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Connie Hedegaard: "Science is crucial in supporting the low carbon transition"


Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action

Opening: Science and policy making

Check Against Delivery

Thank you. Great to see the Danish Presidency and the Joint Research Centre and DG Clima co-organising today's event on Scientific support for the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy. When Henry Kissinger left his position at Harvard to join the White House as National Security Advisor for Richard Nixon, he famously said about science and academia: "The fights are so fierce – because the stakes are so low!" Now, that may be true of some academic debates. But if we look at climate science, I am sure you will agree with me that Kissinger was only half right. Yes, the fights are fierce – not least the ones we fight with non-science sceptics. But when they are fierce, it is not because the stakes are low. It is indeed because they are so high.

For politicians in the 21st century it is absolutely crucial to build public policies on a robust scientific foundation, facts and knowledge. And in order to be effective, climate policies need to have economy-wide implications. For some industries there are literally billions at stake. It is really no wonder it is a battlefield where opponents of climate action do what they can to destabilize the science in fear of breaking away from business as usual.They know that they can hold up political action, if they can succeed in turning consensus into controversy. But it is really encouraging that despite countless and sometimes even very coordinated attacks, the fundamental science underpinning the case for climate action has stood the test and proved robust.

Expanding the foundation for political decisions

Whether it is about innovation, communication or forming the political foundation, science is crucial in supporting the low carbon transition. As far as the political foundation is concerned, climate science has stood the scrutiny of many critics. But in a century characterised by increasingly complex and connected challenges it is imperative that we keep improving the scientific foundation on which we build the political solutions. What we increasingly see is that a number of the crises we face on a global scale are closely interrelated. Water scarcity, food prices, biodiversity loss – all of them are intrinsically linked to climate change – and to the way we produce energy, use resources, and in short, create growth.

It is clear that we cannot deal with this complex of problems with an old-fashioned silo-style approach where action on each of these topics is planned in isolation from the others. That goes for politics as well as for science. Over the last 18 months I have been part of a panel on sustainability, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked to take stock of how the world is progressing on sustainable development and give recommendations for the Rio+20 Summit in June this year. One of the things we found was that there really wasn't enough consolidated knowledge and shared knowledge about topics such as planetary boundaries, environmental thresholds and tipping points. And just as importantly: the knowledge we do have about these topics is not sufficiently regarded by policy makers. So one of our key recommendations is, therefore, to launch a major global scientific initiative to strengthen the interface between science and politics. In the field of climate change we already have that with the IPCC. But that is the exception from the rule. We need a better overview of science in other fields as well.

One of the things we argue with real force is this: when true sustainable development has not yet materialized – despite decades of debate – it is not least because the concept of sustainability has still not moved from the margins and into the mainstream of national and international economic debates. Many economic decision makers – and their scientific advisers – still don’t regard sustainable development as part of their core responsibilities! They see sustainability merely as a cost – and as something outside the scope of macro-economic management. This is due at least in part to shortcomings of some of the fundamental concepts of classic economic theory. For example GDP growth does not fully account for the environmental costs when assessing economic development. Our notion of growth is a materialistic one focused on production. And this is why the Panel points to the need of a new scientific paradigm – a “new political economy of sustainable development” that unites scientists across traditional disciplines and boundaries in developing concepts and methods to support intelligent and integrated political regulation. That could for instance include developing an index or a set of indicators for sustainable development so that we can start measuring growth beyond GDP. It should also deal with pricing and ways to internalise environmental externalities. And it should deal much more systematically with the costs of inaction. As a politician and panellist I can say that this should be changed. But how? On the methodology we need input from science. The EU should show the good example.

Scientific input for ongoing policy debates – ILUC and tar sands

Also in other areas we see the challenges when we move from realising the need for climate change policies and then adopting these through specific initiatives, policies and regulations. A number of ongoing policy debates actually demonstrate quite clearly the need for knowledge and additional input from science.

