The report to the Club of Rome, which warns of a rapid depletion of resources, was your source of inspiration. How do you look back at it after all these years? After all, it is criticised by many as an exaggerated message of doom which has not come to pass.
"The core message is still standing. Which is that we cannot continue in the same way as before. The analysis is correct in general terms, irrespective of the numbers, even now. To be sure, it was a different time. In the seventies, the emphasis was on the finiteness of resources. Now we focus much more on the negative effects of usage. But that makes no difference to the conclusion that we drastically need to turn over a new leaf."
The ideals that drove you at the beginning of your active career, are they still as relevant today as they were then?
"Even more relevant. The urgency has increased. But the themes have changed. In the seventies and eighties, these were much more local in nature. We kept ourselves occupied with acidification, smog formation, water pollution, waste problems. Now the emphasis is primarily on global issues: the nitrogen and carbon cycle, loss of biodiversity, climate change caused by human activity. In The Limits to growth, this is only casually talked about."
Climate change is currently by far the most important environmental issue. Is this not at the expense of other issues that are perhaps more urgent, such as air quality?
"I don’t believe so. We should also not underestimate the urgency of the climate issue. That this nevertheless happens has to do with the human spirit which is almost incapable of conceiving of future climate change as urgent. That you must now make sacrifices to prevent irreparable damage later unfortunately does not sink in for most people."
Many environmentalists and activists are warning that the world is facing a catastrophe if we do not switch over to 100 per cent sustainable energy within ten or fifteen years. Europe is aiming for 80 per cent in 2050. How realistic are those ambitions?
"Renewable energy ought not to be the main objective. The issue at stake is greenhouse gas reduction. You have to choose your goals based on the problem. I have no problem with fossil fuel per se; it is the effects of consumption with which I am struggling. What’s the point of aiming for a goal of 80 per cent renewable energy if the CO2 emissions nonetheless rise, inter alia because relatively clean fuels such as natural gas are displaced by coal?"
The world is struggling with more major issues in addition to climate change: poverty, hunger, epidemics. What they have in common is that a lot of money is needed to fight them. However, you can only spend a euro once. Shouldn't we, in cases of urgency, make choices? First, the most important?
"The stability of ecosystems is a prerequisite for life on earth. Without a habitable planet none of those other issues can be solved. There is thus an order of priority. We must fully commit to climate policy. Businesses and consumers have enough money. There is no need to weigh the charities up against each other. It is about making different choices. Spending on the environment versus spending on cosmetics, to mention just one example."
Then we’re talking about lifestyle. Which cannot be forced.
"No, but that is not my intention. Ideally, you take generic measures such as the imposition of a charge. That is then reflected in economic choices. But it remains for companies and individuals to make those choices. I think a general CO2 tax is best. But a trading system such as the European ETS may also suffice provided, of course, that it is reformed. The current CO2 price is totally inadequate for inducing businesses to make the right decisions. The biggest changes in this area should come from the business-to-business markets. To be honest, I don’t expect anything from the consumer. That isn’t where the driving force for change is to be found. If thirty years of environmental studies has taught me one thing, it’s that."
It is likely that the temperature will rise more than the limit of two degrees that has been politically established. Isn’t it time that we devote more resources to adaptation, mitigating the effects of climate change rather than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
"Adaptation is ultimately meaningless if you don’t do anything about the source. But it’s not a question of either-or, but rather of both-and. I am also concerned that we do too little about adaptation. But virtually no adaptation strategy is able to cope with nearly four degrees of warming."
The environmental movement often reacts negatively to arguments that emphasise the feasibility of measures. They seem to find the ambition to achieve something more important than feasibility of an objective. What is your take on this?
"There’s nothing wrong with ambition. To put it even more strongly: without ambition, nothing ever changes. But you must very clearly distinguish reality from your ambition, your vision, your ideal. Those who only want to talk about feasibility, I will gladly confront with the consequences of that: warming-as-usual. On the other hand, I would like to confront the idealists with the reality. Thus, we may think that the promotion of electric vehicles is a success. But the reality is that billions of euros of taxpayers’ money have been given away to plug-in hybrid cars that, unless they are charged, give you a fuel consumption of no more than 1:11. About 1,500 euros per metric ton of avoided CO2; count your losses."
The theme of our annual report is Energizing the future. This is GasTerra’s slogan, by which we indicate that we see ourselves as having an important role to play for gas as a transition fuel. A good choice?
"That depends on how you interpret the slogan. The claim that gas is the ideal transition fuel is, I think, untenable in today’s world with its low coal prices, low CO2 prices, vast gas reserves and a growing concern about methane leaks. CO2 prices must first go up sharply, to a minimum of 50 euros per metric ton. In addition, you also have to consider what gas can actually contribute to reducing CO2 emissions. Let’s take a broader look at gaseous fuels instead of natural gas alone which, particularly in Europe, has seen its licence to operate crumbling away. Too little is said about gas in the broadest sense of the word, that is to say about green gas, hydrogen, its flexibility, the storage capabilities of gas, and so forth. As an innovator, the gas industry has a lot to offer. I think LNG is a good example of this. This can be of great assistance in cleaning up highly polluting shipping. The use of fuel cells is another striking example. All this must of course take place under the precondition of sharply declining CO2 emissions."
And Carbon Capture Storage (CCS)?
"That’s certainly part of it, even stronger: without CCS, gas cannot, in the long run, make good on its claim that gas helps reduce carbon emissions. The more I look at all the analyses, the more I realise that gas is now being discarded in favour of coal which, please note, gives off twice as many emissions. Gas must therefore distinguish itself more strongly against coal. Not only verbally in the public debate, but also by thinking about incentives to push coal back."
The climate issue is incredibly complex and seems almost insoluble. After all those years in the environmental sector, are you still optimistic about a final solution for it?
"I try not to let the question of whether I am optimistic or pessimistic depend on what is feasible. I do what I do because I think that it puts something in motion. Optimism or pessimism might dissuade you from doing the right things. I am hopeful, though. Hope, said the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, is a quality of the soul and does not depend on what happens in the world. He was right. And finally that wall fell."
What does the world need more? Idealists or pragmatists?
"Pragmatic idealists and idealistic pragmatists."