Interview | Dirk Messner: «There is a new global green consensus»

Dirk Messner, Eva Jané Llopis

Before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fight against the climate crisis was a central issue in the global agenda. The growing awareness and mobilization of many citizens and, especially, young people –with movements such as Fridays for Future–, promoted a shift in the perspective in the political debate, both in public institutions and the private sector. Dirk Messner, president of the German Environmental Agency, is one of the most renowned voices in the field of sustainable development. He is the author of books such as Germany and the World 2030 (2018), and he is an expert in globalization, global governance, decarbonization, sustainability and digital change, international cooperation and social change. In this interview with Eva Jané, director of Health, Sustainable Development Goals and Social Innovation at ESADE Business School, adviser at CADS (Consell Asessor per al Desenvolupament Sostenible) and coordinator of the IDEES magazine special issue on sustainability, Messner assesses the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals and reflects on the need to foster deep transformations. He also reminds us that, as citizens, there are three things that we can do in order to move towards a more sustainable world: voting, organizing politically and changing our consumption patterns.

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations, we are increasingly hearing from scientific voices that while in principle there is support for the SDGs, we still face challenges related to climate change, resource depletion and increasing inequalities. Sustainability has gained ground in public opinion and moved up in some political agendas, but COVID-19 has also had negative consequences and has pushed us back on some of the advancements we had made so far. What is your general evaluation of the situation? Do you think we are seeing the change in the world we need to achieve the 2030 Goals?

First, there is the 2030 Agenda as such and then COVID-19 comes in. I have three sentences regarding the Agenda as such. First, that the Agenda is about deep transformation; it is not about incremental change. There is a growing consensus around it. My second sentence would be that we can do this. I would argue, and we can move into details afterwards, that the preconditions to make this happen exist, in terms of our technological and institutional capabilities or the finance needed to make this happen. The preconditions are there. We can do it. We could do it. My third sentence would be that we have to accelerate, because we are far too slow.

Then we have the coronavirus coming into the whole picture, changing the panorama. This is something which we did not expect, like a black swan. My observations on this issue are the following. In the climate area, I am astonished that we are getting more and more ambitious climate targets from around the globe, in the middle of the pandemic and the crisis generated by the pandemic. This is interesting, because in 2008 and 2009, during the financial crisis, issues such as sustainability, climate, ecology, the SDG agenda —which was still emerging— were seen as a luxury, as something which we could not focus on at that time. This seems to be different this time around.

In Europe we have a nice package for the European Green Deal and we try to synchronize green packages with recovery programs, but our perspective beyond our European horizons is too weak

At the German Environment Agency, we did a study where we analysed 130 reports on stimulus packages around the globe. There were reports from Europe, the U.S., Latin America, China… I do not think we missed any important report. I was afraid that the same would happen as in 2008-2009, when our issues disappeared from the agenda. But this time, it was the opposite. We found very few reports that did not focus new business concepts and investments on climate protection and sustainable infrastructure. Therefore, the perspective of modernization, and how to create sustainable innovation and investments is changing. We need to see now that countries really invest in this direction. Looking into these reports, there is a new global green consensus. However, we have also seen a backlash in the social field. The coronavirus is a multiplier of inequalities, which existed already and are now even deeper. From the social perspective, we are running into more difficult situations than those we had to face before.

Are there other areas where we should put more effort and accelerate further, where we have not done well so far?

I could explain it in the feat of the European Union. If you look at it from a global perspective, there is a new green consensus globally. If you look at the first pictures and data coming up about real investments, we in Europe actually are not doing so badly, currently. We are investing more than other regions and countries in sustainability and climate protection, which is fine. But zooming into the European picture, I would argue that the first reaction to the coronavirus crisis was articulated at a national level. We closed borders, we looked for national and local responses. There was little European cooperation, which I found frustrating. This was the first sequence.

The second sequence was very important and interesting. I had a discussion with many of my colleagues, heads of other European environment agencies. In April and May we discussed the impact of the coronavirus crisis on our economies, our people, and whether we have the chance for a green recovery. People from more dynamic economies argued that in their countries there is a convergence between recovery discourses and green economy and climate protection. And for the weaker economies, it was the other way around. People from weaker economies, with high debt and unemployment rates, argued that in their countries discussing climate protection is very difficult in such a situation.

