Dominique Voynet (Mayor of Montreuil; Former Minister of Planning and Environment of France; Co-founder, French Green Party)

06.02.2010 - Interview conducted by Henriette Guyard

Inčs de Belsunce (ICD) : Mrs Voynet, when you founded the Green Party in France in 1984, what environmental measures, do you think, could have prevented the current climate change crisis?

Dominique Voynet : In 1984, no one at all was concerned with climate change. The work of Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland had been published, but we were only starting to realise that some issues were outstriping the importance of national politics. We were starting to talk about acids, lingering pollution, substances that were attacking the ozone layer, the extinction of certain species... But the greenhouse effect and climate change were not on the agenda, we concentrated on problems which troubled us directly, like the nuclear issue, which rallied many of us during the French events of 1968.

As a Minister of the Environment between 1997 and 2001, what do you think about the future of Green Technology in France, and did it play an important role in your campaign when you were candidate for the presidential elections in 2007?

Dominique Voynet : When we say « Green Technology », what comes to mind is technological innovation, completely new phenomenon that nobody would or could have imagined before. But the fundamental and most important line of actions is to do well what we are already able to do.

In the case of housing, what is less useful is to program the exact rotation of a particular shutter to maximize the use of sunlight. Instead, we must use robust and reliable materials that can be produced on a large scale to build houses that are not “ecological strainers” where people are freezing in wintertime and burning in summertime. “Green Technology” is in a way the icing on the cake, the challenge in front of which people drool over, the subject about which the media talk a lot, but it is not the fundamental issue.

The main challenge is on the contrary to go back to old technologies. Canadian wells for example, used to control the interior temperature of the buildings, are not really what we could call “Green Technologies”, but they work well, on top of being very economical! Let us also discuss bio-climatic agriculture. For example, many think that new techniques should be explored for finding an alternative to the practice of watering fields in the middle of the day when the sun is at its hottest. But in fact, the solution would be to return to proven, economical millenary practices.

It seems that in Germany, more than in France, organic food has a real success. Why is this so?

Dominique Voynet : People often think that environmentalism works better in Germany than in France. But it is not true. There is what I call an “environmental impression” in Germany, that is not always seen in practice. You can see in Germany, for example, three different bin containers for glass. One for white glass, one for green glass, and one for brown glass. Yet, in many cases, the content of these containers are put back together, and not necessarily recycled. If glass is grounded to make a layer to support roads, for example, there is no point in separating the different glasses. If it is for remelting glass, it can be more interesting. Still in Germany, no one has yet been able to have the porcelain caps of beer bottles removed. These caps cannot be separated from the glass bottles, and because of them, the glass bottles cannot be recycled.

In certain areas, France is lagging, in others the French are in advance. In areas France has in fact set up much better quality standards than in Germany.  This is the case for organic food. In Germany, the quality of organic food is lower, subsequently Germany produces more of it as it is cheaper to produce and the demand follows. There is a resulting debate: is it better to produce goods of excellent quality for a small portion of the population, or to improve the global level of agriculture? I tend to think that it would be better to change the rules for 90% rather than for only 30%.

In the car industry, France is also surprisingly ahead of Germany, in terms of licenses, consumption, traffic law, etc.  Germany has just managed to sell its “Green image” better than France. Germany has never been able to sell its own energy technologies, such as nuclear power, as “green ecology”... but it is a good thing! On these questions though, we are often more in the domain of symbolism and public representations than actual technology.

The German, contrary to the French, “think organic” and are doing more in terms of recycling.

Dominique Voynet : We have clear conscience, both in France and in Germany, with technological breakthroughs or certain kind of efforts which have, in the end, hardly any positive impact whatsoever on the environment. If we say we are eating organic when the mutation of agriculture has not even taken place yet, it means that the products may as well be “organic”, but they are produced in China, and in conditions that are not very transparent. Above all, these products are very likely to have been transported by air plane, and therefore have an appalling energetic balance. In Manhattan, between 800,000 and a million people eat organic food. Most of them are forming a sort of high bourgeoisie and very proud of themselves. But most of what they consume comes from Mexico or California, making the energetic consumption very high.  What is the overall improvement in terms of human progress in the end? Not very high.

These are the kind of questions that really interest me at the moment, and this is why I do not necessarily eat organic food. I pay much more attention to where the food comes from, and I try above all to buy local products. Organic oil, for example, is good, to avoid toxic molecules. But it is hard to know whether or not it has been produced in the region of Paris, where I live!

When one eats organic, the question “Where does it come from?” is ignored. One imagines that the economy of operation has already been checked.

Dominique Voynet : The label “Organic” just indicates that the product does not contain any chemical  products or additives, but it does not necessarily means that the producers were paid for correctly.

Mrs Voynet, you have always fought for environment since the beginning of your career. Have you noticed any change in the behaviour of European governments towards environmental problems since 1970 and the Agenda 21?

