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Popov on Failure of Climate Change Politics in Eastern Europe

by Carmen Albisteanu //

Julian Popov is currently the Minister of Environment of Bulgaria and an ex-consultant for the European Climate Foundation. He has worked as a consultant on numerous projects on institutional development, public relations and education policy.  Among his clients have been the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Commission, the British Open University, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, and many others. He is also a founder and served briefly as Director of the NBU School of Management, established jointly with the Business School of the Open University (UK).  Since 1995, Julian Popov has been a Member of the Board of Trustees of the New Bulgarian University. 2C interviewed him before he got into today’s high office in the Bulgarian government.

Julian Popov, Bulgarian minister of environment
Julian Popov, Bulgarian minister of environment

You have studied the way politics and environment policies interact. To what extent do you think that the politicians should focus on a green agenda as a mean of gaining more votes?

Yes, of course it would bring a lot of votes. And, when it comes to politicians, there are opinion polls and then they look at what are the most popular items and they talk about that. This is fine, it’s a populist approach, but it usually shows lack of leadership. Politicians should consider not only what people think at the moment, but what they could be inspired to think and if they look a little bit more carefully at this opinion polls they would see that different types of green messages trigger quite serious interest in different groups of the public and they will have to address that.

Do you think that environmental messages are not popular in Eastern Europe?

They are popular, but it depends on how you formulate. Not only in Romania, but in all countries, there is a problem of how you formulate the green issues and the green problems. If you say ‘we have to reduce our carbon footprint in order to save the polar bear’, people will not react at all. If you say ‘reduction of CO2 emissions means better energy efficiency, better houses, lower energy bill’, then people will react.

Can you give us any example from you country or other Southeast European country where a politician successfully used an environmental message for his image?

In Eastern Europe, in general, politicians are not very keen to be very active on that ground. Specifically when it comes to climate change related issues. But otherwise, when it comes to generally green and environment subjects, I think that politicians are very aware of that and they use it. The problem is to split the general environment issues from the ones related to climate change. Climate change is much more complex and covers many more areas that the general environment issues do. The Hungarian president, Laszlo Solyom, is a good example. He was one of the leaders of the group called Danube Circle which in the late ’80s opposed the building of a dam on the Danube. And that’s how the Hungarian Revolution, in a way, started. His position in the country, his reputation is very much based on this kind of messages. Now, he is more and more talking and involving in his speeches issues related to climate change and that shows that it can work. I can give you many examples in other countries of politicians who used, out of conviction or out of pure political PR a green agenda.

How much PR is there behind the politicians’ green agenda?

With politicians, you never know! They have to react to what people want or what they will want on a short term. And sometimes it’s difficult to split between populism, PR and actual concern, but climate change agenda is absolutely leading in many countries at the moment: In Denmark, definitely, Sweden, all the northern countries, England, Holland. The current leader of the conservative party in England, David Cameron, changed his popularity very much on the basis of promoting a climate change agenda. In France, Sarkozy is absolutely determined to be the most vocal champion of measures against climate change. In Germany and in Portugal, as well. And I’m not talking about simply mentioning the issue, but actually doing and having speeches, persuading people. The prime minister of Portugal, for instance, was determined to turn Portugal into a carbon free country. I met two weeks ago the mayor of Copenhagen, she is leading a campaign to turn Copenhagen carbon free by 2035 and she is very proud of it. But it’s not the case everywhere.

Have there been any studies or are there any percentages that show to what extent the voters are interested in such policies?

Yes, but sadly politicians aren?t using them. For instance, there was a Eurobarometer study last year that showed that 50% of Romanians think that climate change is the most serious issue facing the Earth. And that is a very serious percentage. It depends, of course, whether you ask this question. If you don?t ask ?is climate change a serious problem??, then you will not get an answer. This is not on the top of people?s mind all the time, it?s not bread and butter, it?s not water or heat. Before the European elections there was another study that asked what are the five major key issues that the European elections should be focused upon and I think that 16% of Romanians or 14% said that one of the five issues should be climate change. Definitely politicians should act on that.

