and decarbonising transport
2016 was the hottest year since records started being kept of the planet’s temperature in the nineteenth century. Governments now seem to be facing the problem head on at an international level, and, following the agreements established in COP 21, COP 22 in Marrakesh has accelerated the implementation of those processes by the countries involved.
José Mendes, State Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, told ECO 123 what is being done in Portugal, and in different parts of the world, in an attempt to slow down global warming. In addition to electrifying the transport system, producing electricity from renewable sources and improving the energy efficiency of residential properties and urban renewal, José Mendes mentions the technological innovations that he believes are appearing as the most viable solution for saving the planet.
You are a man who defends the environment, with the possibility of intervening more in the problems of our planet than the average citizen. What dreams does someone in your position have?
My dreams are the same as those of the average citizen. I don’t believe that what is happening today will affect me for the rest of my life. What I would like is for my children to be able to live in a world without the threat of knowing that, in the coming decades, the average sea level will rise, the planet will grow warmer, and we will be unable to breathe well in the cities; I really wouldn’t want to leave that behind. My position is to display a sense of public service and do something for the society of the future. I’d like the world to find equilibrium from the ecological and environmental point of view; if that point of equilibrium is found and maintained, the rest is easy.
Is the Ministry for the Environment the most important portfolio in the government?
For me, it’s the most important because it is my job, but there are other important portfolios that also have to do with people’s everyday lives, those connected with the welfare state, education and health, among others. A special feature is that the environment is an issue that cuts across a series of ministries. Everything we do has consequences for the environment, which is why almost 200 countries came together to approve the Paris Agreement. Because, if we don’t combine all our efforts, what will happen is that, by the end of the century, the average increase in the world’s temperature could amount to five degrees, which is totally intolerable for this planet.
What has been done in this respect?
We’re working every day to decarbonise the economy, decarbonise our everyday lives, reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, produce the conditions for limiting climate change and create a more sustainable world. There was a time when we looked at this issue, at the environment and at the Ministry for the Environment, almost as something bizarre, because it was so remote, as if it were 50 years away, and today it’s obviously not like that.
At the beginning of November, the decisions taken at COP 21 took effect; what has changed?
The Paris Agreement was concluded at the end of last year but it has to be ratified in each of the 197 countries; there are countries that have already ratified the agreement, but there are many others that haven’t yet done so. Portugal was one of the first six countries in Europe to ratify the agreement, which will only come into force if it has been ratified by a group of countries corresponding to at least 55% of the world’s total emissions. It was expected that ratification by countries would take about two years, but, at COP 22 in Marrakesh, it was seen that the countries corresponding to this percentage had already come together, and consequently the agreement entered into force much sooner than had been anticipated. This also means that much of the world is very concerned about this problem; if not, they wouldn’t have ratified the agreement so quickly.
What measures have been put into practice?
COP 21 was about reaching agreement and COP 22 is about implementing that agreement. What is being done is called effort sharing, which is the pooling of each country’s efforts to limit CO2 emissions. Portugal too has its plan for controlling emissions. In the transport sector, our objective, based on the year 2005, is to reduce emissions by 14% by 2020, and by 26% by 2030.
What is being done in concrete terms?
Our first aim is to electrify the transport system. Creating a modal transfer from types of transport that use fossil fuels to those that use electricity.
Is that for private transport, or for public transport too?
Private vehicles and public transport too. At the beginning of November we started the PO SEUR (Operational Programme for Sustainability and Efficient Use of Resources), one of the operational programmes of Portugal 2020, designed to renew the passenger transport fleet. Sixty million euros are available for supporting the purchase of up to roughly 500 buses for transporting passengers. The criterion for providing this support is that they are all low or zero emission buses. Most of them will be buses running on natural gas, which has less of an impact than carbon, but some of them will also be electric buses. Then there is also the process of decarbonising emissions and producing electricity from renewable sources, and Portugal is fifth in the world in terms of installed capacity per capita for green energy production. In the first half of 2016, around 70% of the electricity generated in Portugal came from renewable sources. Then, in terms of the built environment, construction, urban renewal and housing, the aim is to improve the energy efficiency of houses.
In Portugal, we have 3,544,000 houses or buildings. More than 965,000 of these are in a state of degradation.
Not exactly degradation, but needing rehabilitation… We have around 3.5 million buildings, and close to one million need rehabilitation; of these, the priorities are those that need thorough or at least a medium amount of rehabilitation and that is about one third. Between 300 and 400 thousand buildings do indeed need urgent and rapid work.
That is a challenge, isn’t it?
It’s a very big challenge, for which we have created five different programmes targeting rehabilitation, and for which there is help from the State. There’s always one criterion which is to increase energy efficiency. When we designed this strategy, we covered almost all the possibilities. In other words, this measure is designed for the whole country and includes everything from whole buildings to a family who have an apartment or a house and want to make improvements.
Isn’t it time that governments put a higher tax on aeroplanes, specifically on CO2 emissions?
That is being done. The production of carbon resulting from flights is being taxed. When you buy a vehicle, it is taxed in relation to its CO2 emissions and its cubic capacity. Nowadays, instead of increasing taxes more, we do the opposite and are reducing taxes when people buy less polluting vehicles, and if you buy an electric vehicle it is exempt from Motor Vehicle Tax (ISV). You don’t pay “tributação autónoma” (separate taxation) or Single Road Tax (IUC) and, if you have a company, you can deduct the VAT. If you buy a plug-in hybrid vehicle, you don’t pay part of the ISV.
