CNO COP15: Canada and the EU on Biodiversity

Video transcript

David McKie: Hello, I’m David McKie, the deputy managing editor of Canada’s National Observer. Thanks for joining us today from the Zoom world. I’m at COP 15, the biodiversity conference in Montreal with Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and the EU Commissioner of the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius. Welcome. Hello to you both. Now, I’ll give you some bio information about these two gentlemen joining me. Steven Guilbeault calls himself a radical pragmatist.

Steven Guilbeault: Someone called me like that but I don’t. A friend of mine did.

David McKie: So someone called Steven Guilbeault a radical pragmatist. Which has made its rounds in media reports but I think its aptly describes your past as an environmental activist and he is now Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Son of a butcher from Quebec. His environmental activism started at the age of five when we squaded in a tree to prevent a clear cut of a beloved forest behind his home. He co-founded Equiterre, I remember those days, now the largest environmental organization in Quebec. Many people might know him from the time he scaled the CN Tower in Toronto to push the federal government to commit to more ambitious climate goals. He's now Canada's Environment Minister for just over a year. This past spring, Minister Guilbeault released the Emissions Reduction Plan, the first time Canada has had a comprehensive plan to cut carbon emissions that will be reviewed annually. Virginiguas Sinkevicius is the Minister of Economy in the Lithuanian government before becoming just at the age of 28, so 28, 28, that's very young, the UN Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries in 2019. He was team leader for regulatory affairs at Invest Lithuania. He holds a BA in International Relations and a master's in European International Affairs. Commissioner Sinkevicius' mandate is to ensure the environment, oceans and fisheries remain at the core of the European Green Deal, as well as leading on the Circular Economy Action plan to promote the use of sustainable resources. Now, I'm going to ask you, Commissioner, about the European Green Deal in a sec, but first, I wanted to ask you, Minister Guilbeau, why you felt the need to create a partnership on some of the big issues facing the world. And I'll start with you, Commissioner.

Virginijus Sinkevičius: I think first of all the issues that we are facing, you know, the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, that cannot be tackled by a city, by a country and even by a region. So, you need for that a global effort. Because these issues, they are not only transboundary, but they are so deep and so wide that they require a global effort. So I think it's been always great to meet the Minister. First time, we've met in a G7 in Berlin and already then we spoke about those like-minded ideas on which we can build our partnership across the Atlantic Ocean. So, today, we are in a crucial moment for our planet. Finally, after two years, and I'm extremely thankful to Canada, to the Minister for his leadership for hosting CBD COP15 because we are today discussing the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. So we are two years behind the implementation, and we still have no deal on our hands. But the moment is here, I'm very happy to be in Montreal. I hope that we won't let down the citizens of Montreal, but also people in the world because they are all waiting for an ambitious outcome where we will find ways to commit and ensure that by 2030, we'll not only protect and restore the natural ecosystems, but we'll also ensure that local communities are on board for the solution, that they also can enjoy the benefits of the economic growth and that we hold the biodiversity loss, which is done by us, by the human beings.

David McKie: Ambitious outcome. Agreed?

Steven Guilbeault: Oh, absolutely. And I really want to thank the Commissioner, I mean, as an environmental activist, I was such a big fan of the European Union and international forums. They've been a positive force for change, pushing the envelope, pushing countries to do more. And frankly, if the COP is being held here in Montreal, it is in part because when country started realising that it wouldn't be able to hold it in China, and the Chinese, in fact, said that we don't think we can do it this this year. The commissioner was one of the first ones to say, 'Okay, well, maybe what about doing it in Canada', and everything else is history, I suppose. But it's a great collaboration to be able to work with European Union and the commission the way we have. Together with many other countries, we launched a High Ambition Coalition for People in Nature. And we started about 30-35 countries back in September. And now there's more than 100-120 countries who believe that here in Montreal, we need to leave with an agreement where we will agree to protect at least 30% of lands and oceans by 2030, that we need to do more in terms of restoration of nature, that we need to mobilize resources. Countries in the north need to mobilize resources to help and work with our partners in the south to help them contribute to nature protection. So on that, we really see eye-to-eye.

David McKie: I want to stay with you, Minister. What can you accomplish together that you couldn't do on your own?

Steven Guilbeault: Well, as the Commissioner said, climate change, nature loss, fighting pollution, these are issues are too big for any single country and I'm having similar conversation with China. China's the largest emitter of greenhouse gas and the world's second-largest economy. They can't do it on their own, and we need to be able to work together. We need to find solutions to complicated and complex problems. But in a way, I suppose in a good way, we are condemned to be able to find solutions together because these problems are just too big for any single country or region, as the Commissioner said, to tackle on its own.

