Europe’s Climate Chief: The 1.5-Degree Goal Is on ‘Life Support’

Frans Timmermans on COP27 and how Brussels navigates a frosty relationship between Washington and Beijing.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
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When climate talks between the United States and China broke down earlier this year, Beijing was still engaging with at least one other major Western player: Brussels. And when Beijing calls to talk about adapting to our new climate reality, the person on the other end of the line is often Frans Timmermans. The former foreign minister of the Netherlands is executive vice president of the European Commission, tasked with executing Europe’s climate policy.

I spoke with Timmermans last week as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. We had both recently returned from the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. We discussed outcomes from the talks and also how Europe has positioned itself amid growing tensions between the United States and China, and amid the most serious war on its turf in a generation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: Most commentary about COP27 has branded the summit a bit of a letdown. In short, the world agreed to compensate poor countries for climate-related loss and damage, but the money allocated for this was tiny. And there was no agreement to reduce emissions further. Do you agree? How would you grade the outcomes from COP27?

When climate talks between the United States and China broke down earlier this year, Beijing was still engaging with at least one other major Western player: Brussels. And when Beijing calls to talk about adapting to our new climate reality, the person on the other end of the line is often Frans Timmermans. The former foreign minister of the Netherlands is executive vice president of the European Commission, tasked with executing Europe’s climate policy.

I spoke with Timmermans last week as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. We had both recently returned from the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. We discussed outcomes from the talks and also how Europe has positioned itself amid growing tensions between the United States and China, and amid the most serious war on its turf in a generation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: Most commentary about COP27 has branded the summit a bit of a letdown. In short, the world agreed to compensate poor countries for climate-related loss and damage, but the money allocated for this was tiny. And there was no agreement to reduce emissions further. Do you agree? How would you grade the outcomes from COP27?

Frans Timmermans: I think it’s a huge achievement that we now have global agreements on a form to compensate for loss and damage. We will have to do a tremendous amount of work leading up to COP28 to make sure it really becomes something useful for the most vulnerable states.

FP: At its core, the idea of loss and damage payments is about justice—helping countries in the global south deal with the problems they didn’t create. But what would represent a just outcome? Is there a dollar figure you have in mind to truly account for loss and damage in the developing world?

FT: If you want to put a dollar figure on this to really fix things, you’re talking about trillions. And it’s clear that states will not pour trillions into this. So, you need to look for other ways of creating a stronger feeling of solidarity. We’re trying to move ahead and convince our constituents to do more.

We also have to show that countries who perhaps 30 years ago were developing countries, but today are part of the industrial and economic elite of the planet, also contribute to this. And, therefore, I was adamant in Sharm el-Sheikh to prevent this fund from being based on the same article as previous funds, which would allow countries like China and Saudi Arabia to say, we’re not part of the developing world, so we don’t have any obligation, neither legal, moral, nor political to contribute, and furthermore, think they could even get something out of this.

I think we’ve broken that logic, and I think increasingly the most vulnerable countries in Africa and the small island developing states understand that, despite operating very closely with the Chinese, on this issue they don’t necessarily have the same interests.

FP: Another general COP27 takeaway is that there was a failure to have more ambitious reductions of emissions. Why is it that we keep failing to set more ambitious targets? You’re often in the room where these negotiations happen. What, or who, tends to hold everyone back?

FT: Many countries who are not responsible for a lot of the emissions concentrate on other issues. They don’t have the means to fix things. On the other hand, if we don’t reduce emissions, there’s no amount of money on this planet that would be enough to fix things when we overshoot [a rise in temperatures of] 2 degrees [Celsius] or even worse. We need to get back to the conversation where countries who are not big emitters force the big emitters to do more, and we will try to do the same.