And then, we got the 750-billion-euro package [a post-COVID-19 stimulus recovery package —Next Generation EU— approved by European Union leaders in December 2020]. This was European solidarity: most of this money is currently moving towards the weaker countries. Without this kind of solidarity, based on international cooperation, we would not have reached the more ambitious climate goal which we reached at the beginning of December 2020. I would have liked to see an even higher and more ambitious goal. We argued for the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases between 40% and 60-65%, and we got 55%. But, had not it been for this 750-billion-euro package, based on European solidarity, we would not have reached this new, ambitious goal.

Where I see huge challenges now is that we seem to forget that there is a Global South. We do not only have weaker actors in the European context, which we need to support, but also, at a global level, there are huge divergencies and discrepancies from an economic and social perspective. And this is different in a negative way, comparing it with 2008 and 2009: back then, we had huge investments to stabilize the Global South markets. This time, this is not happening at such a scale. In Europe we have a nice package for the European Green Deal and we try to synchronize green packages with recovery programs, but our perspective beyond our European horizons is too weak. I would like to see much more engagement globally, to connect recovery packages with social issues and sustainability perspectives.

There are a lot of indications that we are already off-track to reach the commitments made during the Climate Ambition Summit five years ago, and that while Europe might be moving in the right direction, that does not necessarily apply to other countries. When you look at the commitments that were made during the Climate Ambition Summit as a whole, and possibly in future COP26 talks, where do you think the solutions are? What are the next steps needed to rally everyone towards the targets we need to achieve?

On the one hand, I see a tipping point situation in our societies. On the other hand, I see a new divergency in the global economy. The tipping point which I see in our countries is that the time pressure is huge in climate issues. We need to have global emissions halved every decade up to the middle of the twenty-first century. This is huge and acceleration is needed. On the other hand, I see much more ambition in the discourses, and many countries are committing for the first time to a zero-emission economy.

We had not heard many of these voices five years ago in Paris. We had the two degrees Celsius target, with a corridor between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, and our people vaguely talked about decarbonization during the twenty-first century. Now, however, many more countries are talking about reaching the zero-emission target in 2050 or even before. This is a huge change. We have the commitment in the European Union, we have the commitment from the new U.S. government —which is very important because this is a globally very relevant actor— , and we have, for the first time, listened to China’s take on emissions peaking and its zero-emissions target in 2060. We know that this is too late, so we need to work on that, but we have a zero-emissions perspective. And this is new. Therefore, I see that there is a tipping point, between our ambitions rising and the high time pressure.

If we don’t reach out to the Global South and make them partners in the process of sustainability transformations, we will not achieve what we are committed to

The new divergency is that we have these interesting dynamics in most OECD countries and in three large parts of the global economy. I talk about the new geoeconomical constellation towards sustainability transformations: the US, China and Europe moving into this direction would make a difference. But we see a missing connection between this and the developments in the Global South. We see new inequalities there, less engagement of G20 countries and less cooperation coming from OECD countries towards the Global South. This is the new divergency. The 2030 Agenda was about equal development globally, and this is not exactly what we are moving towards.

Where do you see opportunities for change? How can we reach out to the Global South?

We need to talk to the G20 actors, because 80% of emissions, resource consumption and the negative impact on ecosystems are being caused by us. It is in our hands. Many governments now accept this kind of responsibility, and we need to convince them that if we do not reach out to the Global South and make them partners in the process of sustainability transformations, we will not achieve what we are committed to. We represent 80% of the impact, but the other 20% also needs to be taken into consideration. So even if we all (OECD and G20) move towards a zero-emission economy by 2050, we still need the other partners on board, otherwise we will lose the battle from a climate perspective.

Then, from a social perspective, most of the work regarding bringing inequality and poverty trends down needs to be managed in the Global South from a stability perspective. We as richer nations have an interest in that. This is the linkage we need to focus on. So, if we now have the chance to rethink transatlantic relationships, we should talk not only about climate, ecosystems and sustainability infrastructures, but also about the inequality issues, poverty issues, and how to get the Global South on board. In think that ten years ago, we had a stronger perspective on Global South relationships, and we were less ambitious from a climate perspective. Now it is the other way around. Now we are moving in the climate direction, forgetting about the Global South. But in the 2030 Agenda we already committed to bringing these two dimensions together anyway.

Which is the relationship between digitalization and sustainability? Do you think digitalization can help with the Global South situation?

