Danish minister: Green growth without prophesying

By Timothy Spence

Danish Environment Minister Ida Auken has an ambitious agenda for her country's EU presidency, including global leadership on sustainable development. The Socialist politician says she sees no conflict between environmental regulation and spurring economic growth in Europe.
Ida Auken has been Denmark’s minister for environment since October. A member of the Socialist People’s Party, she was elected to the Danish Parliament in November 2007 and is a former chairwoman of the body’s environment committee. 

The Danish presidency promises to provide – and I quote your statements – a “strong European voice” at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro later this year. What will that voice say?

We know so far that we have Council conclusions on the green economy roadmap and I think we can try and get even a step more concrete. That’s what we will work for. We can try and have targets on, for instance, water and on energy - we know that the secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon] has an initiative on sustainable energy for all.

I think we will be working for water goals and we will try to merge the green economy roadmap with the idea of sustainable development.
Europe also promised a leading role at the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, but by all accounts failed. At Durban in 2011 there were the same assurances followed by more disappointments. Why can’t the EU seem to get traction at these events?

The EU has shown that we have very ambitious regulation and targets at [home]. We have the Water Framework Directive, we have ambitious targets on energy also. So we actually have a good starting point to enter into negotiations with other countries because we’ve actually shown at home that this is possible and that we are willing to deliver ourselves. So that’s why I think the EU still has a possibility.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. We are in an election year for many countries, not least the US, and we know that this is not always the easiest time to get international agreements. But Rio is really an opportunity that I think we can’t miss as a world community.

My hope is that we can get some new energy into the negotiations because of course we’ve had some disappointments in the past years, especially on climate change, but we also have a history in the environmental area to actually have agreements that move things.
Are there any indications at this point from the United States that there are any deals developing for Rio?

It’s hard to say at this hour because things are happening right as we speak in New York – the negotiations on [the UN Global Sustainability Report] - and it also depends on who you ask in the US, so we will see. I still have my hopes for [President Barack] Obama and I think this is one area where he could do a little bit more.
There is much talk about “sustainable development” in the European Union and there are wide-ranging definitions of what that is. How do you define “sustainable development”?

Economic development that is decoupled from the use of resources.

And maybe even go further and say the next step is an economy where we actually improve on indicators, for instance, air pollution, water quality, land use, energy use -  where, while improving the economy, [we] are actually also improving some of these areas.
You mention economy. There seems to be a very strong emphasis in the EU today for more economic growth, not more regulation. Does that mean your presidency is out of touch with the mainstream needs of European countries?

I think this is false … because often we also see growth coming as a follow-up to standards for our society.

Many of our green businesses were developed because we had regulation. In Denmark, you can’t burn tyres, so we have a company that recycles tyres and it’s a huge, major success internationally. In Denmark, we set strict standards for building insulation – we have a huge player in that field.

So I think it’s a false position to put those two [growth and regulation] as opposites.
Historically, Common Agricultural Policy reforms involved pitched battles over money. This year is no different, except that the battle lines appear to be forming over how to spend the money to get farmers to be “greener”. Where does the Danish presidency stand?

The CAP is not part of my portfolio, but I’m still working in close cooperation with the minister of agriculture [Mette Gjerskov], and we agree that on the CAP reform we will have to try and find finance for nature and biodiversity. This could be by giving more flexibility in how to have nature areas … this could be in having greening in both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2.
These presidencies are very short and you alone have a very broad mandate. If you are able to accomplish one thing, what would that be?

I hope to have ambitious conclusions on the Environmental Action Programme. That would be really one area where I think we could move a step forward.

But Rio is just as important. I think it’s important for us to keep the faith that it’s possible to move these things despite the economic crisis and to keep bringing energy to this field of environment and showing the benefits despite the difficult times.
You studied theology and have worked as a chaplain – including time as the priest in a prison hospital. Your government has promised a green presidency. How do you personally practice what you preach?

[Laughter] I was only a trainee at a hospital in a prison.

Well, I can tell you that my first car was the car that is related to my [government] ministry that I drive at the moment. So I’ve never owned a car and almost always use my bicycle. Besides that I live quite a modest life in a very small apartment.

But I try to keep the moralising out of environmental politics, so I never preach. I try to show the opportunities within environmental policies, to show there is the benefit for all of us. This is not about being an especially good-hearted person, being green, this is about realities, this about facts, this is about using the opportunities of something that will otherwise come to us in a much more harsh way if we grab it now before we get hit by it in the back, so to speak. We can use it as a driver for innovation and for new possibilities and new growth.

So normally I would never preach, and I wouldn’t put myself on any kind of pedestal