Teresa Ribera has been Spain’s minister for the ecological transition since June 2018. Before then, she had been the director of IDDRI (Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations) in Paris since 2014. Between 2008 and 2011, Ribera was Spain’s secretary of state for climate change. She has also been an assistant professor in public law at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.
- Ribera on when she first became aware of climate change: “I think the first time…was around COP5 [in Bonn in 1999].”
- On the Copenhagen COP in 2009: “That was a very dramatic moment…It was the end of the childhood and entry into the teenage [years]…But it was also a difficult moment for multiculturalism.”
- On the Paris Agreement in 2015: “It’s much closer to the real life [than Copenhagen]…It is uncertain, because the main motivation is not because someone is telling you what to do.”
- On the challenge of getting climate change onto the political agenda: “It was not something connected to the day-to-day life of normal citizens.”
- On the “mistakes” made by previous Spanish governments when promoting subsidies for renewables: “The problem was that it was very difficult to react or correct those mistakes. When it was made, it was too late…I think that they made a great mistake on that because that broke the confidence on the system. That was a hard lesson.”
- On the need for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels: “I think that distributional aspects are key. What we need to insist on is that the people should be at the centre of the discussion.”
- On lessons learned from France’s “yellow-jackets” protests: “I think that the cost of energy and the linkage to energy poverty, and the cost and opportunities, new opportunities in terms of employment, are key initial aspects of the transition, of the transformation.”
- On Spain’s new deal with unions to close its remaining coal mines: “I think that we achieved a good thing. That doesn’t mean that people are so happy. I mean if we go to the villages where they used to work, people face the bad moments of entering into a new phase.”
- On when Spain will end using coal in its power mix: “It is not so easy to think that for environmental and economic reasons that will last over 2030.”
Carbon Brief: Can you just explain the first moment you became aware of climate change? Was it a lecture? Was it a book you read? A TV programme? Just to begin the story of your interest and concern about climate change…
Teresa Ribera: I think the first time I became aware of climate change and the geopolitics of climate change was around COP5 [in Bonn in 1999]. So, a long time ago. In the newspapers we had not so much information, but in the days during the COP we had some headlines. And it was always a combination of summit, high political relevance, information about things not going very well and warnings on the impacts of climate change in day-to-day life.
So it was quite a strange thing. There was something that was going on. It seemed to be interesting, so appealing for political engagement, but things didn’t look like working as they should. Well, of course, I read those newspapers and it was not so easy to understand what was going on, or what it was intended to get. But some curiosity came up into my mind. I think that the whole process was quite interesting to be followed from outside. I was working as a civil servant. Someone from the meteorological office was very worried because they didn’t understand a word from negotiators about the compliance regime of the Kyoto Protocol before the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol – so making available the Kyoto Protocol ratification for all the parties to the UNFCCC.
Then I started to work a little bit deeper, to understand a little bit more, why there was a need to count on a compliance regime and to what extent dealing with climate [change] meant the need to get everybody involved.
It was very relevant from the perspective of public management and governance, but it was also very relevant from the business perspective, the industrial processes, the financial systems, the education, the science, innovation and research. My impression was that people were not on that. I remember an old professor of law – I’m a lawyer by training – but an old professor of law saying: “What are you working on, if this is something for meteorology, for climatologists, but not something for people interested in law?” Well, you’re wrong. It’s for people working in law, but people working in economics, and people working on industrial processor, or engineers or people working on agriculture. It’s very much a cross-cutting issue.
CB: So you were the minister for climate change from the period of 2008-11, right? Around the COP in Durban?…
TR: So, I was the director general on climate in the first [term] of Prime Minister Zapatero, 2004-2008. That was the period where the European action [on climate change] started to become a reality. So implementing the European Emissions Trading Scheme. Trying to identify where the strong points among the research communities to better understand the potential impacts and to promote a resilient adaptation strategy at home. Working with the different levels of the administration.
Then I became instead the state secretary for climate and environment between 2008 and the end of 2011. I was in charge of that agenda in the preparations towards Copenhagen [COP16 in 2009] and post-Copenhagen. And that was a very dramatic moment. We [Spain] were going to chair the European Union from January 1, 2010. So, just after Copenhagen. I remember those days, that Christmas, I could not sleep. I came back from Copenhagen in shock. I had been very involved during the COP and the negotiations, of course. We had the impression that there was a split between the official way of negotiating things and the way the Danish presidency tried to handle that at the end. Plus, all those other partners or countries that were not very interested in promoting the agenda.
It was a kind of milestone. It was the end of the childhood and entry into the teenage [years]. So I was discovering that life is not so easy and that the resistance was much bigger than what we could expect. The challenges were much bigger. But it was also difficult moment for multilateralism. I think there was a strong temptation among some good friends, some partners, to give up on the UN system and try to do things [on] his or her own. The preparation on how to get the lessons learned from what it had meant, in order to facilitate the recovery of how to solve the global agendas through the cooperation of multilateralism was part of the main concerns in those days.