Dominique Voynet : Yes, I have. People were first in denial. Then, they started to acknowledge the problem, but with the comforting idea that we had time to deal with it. Now, they know it is urgent. However, this feeling is often shattered by national interests. As a consequence, not a single country has a coherent strategy, a good Agenda 21, encompassing every domain of the economy. Germany, for example, which has very few natural resources, prefers to spend its oil in cars rather than in housing. It is a question of national culture. In other countries, such as those around the Mediterranean Sea, the energy balance is absolutely appalling. Many towns in Iran, despite the fact that Iran is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, are in an energetic debt!

When agricultural or water issues are being discussed, they effect only a small part of the population. What is fascinating about climate change is that it concerns everybody. What is fundamental about it is that it forces us to choose and decide the kind of society we want. I am absolutely certain that we can implement the regulations that tackle climate change. But it is a question of timing. If we wait more, states will have to take strict measures, there will be what I call “eco-fascism”, instead of a democratic model in which people choose their own way to develop.

You wrote that Copenhagen Summit was a failure, a vague declaration of principles without any real signification. What would you have liked to see at Copenhagen and what role should France have played there?

Dominique Voynet : Yes, I said it was a failure. I did not hear anyone say it was a success, except  President Sarkozy!

Copenhagen was a failure because what we wanted was commitments from the states in terms of reduction of gas emissions that were legally binding, with a system of observance, clear criteria of evaluation, and sanctions for those who do not meet their pledge. On the very first day of the summit, we already knew it would not happen. There were 170 pages of points to be discussed, on top of dozens and dozens of annexes to agree upon. The final text is incidentally tainted with an irreparable handicap: it has not been discussed with all the participants. It was negotiated in the corridors, on the basis of a sort of parallel democracy instigated by China and the USA. It was imposed without any possibility of amendments, without any collective validation, neither by the heads of states who were present and who must have felt deeply humiliated by the way it happened, nor by civil society which has been ruthlessly pushed into the background and outside the building were negotiations were taking place. One cannot say on the one hand that climate change is such a big issue, that  millions of humans have to change their habits and that civil society has to be part of the process, and on the other hand act in such an insulting way toward the same civil society.

What happened is that the negotiators had worked for months according to a mechanism which, because of a lack of clear political instructions, did not work. They did what they had to do, they defended their countries' respective interests and made sure they would be included in the texts. But the result was that the negotiations did not get anywhere for months. Another factor is that when Barack Obama was elected, negotiators thought: “The solution will have to come from Obama. Especially now that he got the Nobel Prize for Peace, he will have to announce strong pledges and give back some political leadership to the United States that will allow them to reach the terms of a strong negotiation”. By waiting for Obama like waiting for Godot, Europe did not do its job, and neither did France. Each time Europe has to act on the international stage, it remains extremely handicapped by its internal system of decision-making. And the measures that have recently been taken [with the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon] are not going to change that.

As the representative of France during the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocole in 1997, what conclusions can you draw after Rio, Kyoto and Copenhagen, and above all, do you still have faith in the process?

Dominique Voynet : If governments sent their Ministers of Environment to Kyoto, it is only because they had not realised yet the importance of the economic impact of the decisions we had to make! It does not mean that they would not have taken these decisions anyway, but they might have not taken them so quickly, in such a non-conflictual way. At the time, the only country which was aware of the huge economical impact of the decisions was the USA, which were careful not to sign an agreement that they found too binding. When we came back from Kyoto, our heads of state were rather proud that we had reached an agreement. The agreement was quite unusual in many aspects : it had the ability to differentiate two groups of countries, those who could act immediately and those who needed help to get the technologies that would enable them not to reproduce the same mistakes developed countries had made. On top of that, the Protocol was offering a whole panel of tools, which were according to me, good and useful. But I can only deplore the fact that we have not made much improvement since Kyoto, and that we found ways out, instead of tools that could take us forward.

In my eyes, in addition to the failure of the European Union that I mentioned, the fault also lies with the exhaustion of the UN. What happened in Copenhagen was a kind of fight for world leadership, and not the discussion of the terms of the climate negotiations.

Do I still have faith? Yes, because we have no choice!  It is just not possible to push this issue aside and give it up. Although multilateral negotiations are losing momentum, we still can do a lot. We have the economical framework, with the mechanisms implemented in Kyoto and with the market of CO2 emissions. The mechanism that is lacking is a financial one. I am not worried, as we will have to make it. I do not believe that because states are unable to act collectively, the problem should be treated by civil society alone.

Of course, one also needs experts...

Dominique Voynet : Experts were not lacking at Copenhagen, however they were speaking in a very technical language. It is not through lack of expertise that the negotiation failed. Negotiations failed because of a matter of political leadership and because of a lack of clarity of political decision. We will not reach an efficient economical agreement and a rational ecological agreement without a political compromise between states.

This is what Mr Jorgensen [MEP and Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary committee for the Environment] suggested : that an agreement will be reached, 20 years after it should have been, but not necessarily for an environmental purpose and for the correct reasons.

Of course, we will manage to fight climate change, because it is good for the economy. Because it is good to protect democracy. Because it is good for peace. Reducing our oil consumption is of course a strategic issue, not just environmental. Whatever the reasons, the important thing is to act.

(Translation : Henriette Guyard, ICD)