“We need to break up the old blocs in climate policy” - Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in an interview with Table.Media

21.08.2023 - Interview

Question: Ms. Baerbock, we're conducting this interview shortly after your unplanned return. Weren't you supposed to be in New Zealand right now? What damage has this caused to German foreign and climate policies, given that you had to cut short your trip to Oceania?

Annalena Baerbock: It truly hurts. Since 2011, no German Foreign Minister has been to Australia. And we've never even been represented with a German embassy in the small Pacific island nations. Proclaiming our friendship in Sunday speeches isn't enough. Friendship in diplomacy is also demonstrated by undertaking a long journey of over 20,000 kilometers. To clearly convey to the people and governments there: your region holds great importance for us in the 21st century, both in terms of security and climate policy. We simply can't convey this as effectively from Berlin on a rainy Thursday afternoon as we can in person in New Zealand, Australia, or Fiji. This is why, as part of our climate foreign policy strategy and also as part of our China and Indo-Pacific policy, we are finally opening an embassy in Fiji – our first in a small Pacific island state ever.

Question: When will you make up for the trip?

Annalena Baerbock: The fact that I had to cancel the trip is unfortunate, especially since you can't just hop on a plane for a quick 20,000-kilometer detour. We're now looking for consecutive free days in my incredibly packed schedule to definitely make up for the trip. However, some things simply can't be made up for. I can only virtually participate in the embassy opening now. It's, of course, not the same as doing it alongside the Fijian government as originally planned.

Question: You intended to show in the Indo-Pacific how climate, foreign, and geopolitical policies should come together. How should we envision this?

Annalena Baerbock: Geopolitics is climate policy, and climate policy is geopolitics. Experts have known this for years, as we saw at the Climate Conference in 2015 in Paris. Why was it so incredibly difficult to negotiate a global climate agreement? Because, of course, there are significant geopolitical questions behind it – leadership in renewable energy technology, old wealth from the fossil industry, and who pays for climate damages. These are all massive issues concerning financial policy, influence, and global justice. When a small island nation is hit by a cyclone for the nth time, eventually, they can't afford to rebuild their schools and hospitals. If we aren't there to help these states, China might offer their assistance, often not without strings attached. This doesn't necessarily mean a stringent loan agreement but could also influence their voting behavior at the next international conference.

Question: This means foreign climate policy has gained a new significance?

Annalena Baerbock: It's becoming increasingly evident that the climate crisis is the security threat of this century, making climate policy also a matter of security. Just two years ago, we experienced in the Ahr valley that the climate and security crisis doesn't spare even our own country. Hence, climate policy plays a significant role in our National Security Strategy. We've opened a new chapter in German foreign policy by bringing climate foreign policy into the Foreign Office. Without this, discussions with many countries would certainly be more challenging. In our conversations and through our embassies, the countries most affected by the climate crisis now feel, see, and hear that we are finally taking their primarily climate-induced security concerns seriously.

Question: How is this reflected in practice, for example, in Fiji?

Annalena Baerbock: The new embassy in Fiji is our climate bridge into a geopolitical hotspot that's incredibly distant but geopolitically very close to us. Fiji collaborates with us to advocate for stronger CO₂ reduction targets at climate conferences. Fiji is home to the Pacific Islands Forum, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and a dozen small Pacific island nations. They also share our values on other international matters. They all voted against the Russian war of aggression in the UN General Assembly. This means that climate policy is opening doors for geostrategic matters. But if we're not present in terms of climate policy, these doors close again. Every island nation's voice counts as much as that of a large industrial nation at the United Nations. Yet, these countries ask: If we cooperate so closely, why has no one visited us? Last year, I visited the Pacific nation of Palau, the first German Foreign Minister to do so in 120 years. It was a game changer for our reputation in the region. Through television images, even the German public suddenly saw a house threatened by sea level rise, on the verge of falling into the sea. We're also bringing something very tangible to the Pacific region, like our offer to expand renewable energy for the Pacific islands, some of which still rely on diesel generators, or our support on crucial political issues like the financial management of losses and damages due to the climate crisis.

