Future regulatory cooperation EU-UK should aim for higher standards

20/11/2018

The political declaration on future relations between the EU and the United Kingdom will be of great importance for environment, health, consumer protection and many other areas important to citizens. However, such aspects have not been much discussed since a draft text was published last weekend.

It now seems no new version will be published until the European Council on Sunday, when the declaration is supposed to be adopted. This is problematic both from a democratic viewpoint and when it comes to the quality of the agreement. Without public scrutiny, important aspects might be forgotten.

Take environment. It is difficult to understand why “environment” or “sustainable development” is not mentioned in the initial principles, since such wording is included among the general principles of the EU Treaties and should not be controversial.

Even more concerning is the commitment to future “deep regulatory cooperation” without mentioning high environmental ambitions. This implies a clear risk for slowing down decision-making on future EU environmental policy. Not because the UK will have formal influence on decision-making, but because regulatory cooperation as it is now being implemented in other trade agreements includes biased impact assessment processes and a shift of power from environmental ministries to trade and competition experts. The situation is similar when it comes to consumer protection, health and safety at work, and so on. Warnings from for example Umweltsbundesamt in Germany about regulatory cooperation in mega-regional trade agreements are valid also for EU-UK relations after Brexit.

There is still time to make changes to the political declaration. In addition to demands from some EU member states for UK commitments to future higher environmental ambitions, the Initial principles should include a high level of environmental protection, and regulatory cooperation should be linked to progressive higher ambitions in order to reach sustainable development.


High environmental ambitions can strengthen the European Union

21/10/2018

Europe is facing major changes next year. Of course, Brexit looms large, but in 2019 there will also be elections to the European Parliament, a new European Commission and probably a new President of the European Council. Negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework will enter a decisive phase.

What will the consequences be for environmental policies? It depends to a large extent on how proposals for higher ambitions are framed within a broader policy agenda.

There are many good green arguments for protecting biodiversity, reducing air and water pollution, and combating climate change – just to mention some issues.  Climate change is already high on the agenda for European policy-makers and likely to remain so. The recent strategy on plastics shows that ambitious proposals are still possible, including banning unsustainable products.

Delivering on issues important to citizens is important for the legitimacy of the European Union and for countering populism. Environment is such an area, as made clear by Eurobarometer surveys and by recent elections. However, during the Juncker Commission, progress has been slow on a number of issues, and perceived competitiveness concerns have stood in the way for reform.  Well-designed policy proposals can help change such mind-sets. The Think2030 process, co-ordinated by the IEEP, is an excellent such example.

Geopolitics is changing. Europe´s role in the world is high on the agenda for policymakers, as shown for example by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2018 State of the Union speech. By using its large internal market, the EU can set global standards and thus increase its influence. Juncker took big data and artificial intelligence as examples, but there are also many cases from environmental policy where Europe has the lead (such as climate, chemicals and air pollution).

For example, the REACH regulation on chemicals is now a global standard for multinational companies, observes professor Anu Bradford at Columbia Law School in her influential 2012 article The Brussels Effect. A similar development has taken place regarding electronic products, through the RoHS and WEEE Directives.

But if the EU is slow to act, for example for “competitiveness reasons”, these kinds of standards will in the future be set in other parts of the world. Look for example at the quotas for low-emission (mainly electric) vehicles in China, a method pioneered by California but not adopted by the European Union. China is now rapidly becoming the world leader in electrification of road transport. This can be detrimental to European manufacturers, for example when China and Japan now jointly develop standards for next generation charging of electric vehicles.

Helping create jobs is still fundamental for public trust in politicians. The European economy is recovering after the financial crisis, but there are still dark clouds on the horizon, such as high levels of debt in some member countries and an unstable financial sector, for example in Italy. Ambitious and well-designed environmental policies can contribute to innovation and competitiveness on a growing world market for green products and services. Such perspectives can be further developed and integrated in EU economic policies, such as guidelines and recommendations in the European Semester. The initiative for a stronger social pillar in the EU has contributed to more focus on social issues in the European Semester. In a similar way, it should be possible to strengthen the green dimension.