David McKie: Commissioner, do you want to pick up on that?

Virginijus Sinkevičius: I think, you know, so first of all, today, we are, of course, going to be pushing forward, I think the ambitious agenda of the COP15 outcome. And of course, we count a lot on Canada as sort of co-host leadership here, and the role is going to be important. And you will support Canada in, in this endeavour to finding the agreement, which again, can bring the global south on board, which I think they very openly said that they are supportive, but they need means to implement. So we need to hear that call and craft the financial mechanism in the way that it would be accessible, that would allow them to implement the change on the ground. And as I said, you know, in many of those areas that we seek to protect the most biodiverse places on Earth, we still have, you know, indigenous people living, and they have to be also part of the solution. But you know, the word doesn't end at COP15. I hope that we will be able to achieve and walk out of the room just before Christmas with an ambitious agreement, but then we will very soon meet and talk through the agreement, the global agreement on plastics, which is also crucially going to be important. And we have a narrowing window of opportunity, just about two years, where basically countries that agreed to have an agreement on plastic pollution. But that's not going to be an easy task also to finalize. So I really count on partnership with Canada because I think here we are, again, very like-minded countries, where we can facilitate such a global agreement.

David McKie: It's about the second time you've mentioned the term "ambitious". Are you holding out hope?

Virginijus Sinkevičius: No, absolutely. You know, without ambition, I think in environmental policy, you cannot do anything. Everything has to have an ambition. So you always know basically, where you kind of need to be, but you need to push a little bit more. And that little push more is called ambition. Because what we get from the scientific report, what we see what we read, the situation is getting worse by day. And we cannot be fooled by that. And the situation is not easy. With the background, as a former Minister of Economy, I also realised very well what's going on on the ground. So at first, we had COVID-19 for two years, which you know, our citizens suffered enormously. Our economies were hit hard. And now you have war in Europe. So all that puts enormous economic pressures on our societies, on our businesses. So this is not the easiest background where you are basically discussing such an agreement, but we should not be fooled that, you know, we were lucky to have vaccines at some point, and I hope as soon as possible, we're going to have a peace treaty, but you won't have a vaccine or a peace treaty with the loss of biodiversity, with the climate change issues, you have to act. So therefore, that word "ambitious" is extremely important - always to top up what is possible, and then a bit more.

David McKie: What would threaten that ambition over the next few days, like what should we be looking for, Minister?

Steven Guilbeault: Like the Commissioner, I'm very optimistic, and especially now that ministers have started to arrive, I think it's going to help shift gears in terms of the speed of negotiations. I mean, if we can't come to an agreement, which I don't think will be the case, it will be because of lack of political will. And I would like to think that there's enough political will here in Montreal to make that ambitious agreement happen.

David McKie: So when we talk about political will, how does the partnership work between the Canadians and the Europeans because there is political will there?

Steven Guilbeault: It's a very easy partnership. We text each other on WhatsApp regularly about different issues. And of course, you know, sometimes we have disagreement, we see things differently. But ultimately our goals are very aligned and our values are very aligned. But when it comes to environmental issues, to human rights issues, to the party participation of civil society in these types of form, we really see eye to eye on on so many different things.

David McKie: What do you disagree on?

Steven Guilbeault: Small things... sometimes, you know, tactics. So, shall we, should we do this now or wait a little bit, but they're very, very small disagreements.

David McKie: I mean, it's important to talk about disagreements, because that's how you move forward. Right? I mean, we all agree, and we disagree on things.

Virginijus Sinkevičius: But I think you know, it's very difficult probably to frame it into a word disagreement. Because more, it's probably based on, you know, what you see on the ground and act as you engage. And let's not forget that EU is 27 member states as well. So you know, for me to act and make a move, I have to have an agreement with 27 member states. And that's not always the easiest case. Even so I think we always have extremely fruitful discussion and member states, they put very important arguments on the table. But for example, the Minister, he wants to move forward with certain ambition with certain points because if you look at the negotiations that are ongoing today, we still have a lot of text in brackets. So, of course, you have to streamline certain work and move forward.

David McKie: So, how do Canadians benefit from this partnership?