Question: So you're hoping that this will lead to better negotiation outcomes, such as at the UN climate conferences?

Annalena Baerbock: We are already working very closely with countries like the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji on climate matters. Of course, these island states ardently wish for us to reduce global CO₂ emissions to nearly zero. At climate conferences, we often advocate for this together. However, when a choice arises between old industrial nations and emerging global powers like China and the Gulf states, the island nations don't automatically align with the EU, even if we are, in fact, more ambitious in our climate policies.

Question: To date, these countries are part of the informal “G77” group, which consists of developing and emerging nations alongside China. Do you intend to strategically rally these countries to your side on climate policy matters?

Annalena Baerbock: It's these traditional blocks that we need to dismantle. The climate crisis is no longer a matter of block affiliations. We can only tackle the climate crisis collectively as a global community, or not at all. Hence, it's crucial for those genuinely wanting to make a difference in climate policy to join forces, regardless of whether they're from the North or the South, are an emerging country, a small island nation, or a European industrial powerhouse. And in this regard, the countries of the Indo-Pacific, where many of the most vulnerable states are situated, play a pivotal role. Therefore, our China strategy encompasses not just the task of recalibrating our ties with China in these tumultuous geopolitical and climatic times, but also significantly broadening our collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.

Question: What should this look like?

Annalena Baerbock: This not only pertains to the smaller island nations but also to the much larger countries in that region. Angela Merkel's last visit to Australia as Chancellor was in 2014, although it was within the G20 framework. Australian newspapers keenly observed and reported that she visited China more than ten times during her tenure. These are robust and well-established democracies like Australia and New Zealand, which also feel that our focus wasn't significantly directed towards them in the past. But this also applies to smaller island states, which, like us, wholeheartedly support the United Nations Charter and the rules-based order. All these Pacific island nations have opposed the Russian act of aggression because, as smaller nations, they recognize that their safety net is international law. Hence, it's not only about expressing gratitude but making it clear: We acknowledge your security concerns, like the climate crisis, but also China's influence. China has discreetly forged a security pact with the Solomon Islands. This deeply concerns Australians, who have closely collaborated with the Solomon Islands in the past.

Question: Up until now, even these small states have consistently voted with China and against the EU in climate negotiations when push came to shove.

Annalena Baerbock: That's true to some extent. None of these states want to be dependent on a single country. Hence, we are trying to offer these island nations tangible alternatives, because it's not about them picking one side over the other. That's also why we're so welcome there. This trip, this new message – all of it is part of the plan. Trust is built over years and decades. In diplomacy, trust means getting to know each other and visiting each other. A pivotal moment for me was the COP27 in Egypt last year: right up to the end, we were aligned with the small island states, agreeing that we need to do more for climate protection and coordinate it with a new tool for damage and loss. But when it came to the crucial vote, they sided with the G77 group, which was slowing things down. Because behind the scenes, countries like China put massive pressure on many of these states, telling them: if you oppose us on climate policy now, we might oppose you on other matters when the time comes. That's precisely why it's so essential for us to have trusting relationships with the small island nations and continue to strengthen them. That's the primary objective of my foreign climate policy.

Question: A part of your China strategy is “Derisking” – i.e., reducing strategic dependency. But when it comes to climate policy, everyone is dependent on China. How does “Derisking” work when you need both confrontation and cooperation?

Annalena Baerbock: You're familiar with the three-pronged approach of our China strategy: we see China as competitors, systemic rivals, but also partners. We want to cooperate with China. But we want fair cooperation. And if that's not possible, we have to protect ourselves. For instance, when China wants to unfairly gain a competitive edge in technological know-how. So, the approach is: cooperate with China wherever possible, especially in the realm of climate policy. And “Derisking” – ensuring Europe's strategic sovereignty – is necessary where our security interests might be at risk.

