The climate, EU and the role of a modern ambassador

December 7th, 2013

This article is more than 10 years old.

British ambassador Vivien Life explains how to gain influence in Europe, why renewable energy is not the only solution to climate change, and how the Danish foreign minister gave her an almost religious experience

Britain and Denmark have more in common than a colonial past, a powerless monarchy and a burning passion for Nordic noir television series.

Governments in both countries want to tackle climate change, and recently a team of British civil servants travelled to Denmark to garner support for cutting EU carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

The UK argues the target is needed to limit global warming to two degrees, the point at which experts say the warming would be devastating, and Denmark’s commitment to renewable energy made it an obvious country to approach.

British ambassador Vivien Life hopes Denmark will back up the new ambitious target.

“It might have come as a surprise that the UK was first out with the 50 percent target because Denmark is used to being the frontrunner on everything green,” Life said. “But the UK also has a strong cross-party commitment to tackling climate change.”

Same ambition, different approach
The Danish government agrees with the need for an ambitious 2030 target – the climate minister, Martin Lidegaard (Radikale), has expressed a preference for the European Commission’s recommended 40 percent target – but it doesn’t share Britain’s approach, particularly on the role of renewable energy.

EU members are currently committed to producing 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. There are no EU targets for beyond this date, though the Danish government has set its own target of producing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
But according to Life, renewables aren’t the only option.

“We have a government that is committed to renewables and has invested a lot in offshore wind. But we believe the right answer is to set an overall emissions target and see which technologies come to fill the gap. Nuclear energy is an option, but there is other technology out there that can make the difference, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).”

CCS involves burning fossil fuels, such as coal, and burying the resulting CO2 deep underground instead of emitting it.

“We are going to need to mix energy in the most cost-effective way. It’s clear that renewables will be a big part of the mix and we want to keep up the investment in offshore wind in particular,” Life said. “But the argument against having a renewable target is that we would have to predict the cost of energy solutions 17 years into the future.”

Life argues that a country’s climate policies need to be consistent with its economic growth and success. Denmark’s commitment to renewable energy can’t be separated from government policies that helped foster a green industry that now exports its technology around the world.

“We need to tweak policy to create our own domestic narrative. In the UK we are already talking about how the massive investment in renewables creates jobs and employment.”

The European question
The differing approaches don’t stand in the way of the UK’s drive to garner EU support for the 50 percent target ahead of the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris where – it is hoped – a new global climate deal will be signed to take effect from 2020.

“We need to form a group within the EU that supports the 50 percent target and can reach out to the ones that are harder to convince. We’re talking to France and Germany and others to form an alliance. It’s a classic way of developing influence in the EU: you start with a group and you broaden it and broaden it.”

The fact that Britain is taking a leading role trying to influence such central EU policy may seem counter-intuitive given the Conservative Party’s promise to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017 after first negotiating a “new settlement” on EU membership.

But the looming referendum does not suggest that the island nation is turning its back on Europe, Life said.

“We’re still in 2013 and there are issues that the EU has to address now, and climate is one of them,” she said. “The potential is there to make the necessary changes, and the European Commission has responded to calls for simpler regulation in the single market, for example.

“Cameron – as Conservative party leader rather than the PM – has said he will make the case for Europe, and for Britain’s place in it, ahead of a referendum, but only if the Conservatives form the next government and the EU focuses more on its economic benefits and becomes more democratically accountable.”

The modern ambassador
FOR NOW, the UK is still getting on with the tasks at hand and recently teamed up with Sweden and Denmark to help shape the next seven-year EU budget.

It is also keen to seal the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and EU. Life argues the agreement will make the EU much more attractive to the UK.

In Copenhagen, Life is trying to find ways to share knowledge and create opportunities for British businesses.

For example, the British Embassy hosted an event about so-called ‘telehealth’ this September after her team stumbled across a survey that showed that England, Scotland and Denmark had the most advanced IT welfare solutions in Europe.

“We got people together to talk about the problems of an ageing population and the challenge of wanting to continue to provide a high level of services through scalable IT technology solutions.

There’s also a commercial angle, and we wanted to forge relationships while also creating opportunities for British companies by making the right introductions.”

She added that Denmark and the UK share other policy interests, such as tackling youth unemployment and drug addiction. Further consideration is being given to the introduction of drug consumption rooms following the success of Danish injection rooms that have been hailed for reducing deaths among addicts.

Life seems to enjoy living in Denmark and says her most memorable experience since starting in the role in October 2012 took place at Folkemødet, the political festival held on the island of Bornholm.

“I remember walking past the foreign minister’s tent and seeing Villy Søvndal having a bilateral with the family of Julia Tymoshenko [the imprisoned former PM of Ukraine]. People were able to just walk past and see what they were doing. It was like the classical painting of the Last Supper.”


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