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No time to lose for going solar and sustainable, says Greenpeace executive director

STEFANOS TSAKIRIS

Greenpeace International’s Jennifer Morgan is seen at a recent demonstration for climate protection in Germany. Morgan warns against continued reliance on fossil fuels, saying that Greenpeace is helping promote solar power in Greece. [Gordon Welters/Greenpeace]

TAGS: Environment, Interview

As the global debate about climate change and its effects gathers pace amid a rise in freak weather phenomena across the world, but also in Greece which just this month experienced a third deadly weather-related incident in under two years, Kathimerini reached out to Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International.

We asked the climate activist – who has been a leader of large teams at major organizations, including director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute – how Greece and other countries can do more to stem the advance of climate change, but also her views on the country’s dated legislation for environmental protection and plans for hydrocarbon exploration.
 

You recently published a proposal outlining how over 340,000 households in Greece can make the transition to 100 percent solar power within the next decade. There appears to be little interest from the authorities so far however. How do you plan to win them round?

Our main focus at the moment is at the local level, where we are taking advantage of the new legislative framework for energy communities. We’ve launched an engagement platform through which people from all over Greece can write to their mayors asking them to turn to social solar. Already more than a 100 new energy communities are setting up as we speak – many of them including social solar schemes. This bottom-up approach has enormous potential and can start changing mindsets.

The next step would be a central decision to promote a social solar scheme. The [previous] Greek government remained faithful to the support scheme based on consumption subsidies. This scheme is problematic because it essentially constitutes a hidden fossil fuel subsidy and also requires households to remain under support indefinitely.

Social solar is a no brainer. Similar brilliant schemes are already happening in some progressive states in the United States and in Australia. Greece can potentially be one of the first successful examples of social solar, and inspire other countries too. More and more societies will be moving toward this direction, combining the principles of energy democracy and a fair energy transition for all, while taking advantage of plummeting solar prices.

There are plans for oil companies to begin exploring for hydrocarbon deposits in parts of the Ionian Sea. The argument in favor of these plans is that a discovery would lead to thousands of new jobs. How do you respond?

It is not a given that hydrocarbon exploration projects will bring jobs. Industrial-scale mining activities also bring operational pollution and can bring overall depreciation to local economies, putting other industries such as tourism, agriculture or the tertiary sector at risk. Greece knows this very well from the decades-long lignite mining activities of the Western Macedonia region. We try to counter the oil industry’s propaganda with information and also raise awareness of the climate emergency issue.

Hydrocarbon exploration, any kind of fossil fuel exploration, is totally incompatible with 1.5C science and the urgent actions required to save our planet. The science is explicit, we must keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius if we want to avoid the most catastrophic impacts for both people and planet. Greek climate and energy policy is currently in line with global warming scenarios of 3.5C, which is total madness and completely out of step with rapid international developments we’re seeing elsewhere aiming to reduce emissions and transition to renewables.

Global energy consumption is seen rising 2.8 percent this year, the fastest pace in a decade. Natural gas has become the primary choice of fuel by consumers, accounting for 45 percent of that rise. Shifting to natural gas seems like an intermediate option before making a complete commitment to renewable energy, but you have objected to this strongly. How much time do we need to move to 100 percent renewable energy consumption?

I think we will only move to 100 percent renewable energy consumption if we deliberately work to go there. It is possible to do that quite quickly now because of the fact that the price of renewables has dropped so dramatically over the last years. If you also look at the impact of climate change and how quickly this is happening and you know you need to reduce global emissions by 2030 by half, you realize that gas is not a transition fuel.

How fast we can get to 100 percent depends on where you are. There are companies that are doing it now, so if you look at for example the IT industry you know Apple, Google, they are all now sourcing their data centers, where there is 100 percent renewables. Germany has 100 percent renewable days, so does the UK. In order to accelerate that you need to get the right policies in place and you need to remove all of the subsidies on fossil fuels.

I read that Greenpeace set a timeframe of about a decade for Greece. Some people have said that this is overambitious. What do you think?

The thing to keep in mind is that climate impacts are extreme and happening now, and that the cost of those impacts is immense. If you think about what was happening in Mozambique right now, if you think about my home country the United States, Hurricane Sandy, the droughts, you think about Germany last summer and the droughts in the farming communities that they came in for… That is the frame of mind one has to have when you’re looking at timeframes for renewables and that’s what’s realistic. For many, many reasons that relate to why we are where we are at, I would not want to be an investor in any fossil fuel project right now, because it’s so clear – if you look at what recent shareholders are starting to say, the signals from the Bank of England and other places – that it’s not a good investment.

A good part of fake news is dedicated to challenging warnings about the environment and the effects of climate change. How do you assess its impact?

It has perhaps slowed the understanding of people in some places. It’s inevitable – because the impacts are happening now and it’s very real – that it will have less importance moving forward, but I think the really important thing is that there really should be no room in any media outlet for fake news. I will not accept an invitation to be on a panel with a climate denier, because I don’t think that climate deniers who are clearly propagating fake news should be given a platform.

In a way, impacts are overcoming fake news but I think we do need, and there are efforts across different parts of Greenpeace, to actually hold those accountable that are creating platforms for fake news by getting better regulation in place, getting better oversight in place and getting more responsibility for those that are giving space for it.

You said you would not sit in a panel with a climate change denier. But could we, with the right arguments, convince them that climate change is real, that it is here and that it is changing the world for the worse?

Well, I think the thing to know about climate deniers is that they’re often paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

All of them?

“Often” is what I said. If you look at the history of a number of the deniers that have been very active, there has been research done on this very close association with the fossil fuel industry. Those individuals, I don’t think they are ever going to change, because their motivation is not science. There are scientists who were deniers and who actually came out and said ‘I was wrong. I’ve actually recognized that what is being said in the models is actually happening and I’m sorry. I was propagating fake news.’ So, you know, at Greenpeace we have no permanent foes and no permanent friends. We are up for talking with everybody but I think it’s really important for the motivation behind deniers to be transparent.

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