CB: Do you think the Paris Agreement did that? Compare what the vision was in Copenhagen to what was delivered in Paris. Are you satisfied? There is a difference between the bottom-up and the top-down. What is your view on the difference between Copenhagen and Paris?
TR: I had the privilege to live the Paris Agreement from a different perspective. I had moved to Paris to work at a very relevant thinktank working on sustainability and climate issues, IDDRI. We were providing some support to better understand where the common ground could be and how we could frame the question marks so the questions and the answers to the climate multilateral agenda in a different manner.
I think that the Paris Agreement is pretty interesting because it is much more…it’s much closer to the real life [than Copenhagen]. It’s more holistic. It provides the good incentives in terms of promoting action. You act because it is your duty, your responsibility and because you invest in yourself. That applies to governments, to governments dealing with their own societies and to business or to civil society associations whenever they feel such about this agenda.
It is a challenge. It is uncertain, because the main motivation is not because someone is telling you what to do, but because you understand that it is your duty to your own responsibility in the world where you live and so according to your own capacity.
It changes also the understanding of the commonalities. In fact, it’s a treaty dealing with governance issues. What is the common goal? How we learn together? How we share the risk? And how we implement solidarity instruments to make this engagement, or the rest of humankind a variable in the context of suffering difficulties or great challenges? It makes it stronger, because it allows much more flexibility, understanding, freedom and different manners to be positive and active.
It is true that it can only work if people really do what they should be doing. That’s the good point. To what extent we all are in the same level of understanding. Or to what extent we try to escape, we try to avoid duties and responsibility.
CB: Looking domestically, looking back at the period when you were in government last time, what do you think were your big successes and what do you have regrets about that you could have maybe done differently?
TR: I think that the great success was to facilitate the spread of the concern and the very diverse levels of action that we need to put in place. So a better understanding by the society and the key stakeholders that it was important to act.
CB: Please explain to our audience, what the level of interest and concern on climate change was before that period…
TR: I think that for a very long time, as has happened in many other countries, climate change was something that was the agenda of scientists. It was the agenda of some very relevant experts. But it was not something connected to the day-to-day life of normal citizens. It was far away, in terms of geographical distance, in terms of time, in terms of their priorities of the agenda or the expectations towards the regulators and the institutions, the public institutions.
In the research community, I think that there were great researchers working in an isolated manner. But it was not so common to see teams that combined different backgrounds, to approach the problem with a much more holistic view. And it was not so frequent to find researchers trying to identify where the answers may be and not just where the knowledge is, but trying to be more oriented in terms of how to make things different, to change things. I think that what happened over those years was that it was vocalised, if we can say that way. It was much more accessible and easy to be understood. It became something that was closer to any average citizen.
Not meaning by that, that everything was achieved. But, for the first time, the different companies understood that there was something that also was relevant for them. So, they started to think about the question. What does that mean for me and my business strategy. For local authorities, it started to be part of their agenda. What does this mean for me? For my mandate? What should I be doing on this?
We started to see different initiatives growing on their own. Different interests that tried to make their voice heard to claim for further action, or for a change in the regulation of the energy system, or in the regulation in the use of land, or the role that agriculture could play. To have a public debate on what this could mean in terms of the combination of…
CB: Was there a media debate? Did you do a communications campaign, as the government? How did public awareness increase?
TR: We tried to work at different levels. We thought that the main duty should come from the government level. But government should go beyond the ministry of environment. It should affect the different departments in the government, the national government, but also the different regional governments and the different municipalities, the local governments. So we created different spaces for good governance, at the level of the national government, with all the ministries, or most ministries, being involved in a coordination body. And between the national government and the regional governments, a specific committee. Where we raise the issues and discuss the main lines of the main strategy, or the main laws, with the local authorities through the associations of the local authorities.
At the same time, we started to push the debate among the main business associations. We created some space for the research community. So, to develop some national assessments on main issues around climate, but also to provide some incentives in term of financial support for the research dealing with the climate-related aspects in different fields of research and knowledge.
CB: So looking back to that period…is there a regret, or were there mistakes made around the generous subsidies for renewable energy? Do you think that you would do things differently now?
TR: I think that there are two, three things that I learned from that period. I was not responsible for the energy portfolio. It was very difficult because I think we did not understand to what extent it was important to develop strategy to phase out what we needed to phase out. I think my colleagues in the energy ministry were still learning how to incentivise the renewable energy solutions. So, to a certain extent, you can make mistakes. The problem was that it was very difficult to react or correct those mistakes. When it was made, it was too late. The answers were not the right ones. There could have been other ways to solve or to face this issue. I think that they made a great mistake on that because that broke the confidence on the system. That was a hard lesson.
While I thought in real time that it was a difficult thing. And out of the government. When the new government, the next government went directly to tackle all of that, I think the solution was not better than the problem that we had to handle. Fortunately, they did it much better than us.
