C2GTalk: An interview with Olga Algayerova

How is the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) working with countriesto attain Carbon Neutrality in the ECE Region?

19 April 2021

This interview was recorded on 7 April 2021 and is also available with interpretation into 中文Español, and Français.

Many countries in the ECE region are embracing carbon neutrality recognized as the first milestone towards sustainable energy, with leaders like Canada, Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom, said Olga Algayerova during a C2GTalk interview. She calls for countries to recommit to the future, “We are really running out of time and urgent action is needed”. Highlighting that UNECE provides a platform for technology-neutral dialogue and are keen to work with C2G to help countries get better informed about new emerging technologies that could play an important role in fighting climate change in the future.

Ms. Olga Algayerova is the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Ms. Algayerova  took office on the 1st of June 2017. She previously served as Permanent Representative of Slovakia to the International Organizations in Vienna, Austria (since 2012). She was previously President of the Millennium Development Goals of Slovakia (2010-2012); Secretary of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006-2010) and Export Director at Zentiva International, as (2004-2006).

The 56 countries of the UNECE region span from North America to Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

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

Let’s start with the big picture. The world is facing a multitude of urgent issues from climate change, pollution, biodiversity collapse, Covid-19 pandemic, migration, economic development issues, and peace. Today we would like to single out the climate crisis, which is big enough by itself. What is the UNECE doing to promote regional cooperation and support Member States to achieve the Paris Agreement? 

You are very right, the world, namely our region, is facing multiple challenges, we don’t need to speak about the Covid-19 crisis, but we have many more so we have to tell what UNECE is doing to promote regional cooperation. We started from the very first moment of our existence in our Mission Statement “connecting countries, driving progress, and improving lives.” 

If we speak about what is we do in promoting the Paris Agreement achievements of our member states, of course, first of all, we are supporting our member states in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development where we can see the Paris Agreement is a substantive part of it.  How we do that is through concrete and impact and results-oriented activities. 

We have eight sub-programs on environment, transport statistics, economic cooperation and integration, sustainable energy, trade, timber and forestry, housing and land management, and population.  This multisectoral structure is allowing us to support Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) implementation and also to achieve the Paris Agreement targets in an integrated manner. 

This is why we introduced, I believe in 2018, what we call nexus areas which speaks about our close sectoral activities.  We stipulated for us four important nexus areas.  Each of them is covering multiple SDGs.  The first, which we probably will speak today about, is sustainable use of natural resources.  Second, sustainable and smart cities, because we believe the local governments are very much responsible for delivering both Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement.  The third one is sustainable mobility and smart connectivity.  Last but not least is measuring and monitoring programs towards achieving the SDGs and also the Paris Agreement. We produced four publications for each nexus, and we will be happy to launch them during our Commission Session.  I invite you warmly to read them, to pay attention to them, and also to take part in our Commission Session that will be on April 20 and 21. 

We call, besides other goals, for ambitious and immediate climate action.  We encourage countries to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality by setting clear decarbonization goals, promoting the use of renewable energy, and increasing energy efficiency and low-carbon alternatives across the whole energy system. 

Maybe on the last part could you tell us a little bit more about the carbon neutrality concept, the way it is practiced in the UNECE region. How would you describe the level of response by the different countries in the region? 

If we speak about response by individual countries in the UNECE region to the carbon neutrality concept, we need to consider that our region is very diverse and complex and encompasses countries that are high and low income, economies in transition, that are energy rich and energy poor.  Also, the response to that concept is very complex and diverse. Speaking about the carbon neutrality and defining our region, we are the region that produces and consumes 40 percent of primary energy and produces 40 percent of global economic output.  Also, 80 percent of primary energy in the UNECE region is fossil and the region accounts for half of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, what everybody wonders.   

If you consider the membership of our countries, they are 56 coming from the European Union, the Eastern part of the European region, which means the Balkans, Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the United States, Canada, plus Turkey and Israel. So even if the region succeeds in contributing to efforts to limit global warming by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, fossil fuels still will represent a part of the region’s energy mix in 2050. 

Now the question is: What is the path if we today have 80 percent of primary energy from fossils?  We are ambitious and we want to have it at least 50 percent. The region remains dominant in the global financial system and is also the home to important energy industries. 

But to the question, many countries and regions are embracing carbon neutrality as a concept to attain climate commitments, effectively recognizing that the nationally determined contributions in the Paris Agreement are today outdated for the purpose of mitigating climate change. 

