“We Must Grasp the Opportunity that Paris Offers”– Interview with Former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso

By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL

 The completed desert road complex.


THE Fifth Kubuqi International Desert Forum took place last July 28 to 29 in Ordos City in Inner Mongolia. Under the Green Land Partnership Program of the United Nations, and in cooperation with the private sector, China’s government has made remarkable achievements over the last 20 years in fighting desertification in the Kubuqi desert region. During the forum and just five months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, we spoke with José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission and also former prime minister of Portugal, about the importance of environmental cooperation between China and Europe in the international fight against climate change, China’s progress in achieving a more sustainable growth, and the significance of China’s new Silk Road Initiative in building a greener world.


China Today: Mr. Barroso, from 2004 to 2014 you served as the 11th President of the European Commission, during which time you maintained close contact with China. How did cooperation between China and the EU on environmental protection, low carbon economy development, and green technology change and evolve during these 10 years? And how do you personally evaluate China’s progress in this regard in recent years?


Barroso: There has been amazing progress in overall cooperation between China and the European Union over the past 10 years, and I think we should be happy with the results of dialogues on environmental and many other matters. The European Commission proposal in 2007 of the so-called 20-20-20-package, aimed at a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 to 2020, as well as a 20 percent gain in energy efficiency and 20 percent growth within total energy consumption of renewable energy, seemed extremely forward-looking at that time. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to reach a consensus at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen due to differences among some of the major players. But I think things got on track later on. Today, there is much convergence between China and the European Union on climate policy. We understand the different responsibilities and the need to take into consideration respective levels of economic development. But at the same time, both China and the EU understand that global commitment is crucial to fighting climate change.


The goals the Chinese authorities recently announced included China’s renewed commitment and ambitions. There is in China today a greater awareness of environmental challenges and climate protection. Looking back, I think this was one of the areas where we made the most progress, and that, along with a dialogue between the EU and China today, there is also a convergence of efforts. This is now crucial, because we cannot fail to grasp the opportunity that Paris offers in December. To be frank, Copenhagen was a disappointment to us all because it was not possible for the world’s biggest players to align. But I think that in Paris we might possibly succeed, and that the dialogue between China and Europe is one of the building blocks towards a comprehensive agreement.



China Today: China and the EU are two of the world’s most important economies. What is your estimation of the potential for green cooperation between them? And are any cooperative programs forthcoming between China and Europe specifically to cope with climate change and achieve sustainable development goals?


Barroso: I think our main aim is for us all to meet in Paris. This summit is vital, because without the leadership of China and the EU there can be no solidarity. China and Europe are two of the main players. So Paris constitutes a concrete step, as afterwards the commitments can then be transformed into concrete tasks for every country. But first we need a global agreement.


There are also many other concrete areas of cooperation. They include, for instance, the vision of the new Silk Road, raised by President Xi Jinping, of connecting Asia and Europe through new ways of transportation in a sustainable way, which is an excellent concept that can play an important role. The question is: What can we do together to create a greener world? I think we must mobilize science, technology, and financial support, not only from EU institutions like the European Investment Bank, but also from the governments of European member states, as well as from China. Under the framework of a new Silk Road we could mobilize financial resources to make these projects happen. Many cooperation projects already exist between universities and science programs of the EU and China. But there could be even more concrete cooperation in science and technology, training, building capacity, and the exchange of experiences between Asia and Europe.


China Today: On March 24 this year China added the word “greenization” to its political missions. It encompasses goals such as new industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization. What is your estimation of the significance of this, especially taking into account that China is the world’s largest developing country?


Barroso: I think this step is extremely important, because economic growth shouldn’t happen at any price and must respect certain ecological balances. We in Europe have been fighting for this concept for some time now, probably because we attained industrialization earlier than China. Our public opinion, especially among the younger generation, is extremely sensitive to this issue. Growth, yes, but sustainable growth.


To be frank, some years ago this debate was difficult because the attitude of certain developing countries towards the industrialized nations was: “Okay, you’re talking about sustainable development because you are developed and want us to stay underdeveloped. We want to develop just as you did and have.” It was a difficult situation, because at times it seemed as if we were on opposite sides. But we replied, look, try to avoid some of the mistakes we have made. We are not trying to limit China’s growth potential. On the contrary, China’s growth and that of the so-called emerging economies is vital, both to themselves and globally. China is Europe’s most important market. But at the same time we believe it would be best for all concerned if China’s growth were to take place in a greener way to avoid later imbalances that would exact a higher price from the Chinese people.