Steven Guilbeault: In so many different ways, the European Union tends to be at the forefront of environmental regulations on so many different things. And often, when we want to see how we can do better in Canada, we look at what Europe is doing, and say, 'Oh, they're doing this, you know, we should be doing that'. On plastics, on climate, I mean, you've had a price on pollution in the European Union since the middle of the 2000s. We've had a price on pollution in Canada that started in 2019. So we are playing catch up there. I mean, I said earlier, as an environmental activist, they were an inspiration. They're still an inspiration. As environmental and climate change ministers, so many of the things that they do, are groundbreaking and help, not just us in Canada, but many other countries around the world. [They] see what can be done in terms of environmental legislation, environmental regulation, investment in clean technologies. Your new Fit by 55, your new plan, the European Union plans to produce 25% of their electricity from rooftop solar panels by 2030. Let's think about that for a minute, 25% from solar rooftop. That is amazing. So I am humbled really, by this partnership, because they're great. And the commissioner is amazing.

David McKie: I wanted to circle back to the European Green Deal that I mentioned in my introduction. Now, talk to me a bit about this. How did 27 Union countries get together? I mean, we, in our federation, you Minister would know about this, provinces and territories, getting everyone together, singing from the same proverbial hymn book is a challenge. How did you pull it off?

Virginijus Sinkevičius: It's not always the easiest process. But I'm, of course, I'm extremely proud of the Fit for 55. It's a legal obligation to reach the goal of CO2 emissions decreased by 55% by 2030. But, of course, you have to always realise that member states, they come with a different perspective, with different backgrounds, with the different stages of economic development, and so on. So of course, all this has to be addressed. What is not going to fly is always, you know, that sort of one size fits all approach. So you have to craft the solutions, that you know, you have to agree on the goal, which is, you know, your amp of the story goal, let's say. So it's decreased by 55, and then decarbonisation, fully to zero in 2050. And then, of course, steps within the member states. So you know, just transition fund, it helps enormously to ensure that we still have a few regions that are coal dependent. So for them, it's not only a challenge to change the energy mix, you have a massive amount of people who work in those industries who do not really imagine doing anything else than work in the coal power plant. And they did that for generations. And they enjoy it, you know, cheap electricity, cheap heating in their housing. And so how to turn that around. So you have to, you know, put a sufficient plan for those countries that they could execute and of course, you have the citizens on board. I think the story here, the most important, is for people to feel that they are part of this transition. This transition has to be just and has to have everyone on board. Doesn't matter you live, in the south of Europe, Spain, or Portugal, even the outermost regions, or you live in the northern parts or eastern parts of Europe, you have to feel that you are part of this transition, and you are on board. Because if you leave someone behind, that's not going to work. And then you know, then they usually, the politicians, they feel that they don't have a mandate to act, and they don't land your support. So I think that was the, in a nutshell, if that's possible to say, the story behind the European Green Deal. But I'm very proud, in 2019, that was the first policy to land. And it wasn't easy. Now, it's probably even harder, because you have, you know, more and more voices saying that, you should stop and wait with the Green Deal because we have this and that economic struggles. But if you look where our economic struggles come from, they come from our dependence on fossil fuels. So I'm also responsible for fisheries and this is an economic activity, which again, extremely hard to balance with the protected marine protected areas, conservation measures, and etc. But the biggest problem were this year, we have our fleets losing all possibilities to be profitable. And basically no point of leaving the port because of the spike of oil prices. So their dependency on fossil fuels. First of all, this kills the whole business model to the whole, you know, regions of the coastal regions of Europe. And that's very simple as that and the answer is the European Green Deal, decarbonisation of our economy. So we are not dependent on third countries that are very often not a democracies, and that our economies can ensure that they have a safe production of energy. And that's only green.

David McKie: What are the lessons learned for Canada in this?

Steven Guilbeault: Well, in some ways, on a smaller scale, there's only 38 Millions of us here in Canada. But but the challenges are the same. We are in the process of phasing out coal from our electricity mix. We've legislated to do that by 2030. Frankly, at the rate things are going we will get there, I'm sure before that. But we had to go and talk to coal workers and coal communities and see with them what what does a future without coal look for them? How can the federal government help both the workers and communities transition away from coal. In certain parts of our countries, and certain regions, coal represents 60% of the economic activities and employment in that region? So you can't just say, Okay, well, we're out of coal and tough luck. As the commissioner says, you have to do this through a just transition. So we're doing it with coal, we have to do that with with oil and gas, because we know that our consumption of oil and gas will be going down. If you look at the International Energy Agency's report, the IPCC report, oil consumption will go down by 2050 by at least 70%. So we have to prepare for that. Otherwise, those regions, those people, those communities will be very affected if we don't prepare the transition.

David McKie: We're at COP 15. Why does this matter to people? Why is this so important?

Steven Guilbeault: Okay, hear from me all the time.