Question: But what happens when there's an overlap: when Chinese solar panels might possibly be made using forced labor?

Annalena Baerbock: Forced labor is, of course, an absolute no-go. Our new Supply Chain Due Diligence Law prohibits German companies from using products made from forced labor in their supply chains. And I advocate that such products should not be allowed on the European market. It would be a clear market distortion against European companies that naturally adhere to international core labor standards. However, we indeed have significant dependencies on China, especially in the solar technology sector. We Europeans can't achieve our renewable energy expansion goals without cooperating with each other. At the same time, we must prevent becoming as dependent on China as we were on Russia for gas supply, where the raw material was used as a weapon. That's why we're investing a lot of money to develop, for instance, microchip and battery production in Europe and Germany.

Question: China's strength is partly due to the West's weakness. Especially when it comes to climate financing, industrialized countries are rightly accused of not keeping their promises – the unmet 0 billion by 2020 is an example. How can the trust of poorer nations in the Global North grow in this context?

Annalena Baerbock: When we don't fulfill our own climate financing promises, we obviously make it easy for countries like China, who are not just concerned with climate policy, but also with systemic dependencies. Therefore, keeping the promise of the annual 0 billion in climate financing is in our very own interest. It's also vital to make progress in addressing losses and damages caused by the climate crisis, especially to assist those who have contributed the least to the problem. That's why the “Loss and Damage” fund is such a priority for me. Germany, at least, stands by its financial commitments. However, we shouldn't be naive about climate financing. For decades, traditional industrialized countries were responsible for the majority of global emissions. Our economic success was built on that. That's why we must financially support the necessary adjustments and the management of losses and damages. Thankfully, with our shift to renewables, we've set a new course. However, others aren't phasing out coal as intensively as we are. China is now the largest emitter and bears the primary responsibility for current and upcoming damages. We need to make this clear to smaller nations: if you want assistance, we'll keep our word – but you also need to hold countries like China or the Gulf states accountable.

Question: You demand that China and other wealthy countries that are not traditional industrialized nations contribute to the financing of the “Loss and Damage” fund, which is to be implemented at the next COP?

Annalena Baerbock: Yes, I discussed this on my trip to China, as well as with the Gulf states and countries like Korea. Although it's far from easy. The “Loss and Damage” topic is the Pandora's box of climate policy. Many were afraid to address it. The prevailing stance from Europe and the USA was that we shouldn't discuss it at all. I've always found that misguided. As Foreign Minister, I've felt from day one that by refusing to discuss this, we're losing the trust of countless countries worldwide. And it's not just the island states but also many nations in Africa. That's why I said at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue a year ago that we intend to address this topic. This approach hasn't always received applause, even from our allies, but it's been an opener for many countries worldwide who've typically been skeptical of industrialized nations. They've seen that Germany is genuinely committed to its responsibility in climate policy.

Question: Is that still the case? What reputation does Germany have among your counterparts in the world of climate politics? We were once the “Home of the Energiewende,” but now others are faster and more determined.

Annalena Baerbock: After Germany essentially pioneered the Energiewende, its reputation suffered in the years that followed. This was due to a phase when the Grand Coalition posed numerous obstacles to the expansion of renewables and resisted the phasing out of coal. This cost us our solar industry, which has since shifted to China. We then became heavily dependent on Russian gas. The previous federal government always viewed a gas pipeline purely as an economic project, ignoring its geopolitical and climate implications. All this chipped away at our once pristine reputation as a climate frontrunner. Hence, it became crucial for the new federal government to stress that climate policy is now a priority. Climate protection isn't just an environmental issue; it's industrial, security, health policy, and therefore a cross-cutting task for every modern government.

Question: Even your coalition government has been told by the expert council that efforts are insufficient. How satisfied are you with domestic climate policy?

