C2GTalk: An interview with Marc Vanheukelen 

How might solar radiation modification be put on the international governance agenda? 

3 June 2021


This interview was recorded on 25 May 2021, and is also available with interpretation into 中文Español and Français.

It is important to reflect internationally on climate-altering approaches such as Solar Radiation Modification, in case the world is not capable of meeting the mitigation challenge, says Marc Vanheukelen, the European External Action Service’s ambassador at large for climate diplomacy, during a C2GTalk interview. But these approaches should not become an “alibi for inaction.” 

International governance will be needed, but strategically it is best not to move too quickly, but rather first familiarize smaller groups with these ideas, at the expert level, and then to start moving these ideas gradually up the policy ladder as discussions gain traction.  

Marc Vanheukelen is ‘Hors Classe’ Adviser and Ambassador at Large for Climate Diplomacy at the EU’s External Action Service. From 2015 till 2019 he was the EU Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva. Prior to his ambassadorial posting, Mr Vanheukelen was Director in DG TRADE (European Commission) responsible for sustainable development, economic partnership agreements, and agri-food and fisheries, preceded by his role as Head of Cabinet for former EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht. He has also served as Head of Cabinet to the former Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs. 

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The European External Action Service is effectively the European Union’s foreign ministry.  How do you coordinate your work with individual EU Member States in the field of climate diplomacy?

Indeed, climate, as well as environment more generally, is a mixed competence. Therefore, the European Union (EU) has a role, but obviously also our Member States. The first task is to make sure we have coordination between the EU level and the Member States.  That is what we do through a number of channels, notably obviously at the ministerial level, the political level, the Council.  We have on 25th of January of this year adopted Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on climate and on energy diplomacy.

What does it take in practice to sing from the same hymn sheet?

Secondly, we have a so-called Green Diplomacy Network of officials of foreign affairs ministries dealing with environmental and climate matters.

Thirdly, quite a number of Member States have their own climate ambassadors.  I lead the informal coordination mechanism with them every two weeks to make sure that we know what we’re doing and we sing from the same hymn sheet.

What we do for the main initiatives we have done is to elaborate what are called climate diplomacy engagement notes where we make sure, first of all, that we have a good assessment of the political landscape of climate in those third countries.  Secondly, that we get a realistic idea of what you could call ambition benchmarks — in other words, what is ambitious but realistic to ask from third countries.  Thirdly, what is the special or the specific narrative that you’ve got to roll out to those countries to try and convince them.  And finally, what are the offers we can make in terms of support, be it financial, technical, or otherwise. 

What do you see as the big challenges and opportunities right now for the multilateral system to encourage action on climate change?  Can you give also some examples of where the European Union is playing or has played a critical role in developing multilateral governance for climate? 

First of all, as you know, the Paris Agreement is very much a bottom-up process.  The Paris Agreement has created the framework, but the framework has to be filled by individual commitments, nationally determined contributions by 2030 and then pledges for the long term.  That is what we have done.  We are trying to convince others to do likewise. In order to get the multilateral framework delivering, we’ve got to make sure that each and every country does its bit.

Secondly, although there are a number of outstanding issues with regard to the rulebook of the Paris Agreement, we did perhaps 90 percent of the homework in COP 24 in Katowice, there are still a number of thorny outstanding issues that we now need to settle, and obviously the European Union will make its contribution so that in Glasglow the rulebook is complete.

Finally, there is the issue of climate finance where we know that we have made a pledge in 2009 that we have to honor.  We believe that the European Union has already done quite of bit of what can be expected from it, but we will also talk to others to make sure that the 100 billion will be reached sooner rather than later.

In terms of some of the other countries you are working with, how do you see right now EU-U.S. cooperation evolving especially after the United States’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement and put climate change back on the top of the agenda? 

We are very glad that we have been able to intensify the cooperation with the United States, be it on domestic policy as well as international policy.  There is very good cooperation between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Timmermans and the foreign affairs ministers.  Two weeks ago they had a second conversation since the start of the Biden Administration to exchange views and compare notes on how we best approach third countries. And then, as I said, both have put forward an ambitious target for 2030.  We need to make sure that we can learn from each other on how we get there in the most cost-effective manner.