This year by COP26 attaining carbon neutrality is recognized as the first milestone towards sustainable energy.  This concept was pioneered by many countries in the UNECE region.  The best examples of leaders are countries like Canada, Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom, who pledged carbon neutrality and revised their national action plans to get to net zero by 2050.  It was also consensually embraced by the European Union and presented in the European Green Deal in December 2019. 

This is of course very encouraging and it’s good to see all these countries going for net zero. Do you see any directions or any indications whether the totality of the region might go for commitments for net zero, and what is that you could as UNECE do to help those countries that have not yet done so? 

Let’s wait until Glasgow to see how they will approach it.  What are we doing?  We are doing many things.  Achieving carbon neutrality will require an all-technology strategy involving accelerated deployment of energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture, use and storage, high-efficiency low-emissions technology, low-carbon gases, nuclear power, and renewable storage or other approaches, such as increasing forests’ absorptive capacity. 

What we need to do in our region is we need both to reduce our dependence on traditional fossil fuels and to invest in all low and zero carbon technologies, that are available today and in the future and innovate energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture storage, nuclear energy, hydrogen. We also must cut or capture at least 90 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 to meet 2 degrees Celsius.  Of course, as Angela Merkel thought, we are 5 minutes after midnight, so immediate action is needed. 

I agree this is such a big challenge, but do you see the governments of the UNECE region taking this up seriously enough, not just to get net carbon, but also doing it in the sustainable development context to make sure that we meet all the sustainable development objectives? 

As I mentioned, the countries are diverse and their progress towards the goals are also different.  This is why at UNECE we are doing our best in order to raise awareness amongst countries.  That awareness is certainly raising up, but it seems that countries must be more serious and more committed. As mentioned, this year is the pivotal year for countries to demonstrate that they are really serious about fighting climate change and ready to make both commitments. 

Two other examples maybe of what we do.  On the 20th and 21st of April we will have our 69th Commission Session that we have only each second year.  The topic of our Commission Session is promoting circular economy and sustainable use of natural resources. We have been working for the last two years inviting the member states to one table and to make their commitments towards higher circularity.  I hope we get some good examples during our Commission Session, some good achievements, some good regional commitments towards increased circularity. 

We have many tools available from multiple sectors, like transport, forest, construction, industry, food systems, energy, and trade can contribute so much to the carbon neutrality.  We will see the commitments of our member states and we want to make our regional pledge. In September the United Nations at the global level is organizing a High-Level Dialogue on Energy.  It is in preparation for COP26 in November in Glasgow.  We call for countries to recommit to the future.  We are really running out of time and urgent action is needed. With immediate action we can still meet our objectives and each country can contribute in its unique way.  Based off course on the specific own endowment of natural resources, its own cultural, regulatory, and legislative heritage, each country can take its own pathway to attain carbon neutrality. 

The UNECE of course has a framework for attaining carbon neutrality by 2050 and the framework proposes a range of technology and policy options. You already alluded to the totality of the technology options that we need, but maybe you could give us a brief overview of what these options are, the priority of the options, and what emerging approaches have been considered. 

Speaking about the UNECE’s framework for attaining carbon neutrality by 2050 and what are the options for technologies and policies to be used, the framework was developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Task Force on Carbon Neutrality as part of the implementation of the project that was named “Enhancing the Understanding of the Implications and Opportunities of Moving to Carbon  Neutrality in the ECE Region Across the Power  and Energy Intensive Industries by 2050” in short, “The Carbon Neutrality Project.” This document develops the carbon neutrality framework for the ECE region with a focus on the power sector and energy-intensive industries by defining carbon neutrality, the elements and scope of the carbon neutrality framework, and targets for the ECE region and its subregions. 

Again, as we discussed, the holistic energy system approach, an all-technology strategy, is important here.  Those technology and policy options might include multiple categories, like improving end use energy efficiency cost-effectively; reducing losses in transformation, transmission, and distribution; reducing methane emissions; improve power generation efficiencies; improve total system efficiency; reducing CO2 emissions where we have carbon capture and storage; shifting to low or no carbon primary energy sources; deploying smart technology to decarbonize systematically; removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere; and managing carbon sinks, notably forests and oceans.  In each of these categories there will be plenty of technology and policy options.  

We need solutions that deliver quality of life broadly.  This means not only delivering on climate objectives but also addressing the daily challenges of individuals who are the agents of change and who have their own priorities.  Governments and politicians must be empowered to act.  We should expect that governments are acting to improve our quality of life.  We should expect that governments will act rationally and holistically in terms of economics, environment, and society.  

You’ve mentioned a lot about what governments need to do, but what about the private sector? How can they help to achieve the net zero target in the region, and in particular in terms of upscaling carbon dioxide removal with negative emissions approaches?  What are the key challenges?  And how does the Economic Commission for Europe engage the private sector and others to actually address those challenges? 

