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Connie Hedegaard: "Think of all the money we could save if Europe made the transition to a low-carbon society!"


Connie Hedegaard

JCI World Congress, Brussels, 3 November 2011

"Good morning to you all. It's fantastic that so many of you from so many countries have felt motivated to take part in this expert day that is dedicated to sustainable growth. And that is exactly what we need: sustainable growth.

Why is this important? Well, climate change is one good reason. But there are others as well.

When I was born we were just more than 3 billion people living on this planet. This week, the UN confirmed that we have grown to 7 billion; and by the end of this century we might reach a staggering 15 billion.

At the same time more people are better off. In China alone, 400 million have come out of poverty. In Africa, the growth rates are high as well, even though not high enough to avoid an increase in the number of people living in poverty.

That people are better off is of course good. But growing populations are also a huge challenge.

Why? Because people who become better off also want to have, for instance, consumer goods that we have in the rich part of the world. And the resources on this planet - like water, food and energy - are limited. If we continue to use our resources like we do now, we risk exhausting the planet's reserves at an increasingly rapid pace.

We need to find more sustainable ways to handle the nexus between energy, food production and water. These basic resources are interdependent, but scarce. We cannot afford to continue with business as usual.

The growth that we need to feed 9 billion people on this planet can't be the same as the growth we have had until now.

More than a billion new people will enter the middle classes by 2050, mostly in the developing world. If they adopt the same consumption patterns as their counterparts from industrialised countries, we would need at least two and a half planets to accommodate all these needs.

That's why we definitely need a greener global growth model. And getting more sustainable is also the only way we'll be able to tackle climate change.

Climate change is still seen by many people as something theoretical or something that might happen in the future. Unfortunately global warming is very real and is already affecting the natural world on which we all depend.

Over the last 150 years the global temperature has gone up by almost 1°C. Science tells us that we must keep the temperature rise below 2°C. But as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, so too will temperatures keep rising. Last year - and indeed the entire last decade - were the warmest ever recorded.

Recently, I attended the Pacific Island Forum in New Zealand, where leaders from the island states in the Pacific told their stories about rising sea levels and more severe storms. They see climate change every day. And it makes it more difficult for them to create growth.

In several parts of the world it has been a period of extreme weather events. Let me mention a few examples from the last few weeks and months.

The last 3 months, Thailand has been hit by heavy monsoon rains – the worst in 50 years. Large parts of the country are flooded; including the capital Bangkok. More than 350 people have died and about 2.5 million others are affected. In Central America at least 80 people died last month as a result of torrential rains, floods and landslides.

Meanwhile East Africa is suffering its worst drought in more than 60 years and this is causing a major famine.

In September, there was a record-breaking heat wave in Texas in the United States; more than 1,000 houses were lost to the resulting wildfires. For 40 days the temperature didn't go below 40°C and for 3 months the temperature stayed above 30°C.

In Europe, we had extreme weather as well. In Northern Europe we experienced severe flooding, whereas Southern and Eastern Europe saw heat waves and droughts.

Of course, heavy rain, droughts, heat waves and storms have always occurred around the world from time to time. But what is new and worrying is that extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more severe. I'm not a climate scientist, but the signs that we see are exactly what climate scientists have warned us would occur when global temperatures rise.

This comes with a huge human cost, but also with an economic cost. In 2010, the damage and losses due to climate-related incidents was estimated at $15 billion.

Just think about Bangkok that has been flooded for weeks this year.

On a slightly lighter note, the coffee house Starbucks has warned that climate change threatens the world's coffee supplies 10-20-30 years down the road. I've also got bad news for chocolate lovers: new research showed it will be too hot[2] to grow chocolate in much of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world's main producers, by 2050.

Some people say that it's too expensive to do something about climate change and that we can't afford to make the necessary adaptation and mitigation in Western societies.

But business as usual isn't free either. So we have to make a choice. And even climate sceptics will have to agree that energy efficiency and resource efficiency makes sense in the world of the 21st century.

So what can we do about climate change?

Well, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A lot is already being done. Since the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen more than 9 0 countries have promised to take action. But the pledges are not enough. According to the UN, they only account for 60% of the necessary action if we are to stay below a global temperature rise of 2°C.

To increase ambition, we need a worldwide agreement through the United Nations – an agreement that gets all major economies to sharply reduce their emissions. By 2050 – that's when you will all be approaching retirement age – global emissions must be cut to less than half the level they were back in 1990.

To meet this target, we must work on all levels, individual, local, regional, national, European and international, to push all major emitting economies to take part in this effort. The EU is responsible for 11% of global emissions. Therefore, the remaining 89% must get along as well.

Currently, the focus is on the future of the Kyoto protocol. This is what much of the talk for Durban is about. I'll spare you for the details, but it is important to underline, that in Europe we don't just sit passively and wait for a global agreement. We act and try to transform our economies.

By 2020 - that is just 9 years from now - our emissions will be at least 20% lower than they were in 1990. That means cutting emissions from industrial installations, from cars, planes, products, agriculture and buildings.

