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Published 2013 06 11, 14:17

Greenpeace Europe chief Jorgo Riss: Polluting atmosphere is like drink driving

European Union pays more than 1 billion euros per day for fossil fuel imports. This money would be better used if invested into renewable energy rather than paid to the Middle East and Russia, says Jorgo Riss, Greenpeace Europe director.
Jorgo Rissas
Jorg Riss / „Greenpeace“ nuotr.

A youthful-looking man walking a dog lets me into a building in Brussels that serves as headquarters for Greenpeace Europe. While I take a lift to the seventh floor, that same man runs up the stairs and opens another door for me. “Are you here to see us? I'm Jorgo,” he laughs extending his hand.

"I try to walk, use the bicycle, avoid buying things that I don't really need. I try to repair things rather than throw them away or share things,” says Riss in an interview with 15min. “I try to buy locally produced organic food rather than food that comes from far away by plane or has been produced using lots of chemicals and energy. I do these things because I believe that if everybody acts similarly, small things add up."

– Why do we need to care about the environment. Scientists are talking about global warming, but in fact spring was particularly late to come to Lithuania this year. And even if ocean levels do rise, it will hardly result in a biblical flood.

- I think that the term misleads. It's more accurate to call it climate change. It is a very chaotic process. Once the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere increases beyond certain level, it's like a person getting drunk. It's like alcohol in person's blood.

In some parts of the world it gets a lot hotter while in other parts it gets a lot wetter or the frequency of heavy storms increases. All of this becomes more frequent and less predictable. This is the real threat of climate change. It's already happening. In many countries droughts and floods are coming together. Sun is scorching the earth, drying everything up and when heavy rain comes, the earth cannot benefit from it because it doesn't soak up the water.

In Europe, we've already had effects of climate change. Droughts are more frequent in the Mediterranean region. That leads to more frequent forest fires. People are loosing their homes and dying. A lot of forests and fertile land is being burned. All this will increase as climate change gets worse and the atmosphere gets drunk with greenhouse gases.

It is a fact that the amount of chemicals in our air and water is increasing. What we breath in and get trough the food chain affects our health. Chemicals get through the food chain, through the water into the earth, through the earth into the grains and fruit that we or the animals eat. We have a lot of illnesses from allergy to cancer which are linked to our exposure to chemicals. Unfortunately, today there's almost no family which has no case of cancer. There are very few families without allergies.

A lot of companies use chemicals although safe alternatives are available. We need legislation that the companies must use the safest available alternative.

– And how can ordinary people contribute?

– We are all ordinary people if we are not part of, I guess, 0.1 percent of the very rich and very powerful ones on this planet. All of us should keep demanding from the few people who actually hold large economic and political power to change and improve the economic system. It is cheaper for companies to pollute rather than to produce clean things because the fine they have to pay for pollution is less than the investment into clean production.

There are companies that continue drilling for oil in the most dangerous places. They are now going to the Arctic. Even in the gulf of Mexico, we had a big BP oil spill. They are not able to drill safely. The Arctic is much more tense and more difficult environment. If you have any technical problems, climate conditions, ice, and winds would make any rescue impossible.

There is nothing that we can individually do to stop Shell, one of the richest and most profitable companies, from drilling in the Arctic even if you or I decide not to buy anything from Shell. But If there's legislation which says: you cannot drill anywhere unless you have safety plans for what you will do in case of an emergency and these safety plans have been independently reviewed and they are credible, then it starts to change things.

Right now, in Europe, more than a half of energy infrastructure needs to be replaced because it was built in the 1950-70s and it's getting too old. Politicians can choose: do we replace the power stations and the grid with new coal plants, gas plants, or do we go for something more modern – renewable energy systems. The European Commission has done an important study on this, "Energy: Roadmap 2050" where they've tried to map out what it would cost if we went about with business as usual and what it would cost if we went for more renewable energy. The conclusion is: it costs the same.

– Politicians have set ambitious goals in fighting climate change – an 80-95-percent cut in greenhouse gas emmisions. How realistic are these goals and how to achieve them?

- This number is based on the calculation of how much damage from climate change can humanity live with and at what stage does climate change become too dangerous. The effect of unpredictable extreme weather events becomes too costly because they completely disrupt our agriculture and the functioning of our societies.

They've said we need to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees. In order to stay below we need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 95 percent by 2050. Be it realistic or not, it's certainly necessary. The problem with most politicians in the EU and in most member states at the moment is that they prefer not to take action but to make promises that the action will happen in the future.

We can compare this with drinking limit for driving: 2 degrees Celsius is as much as we can drink. It's a risk but still we can drive without falling over. Above that we would certainly crash.

It is not easy to keep the change below 2 degrees, especially with the attitude that politicians and some big oil companies are taking at the moment. I mention the oil companies because they are actively giving money to politicians and institutions not to do anything because they make money out of the status quo. Little industry is lobbying for new technology.

In the end of the 19th century, when in most cities the traffic was horse-driven, nobody would have imagined that, 40-50 years later, no more horses will be on the streets, only cars and buses. The options that we have now to switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy is that kind of complete change.

– Lithuania is at its own crossroads in terms of energy. After closing down Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, we're hopelessly dependent on Russian gas. Voters said “no” to building a new nuclear facility in a referendum, but politicians seem inclined to go on with it. What would be your advice?

– I would congratulate Lithuanian people for their decision to step away from nuclear power which is very dangerous, expensive, and does not help become energy-independent. The solution is a more modern system. We have already seen in Germany how many jobs renewable energies have created - over 380,000, much more than in nuclear. Once the renewable system is built, it basically runs for free - on wind, sun, geothermal waters. It needs some maintenance and this is where the jobs come from.