Annalena Baerbock: If, for years, or even a decade, you've neglected climate and energy policy, an industrialized nation cannot change overnight. “Neglected” is putting it lightly, especially when I think of factions within the Union that deliberately wanted to sabotage the early successes of renewable energy. As a result, our coalition has made a fundamental decision to be climate-neutral by the mid-40s and align infrastructure investments accordingly. Our intermediate target is also clear: achieve at least 80% renewables by 2030. This way, we can make up, at least partly, for the lost years. Accordingly, our coalition agreement advanced the coal phase-out, and it was expedited even more after Russia's attack on Ukraine. The reactivated coal reserves have long been replaced by renewables. After the Energiewende in the electricity sector – in May, we already had 66.2% of electricity produced from renewables – we're now finally addressing the heating sector.

Question: At the COP28 in Dubai in December, nations could agree on the following goals: A global target for renewables, more energy efficiency, a reduction in methane emissions, upholding the promise of 100 billion in climate finance, and orchestrating a move away from fossil fuels – with a significant emphasis on CCS technology, which oil nations desire. Would that be a success?

Annalena Baerbock: We need a course correction at the World Climate Conference in Dubai. We're not on track to keep the 1.5-degree increase within reach. At the same time, we know that such conferences aren't a “wish list”. Reaching a consensus on the further, urgently needed CO₂ reduction will be challenging. This is especially the case since some see CCS – i.e., carbon capture and storage – as a panacea for everything. Therefore, at this year's Petersberg Climate Dialogue, I proposed a new global target: to triple the global capacity for renewables. This should be accompanied by a doubling of energy efficiency, a move away from unabated fossil fuels, and support offers for developing countries. We need international financial institutions capable of supporting investments in this global transformation. Our solidarity with the especially vulnerable nations, particularly the island states, requires progress with the “Loss and Damage” fund. We need to carefully assess how close we can come to this ideal target and which steps need to be taken in that direction. The entire world, especially the Gulf states, have realized: technologically, renewables are the future. That's why countries like the United Arab Emirates, but also Qatar or Saudi Arabia, are adopting a dual strategy. They continue their business with oil and gas but simultaneously build the world's most advanced solar power plants and focus on exporting green hydrogen. However, they push the responsibility of supporting vulnerable developing nations onto us.

Question: At Petersberg, the difference became quite apparent: when the COP President al Jaber said he wanted an exit from emissions, not from fuels – hence as much CCS as possible. And you said, we need an exit from fossil fuels, meaning an end to all fossil fuels. Will the EU then shift to the CCS course of the oil countries, as it has already hinted?

Annalena Baerbock: That's a perfect example of the difficult decisions we face. We're not on the same page as the Gulf states. But that doesn't mean we should give up. We have to dive deep into the specifics of climate foreign policy: What are their interests? They want to profit from fossil fuels as long as possible. How can we shape that in a way that's not harmful to the climate? There are areas where we can't avoid CCS and CCU technologies. That's quite undisputed. However, we must precisely define the purpose of CCS and CCU and how they can be used safely in the long run. They cannot replace the further expansion of renewables, which are available, cost-effective, and can replace fossil fuels entirely in power generation without any issues.

Question: But where do you find allies for this? This is the German position, but no longer the EU's. And the USA isn't on board either. With whom do you plan to implement this?

Annalena Baerbock: In the EU, the positioning isn't finalized. Diplomacy is all about promoting one's position and forging alliances. And it's not like we don't have allies. Especially the countries that don't have significant revenues from oil or big industries, but are already feeling the impact of climate change and know that every tenth of a degree of global warming determines the fate of their country. Altogether, that's many countries in every corner of the world. This is precisely why we need to continue expanding our relationships in these corners. Like in the Indo-Pacific. Which brings us back to the journey. Whether we make progress at the next and subsequent climate conferences largely depends on whether everyone, as usual, reverts to their old power blocks of the last century like “G77” and “industrialized countries.” This won't move us forward. We need new climate alliances. Between industrialized countries and those most severely affected by the climate crisis. That will be crucial for climate policy in the coming years.

Interview: Bernhard Pötter



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