The opening day of the 1st Athens ESG & Climate Crisis Summit, conceived and organized by Kathimerini, concluded Tuesday evening at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.
A diverse slate of speaker spoke about the climate crisis challenges, offering prescriptions and perspectives, as well as a sense of urgency at what needs to be done.
Todd Stern, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change and the US chief negotiator at the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which his country abandoned, then rejoined with the change in administrations earlier this year, said China, world’s biggest emitter, needs to step up its targets to cut emissions ahead of the COP26 conference, scheduled to begin at the end of the month.
Stern said the Biden administration has proposed “the most significant climate change program by far.” Left unsaid was how this program could be in jeopardy, with Senator Joe Manchin opposing some of its goals and defending his state’s prominent coal industry.
In a video message, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said “businesses have strong incentives to lead the way” in tackling climate change. If only all businesses, and businessmen, could understand that. Bloomberg is certainly one of the strongest voices among the world’s very wealthy arguing for the urgency to tackle global warming.
Dimitris Papalexopoulos, Chairman of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV), said industry supports Europe’s ambition to be the first climate-neutral continent. He warned, however, that “transition will be neither painless, nor cheap” and reminded the audience that “about half of the technologies that we need to meet the 2050 targets (an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions) are already in place. The other half have not even been invented.”
On the environmental movement side, WWF Greece CEO Demetres Karavellas said that “Greece ought to be a climate champion, but it is far from it.” He said that, with the recent destructive wildfires and floods, “we have already paid the cost of idleness,” adding that the climate crisis is already taking a toll on productive sectors.
“We know what we should do. The critical question is whether we will move forward based on what is politically feasible or on what science dictates,” Karavellas said.
But environmental policies are precisely based on what is politically feasible. Sokratis Famellos, a former Alternate Minister of Environment and Energy with the leftist SYRIZA government from 2016-2019, he is also a scientist, a chemical engineer with a graduate diploma in environmental planning. The scientist argued about the urgency of decarbonization and the need to bring forward the timeline if Greece is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The politician argued, improbably, that “delignitization is not decarbonization,” defending his party’s alignment with employees, and unions, in lignite-producing areas, who resist the weaning off lignite – also known as brown coal – because they fear the loss of jobs. The heavy reliance on lignite by state power company PPC has resulted in the latter paying significant sums in pollution penalties. At least lignite, according to the government’s plan, is being phased out.
Christos Stylianides, former EU Commissioner and now Greece’s first Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection, tackled the issue of the wildfires, a disaster that contributed to his appointment, saying that “if [forests on the island of Evia] had been properly managed we would have avoided a large part of the consequences.” He promised that the environment there will be restored on better foundations, but, underlining the difficulties of actual policy implementation, remarked that the European Union is not ready to establish a common forestry policy.
Costas Cartalis, a former official in a socialist government, Professor of Environmental Physics at Athens University and head of research on climate change for think tank diaNEOsis, summed up the effects of the ongoing climate warming: the intensity, duration and frequency of extreme weather events is set to increase. The number of heatwaves will also increase, creating extra demand for energy, for air conditioning, increasing costs for households. Also, mortality during a heatwave increases by between 6-8 percent, particularly among vulnerable groups, Cartalis said.
In a video conversation with Kathimerini’s Brussels correspondent Yannis Palaiologos, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of EU Commission, said countries must present more ambitious contributions in the run up to COP26. He echoed remarks made earlier by Todd Stern, saying that China, now responsible for 28 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, needs to be convinced to peak earlier than 2030, the date it has said for peak carbon emissions.
“Not adapting is not a choice. Not adapting will have an even bigger impact on our societies,” Timmermans said. He also remarked that 30 years ago, at the time the Maastricht Treaty, which, despite subsequent additions, is still at the heart of the European project, did not envisage the need for a transition from carbon-fueled economies. “We need new tools,” he said.
Alex Patelis, economic adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said that, despite its small energy footprint, Greece has a large role to play, by convincing Greek shipowners, who own a large chunk of the global merchant fleet, to play a leading role in the industry’s transition. That is, certainly, a tall task.
Alexandra Sdoukou, Secretary-General of Energy and Mineral Resources at the Environment and Energy Ministry said offshore wind farms are the future of energy in Greece. The local wind patterns certainly point toward such a solution; whether politicians can overcome local objections these projects will largely determine their success.
An industry representative, Maria Anargyrou Nikolic, General Manager at Coca-Cola HBC Greece and Cyprus, said she was optimistic her company can meet its commitment to achieving net zero emissions across its entire value chain by 2040.
Last, at a panel on tourism and the environment also featuring Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias, Yiannis Paraschis, CEO of Athens International Airport since 2007, remarked that air transport contributes 2-3% of all emissions. This is an especially hard sector to reform, as there is now no viable alternative to kerosene for fueling planes, although significant progress has been made in fuel efficiency. Paraschis said that, inevitably, flying will become more, not less, expensive for customers. This would be an important front, but one of many, where the public’s support of, and commitment to, climate mitigation policies will be tested.
The second and final day of the summit will feature Prime Minister Mitsotakis in a “fireside chat” with noted economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Ambassadors of Germany and the US, Ernst Reichel and Geoffrey Pyatt, in a discussion with Kathimerini English Edition Editor-in-Chief Tom Ellis, government ministers, economists, businesspeople and journalists discussing various aspects of the pressing climate problem.