Whether you import uranium, gas, or fossil fuel, you're dependent on the countries outside Europe. The uranium comes from Russia or Africa primarily. We all know where the oil and gas come from. It's a huge transfer of wealth. At the moment, the EU is paying 500 billion euros per year for the imported fossil fuel. Just imagine - more than 1 billion euros every day go to a few people in the Middle East and Russia. Imagine if we can reinvest this into a renewable system that is built, developed, maintained within Europe. That would be 1 billion euros every day into jobs, research, and development. It's a perfect receipt to address the current economic crisis.

– The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, however, did not deter all countries from nuclear energy – some are successfully building new reactors.

– Not that many countries are investing in nuclear. Much more countries have decided against nuclear or to phase out. Here you have to see the link to the military use of nuclear material. The UK is still thinking about nuclear because they still have nuclear submarines. China is still building nuclear because they want to be a nuclear power. India wants to be a nuclear power. Countries that have nuclear weapons as a national defense plan will always want to have nuclear power no matter how expensive, how risky it is, and how much population is opposed to it.

– Two new nuclear facilities are rising at Lithuania's borders – one in Kaliningrad and one in Belarus. Both environmentalists and politicians sound the alarm bells, but it looks like we'll be living with this hazard at our side no matter what we do.

- First, building a new NPP in Lithuania will make things even worse. Secondly, we have to try to prevent Russia and Belarus from building NPPs. If we cannot stop them because they are not part of the EU, then we have to think whether we can stop importing such dirty electricity and thereby undermine their economic interest. Although Russia, of course, has military interest in keeping nuclear energy.

– Another hot energy topic in Lithuania is shale gas. Would that make for a better alternative?

– The shale gas is a big bubble. We've had internet bubble and housing bubble. In the US, the only country producing the shale gas at a significant rate, its sale price is below the production price. The initial estimates that the US had huge new gas reserves had been revised downwards by the US authorities. And there's a lot of public opposition because heavy use of water and chemicals in fracking is creating local environmental problems.

There's a completely different situation in Europe. First of all, the legislation is such that people who own the land do not own the subsoil. There would be drilling, pollution, and heavy water use in your area without any direct benefit. In Lithuania and other countries, we have focus on sustainable economic growth which means jobs for 10, 20, or 30 years, not just jobs for two years.

The numbers are crazy: one drill needs 15 million liters of fresh water and 75,000 liters of chemicals. You will have several drills on each site. Water is becoming an increasingly precious resource on this planet. Some countries in the Middle East and China buy land in Africa or South America because they can no longer produce enough food for their populations. Northern Europe and Lithuania have good water supplies. Do Lithuanians want to pollute it with chemicals for benefits of a couple of years when they have a potential to set up a different type of economy around agriculture, tourism, and other industries?

– The Greens scorn nuclear energy as unsafe. Thermal power plants are very polluting. Wind power mills are a nuisance to neighbours. Which energy source to choose so that everyone is happy, the environment is safe, and production costs are within reason?

– We have examples in Europe where small villages and towns have, out of people's initiatives and enthusiasm, switched to renewables. It's more interesting for a state to pay for a switch to the renewable system than to keep paying for the nuclear waste or health problems that we get from coal. It was Japan's government that had to pay it out, pay for the evacuation. The company had no money to do that.

A colleague of mine comes from a village in Germany. One renewable energy company asked farmers to lease some land to put up windmills. One can still use the land for agriculture because the windmill needs a small surface of earth. The farmers started getting rent income. Then they decided: why don't we buy our own solar panel? They put them on big farms with long roofs where they keep hay and animals. That lowered their electricity bills. Eventually they had enough money to invest into biogas - waste of their cows, the cut offs from the fields. Now they have wind, solar, and biogas and are completely independent in electricity supply. They also supply the energy to the grid so the neighboring villages get clean energy while they keep making money. They've just renovated a local swimming pool.

Our study shows that the EU can have renewable energy system to power its economy and society. We can have local decentralized product, solar panels and wind mills, and we can have big wind farms in the Northern Sea and big solar farms in Spain that feed into the European grid, big geothermal in parts of Central Europe. All that together will make Europe energy-independent, keep over 1 billion euros per day in Europe and make people healthier because we have no air pollution from coal, no radiation from nuclear. Biomass is also a part of it - look at Lithuania.

– There has been a lot of speculation about Greenpeace finances. Where do you get your funding?

- Greenpeace finances are very simple - we have 3 million individual supporters worldwide. We take no money from governments, political parties, companies. We are supported by citizens and audited by external companies. This popular support gives us legitimacy because what we're promoting is not something that gives us money. We're promoting something that millions of people believe is solution.

Greenpeace International

Greenpeace International is a global independent campaigning organisation exposing environmental problems. Based in Amsterdam, it has 2.8 million supporters worldwide, and national or regional offices in 41 countries. Its concept was born in early 1970s when motivated by their vision of a green and peaceful world, a small team of activists set sail from Vancouver, Canada, in an old fishing boat. Their mission was to "bear witness" to the USA's underground nuclear testing at Amchitka, a tiny island off the West Coast of Alaska, in one of the world's most earthquake-prone regions. Nuclear testing here ended that same year, and the island was later declared a bird sanctuary.

Pollution at historic heights

EU paid 406 billion euros for oil and gas imports in 2012 (1.1 billion euros per day), 3.2% of its GDP, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has recently reported. More than a half of the fossil fuels used in the EU27 in 2010 were imported from outside the EU.

The United Nations, in its turn, warns that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has, for the first time ever, exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time something similar happened was several million years ago, when the Arctic ocean was not covered with ice and the sea level was some 40 metres above what it is now. At the beginning of the industrialization era, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 280 ppm.

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