The second element is that some of the major emitters, although recognizing their responsibility implicitly, do not want to be held accountable. In Glasgow [at COP26], we got a strong commitment of phasing down coal. We got strong indications that we would phase down fossil fuels. We got a stronger commitment by the Chinese that they would peak [their carbon emissions] well before 2030. And on all these issues, countries like China and India were not prepared to commit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

FP: It strikes me that in the last few years, we’ve moved from purely discussing emissions reductions to a much broader all-of-the-above approach, which would simultaneously include discussions around adaptation, loss-and-damage payments, and also the issue of dealing with legacy carbon emissions. Does this all-of-the-above approach risk failing because it’s trying to do too much at once?

FT: That’s an excellent question. And normally you would say, let’s concentrate on the main issues. But we just don’t have the luxury. There’s not one issue that we can leave aside for a while. We need to do all these things together, and I think the sense of urgency has increased because all countries are experiencing this crisis in a very serious way, whether it’s droughts, floods, failed harvests, or completely unpredictable weather patterns.

FP: Given the outcomes from COP27, is it time to give up on the goal of keeping temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius?

FT: The goal is on life support. But it’s not dead. And as long as it isn’t dead, we need to work on it. I’ve seen the ambitious attitude of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the next COP. I also see that technology is advancing quite fast. I see the potential of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. I see that the policies we are now introducing in Europe are helping us to reduce even more than we had expected.

FP: Egypt, as the host of COP27, has its own history of doubling down on fossil fuels while repressing criticism about it. The UAE is a massive oil producer. How do you square that with these countries being the hosts of these giant climate summits when they are also massive contributors to the problem?

FT: True, but at the same time, it also focuses the attention of the global north on the problems of the global south. Egypt is making a transition to renewables and doing this quite fast, also because it is confronted with huge problems as a consequence of the climate crisis. Countries like the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar understand that there’s going to be a world post-fossil fuels, and they understand that they have assets today linked to fossil fuels that could be linked to the global economy post-fossil fuels, and they’re trying to invest in that, and they should be encouraged to do that. It’s important that we give responsibility to countries that initially would not be seen as champions of climate change.

FP: The United States and China are responsible for 40 percent of global emissions. Sitting in Brussels, how do you and European policymakers think through compartmentalizing what is really the world’s most important relationship? In other words, how do you allow these two countries to compete but also cooperate on issues like climate change policy?

FT: That’s quite a challenge. First of all, there was never really a total breakdown on climate. There weren’t any official talks, but I know that [U.S. climate envoy] John Kerry maintained some informal contacts. We certainly kept talking to the Chinese intensively. We worked very closely with Xie Zhenhua, who’s the climate envoy for China, and with members of the government as well. And that worked well for us: For instance, their emissions trading scheme is based on ours, and we cooperate on these things.

At the same time, in terms of the system we want to live in and the democracy we cherish, we share that with the United States and not with China, and the choices made by the Chinese Communist Party have not made things easier. [They’ve] become more ideological, which is a challenge to all of us.

We Europeans—once bitten, twice shy—have learned that we do not want to create the same level of dependency on China as we sadly have created on Russian fossil fuels. We’re also looking at the supply chains and having a dialogue with the Chinese, explaining to them that we need to look after our resilience, but we certainly don’t want to slam doors, and that is sometimes a bit of a difference with the United States.

But if I can be slightly critical, we are no longer in a bipolar world, although these two countries tend to think that the world is bipolar. But the world is much more complex. We are in a multipolar world.

We have parts of the world reaching out to us Europeans because they don’t want a bipolar world. Latin America, for instance, I had a long meeting with [Brazilian] President-elect Lula. He sees his relationship with Europe as very important. The same to Mexico, to Chile. But also, if you look at countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, they also want to see a multilateral international community. And so, I would assume it’s a matter of time that also the United States and China will understand that they need to engage in a multipolar world, which is very complicated.

FP: I would argue that Brussels has followed Washington and added to this bipolarity.

