What are the latest scientific findings on climate change and how will it affect Europe?
The latest IPCC Assessment Report published in February of this year tells us that the time to address the climate crisis is growing ever shorter. The 1.5 degrees warming target may be exceeded in the next decade, leading to catastrophic consequences – as we have already been experiencing, e.g. with the ongoing heat wave, drought but also flooding and other extreme weather events.
But the Report also tells us that solutions to the climate emergency are available – particularly nature-based solutions, that work with nature rather than against it to heal the climate as well as ecosystems and human health. Examples include planting trees in urban areas to provide shade and moderate local microclimates while enhancing quality of life; or restoring rivers and wetlands to sequester carbon, strengthen resilience to climate change, and enhance biodiversity and also recreation. The Report tells us that solutions are available and if deployed fast and at scale, they can stave off the worst outcomes.
In the 1960’s, the US embarked on a moonshot – an unprecedented effort to put a man on the moon. The IPCC Report tells us that we need an Earthshot – an unprecedented effort to save our civilisation.
In your position as Regional CEO for WWF for CEE, what do you see as the most important challenge facing the region?
The biggest challenge is having vision and courage to change. The challenge is clear, and we know what needs to be done. We have the solutions we need – not only to address climate change, but also to improve our security and our long-term livelihoods and well-being. With the EU Green Deal, we have a good framework for implementing these solutions. But still, many of the decision-makers and citizens in Bulgaria and in other countries of our region refuse to look reality in the face. Sticking their heads in the sand will not make things better – indeed, the IPCC Report clearly shows that the longer we dither, the longer we ignore the challenges facing us, the longer we do not take meaningful action, the less options we will have and the wore the situation will be.
We are facing an unprecedented challenge – but that unprecedented challenge is also an unprecedented opportunity. An opportunity to create sustainable jobs, to unleash innovation, to develop and deliver a multitude of solutions. That can be very exciting. But it needs vision and courage to seize this opportunity.
In light of the escalating war in Ukraine, how the EU can boost its resilience and independence through the European Green Deal?
First and foremost, weaning off not only Russian oil and gas, but also all fossil fuels. Europe cannot be dependent on energy from unstable and authoritarian regions. But energy independence should be internalized at a deeper level – via energy-independent communities and households, relying on producing their own energy. The transport and building sectors must become more sustainable, more inclusive, and equitable – we have all the technology, technical and digital innovations we need, but the big challenge is social innovation and behavioral change.
However, which areas of the ambitious decarbonisation program may lag behind? What are the risks of the war in Ukraine for their implementation, especially in CEE?
There are sectors like industry and transport that are hard to decarbonize. The war in Ukraine is putting great strain not only on the energy front, but also on the supply of raw materials – e.g. grain, fertilizers, vegetable oil and steel, which are produced with heavy inputs of fossil fuels, and on which the European and world economy still depends. We should be mindful that the fossil fuel subsidies we rely on for our wasteful and inefficient processes will come to an end sooner rather than later, war or no war. So we must prepare to preserve our quality of life without these subsidies, which is difficult in the CEE region, as we are still economically converging with the rest of EU. We have to think smarter and apply new technologies and paradigms faster, so we can truly catch up and lead.
In your opinion, how far is Bulgaria in preparing for these policies? How will this affect the economic development of the country?
Bulgaria is actually not as far off as it seems. As was shown in the spring when Russia cut off its gas supply, the Bulgarian economy could quickly reorient and the heating of buildings and gas inputs for industry could be reorganized to avoid the worst outcomes. The European Green Deal will help us further, slashing the overall energy and resources inefficiency of the Bulgarian economy, which still uses close to 3 times as much energy to produce 1 euro of value-added. But Bulgaria can manage and recover fairly quickly if all the recovery planning, funding and innovation potential is realized – this is something that WWF and others have point out many times. For the past two years, WWF and our partners in the Coalition for a Green Restart have been pushing for innovative green recovery. With the right economic development roadmap, ambitious decarbonization and circular economy sectoral transition plans in place, living and working in Bulgaria can feel and look very different in a decade or two – Bulgarians can, in fact, become green leaders.
As a person watching the big picture, how do you think business is changing its focus on green policies latterly? And its attitude towards ESG investments – why are they becoming more and more important for the future?
Both in my role as CEO and chairing the committee overseeing WWF’s corporate partnerships around the world, I have to say that the growth in interest and concern among business regarding climate and other environmental issues has been remarkable. I think that cold reality is sinking in – business leaders are realising how the state of the environment affects their bottom line, both now and increasingly in the future. Environmental risks, including climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss, have held the top spots in perceptions of global risks for the past three years. In 2020, all top 5 perceived global risks in the World Economic Forum’s global risks report were environmental.
Businesses are increasingly aware of supply chain, reputational and regulatory risks related to the environment. But they are also increasingly realising the opportunities related to taking action for the climate and a living planet – the opportunities to achieve cost efficiencies and to enhance their reputation, but more importantly, the opportunity for innovation and development. Every challenge begs a solution – and every solution is potentially a business for a successful enterprise. We are facing extraordinary challenges for which we need lots of solutions, and successful businesses to deliver those solutions.