Winning the climate fight: mission possible?

Michał Kurtyka and Antoine Frérot debate the question.
Published in the dossier of February 2019

COP24, which came to an end on December 14, 2018 in Katowice, Poland, has given birth to the Katowice Rulebook. All the players — whether civil society, politicians or companies — are concerned in the fight against climate change, with interests that are sometimes difficult to reconcile. What role should everyone play and what kind of just transition should be sought, given the sense of environmental urgency? Michał Kurtyka, President of COP24 and Polish Secretary of State for the Environment, and Antoine Frérot, Veolia’s CEO, debate the issue.

Antoine Frérot, CEO of Veolia

“We are not short on solutions. However, we are lacking the political will and economic incentives to spur the majority of players to replicate them on a wide scale.”

As President of COP24 in Katowice, what are your conclusions from the conference?

Michał Kurtyka : It was an extremely complex negotiation that was both very technical and very political. From this point of view, I think that COP24 in Katowice was a success. We laid down the rules for a global climate policy; we reached a consensus. These rules will come into effect in 2021 all over the globe, replacing the Kyoto Protocol, and this largescale global framework will be reviewed every five years. Once implemented, they will oblige States to be transparent regarding climate change actions. Both developed and developing countries alike will gain from this. We are going to mutually induce one another to keep our promises and guarantee developing countries support in terms of funding, technology transfer, and administrative capacities.

There are many signs nowadays that the climate crisis is worsening. At the same time, certain experts, such as the IPCC, believe that it is still possible to change the climate situation. Personally, do you think that humanity is capable of winning the climate fight?

Antoine Frérot :There are battles where the stakes are so high that we must engage in them, even if the chances of success seem slim. The fight to limit climate change – and thus preserve the habitability of our planet – is obviously one such battle.
Despite the size of the task to be accomplished, it is possible to achieve a carbon-free economy within the timeframe required by the climate clock. But we must agree, collectively and individually, to do more. Everyone – i.e. States that define energy policies; cities that emit 75% of the planet’s CO2 emissions but can also influence lifestyles limiting them; companies that consume resources but invent low-carbon solutions; organizations that are highly involved in implementing projects on the ground; the inhabitants of Planet Earth who, through their personal decisions, vote for or against the climate dozens of times a day.

M. K. : At COP24, we unanimously adopted the Katowice Rulebook, a set of rules that are going to define the global climate policy for the years ahead. I see this as a sign of optimism, which shows that – beyond the trade wars that States are engaged in from day to day – we are able to address the climate question outside political frameworks. It is sometimes easy to fall into pessimism and tell ourselves “there’s nothing we can do.” But that’s not an option. I think that humanity has the time, intelligence and resources to meet the climate challenge. Will we be able to seize this opportunity? That will depend not only on the public authorities, but also companies, cities and regions, which are sending us many signals.

Michał Kurtyka, Polish Secretary of State for the Environment, President of COP24

“I think that humanity has the time, intelligence and resources to meet the climate challenge.”

“In the interests of the planet, each country must discern the decisive elements that contribute to the well-being not only of its citizens but also everyone else beyond its borders.”

In its latest report, the IPCC recommends a significant reduction in anthropogenic CO2 by 2030 of around 45% compared to 2010 levels. What role can companies in general play to achieve this target? What solutions is Veolia implementing to this end?

A. F. : Companies play a decisive role because they innovate and can produce lower-carbon goods and services. In this respect, they have a powerful ripple effect on their suppliers, clients and consumers. It was companies, for instance, that were behind the drop in electricity storage costs, a crucial point in the energy transition’s success. Veolia is playing its part by inventing processes for recycling end-of-life batteries, which saves rare resources and helps lower costs.

M. K. : I think that you have to be demanding with regard to companies and yet be careful not to ask too much of them. They must innovate, put forward new business models, call upon their R&D, and be responsible in their actions… but everything can’t rest on their shoulders. They filter good ideas for the environment, but these ideas are not necessarily profitable at the beginning. The public authorities must support innovations through favorable regulations to help innovative companies grow.

A. F. : A. F.: Companies such as Veolia already offer a variety of complementary solutions: energy efficiency; renewable energy; the circular economy that drastically reduces carbon emissions by turning waste into resources; capturing methane, which is a pollutant when it is released into the atmosphere but a source of green energy if it is converted into heat, etc.
The widespread implementation of these solutions would lead to huge gains. Take waste energy recovery for instance. In Europe, only 1% of waste heat from factories and cities is reused; 99% is lost! We are not short on solutions. However, we are lacking the political will and economic incentives to spur the majority of players to replicate them on a wide scale.

Many global economies are based on coal. What solutions can be deployed to enable a transition to less polluting energy sources?

M. K. : There is no miracle solution nowadays concerning the global energy equation. However, if we don’t make every effort to find it, we will all lose out. Fossil fuel sources emit greenhouse gases and coal is incredibly polluting. It’s up to each country to find alternative solutions to fossil fuels. In the case of Poland, for example, the government is thinking about its energy strategy for 2040. This strategy relies heavily on zero-emission sources: solar, wind and nuclear power. In particular, the project currently being discussed provides for significant growth in solar power, from 10,000 MW in 2030 to 20,000 MW in 2040.

A. F. : Our Group is playing an active role in the shift to renewables. In this respect, it has taken measures to switch its coal-powered energy production facilities in Central Europe and China to alternative fuels. In Karviná, in the Czech Republic, coal will shortly be replaced by solid recovered fuel and gas, which emit much less CO2. At the same time, we have set an internal price per ton of CO2, which is taken into account when determining our different investments.

The question of financing the energy and ecological transitions remains crucial. In your opinion, what measures should be implemented as a priority?

A. F. : The main sticking point is concrete incentives to act. To spread low-carbon solutions all along the chain of economic actors, we have to set a CO2 price. A robust, predictable and sufficiently high price so that cleaning up costs less than polluting by emitting carbon. When it comes to waste and wastewater, States apply the polluter pays principle or strict emissions caps. Strangely, they do this much less for greenhouse gases. At present, only 10% of CO2 emissions are taxed at a sufficient price to limit warming to two degrees. We will never have a strong climate policy with weak regulatory mechanisms!

M. K. : We are already getting major fund managers on board in redirecting their strategic choices toward responsible investments, and that’s great. However, micro-enterprise financing and crowdfunding must also be sought out. And we all have a role to play in this. Finally, there are also European funds. The European Commission recently announced the allocation of 25% of its funds to climate policy within the framework of its next budgetary stance. But what COP24 in Katowice showed and what Paris revealed is that we can’t do it without civic dialogue, because social choices lie behind policy choices when it comes to the global climate, energy, food, etc.

On that topic, COP24 in Katowice placed the “just transition” concept at the heart of its debates. What exactly does this mean?

M. K. : Just transition means establishing a dialogue and showing respect, and that everyone agrees with the decisions made. What direction do we want to take? In this context, policy can only reflect the social consensus. In the interests of the planet, each country must discern the decisive elements that contribute to the well-being not only of its citizens but also everyone else beyond its borders.

A. F. : This is a key issue. To be accepted, a transition must be just and seen as such. We will be unable to successfully achieve the energy transition if we neglect its social dimension! Responding to the climate emergency is a question of justice, first and foremost with regard to poor countries that are most affected by climate change, even though they are the least responsible for it. In developed countries, we must organize retraining for employees working in coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. There are over 100,000 such workers in Poland and over 70,000 in the United States. In the long term, most of these jobs will disappear. We will have to offset them, in particular by creating other jobs in clean energies: by 2030, 40 million people are predicted to be working in renewables, i.e. four times more than today.