How might you see cooperation with China evolving at the moment?

Obviously, on a number of fronts the cooperation with China is far from obvious, but on the other hand we only have one planet, so despite differences in quite a number of policy fields, we cannot afford not to cooperate.  That also goes for China. We are trying to have a pragmatic cooperation with them.  China has made pledges with regard to 2060 in climate neutrality with regard to peaking before 2030.  There are now further commitments that are being made with regard to coal.

Obviously, we believe that China could still do a bit more given that it is by far the biggest emitter in the world, and we continue to have a conversation with them to make sure that everyone does what it can and what is called for to stay within the 2 degrees Celsius limit of the Paris Agreement and actually to keep the  1.5 degrees Celsius in reach.

Given these developments, where do you see COP 26 right now? What kind of hopes do you have? 

I think, first of all, compared to where we were 12 months ago, we have already made a lot of progress in terms of pledges of countries with regard to 2030 on climate neutrality.  Obviously, those pledges need to be honored.  In a way the easy bit has now been done.  Now we’ve got to “walk the talk.”

But in addition, there are still quite a number of countries that have not yet made commitments that are in line with the Paris Agreement objectives.  I think that is still the homework to be done.  How can we convince those that have not yet made a commitment consistent with Paris and make sure that they do so before COP 26?

I think right now we are in a pretty good place with regard to Glasgow, but obviously there are three or four files we need to work on.  One is to make sure that there are enough nationally determined contributions (NDCs) so that the world as a whole is on a critical trajectory.

Secondly, the rulebook with regard to carbon markets and with regard to transparency, there is still quite a bit of ground to be covered.

Thirdly, with regard to climate finance, yes we have done quite a bit, but let’s be honest, we are not yet at the 100.  We have to make sure that it gets done, at least in the years to come.

And finally, it would be good if apart from these general commitments in Glasgow there would also be a number of sectoral commitments or commitments from the private sector, things that could be delivered on the basis of the five campaigns that the UK COP presidency has launched, something very concrete, so that people and the watchers of the UNFCCC process realize that this is not only talk about very highly aggregate objectives but also action on the ground.

If I could turn to some of the tricky issues that we are dealing with here in the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, obviously the world’s response to climate change is focused, rightly, on cutting emissions as quickly as possible and also increasingly on removing CO2 already in the atmosphere.  These are huge challenges clearly and a window of opportunity to avoid 1.5 degrees warming or above is closing.In this context we see some scientists exploring additional approaches to lower temperatures, known as solar radiation modification or solar geoengineering. Do you have any top-line thoughts on some of these ideas and how they might fit into the general conversation?

I think it’s useful that people reflect on this.  Just in case we would derail and that the world is not capable of meeting the mitigation challenge, what’s next?

On the other hand, we’ve got to be very careful with this for two reasons. 

The first is this may never become — or must never become — an alibi for inaction.  People say, “Well, you know, at the end of the road we’ll find a solution, so why should we now bother about mitigation?”  There is always this sort of element playing in the back of people’s minds as the sort of “last resort” solution is being played up.  So that’s one thing.

Secondly, apart from the scientific issues,  there are tremendous questions of politics involved. Who would be in charge?  How would that happen?  These are issues that are really very hard.  It’s already quite hard to get to world governance with regard to mitigation.  The Paris Agreement took quite a while to be concluded, and we still have to see whether it will all add up. We know that a top-down of Kyoto failed.  We now have taken the bottom-up approach.  Hopefully, this one will succeed.  But still, governance of multilateral issues is always fiendishly complex and this issue of radiation would not be any different.

I know there are also other ideas, like direct air capture and what have you.  Definitely let the scientists work on this, but let it not become a distraction.

As you suggest, all these approaches bring risks as well as potential benefits, and the question is how to weigh up these risks against various goals.

Our work is precisely this, to catalyse governance in its broad sense at the international level and in an impartial way to help guide decision makers to understand some of the risks and benefits and governance challenges which might eventually contribute to decisions. Do you have any thoughts at this stage on the kind of fora or places which might be appropriate to start some of these discussions, perhaps on the level of learning to begin with and getting familiar with what the ideas are?  Are there UN processes that could play a role or might you be looking for different processes?