What is, in your opinion, the most spectacular growth in surveys for a politician, based on an ecological message?

Certainly, there is a tradition in Germany. It’s very typical for them that environment issues get popular, that’s why they have a very strong Green party. There is an interesting example in the Czech republic, where the Green party managed to get into Parliament. They changed a lot of environmental policies, especially concerning energy efficiency for buildings. And let?s not forget Obama. He is a very very serious case in which the green agenda is part of the success of the whole campaign. In the last elections in Japan, the previous government, the conservative government, promised an 8% reduction of the emissions by 2020. The opposition came after that with the promise to reduce emissions by 25%. A 25% reduction in Japan is something absolutely revolutionary. In Romania it?s not revolutionary because you can get 25% by isolating the buildings and fixing a few things. Japan has two times energy efficiency than the average in the European union. So to achieve a 25% reduction is massive. You would have to have an industrial revolution to do so. They won the elections and they stuck to their guns. I think it?s an industrial revolution coming from China, America, Japan and not only. The only countries that are not involved in any way in climate change issues are Central and East European countries, the whole former communist block. They don?t get politically involved in climate change.

Why do you think that the Romanian politicians don?t show an interest towards subjects like climate change and do not promote an ecological message, based upon sustainability, green development and energetic independence?

Why don?t Bulgarians, why don?t Russians?? It?s strange. A Polish writer once told me that people in Eastern Europe are fed up with revolutions. I think that?s one reason. People don?t want change. In Eastern Europe, I think, people are very tired of change that is promised and not happening In the last 20 years we?ve always had somebody coming and saying ?I?ll change everything? but did?t change a bit. They change, they become corrupt. That could be one explanation.

Is such a message so important and such a priority, taking into account the social and economic problems Romania faces at this time? Is there any left space on their agenda, besides social and economical aspects?

Exactly because of that it should be. If you decide to insulate the old communist buildings it means that you solve social issues because you create jobs, you lower energy bills and change the conditions people live in. People will leave in cheaper, warmer and dryer houses and will pay less and will have jobs. This is when they will listen to environmental political messages.

In a society where the ecologists are not taken seriously ? for example, when the presidential candidate of the Green party, Remus Cernea, in Romania set his picture on fire to warn about the threats of climate change, everyone mocked him – do you think there are any risks for promoting green social, political and economical policies as a politician?

It depends how you formulate. Yes, if you start burning things around, this is the kind of activism that has its place. But a green agenda doesn?t mean everybody burns. There are activists, there are campaigners that do this kind of things, but that doesn?t mean that politicians should not focus on the very constructive part of the green agenda, this is creating and developing technologies, reducing the exposure of countries to energy import. This year, the gas stopped in Russia and people were shivering all across Europe. And we need to reduce this dependency. Romania has 19% potential to asses its energy needs with biomass and it?s not used. When something like that happens, you think ?we should have been nicer to Russia?, but you don?t think immediately that you should have developed technologies that use les fossil fuels. It is perfectly possible to have an economy that doesn?t use any fossil fuels.

Are voters in South Eastern Europe prepared for an environmental message?

Yes, they are prepared, but gain, one shouldn?t use primitive slogans, ?let?s save the world?. People will not vote. But if you explain you have a certain program that would benefit the voter in the next 2-3-5 years, then you can win their votes.

All around the world, the greatest supporters of a greener future are young people. However, they are also the ones who don?t go to vote. How does this situation influence politics and the politicians? messages?

That?s what David Cameron did in England. He attacked the young voters who were not interested in left and right. The first time I saw real communists it was when I went to liberal England. And young people are not interested in communism or anti-communism. If you have a political party that goes and says ?we?ll destroy communism?, people don?t vote. But if you have a completely new message, which addresses this young generation, they will immediately start listening and thinking ?there is somebody speaking our language?. Young people like new things and politicians are not very popular.

What is the best way the government should explain the necessity of environmental taxes, such as the car tax, plastic bag tax or even the carbon tax?

Mainly, they have to explain. There is a very serious communication problem. People will accept the measures if they are explained.

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