If we take for example the debate on indirect land-use change – also known as ILUC. Despite the mystifying acronym the "ILUC" problem is actually quite straight-forward. In a world with limited arable land, using corn, wheat and other food crops to fuel our cars will put an up-ward pressure on food prices. To meet food demand, this will eventually lead people to chopping down rainforests and turning them into farm land – to the detriment of biodiversity and climate protection. Of course, that effect needs to be taken into account when assessing biofuels as an energy source. But how do we calculate that effect? And how do we craft regulation on this basis? These are very concrete questions we are dealing with in the Commission at the moment. We have similar discussions related for instance to calculating the environmental footprint of tar sands. Those of you who follow these discussions will know that both are examples of quite fierce fights because some industries have strong economic interests in continuing business as usual and in order to get the right decisions through, science-based facts are a must.

Horizon 2020 – science and innovation in the EU budget

If we turn to science in relation to technological innovation it is clear that we need science in order to come up with the technologies of tomorrow. But science is also about maturing the technologies of today – about turning the laboratory blue-prints into commercially viable products. Before markets can really "take off" and start to drive down unit cost through scale, technological and social learning is needed – to convince entrepreneurs and banks to engage. Focussed public support for science and innovation can help reduce the "time to market" for new technologies by for example funding the prototyping and large-scale demonstration of the new technologies. This is key to maintain EU's competitiveness.

Therefore, technology support and demonstration is a key priority for Horizon 2020, the new research and innovation programme of the European Union – for which the Commission suggested an overall budget of €80bn. This is an increase of about 50%. The basic political reasoning behind Horizon 2020 is that the public funds we spend on innovation should be channelled into research that aims at solving major societal challenges. Thus at least 60% of the total budget will be related to sustainable development. And the vast majority of this expenditure will contribute to mutually reinforcing climate and environmental objectives. In total, around 35% of the Horizon 2020 budget will be climate related expenditure. This is a significant increase compared to current budgets. And there are many good examples of research projects supporting policy development on climate action: modelling of global energy supply and demand, an accounting framework for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry and support of the EU Adaptation Strategy, just to mention a few. Allow me a political remark: it is not a given that our priorities regarding research, development and innovation will be accepted by member states despite the fact that you can hardly find any area where one euro spent will deliver more value added.

Communication – drop the reservations

Before closing, just a few remarks on science and communication – because to me it is clear that science plays an absolutely crucial role in relation to communicating the need for action to the wider public. If we look back over the last 5-6 years – there is no doubt that scientific works like the Stern report and the 4th synthesis report of the IPCC have been of paramount importance when it comes to mobilising citizens and building the sense of urgency that is necessary for political action.But it is also clear that the way the battles over climate science are sometimes fought in public requires scientists to leave the reservations behind and speak in more clear-cut terms than you normally would in a peer-reviewed paper.

A final note on communication: I believe that further efforts in communicating the costs of inaction are really essential. There is a widespread illusion that continuing business as usual will come for free. Nothing could be more wrong. But this message needs to be underpinned and communicated with full force. There is an abundance of facts relating to the costs of inaction that demonstrates why this transformation is needed.


So, to sum up: the fights are fierce, the stakes are high and we should not expect that to change anytime soon. Making ends meet in a world with a growing population and finite resources is one of the biggest challenges we face as mankind and it will remain so for many decades. As the century progresses the interrelated crises of water, food, energy, biodiversity and climate will only get more urgent and more entangled – unless we act with speed and bold determination. Speed because time is our most scarce resource. In the race to curb climate chaos, the challenge of politicians is that we are constantly behind the curve. We will need all the support we can get from science – and we need it sooner rather than later. Delivering at the speed necessary to keep up with the problem is a challenge that politicians and scientists have alike.

I wish you good luck with this conference and I am confident that your efforts will stimulate and catalyse the transition to the low-carbon transition. Thank you!

Last update: 04/11/2014 | Top