Many leaders in traditional political parties fear the rise of populism, and rightly so. But the answer is not weaker European cooperation, reducing the EU to only an internal market. Ambitious environmental policies can show citizens that the EU delivers on issues important to them, and at the same time contribute to a stronger European role in the world. Such visions should form part of the upcoming election campaigns, and policies for the coming years.

 


Japan has much to gain by more ambitious climate policies

21/07/2018

A heat wave is torching Japan with temperatures around 40 degrees C. Earlier this summer, torrential rain killed more than 200 people. As in other parts of the world, climate change models seem to be right in predicting more extreme weather.

However, on policy level Japan is still far from living up to the commitments of the Paris agreement. The recent revision of the Basic Energy Plan includes coal power providing 26 per cent of electricity production in the year 2030. So far, the government has not presented its long-term strategy for 2050. With investments in new coal plants, it seems unlikely that Japan can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases with 80-95 per cent to 2050, in the spirit of the Paris agreement.

As many have observed, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) is relatively weak in comparison with the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). There are also strong links between the ruling LDP party and industry. However, the ambitious leadership of MOE and the skills in the climate department of the Foreign Ministry should not be underestimated.

One interesting initiative from MOE is the high-level group looking at finance and climate. Extreme weather events are for example causing large costs to insurance companies. The powerful Japanese banks have a large influence on energy investments. If they recognise the financial risks with investments in new coal power plants, climate policy would be facilitated. It is a hopeful sign of change in the financial sector that Nippon Life Insurance Co recently decided not to invest in new coal power plants, at home and abroad. Major bank group Sumitomo Mitsui is also adopting a more restrictive policy towards coal investments.

Another positive development is the Japan Climate Initiative, launched early this month. Over 100 companies, organisations and local governments participate and promise to reduce their impact on the climate in accordance with the Paris agreement. Among them are some of the largest Japanese multinationals.

Japan has a strong technological base and an ability to reach ambitious targets through common efforts. Other parts of the world (notably the European Union), are now drafting far-reaching plans for 2050, and China is using its large market to be an innovation leader. The government of Shinzo Abe has much to gain by more ambitious policies for long-term reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Recent extreme weather events makes this even more clear.


High time to include environmental concerns in strategies for digitalisation and AI

20/05/2018

Greenhouse gas emissions linked to digitalisation are expected to grow rapidly. The French report AI for humanity recently presented by mathematician Cédric Villani offers important insights. In a well-written section on AI and ecological economy, the Villani task force notes: “Digital energy consumption increases by 8.5% per year and its contribution to world electricity consumption (which is growing by 2% per year) could reach 20% (moderate scenario) or even 50% (pessimistic scenario) by 2030, and therefore be multiplied 10-fold in 20 years’ time.”

The group comments on other environmental aspects: “The production of digital hardware uses large quantities of rare precious metals which are only partly recyclable, and the available reserves are limited (15 years in the case of Indium, for example, the consumption of which has multiplied 7-fold in 10 years).” Generation of dangerous waste, unsustainable mining of rare earth metals and high water consumption of data centres can be added to this picture.

Other studies have also found rapid increases of energy use and climate impact from digitalisation. Storage and processing of big data require large amounts of electricity, as well as the production of computers, screens and smartphones. Energy use linked to block-chain technology grows rapidly. In one recent study, researchers Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi found that by 2040, emissions from the use of ICT could correspond to more than 14% of today´s total emissions (published in Journal of Cleaner Production (Volume 177, 10 March 2018).

Of course, digitalisation also has benefits for the environment. This is often highlighted in policy documents, for example in the European Commission´s communications on the digital single market. Intelligent transport systems in smart cities is one example, more effective energy production and distribution another.

Still, increasing energy consumption is an issue that needs to be addressed, as well as  other negative environmental effects. However, policy responses to this challenge are to a large extent lacking. Yes, there are initiatives to power data centres with renewable energy and to reduce their power consumption. But this is not enough. For example, the drastic increase of energy use for bitcoin production should have been identified earlier as an environmental issue and alternative, more efficient algorithms actively promoted.

It is high time for the ICT sector to feature more prominent in climate strategies, and for ecological sustainability to be a key issue in digital strategies. As the European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, notes in a resolution, “the deployment of digital technologies should be accompanied by a set of regulations and standards, which will help to ensure the – social, economic and environmental – sustainability of ICT value chains. The EU must also ensure that its action on digitalisation fits with the targets of its climate, energy and environment policies.”