Looking back, it is astonishing that we had not taken digitalization into consideration in 2015 [the year of the Paris agreement]. When we decided on the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, there was no discussion on the deep technological shift. We were not experts on that, and the digital experts were not experts on our sustainability issues. I was then one of the lead authors of a report to bring together these two megatrends, digitalization and sustainability, and, in a nutshell, the assessment demonstrated that these technologies could help us move much more rapidly towards the implementation of the SDGs. Therefore, we can say that the potential is huge.

But what the assessment also proved is that we already have these digitalization trends which are now accelerating. In fact, these trends have been going on for twenty years. And we have not seen a decoupling of wealth creation and resource consumption, or of wealth creation and greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, if the missing links between the digital transformation and the sustainability transformation are not built, we will not get things right and we could drive faster in the wrong direction, due to the fact that these are tools designed to make things even more efficient, to accelerate processes, to automatize things. And then, of course, we have to recognize that these technologies could also be used in very harmful ways. Because if you bring voice and pattern recognition, you can trace people everywhere, every second. If you bring this together with authoritarian regimes, democracy and freedom come under stress, obviously. We need to understand how to use these technologies wisely, but the potential is huge.

We need to build the missing links between the digital transformation and the sustainability transformation; otherwise, we will not get things right and we could drive faster in the wrong direction

Therefore, here at the German Environment Agency in 2021 we are investing a lot of money into building up a lab for artificial intelligence solutions towards sustainability and to find out how to link them. Because what we also saw in the study that I mentioned is that our research community and the digital research community are still not cooperating. There are very few overlaps, but if we do not work together, we will not find the right solutions. So, we will bring these experts together under our roof here, and try to move forward. This is one story about digitalization and sustainability. The other story is actually reemphasizing what we talked about before, about the relationship between the Global South and the more dynamic economies. Investments in digitalization and artificial intelligence are mainly taking place in China, Europe and the USA, again, so there is a digital divide. Therefore, investing in and cooperating with the Global South countries in this technological dimension is very important.

Could you reflect on the impact of the European Green Deal and the objectives for 2050?

About the European Green Deal and how important it is we can highlight two things. This is the first European Commission that takes sustainability as an urgent issue. Because with the Juncker Commission [Juncker was president of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019], it was very difficult to talk about these kinds of things. The 2030 Agenda was about developing corporations, climate change was about the environment, but now the whole Commission takes the European Green Deal seriously as the main objective. This is great. And the second thing is that the European Commission has brought many strategies together with the sustainability project. This is even better than in the German context, we have a sustainability strategy of the German government, but we also have a growth strategy, an employment strategy, a competitiveness strategy. So, our sustainability strategy is one of many other strategies, it is not the centrepiece. Our argument was always “growth, employment, technology”. The European Commission has brought the strategies together now, and I hope we can implement the sustainability project.

Is this going to become a trend in countries and made into law? One of the big problems with the SDGs is their verticalization: can the Commission, and this new direction it is pushing towards, make sustainability more central to how countries operate?

What makes me optimistic is heuristics, which we all work with. In which direction are we moving? What are our strategic orientations? Because our world is complex, you cannot decide every day on new directions. The European project was built after the Second World War. This was a major heuristic, a major part of our mental map. In most European countries after the Second World War, social security nets, what we call the welfare state, this was a major shift in perspective. It shifted from a market economy without objective to a market economy working towards a welfare state, for the welfare of people. These are major shifts when we look backwards, and they have changed our societies.

For half a century, we tried to add green aspects to our economy and the welfare state. Now we put the whole thing at the centre of the project of our societies; this is a change

I think that after forty or fifty years of discussing sustainability issues, green issues, the Earth’s systems’ problems, and so on, we have a shift in perspective. For half a century, we tried to add green aspects to our economy and to the idea of the welfare state. Now we put the whole thing at the centre of the project of our societies. This is a change. What we need to focus on now is the structural reforms of our policies to make this really happen. In the past, we looked at the mobility system, the agricultural system and the economy and we said “here and there are some ecological standards.” On the contrary, now we are arguing that “we need a sustainable mobility system, sustainable agriculture, a sustainable circular economy, and so on.” Therefore, a structural political reform is needed to make this happen. This is the huge challenge we are confronted with now.