The other thing I learned – and that’s something that now we all realise is the case – is that we cannot tackle the climate issues just as an environmental issue, or an economic issue, or insisting on the business opportunities full stop. Of course, development and business opportunities are a great positive message and it is full of business opportunities and prosperity in terms of development and growth of wealth. But I think that distributional aspects are key. What we need to insist on is that the people should be at the centre of the discussion. Things are not easy because they are good. Because the phase-out strategies do also have an impact on the people. And those feeling menace by the change, who cannot see any type of hope or alternative for their own future, I’m not going to accept that the global [needs mean they] need ask them to be sacrificed.
What does this mean for me? Is this just sacrifice and that I have to find a different way of life, but nobody’s going to help me? I think that this is a very important lesson that we all should take into consideration. This is why I think the notion of “just transition” is very much a key player right now. Understanding that transition implies accepting an end point. It’s not I’m just going to avoid doing things and that’s all. No, no, I accept a certain level of risk and a certain goal for a certain date. I think that we need to pay attention to the distributional impacts.
CB: So you obviously have great experience of France. You’ve lived there and worked there. Do you think France made a mistake with what led to the yellow-jacket protests and the fuel tax?
TR: I don’t know if we can say that it was a mistake. But, probably now, it is easy to see that it could have been made better. I think that it is very difficult to say that we are going to reduce the taxes on those who are wealthier. And then we are going to ask for an increase of taxes on diesel that affects everybody – including, of course, those people that live in very small villages and do not have an option of public transport to make their day-to-day life. So I think that the cost of energy and the linkage to energy poverty, and the cost and opportunities, new opportunities in terms of employment, are key initial aspects of the transition, of the transformation. We all know that diesel or gasoline are things that need to be taxed, but I think that we need to provide alternatives. And not to promote an increase of these taxation systems without paying attention to who is going to pay. Because otherwise we may be confronting a kind of…
CB: So there were lots of headlines around the deal you made with coal miners in Spain. What exactly was this agreement? And how did you achieve this discussion and resolution with the unions?
TR: We were very worried by the fact that number of people working on coal mine mines was not very huge, or very important. It had been this many for a long time, but there were still a group of people working in coal mines. The owners of these coal mines were, most of them, leading the activity, but nobody was paying attention to these people. They were used to the fact that the future didn’t look very bright. So I think they knew that they would probably be the last generation working on coal mines. That’s very hard from an identity and an emotional point of view. It is very much localised in concrete areas. The way they have fought for their rights had always been based on the fact that there’s an emotional support coming from the rest of the society, because it’s people who have traditionally been very solid, because they put hard work behind them. People do feel touched by what they represent. But there was no way out. So, what they did was to protest and protest, to shout and, at the end, someone promised something to facilitate some more time for them.
But here we were reaching an end for that time. It didn’t make sense any more from an economic perspective in most of these areas. So what we tried to do was to have a very honest and candid conversation with the representatives of the different unions of these miners. Saying that our proposal is to work within the European legal framework and in the context of this long-term perspective of also dealing with climate. But then, under those conditions, we agree with you that society needs to be more solid with you. So, we need to find ways to support you and your villages who have depended traditionally on coal mining.
We worked on different fields. We have reached a deal that includes their pension rights, not only for those who get an early retirement, which is also part of the deal, but also for those that stay. But instead of working in coal mining, they’re working in coal-area restoration. It was still something which was a privilege in terms of the pension system and the salaries, but going towards an activity that looks into the future and not into the past.
Then there was another main line of work, which is supporting the alternative economies in each of these areas being affected by the closing [of the mines]. That was something that was difficult in the beginning. I think the first barrier was to insure that there was common interest on our intention to be supportive and to facilitate the phase-out and the acceptance of this coming to an end, which is emotionally very difficult to accept that this is the end.
But I think that we achieved a good thing. That doesn’t mean that people are so happy. I mean if we go to the villages where they used to work, people face the bad moments of entering into a new phase to discover. Then we need to craft the concrete alternatives with the local authorities, the neighbours, the businesses that are leaving and, of course, the workers and the unions.
CB: Just a final question. What is your personal vision of Spain’s energy mix, in say, 2030? Because you’ve put forward a big, bold vision. Just describe for me how Spain will look in, say, 2030, in terms of the way it generates and uses energy…
TR: This is something we are working on. Because our intention is to end the national integrated plan on energy and climate in the coming weeks and then to open it for general comments. But the main lines is to invest as much as possible in efficiency, to get into an electrification of mobility to certain ambitious level, and to work on the power sector so that we can increase the share of renewables to around 70% of the electricity system.
CB: And coal will be gone by that point?
TR: Our estimate is that coal will decrease dramatically in two years’ time, because of the new legislation on coal and emissions of coal plants in 2020. Then there may be some plants will still be there for a while, for a few years. But, it is not so easy to think that for environmental and economic reasons that will last over 2030. I think that could be quite unexpected.
CB: Thank you very much.
TR: You are welcome.
The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, on 11 December 2018.