This idea has evolved over the past years and now there is a consensus, albeit under the principle of shared commitments and different levels of responsibilities. We understand it is only fair that the economies that have caused the most pollution should now take a bigger share of responsibility. However, it would be a mistake for developing economies to repeat the errors made by countries that industrialized earlier. That China, as the world’s biggest developing country, has declared greenization as an official state doctrine is great news, for China as well as for the whole world, because it implies that China’s development will be sustainable.


China Today: China and Western countries vary widely in their system of governance. In political decision-making China follows a more top-down than bottom-up approach. Do you personally regard the Chinese approach as more efficient or do you think that more people’s initiative is needed to achieve China’s sustainable development?


Barroso: I believe that both approaches are important, and I am convinced that there are different strategies for different contexts. We surely cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach to green development. We should be flexible enough to adapt our strategies to different contexts. Still, I think a top-down approach is not incompatible with a bottom-up approach. I also think that both exist in China.


 Interview with Former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso.

I remember Chinese leaders telling me how important the issues of environment and climate protection are in China’s public opinion. Both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have mentioned, for instance, that many of the concerns that Chinese citizens, including young people, express on the Internet relate to environmental issues. Although the system in China is indeed more top-down and coordinated than that in Europe, it seems to me there is also responsiveness and reaction to what the public feels. At the European level – a discussion we often have in Europe – we have a special system of governance. We are 28 countries, not one country like China, so of course our decisions take more time and our system is less coordinated as it must take into consideration the diverseness of our countries, their different histories, languages, and also perceptions. Sometimes the decision-making process is very time-consuming, but it works in the end, which is what counts. What is important is to have a common vision, to agree on certain goals, and to seek the best way to implement these goals.


China Today: You came to China to take part in the fifth Kubuqi International Desert Forum here in Ordos City in Inner Mongolia. Remarkable progress in combating desertification has been achieved in the Kubuqi Desert over the past 20 years. How do you evaluate the achievements and the role of this forum?


Barroso: As there are only very few forums dedicated to desertification at this level, I think the Kubuqi International Desert Forum is a significant event. I have visited many countries throughout the world over the years and participated in many functions relating to climate change, bio-diversity and environmental issues. But this is the first time I’ve taken part in a gathering specifically to do with desertification, so I really welcome the Kubuqi Forum initiative. It serves a good purpose, and from what I’ve seen and read about the Kubuqi model of fighting desertification, it is most effective. It seems to me that those responsible for the project have done an excellent job here in Ordos, so it is no surprise that they have the support of the local and national authorities as well as of the United Nations.


China Today: During its rapid rise China has often focused on maritime development. However, we now see that by going deeper into the ocean China faces more risks of territorial disputes. The desert, in contrast, has seldom been a point of focus. The Belt and Road Initiative presents a political vision focusing on an inland road, and the Kubuqi pattern presents a pattern of action. The new Silk Road seems to offer China a way of rising peacefully and constructively and with fewer risks. Is that, in your opinion, an idea that the European people welcome? And how do you evaluate China’s rapid development in this context?


Barroso: I’ve been working with China for many years since the 1980s, both in my former capacity as president of the European Commission, and as prime minister of Portugal. Now, of course, I can only speak in my personal capacity, and I believe that the rise of China can be a universally win-win scenario. In fact, in speaking about China’s rise it is de facto a relative one, because China is regaining the position it held for centuries. If you look at history, the situation in the 19th and 20th centuries was not normal. As one of the biggest countries on earth, not only nowadays but also during many centuries in the past, China has also been one of the biggest economies. However, economic might also entails bigger responsibility. None of us is isolated; we are a society of countries. And so we have rights, but also duties, and the bigger you are, the more duties you have.


It is true that there are concerns and sensitivity in certain areas. I think this is only to be expected, in view of China’s impressive growth in the past years. In my opinion, it would be wise from the Chinese perspective to make clear to the world that China’s rise brings a win-win scenario. It is important to avoid any impression of arrogance.


As with relations between people, in relations between countries we should defend our interests, but also take into consideration the interests of others. And desertification, the concrete topic we are discussing here in Ordos, is a scenario in which China can prove its experience. But this is not to say that a rise through the desert should take precedence over one in a maritime context. I think China should employ the growth potential of both the sea and the land, including desert. What counts in the end is that such a growth takes place in a sustainable way, and respects the rights of others.