One particular aspect is the current rapid development of machine learning. AI strategies are rapidly being adopted by a number of governments. The European Commission aims to agree a coordinated plan on AI with Member States by the end of this year. There are positive elements in the Commission communication on AI, for example on algorithmic awareness building. But it is crucial that environmental concerns, such as energy consumption for data processing, are included among the issues to be addressed. Currently, they are not. A key issue is how AI systems are trained. There is for example an urgent need for research and development on how to apply machine learning in a way that does not reproduce earlier ecological mistakes.

The Villani report highlights both risks and positive effects of AI on sustainability: “Although AI is a potential threat to the environment, it is also a potential solution. Indeed, there are many opportunities to use AI in the field of ecology: AI can help us understand the dynamics and the evolution of whole ecosystems by focusing on their biological complexity; it will allow us to manage our resources more efficiently (particularly in terms of energy), preserve our environment and encourage biodiversity.”

Cédric Villani offers a number of recommendations, inter alia:

  • Establishing a Meeting-Point for the Ecological Transition and AI
  • Establishing a Platform for Measuring the Environmental Impact of Intelligent Digital Solutions
  • Designing AI that Uses Less Energy (data centres, cloud providers, and alternatives to today´s energy intense graphics processing units, GPU´s)

Integration of environmental concerns in all sectors is a key principle in the European Union Treaties. Strategies on digitalisation and AI should reflect that. It will make EU policy stronger, both when it comes to sustainability and to long-term competitiveness. As part of such a broader ecological approach, the European Commission should listen to Cédric Villani and his colleagues and integrate the environment in the AI strategy to be agreed this year. That would also facilitate international cooperation on this truly global issue.


Window of opportunity for EU-China environmental cooperation

25/03/2018

The creation of China´s Ministry of Ecological Environment announced last week is one of the major green news this year. The new ministry, headed by Li Ganjie, will be in charge of climate policy, marine environment and pollution from agricultural sources, in addition to the tasks of the old Ministry of the Environment.

A more powerful ministry is good news both for China and for global environmental governance. Coordination at the national level can improve. For example, climate policy can more closely be connected to other policy areas such as air pollution, water protection and biological diversity. Hopefully, disruptive infighting between different governmental bodies can be reduced. Another significant change is the creation of a new Ministry for Natural Resources, bringing together responsibilities for forestry, agriculture and land resources.

The organisation changes can also facilitate international cooperation. At a press conference on March 17, Li Ganjie emphasised China´s role in global governance `to build a clean and beautiful world´. The European Union and its member states should move quickly to make good use of this opportunity. Here are three examples of possible areas for deepened cooperation:

Air pollution. China´s efforts to reduce emissions are yielding results.  With Xi Jinping likely to stay in power for a long time, cleaner air will most probably remain one of the major items on the political agenda. Li Ganjie has already indicated that stricter limit values will be set for particulate matter (PM 2.5) for the period after 2020. The European Union and its member states are already cooperating with China in this area, but more can be done for example regarding: policy measures for better fuel quality including shipping, economic instruments for cost-efficient reduction of sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions, coherent strategies against volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and in-use vehicles control. Deepened cooperation on air pollution is also relevant in an East Asia regional context, where well-designed involvement of third parties such as the EU can help bridge historical tensions between China, Japan and Korea.

Climate change. Since Donald Trump took office, China and the European Union are the two main drivers for continued global efforts to combat climate change. Strengthened cooperation can include  knowledge sharing on carbon taxes as a complementary strategy to the highly risky Chinese emission trading experiment, joint assessments on the efficiency of policy measures (that can feed into a developed `Policies and measures´part of the climate convention), and reducing negative climate impacts of infrastructure investments (with the Belt and Road initiative as one example).

Non-toxic material cycles. China has a crucial role in global production networks and value chains. This is also true for recycling. Last year´s ban on imports of plastic waste has raised concerns in rich countries dependent on exporting such used materials to China. However, the ban is understandable given the health and environmental problems linked to often illegal waste imports. Instead, the decision and further ambitions of the Chinese government can give useful impetus to more ambitious policies within the European Union, for example to the negotiation on the new strategy on plastic waste.  Europe and China can cooperate more closely in global frameworks such as the Basel convention and international governance of chemicals. Another aspect is the ecological effects of imported natural resources, well highlighted in a recent report by China Council and in the European Union´s conclusions on resource efficiency.