I’m not certain that the time is right for UN processes.  I think what I would do if I would be in charge of trying to find solutions on this is to, first of all, ask academics, scientists, to work out the blueprint for how might it work; and then start working with workshops or closed seminars to try and familiarize and socialize the ideas.  As you see people start catching on, then I would bring this into the political process with a number of key players first before you throw it right into the multilateral system.  If you were to do so prematurely, that’s a definite recipe for early death.

What might that look like in practice, bringing this into the political process before, as you say, throwing it out into the multilateral process?

I think what you could do is you first work out your blueprint with a number of questions and then you start socializing this with a number of key players  — G20 or even a subset of G20 — and you bring this first at the expert level, and then as soon as you start thinking Hey, this is getting some traction, you then get this gradually up the policy ladder.  That’s the way it works.

For these sorts of very controversial, fairly radical things, you first need a period of what you could call in diving decompression.  You rise to the surface, but not so fast so you get very dizzy.

At the same time, in the absence of governance frameworks and against the backdrop of a rapidly warming world, there are some who suggest there’s a possibility that individual or small groups of countries or other actors could resort to unilateral or minilateral deployment or action — actually I’ve heard you use the word plurilateral. 

It’s more or less the same.  On the other hand, this is so global that you will need a global solution.  I think plurilateral clubs can provide a proposal to the multilateral table.  But mitigation is something that you can do on your own, that you can do plurilaterally, but to put in place radical instruments to do something with the climate, with all the possible intended and unintended consequences, is something that is politically so delicate that I think it can only work if there is some sort of endorsement multilaterally.  The world would not accept anything otherwise.

And of course there are potential security consequences. There could be all sorts of geopolitical tensions.  At the same time, is the world ready to consider this in the context of global security as opposed to climate change as it were?  Are there fora where there could be a security conversation about these approaches?

Sure.  But perhaps that’s even harder than the purely climate discussion because security is most of the time a zero-sum game.  My security may not be yours.  Therefore, yes obviously there are going to be pretty big security angles, but that’s one extra reason to try and do it multilaterally because otherwise sensitivities will be huge.

In terms of the process that you mentioned, bringing it to experts and so forth, what kind of readiness do you see now?  Obviously it’s early days on this discussion; many people don’t even want to have it.  What’s your gut feeling in terms of when and how ready people might be to even start talking about these things in a serious way?

Obviously I don’t have a crystal ball, but I would say that it will only become a real subject of discussion if we have clear indications that, despite all the talks, we are not going to hit the Paris Agreement objectives. When the world starts realizing, we are in deep trouble, then these things come up.  Currently we are at one point.  Let’s see what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has to say this year. These things will only be discussed in earnest if people realize we are in deep trouble.

If I could just take that thought and go to maybe the last question, the concept of deep trouble and how we cope with that — and obviously those reactions are going to have a big impact on how willing people are to talk about some of these approaches — how do you on a personal basis — I mean you’re dealing with some of the toughest issues in international diplomacy, and it can actually be a little depressing sometimes when you look at the size of the challenge — how do you on a personal basis maintain hope whilst also staying realistic and honest about the deep trouble we’re in?  What kind of philosophies guide you to help you do that?

I think in a way you are condemned to succeed — that’s my mindset — in the sense that you do this for the next generation and the one thereafter, so you shouldn’t take any risks, although indeed it sometimes looks like a torment of Sisyphus where you roll the stone up and it rolls down again.

You’ve got to try and try and try.  I’m right now, as I said before, fairly optimistic.  The world is, I think, becoming more and more aware that something needs to be done.

Obviously, it is going to be hard — the question of burden sharing; the question of once we are in 2030, then hopefully by that time there will be new technology that takes us to the hardest bit, the hardest nuts to crack.  That’s a sort of mindset: Let’s move on and every year will bring perhaps its challenges but also breakthroughs.  Yes it requires determined optimism, but what’s the alternative?  You really have to do this.

And then, as I said, the good thing is that the last twelve-fifteen months we have seen a quantum leap in the awareness.  If you look at where the private sector is now, many businesses understand.  Obviously, there is an element of greenwashing, but I also believe that a big chunk of it is genuine.

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