FT: Our basic values are in sync with American basic values. The trans-Atlantic link is stronger than ever before because we’re in this together to make sure that Ukraine remains free and independent and that Russian aggression is not rewarded. That creates a dynamic between the United States and the European Union that brings us very close together. There are other developments that make things more complicated, like parts of the Inflation Reduction Act. But in general, we are very close.

But there are quite some differences in our relationship with China and the United States. We did continue to have [climate] talks. We did have high-level visits to Beijing.

It is not an accident that the United States and China very quickly want to restore their bilateral relationship [when it comes to climate], because everybody understands that the climate issue transcends all other political issues. This is about humanity’s survival. For the first time in modern times, all leaders, even if they are very antagonistic toward each other, understand that we better act together.

FP: You have also spent a fair bit of time with Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy. Can you give us a sense of what he’s like, how much power he actually has, how personally invested [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is in tackling the climate crisis? What are your dealings with them like?

FT: Xie Zhenhua is a man with strong convictions on climate change. Of my Chinese contacts, he’s the most outspoken on these issues. He’s also willing to engage, and he’s willing to take risks. We saw that in Glasgow, and he wouldn’t do that if he thought that he didn’t have Xi Jinping’s ear. Whenever I talk to him, we go into great detail on issues and we disagree on many things, but it’s always very frank. You can trust him on what he says, and you can trust me on what I say, and that allows us to be clear on where we agree and where we disagree and how we can charter the way ahead. I have the same relationship with John Kerry, and I think John has the same relationship with Xie Zhenhua as well. This dynamic helped us reach an agreement in Glasgow because, at the last moment, what the Brits had put on the table was seen as very offensive to India and China, and we had to fix that. The three of us did that together in a way that was appreciated by all three at the end of the day.

FP: I want to ask you about India, which has not contributed to the world’s climate problems in terms of its legacy, but it is a growing emitter. What is your sense of India’s ability to meet its climate commitments? Were you disappointed that they could have been more ambitious?

FT: I’m totally fascinated by what’s happening in India, because when I started in this business, India was usually very dismissive of the whole problem created by the industrialized world, and now we’re in a completely different place. India has announced that it will want to build 600 gigawatts of renewables between now and 2030. Just imagine the scale of that.

India is clearly suffering from the climate crisis, and that has changed the attitude of many people. There is all this talk about the U.S. and China, but India is a force to be reckoned with, and they want to cooperate. They need technology transfers. They need to work with us to create value chains. They could produce their own solar panels at a hugely elevated scale.

The world should be watching India more closely on this, and I think India will increasingly engage on these issues and take a huge step forward as president of the G20. Sometimes they may step back and there will be backlashes, but the movement on balance is forward, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what’s going to happen with renewables in the next decade.

FP: How much of a setback do you think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents to the climate movement?

FT: Our climate policy is centered on energy transition, and this war has heightened the sense of urgency on energy transition. There’s a couple of things we will be doing more than before. We will save more energy with our goals and will transition to renewables even more quickly than we had anticipated. If big chunks of our population don’t know how to get to the end of the month, the end of the planet is not their main concern.

That’s what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s playing. He’s trying to create political upheaval in the European Union by making energy bills for households unaffordable, impossible to pay, by bringing our industry to the knees because they can’t pay for it. And the second element is trying to freeze Ukraine so that they flee to Europe. In Putin’s view, a combination of very high energy prices and millions of refugees is the way to get Europe to its knees, and if that happens, the Green Deal is the last thing people will be thinking about.

For now, all of our member states, even those who are skeptical about the Green Deal, understand that the only way we can reinforce our own sovereignty in the energy field is through renewables, because we don’t have our own fossil fuels. So that allows us to convince the industry that they will need to use a lot fewer fossil fuels in the future. That means that they start using green hydrogen much quicker. They will be electrifying much quicker than we had anticipated. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the fact is that our Green Deal is a holistic approach. You can’t just detach the energy transition from the other elements.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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