Virginijus Sinkevičius: So first of all, of course, it's always, I think, for human beings overall, it's always very difficult to take something what's given what's free, and nature is free for us. And we never think about it unless maybe you are a farmer who see that your yields are going down due to droughts, or you are a fisherman or a forester seeing that something is changing, and it's not not there anymore for you. So, you know, very simple, you know, World Economic Forum encounter that 50% of our world's GDP is dependent on nature. If you look at Europe, 80% of our crop yields are dependent on pollination, very simple, just the bees and insects. 80%. If it's gone, there is no technology to replace it and we would have a massive issue of food insecurity, of social with farmers being basically out of the the possibility to work and make living and so on. Put the most importantly, also, if you look at what is going on, the ecosystem services, they are the actually ones who are the most effectively fight climate change. I think it's always only half of the story told when people talk about climate change, and they say that, you know, going down with emissions is the most important, that is absolutely true. But if our oceans, if our soils, our forest, they are not able to store those massive amounts of carbon, we are busted. There won't be technology that can replace it, there won't be carbon, carbon storage, carbon capture technology that can replace those. And then the massive issues will just go ahead. So I think it is extremely important, what we're going to achieve in this COP is going to have a massive groundwork to be done, which is ahead as regards the CO2 emissions, as regards to the temperature, and climate. So this is extremely important. I know, it's a very difficult issue always to discuss, because biodiversity is much more harder a word on the street than climate change. But therefore, we are here, I'm very thankful, again to the Minister and Canada for hosting it. And I truly hope that as I said, before Christmas, we will have the best possible news for our planet and for our people.

David McKie: I wanted to stay with your Commissioner. So a big deal was made of your appointment four years ago, at the age of 28, the first millennial to have command of an environmental portfolio. And I'm wondering, can talk to us about the kind of pressures that came with, you know, because, you know, here's a young person in a position to talk to other people his own age about a very important issue.

Virginijus Sinkevičius: I think, you know, we all see the climate crisis, and we all have our reaction, and this doesn't really matter your age, because I think people want to have a livable future, if not, for you know, themselves for the children, for the grandchildren. I think, you know, if you go around the Canada and you ask people, people would say that they love the beauty of Canada, and they want it to be, you know, safe for generations to come. So I think this ambition is shared across generations and European Green Deal was born out of, of course, very loud voice of citizens of Friday's For Future where we're in front of that movement, of course, you saw many young people. But if you look at the crowd, which was you know, increasing every Friday, you had more and more people, people with different age. And I think, you know, being a climate activist or environmentalist, it's not about your age, it's about you know, what's in your heart, and that doesn't die with your age.

David McKie: Minister, your appointment came with a lot of expectations as well, you know, an activist who, you know, became an environment minister, talk to me a bit about that, how do you balance the pragmatism with the activism?

Steven Guilbeault: Well I think the Prime Minister nominated me in this position, because he wanted the activist in me to be the Minister, and he wants me to be pushing on our government to do more and to do it faster. And that's what we're doing. I mean, you talked about our emissions reduction plan, first of its kind ever. In Canada, we have never in our history, gave objectives to different to our different sectors, including the oil and gas sector. And we never did that in Canada, because we were afraid to have the conversation about oil and gas needing to reduce their emissions. We're, we're playing catch up with the European Union on regulation. So this year alone, I've either adopted or in the process of adopting six different piece of regulations to tackle plastic pollution, to tackle the emissions from from the oil and gas sector, to ensure that 100% of cars sold in Canada are zero emission vehicles by 2035. So this is, we're moving at an unprecedented rate, either in terms of investment in terms of legislation or regulations, because unfortunately, for many years, not a lot of things were happening in Canada so we are playing catch up but we have really good a role model and inspiration to draw from.

David McKie: But I mean, the expectations, it's almost as if you'll never meet the expectations that environmentalists have for you.

Steven Guilbeault: That's okay, that's fine. I think that their role is to continue pushing me and they don't shy away and I don't have to remind them or to tell them they have to do that. But I think many of them realise, just yesterday, I got a text from an ex-colleague in the environmental movement, who said 'hey, you know, I want to make sure you know, that we know you're an activist inside government' just out of the blue. So I think people understand that I'm that I'm working really hard and that I'm doing everything that I can to push but that doesn't mean that they did that they should stop pushing us and keeping our feet to the fire because that's very important and in a democracy like like ours.

David McKie: Well listen, I know that the two of you have a very busy day ahead of you. Thank you very much for joining us for this conversation. That's the end of our time. I want to thank EU Commissioner Virginius Sinkevicius and Canada's Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault for joining me today, for joining us today. And thanks to the Zoom audience. This conversation was sponsored by Canada's National Observer in partnership with the delegation of the EU to Canada. Thank you very much.