There are of course many other possible areas for deepened cooperation and much is already happening. However, now is a good time for a more coherent and strategic approach, and closer coordination between EU member states. From a geopolitical perspective, such cooperation can also facilitate long-term stability in the region, including Korea and Japan in a broader EU-East Asia context.


Canada and Europe can show green transatlantic leadership

11/03/2018

Canada is putting environmental issues high on its agenda for the G7 Presidency. `We are looking at a zero-plastics-waste charter´, said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna this week at the World Ocean Summit in Cancun. As chair of G7 this year, Canada would like the rich and powerful countries to agree on far-reaching goals for recycling of plastics and waste reduction. `We could build on goals like having 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging´, said McKenna.

Earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced climate change, oceans and clean energy as some of the priorities for the G7 Presidency. The progressive agenda also puts emphasis on gender equality. Quite a contrast to president Trump. It will be most interesting to follow developments in G7 this year, including the June Summit in Charleroix, Quebec.

Canada has a long and proud tradition in environmental policy, even if the level of ambition has varied in recent years depending on the political leadership. For example, the North American country was a forerunner in efforts to protect the ozone layer, resulting in the Montreal protocol. Canadian Maurice Strong played a crucial role both for the Stockholm conference in 1972 and for the Rio conference in 1992.

With Justin Trudeau at the helm, Canada is once again in the forefront of environment policy. The introduction of carbon taxes as part of the ambitious national climate change strategy is one such example. There are also a number of promising initiatives at province level.

At the same time, the CETA agreement between Canada and the EU is scheduled to soon enter into force. It is already applied provisionally, with the EU Commission for example having solicited comments on the forthcoming regulatory cooperation.

The EU and its Member States share many values with Canada, including on environment. There are many reasons to reinforce the cooperation with an ambitious joint green agenda. For example, the EU Commission recently put forward its strategy on plastics and a number of Member States are already moving ahead. Why not start with jointly pushing for a global agreement to ban plastic microbeads in consumer products?

Such green cooperation between Canada and the European Union would also provide a well-needed contrast to the foreign and trade policy of the Trump administration.


Toyota breakthrough on magnets illustrates need for EU state aid reform

25/02/2018

A breakthrough for next generation motors, with far-reaching implications for sustainability. Toyota´s press release this week regarding “the world’s first neodymium-reduced, heat-resistant magnet” will facilitate the mass introduction of electric vehicles and new applications in for example robotics. The magnet does not use terbium or dysprosium, and the amount of neodymium needed has been substantially reduced. All these three rare earth elements have been designated as critical materials with only a few suppliers world-wide.

Japan is a world leader in material science. The government has since many years funded research into new types of magnets. When China restricted the export of heavy rare-earths in 2010, decision-makers in Tokyo increased funding for research and innovation aiming at reduced dependency of substances such as neodymium, dysprosium and terbium. This included both basic science at universities and applied research in institutes and companies.

Toyota is an impressive company with massive R&D investments. The governmental agency NEDO has also played an important role for the present breakthrough. As in other fields, NEDO has promoted new types of magnets by coordinating and partly financing efforts by the private sector. In this case, the program “Development of Magnetic Material Technology for High-efficiency Motors for Next-Generation Automobiles” has had a significant effect. The foundation in 2012 of the Motor and Magnetic Materials R&D Center (MagHEM), with the participation of government funded research institute AIST, has also been important.

The breakthrough illustrates a wider point. Japan allows for a greater amount of state aid to applied research and demonstration projects in companies than the European Union. NEDO plays an important role in this regard and has historically contributed to the commercialisation of green innovations such as the blue LED lights. The same applies to South Korea, not to mention China.

European researchers have pointed out the restrictive EU state aid rules as an obstacle to green innovations. For example, Måns Nilsson at the Stockholm Environment Institute together with co-writers makes this point in an excellent article on electric vehicles.

Reforming the EU state aid rules could be an important factor in making Europe greener and at the same time promoting competitiveness.