Definitely my message is that without the private sector these achievements would not be possible at all.  Off course the private sector will play a very important role in the race to net zero. If we are not able to mobilize the private sector, we will simply not succeed.   

I was working more than fifteen years in the private sector. I firmly believe it is possible to achieve the profit bottom lines and work for sustainability and also net zero emissions. 

Today in this crisis the public finance has become increasingly constrained and there is a clear need to find resources from elsewhere to support the move to low carbon resilience.  It means the private sector is central to the solution. 

What do we do at UNECE?  We work with our stakeholders, I believe we can improve our cooperation with the private sector, and we promote international and national policies that encourage private actors and new business models. For instance, a very important part of our work that I am particularly proud of is our work on public-private partnerships under which scope we help countries to develop necessary tools to identify, negotiate, manage, and implement successful public-private partnership projects. But we can do much more also here.  If we speak about the private sector, our transport division, there is the whole car industry that we need to bring to our table.  I already mentioned the construction industry, the whole trade, so it is everything.  We need to do more on that. 

You mentioned quite a few times the issues of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS)and also carbon dioxide removal (CDR). These are important elements of the action that one has to undertake. But many people are concerned about the issue of what is referred to as the moral hazard, the idea that investing in these approaches like CCUS or CDR could reduce the pressure on society to actually become less carbon-intensive.  Is this a valid view from your point of view?  What do you think about this and what can we do about it?  

On all important issues we will always hear the voices for and against.  But as we discussed you were mentioning the moral hazard in investing in carbon capture, utilization, and storage or carbon dioxide removalthe main message here is that we are really running out of time and are facing a species existential threat that we need to address together urgently.  

We definitely need to be more ambitious and work harder towards full decarbonization of our society, but as I mentioned, today roughly 80 percent of the energy mix in our region is fossil fuel based.  Carbon capture, utilization, and storage and carbon dioxide removal are a very important and crucial part of available options to meet our objectives.  These technologies allow countries to establish a pathway towards carbon neutrality and stay within their emissions targets. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges, given what you just said? 

There are some definitely, as in everything in our lives. First, the data show us that fossil fuels will remain part of the energy mix in many countries, not only in the UNECE region, for the foreseeable future, even under the most ambitious climate mitigation scenario, because some sectors cannot be easily decarbonized, such as energy-intensive industries.  Let me give you some examplesproduction of cement and steel, iron, chemicals or glass, or long-haul transport. While we need to continue investing in research and development to develop new technologies that could allow us to fully decarbonize our economies, until then we need to deploy and commercialize technologies that exist today and can help to get to our destination. 

We have to use, however, the whole mosaic of innovative technologiescarbon storage and removal being critical components, but they are just one part of that and we need to use a whole mosaic of all viable climate policy options.  Here for political commitment and ambition public pressure is needed here, all stakeholders being joined in achieving this goal.  It is all required for long-term engagement and societal commitment, recognizing the scale and cost of the industry that needs to develop quickly to rescue our planet and species. 

What policies do you see that need to be put in place in the region to reduce this hazard?  What is the UNECE doing to assist countries in this regard? 

We hope to continue doing a lot as during the past 73 years of our existence.  For example, we are taking action to support countries in implementing our standards, norms, policy guidelines.  We make many environmental assessments on the country level and now we are starting to do it on the cities level. 

In implementing these new technologies and attaining carbon neutrality our actions are focused on three core aims. First of all, raising awareness, recognizing all available technologies, besides carbon capture and storage, is an essential climate mitigation option and consider it when developing national plans. Developing and integrating policies to allow full use of those technologies for all energy and all intensive industries. 

First of all, we are convening platforms.  We have about 10,000 experts in different fields from our 56 member states.  They are working together to produce those standards and norms.  We work on a consensual basis.  This is our asset.  To create more of such standards and norms that lead to that goal. And then, we support our member states in creating funding mechanisms, not only for carbon capture but for all new technologies that are leading us to the goal and directing investments towards modernization of the energy infrastructure. 

We produce many studies.  Just recently we published a study on geologic CO2 storage in Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and Central Asia.  The countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and Central Asia host significant potential for CO2 storage.  That report provides for the first time a rather detailed analysis in terms of both the cost and geography of CO2 storage potentially in the Eastern part of the UNECE region. 

I believe our region will play a leading role in deploying many innovative technologies in decarbonization and also in carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies, and we always stand ready to support our member states with technical support and also support our sister regional commissions in working on this topic together. 