How will European citizens respond to all of these problems? With the current COVID-19 situation, will citizens push back to strong policy changes or is there pressure to address all these pressing problems helping make the leap toward stronger regulations?

If I talk about the German context, my observation is that we have a lot of support to move in this direction, after all these decades of debate. The larger part of the society is arguing for this direction, regardless of the colour of the political parties. As in all European countries, we have 15 to 25% going nationalistic, sceptics regarding climate, science, international corporations… But the other 75% are moving into this direction of a new consensus. We are having social democratic debates on how to manage the green transition. We are having green debates with the German green party about managing these sustainability transformations. We are having conservative discussions about it. But the main orientation is moving into this convergence towards sustainability transformations, which is very important.

When I listen to the private sector, it is actually very similar. We also analysed the debate during the coronavirus crisis in our business press, which is private-sector-oriented. The observations there are also in contrast with those made during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. This time, the private sector also links its business concepts and future business models with getting the prices right, heading towards climate protection and more innovation towards resource efficiency. This is the main trend that I see. Then, we have the movement of the young people called “Fridays for Future”. We have been waiting for that for twenty-five years, now they are here and Iam happy to see that. People can change things and perspectives and this has impressed many politicians and decision-makers. So, when decision-makers or, more broadly, people from our generation, are having dinner at home, we have our kids at the table and they are arguing in this direction, and I think this helps.

To finish on this positive note, what would you say to citizens, from any background or profession, to help them move towards a more sustainable world? What are two or three action points that every person can do to help?

I would say three things. The first one is that we can vote, at least in democracies. In the U.S. we recently saw that citizens can make a difference. Voting for parties who are moving in this direction is in our hands as citizens. Number two is that the young people are showing us that if we mobilize politically, we can make a difference. Organizing majorities for deep transformation is necessary, we cannot drive sustainability transformations against majorities in our countries. Organizing ourselves politically, as our young generation is demonstrating to us, can make the transformation successful.

Moving on to the third element, I agree when many of my colleagues argue that we need to change many systems: mobility, energy, and so on. We as citizens cannot change systems, this is about political decisions, our government, the private sector… This is correct, but then again, we as citizens and individuals can make a difference in terms of our consumption patterns. Mobility is a very important issue when it comes to climate protection. We can drive small cars, or incredibly huge cars, we can use public transport… Our mobility patterns can look very different. We have in our hands our own climate footprint, obviously. This is an important aspect when it comes to mobility.

Organizing ourselves politically, as our young generation is demonstrating to us, can make the transformation successful. We, as citizens and individuals, can make a difference in our consumption patterns

Our food patterns are also relevant from a climate and environmental perspective. We all know that an important contribution of the agricultural sector to its climate protection is our food consumption pattern and whether or not we consume meat, or how much meat we consume. If we reduced our meat consumption in Europe by 50%, which would be very good for our health, as the World Health Organisation claims, this would also be very good for our climate. So again, it is on us. The same happens with food waste. Something good we can do for the agricultural sector is reducing our food consumption pattern. In rich countries most of the food waste is being produced directly by citizens, by us. The government cannot help us on that: we buy this food, we put it into our refrigerators, and then we waste it. This is also something which we can do, and this is my third argument: we as consumers and citizens do have responsibilities and we can do better.

Dirk Messner

Prof. Dr. Dirk Messner is the Director of the German Environmental Agency and Co-Director of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He previously served as Director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University (UNU-EHS) in Bonn, Germany, and Vice-Rector of the United Nations University. He is a member of the Earth League, an alliance of sustainability scholars, and has served on several advisory boards. He is a specialist in globalization and global governance, sustainable transformation, decarbonization, sustainability, digital change, international cooperation and social change. He holds a PhD in political science, is a university professor and has written more than 300 publications.


Eva Jané Llopis

Eva Jané Llopis is the director of Health and Sustainable Development in ESADE and CADS adviser since 2019. She holds a PhD in Social Sciences and a Masters in Global Leadership. She directed several programs related to Health in the World Economic Forum and has a career of more than 20 years in international senior positions in organisations such as the WHO, Maastricht and Nijmegen universities, CAMH Toronto and the World Economic Forum. She is a consultant to international organisations like the WHO and the European Commission, where she takes part in the Multisectorial Platform on SDG. She has leaded international research projects and think tanks and authored more than 80 publications in scientific magazines and books.

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