The 1999 Kyoto Treaty established that each individual should not emit more than 3,000 kilos of CO2 per year. Do you know what your annual ecological footprint is?
Will it be possible in the future to create a new tax law relating to each citizen’s CO2 emissions?
At present, that’s something that doesn’t exist, but it’s a debate that is happening all over Europe.
Are there indicators that this is the path to follow?
Some cities in the world have a system of tolls: it exists in London and it isn’t cheap; it exists in Sydney and elsewhere. The first systems consist of the payment of a toll that gives you the right to drive into the city for one day, and it is the same charge for all individuals. The more advanced systems – one is being tested in Singapore – tax not only your entry into and exit from cities, but also the time and the distance you travel. If you go to the city to do something for 15 minutes, you shouldn’t pay anything. Whereas a truck that drives around the city producing CO2 for four or five hours, stopping and occupying space, should be taxed more.
ECO 123 has created an online CO2 emissions bank account to measure each individual’s ecological footprint, in which it is possible to estimate everyone’s consumption. Do you think that is an idea for the future?
I think so, but it will probably be for the wrong reasons. With the process of decarbonising the transport system, the resulting adoption of electric vehicles and public transport, governments will have lower tax revenue and, at that point, they will need to organise other ways of taxing people because they will need to maintain the State’s income. Linking the tax system to each individual’s pattern of mobility and lifestyle guides people towards behaviour that enables them to emit less, and if we pay for that there is no doubt that we will adjust our behaviour. For the time being, it is just exploratory, but I think that taxation systems could be like that in the future.
At the moment, it is the economy that dictates to the environment; isn’t it time for the environment to dictate to the economy?
The Paris Agreement is about that, but the cost of prevention is very high. One thing we can do is focus on preventing climate change and limiting the emission of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. That is mitigation, and a lot of money is being spent on this; another thing is adaptation, when we have to fill the coastal zones near the beaches with sand. The problem is already so far advanced that we have to work on both areas: prevention and adaptation. All countries are involved in what is known as “effort sharing”, which means pooling efforts to reduce emissions in a series of sectors, in transport, in agriculture, in electricity generation and so on.
Ecological catastrophes are very expensive for the State’s coffers.
That’s why there is a focus on prevention and adaptation. Each country has to make an effort, and Portugal has two problems in terms of adaptation. The sea is advancing over the coast, a coast of more than 1,000 kilometres, and highly subject to climate change. The other phenomenon is the desertification of the territory. The worst-case scenarios show that, from 2060 or 2070, if nothing is done (and I really believe that something will be done), the area of desertification, which comes from the north of Africa and has already invaded a good part of Spain, will cover almost half the country, and so Lisbon will be an island within an area of desert. This really could happen if nothing is done.
What needs to be done?
Much is already being done, but I think that more needs to be done besides changing behaviours, attempts to reduce the temperature and the emission of gases. More will be needed and, during this century, maybe not long from now, there will have to be a paradigm shift at a technological level. Disruptive innovations from the technological point of view will be needed that succeed in inverting these curves; if that doesn’t happen, I don’t think we will be able to achieve our objectives, to be frank.
What innovations are you referring to for reversing the process that we’re witnessing?
Global warming appeared through the introduction of technologies after the industrial revolution. Before that, there was no warming. For example, 20 years ago, clean energy, electric transport, was nothing at all. Today, billions of kilometres are travelled by vehicles with internal combustion engines, which will shortly be covered by another type of emission-free vehicles, as soon as they have very long ranges for electric transport and a greater capacity for renewable energy production. This is a major cut in emissions. Another example: in recent months – not years but months – the production costs of photovoltaic energy, of photovoltaic panels, have fallen sharply thanks to technological developments. It will very soon be possible to have photovoltaic panels in our houses and at major power plants at extremely competitive prices. I believe in technology, and these innovations will be the game changer. That will be what changes.
And the poorest countries?
As part of the Paris Agreement, apart from each country accepting its share of greenhouse gas emissions, they also agreed to create a fund of 100 billion dollars to finance mitigation in the poorest countries. How can the economy of an African country be made to grow? With emissions, industry, etc. We know it was worse in the past, but the process of growth implies an increase in emissions. However, we know that, contrary to what was thought some years ago, economic growth does not mean producing more emissions and that those who do not produce emissions don’t grow. Last year, for the first time on a global scale – it had already happened in the European Union some time ago – it was shown that economic growth had successfully been uncoupled from greenhouse gas emissions. So, it is possible to make the combined GDP of the world’s countries grow and, at the same time, cut emissions.
Are you an optimistic person?
There’s one thing that always makes me very optimistic: it is the fact that, when faced with a major problem, it’s very unlikely that humanity will not find a technological solution to tackle it. What has been done in the world since 1880, since the pre-industrial era, has so far had positive aspects; but we didn’t take much care over what the future ecological balance of the planet would be like. A lot was done badly, and now we have to do a lot well, but I believe in people and in humanity. We have to be optimistic; if we aren’t optimistic, what kind of a planet will we be leaving to our children?