Let’s now turn to another topic, another issue.  The UNECE framework specifically excludes solar radiation geoengineering or “solar radiation modification” as it is called by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  This refers to additional ideas to lower temperatures by reflecting sunlight back into space in order to cool the planet directly.  These techniques include ideas to brighten marine clouds, increase ground reflectivity, or to spray reflective aerosols into the stratosphere. While these proposed approaches are mostly theoretical now, there is active and growing interest in their research.  Governments asked the IPCC to cover these approaches specifically in the forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report.  On the 25th of March, just two weeks ago, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a new report suggesting that the United States should pursue a research program for solar geoengineering alongside a portfolio of climate mitigation and adaptation policies. 

What do you think about these approaches and doing research on these approaches? 

Janos, we of course discussed solar radiation geoengineering some time ago, and I know you are working very hard on that.  This is definitely an interesting technology and can be appealing to many countries in the future. Geoengineering can affect global warming and we need to direct more investment into R&D of any innovative solutions that can be game changers. 

At the UNECE, as already mentioned, we provide a platform for technology-neutral dialogue, and we are excited to partner with the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative to help our countries to get better informed about new emerging technologies that can play an important role in fighting climate change in the future. 

From my side, if you ask me what I think of that, first of all, today we do not have a mandate to elaborate on that from our member states, so we need to get our mandate from our member states. Second, if such technology or any new technology should be used, we need to learn more about the pros and cons of using any innovative technology. And then, we need to make sure that the access and the benefit of using that is equal for all UN member states. 

However, again we are very happy to work with you to lead the dialogue with our member states, to partner with your initiative, and to help our countries to get better informed about any new emerging technologies. 

Thank you, and we look forward to working with UNECE on such dialogues.  We are also a technology-neutral initiative, so I think we can meet and talk and continue this dialogue. 

Let’s come back to events happening this year. Ofcourse we have the COP26 meeting in Glasgow hopefully at the end of the year, and there will be a UN Energy High-Level Dialogue in September in preparation for this COP26.Which key messages will you take to the meeting about UNECE’s work in this area? 

First of all, I and all my colleagues have very high expectations for the High-Level Dialogue in preparation for COP26 that we will have in September, so I truly hope that those expectations will be fulfilled. It is absolutely urgent to act now and make bold commitments.  We are reaching a tipping point.  I would like at this moment to thank you for this opportunity to highlight the following. 

First of all, we are running out of time and sectoral change will be much deeper than most people expect, and it needs to start now. Second, the greater the delay the greater the investment needed and the greater the change required. Third, sharing good and best practices is needed.  Inclusive multi-stakeholder initiatives can be strengthened by public-private partnerships.  

Next, the industry has to commit to wide-ranging greening and the private sector should lead the structural change through design, material efficiency, sustainable energy technology interplay, and it requires all government support. We need to scale up favorable conditions and develop legal, financial, tax, and regulatory frameworks together with infrastructure and banking institutions. And, as I started, we need to act now as all new technologies, including carbon capture, utilization, and storage unlocks full decarbonization of the energy sector.  Countries need to include those new technologies in long-term strategies and start retrofitting existing infrastructures. 

If you allow me, in conclusion I would like to highlight that the carbon capture and storage is not a magic solution that will get us to our destination in isolation.  All zero- and low-carbon technologies, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, hydrogen, nuclear energy, need to be taken into consideration and will play their roles. This is what we do at UNECE, we provide a platform for technology-agnostic dialogue on technologic interplay and we are looking forward to continuing cooperation with countries and wide stakeholder communities and private sector, NGOs, and academia in identifying the most effective solutions for our region and for the people living in our region.

I really have to ask you one last question. Between the climate emergency, the pandemic crisis, all the challenges you just described in the UNECE region but of course in the world as a whole, your colleagues and the UNECE as a whole must feel really overwhelmed because there is a lot to do here. So I guess the question I’d like to ask you is: How do you keep motivating your colleagues and yourself in such a challenging situation? 

Covid-19 crisis since March of last year develops in me not only motivation but also the urgency of response.  I really was online with all our member states, with our UN country teams.  As you know, we have now new resident coordinators with the governments, and listening to them about what is going on, what is happening, just to understand the size of this crisis that was coming. 

I believe all my colleagues in UNECE are very enthusiastic, they are really professionals in what they are doing, and they were very helpful.  We came up literally in the very first days of the crisis with the right responses and the toolkit that was provided to the governments, to our country teams.  It needs a lot of action, but it’s beautiful work if you feel that it can help to improve the lives of people and it makes me confident that together we can make a difference.

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