That also means making changes in the energy field, as most of Europe's emissions come from using fossil fuels for energy. We have set ourselves the target of doubling the proportion of energy we get from clean, renewable sources – such as wind turbines and solar panels. Secondly, the European Union is aiming to reduce its energy consumption by 20% by 2020. We plan to do this by becoming more efficient in how we use energy and wasting less of it.

In the building sector, we are world leaders, but there is still an enormous potential in saving energy.

All the targets for the year 2020 I have mentioned are just a first step – a first step on the road towards reshaping Europe's economy, indeed our whole society, to make it climate friendly and low in emissions. We call this building a low-carbon future. And we intend to make it happen by the middle of this century.

Earlier this year we published a roadmap – a plan – setting out how this low-carbon future can be achieved. By 2050, the goal is to decarbonise the economy by more than 80%. The energy and industry sectors should be almost free of carbon emissions. This is indeed achievable with the help of many current technologies.

But it is necessary that we start now. What we need is milestones for 2030 and 2040, as well as a making an effort in all sectors -research, transport, agriculture, the building sector- and in technology and production chains.

Making the transition now is indeed doable, feasible and the most cost-effective way of doing it. It would be good for climate change, for energy efficiency and for creating growth and jobs in Europe.

Making the transition to a low-carbon future is not about denying ourselves things. We won't stop travelling, we won't stop heating our homes, and we won't stop industrial production in Europe. It is not about misery and suffering. But again, this requires that we start now.

The transition is about developing smart technologies, which will allow us to grow in a more sustainable way so that we can do more with less. For example, we can make better electric cars, smarter energy systems where smart meters maximize the value of the energy sector, make technologies to bury carbon dioxide underground, recycle materials, green our agriculture and ensure sustainable forestry.

This is not rocket science. It is just common sense.

So it's not just about replacing "brown" by "green". A green economy – or a blue economy, as some of today's speakers call it – is also creating new markets, products and services.

Some companies already do this because it is good business. More climate friendly shipping doesn't mean less shipping but more efficient ships and new ways of sailing. This results in less energy and can thereby mean a higher profit for the company.

The green economy adds real value in terms of new growth and jobs. This is demonstrated by the rapid growth in e.g. renewable energy. In Europe, in just five years, 300.000 jobs were added in this sector.

Europe has a frontrunner position in this area. The demand for resources is growing which means that if we are good we can have a bigger export share and thereby create growth and jobs.

The bank HSBC calculated that last year global green revenues grew by 7% to an all-time record of more than €400 billion - that's more than the Swiss GDP!

Just a small tangible example: the city of Copenhagen, for instance, chose to invest fully in environment-friendly technologies, renewable energy, clean water, and cycling paths. With impressive results: the green turnover increased by 55 percent in five years – outperforming ICT, manufacturing and welfare technology.

But benefits of a green economy go far beyond the environmental sector. Investing in cycle paths, for instance, not only cuts CO2 emissions – it also solves congestion problems, and it improves air quality and people's health. Copenhagen estimates the economic gains at $43 million a year. And this is just one smaller city in Europe!

Just think of all the money we could save on energy and other valuable resources, both at company-level and in society at large, if the whole of Europe made the transition to a low-carbon society. Now we import half of the energy we use from other countries. According to the Commission's calculations, the possible savings would more or less entirely compensate for the additional low-carbon investments we would need to make.

In other words: why not invest the money in energy efficiency and jobs in Europe instead of pouring billions and billions of euros to Saudi-Arabia?

So, let this be my answer to those who claim that climate policies make economic growth impossible. Many companies and cities across the world have already understood that climate action also pays off economically. The global race is on. Some even speak of a new industrial revolution.

There are many areas on which Europe can't compete: salaries, taxes etc. But we are a frontrunner when it comes to sustainable development and technologies and we can use this as a way out of the crisis instead of just waiting until the crisis goes away.

Luckily, we've got large public support here: in the recent Eurobarometer, an increasing amount of Europeans, almost 8 out of 10, said they believed tackling climate change could boost the economy and create jobs. In no member state was this number under 2 out of 3.

Let me conclude.

When I was your age climate change hadn't even been heard of. Today ever child knows that it is one of the toughest challenges facing mankind.

You will live your lives in a world where climate change will become increasingly severe and will have direct impacts on the world around us. Climate change is not only a threat in itself; it is also a threat multiplier, making other crises worse.

But you will also be part of a hugely exciting transformation – the building of a climate-friendly, low-carbon, resource-efficient society.

In yesterday's news there was a TV report from Beijing showing the extreme traffic congestion. This shows the natural boundaries we meet if we continue with business as usual. We still have the choice to preserve our society model if we act now and make the necessary adaptations, investments etc.

We know what we have to do. We have the technology to do so. Now we just need to get things done at the scale and with the speed that is required. Politicians and governments have a huge responsibility but your generation has a say as well.

You are the agents of change. You can contribute by taking the right decisions in your work places and in your homes. You can contribute by making the right choices as consumers. And you can also put pressure on your politicians by telling them: Let's act and let's act now while we still can choose the tools ourselves. The longer we wait, the tougher the challenge."

Last update: 21/03/2014 | Top