and get the parts for how much and so on to having the full information, but also having the full information on the pressure on nature created to produce certain goods, not only electronics, but your jeans, for example.
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:27:28] This is a huge initiative. I hope, of course, we will deliver it properly. And of course, it will be taken adopted by others as well and at some point, will become a global standard. Last and not least, I think next year would be great if we would manage to agree on a couple huge agreements as regards ocean protection. So first, BBNJ (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions), is key because now it’s sort of a grey zone. And secondly, of course, we are very close to establishing two marine protected areas in Antarctica. I hope we will be able to clinch it and show that despite maybe geopolitical tensions, when it comes to environmental issues due to climate change, we are able to agree on the benefits nature protection brings. And, you know, some minor fishing activities can be ignored and that we would go for those bigger goals. That would be the biggest Nature Protection Act in the world’s biggest marine protected areas established in the world, and that would be a success story for everyone. So, I hope that these three things will become real in the upcoming year.
Dr Renard Siew: [00:29:04] I hope that comes through in the new year. Finally like you, Commissioner for the Environment, you are an inspiration, obviously, to a lot of younger people. What sort of advice would you have for those who are interested in walking in your footsteps?
Virginijus Sinkevičius: [00:29:25] I would say, enjoy what you are doing. Believe in what you’re doing, I think if you speak about climate change and nature protection just be sure that you are on the right side of history. Know that all your work really matters, even though you might sometimes feel that you are the only one in the room defending nature.
Renard Siew is a Climate Change Advisor with the Centre for Governance and Political Studies. He is also part of the World Economic Forum Expert Network Group focusing on Sustainable Development in Asia. He was involved in implementing the environmental agenda for Sime Darby, a multinational conglomerate based in Kuala Lumpur with operations across key growth industry sectors including Plantation, Property, Industrial, Motors, Energy and Utilities as well as Healthcare. Prior to this, he was a postdoctoral fellow with the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets (CEEM). He continues to serve as a Stakeholder Council Member for the Global Infrastructure Basel (GIB) Foundation, a Global Advisory Board Member of Economists Without Borders (EWB) and is the Curator (Head) of Global Shapers Kuala Lumpur, a not-for-profit organization focusing on creating sustainable impacts in Malaysia. He actively participates and contributes in various stakeholder platforms including the ‘Water for Growth’ initiative and the Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) task force seeking to develop a National Level Water Transformation Roadmap for Malaysia. He is a Climate Reality Leader trained by Al-Gore, former Vice President of the USA in Pittsburgh. Renard is a graduate of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Cambridge University.
He was the recipient of the Yayasan Sime Darby Scholarship, Cambridge Bursary Scholarship, ARG Hermes Schlarship, Brookfield Multiplex Engineering Management Prize and the Australian Conferences Management Education for Engineers Award. For his work in sustainability, he was also named as one of Malaysia’s Top 10 Most Inspiring Green Warriors, 100 Visionary Young Leaders Leading Us Towards a Better World by Real Leaders Magazine, received a Forbes Fellowship, was a 2017 Augustman A-Lister and bestowed with the Ten Outstanding Young Malaysians (TOYM) Award for Environmental Leadership. He is also named as a Young Leader of the World Cities Summit a select group of change-makers from diverse sectors working on shaping the global urban agenda and a 2018 Asia 21 Young Leaders.
His work has been featured across a number of mainstream media such as The Star, New Straits Time, The Edge, Focus Malaysia, Malaysia Tatler, Malaysia SME, Korean Times, Kuwait Times among others.
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