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17 February 2022 - Change Makers Live - Transcript

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Conversation between Gianni Valenti, President of Gaia First

and Michael Starbæk Christensen, Denmark Ambassador to France

Topics addressed: Brest “One Ocean Summit”, Plastic taxes, Denmark’s ambitious environmental objectives, Nuclear Power turning “green”, Denmark’s wind power, Garbage to energy, Renewable energy…


Gianni: […]

[00:56] Thank you very much, everyone, for joining Thursday Change Makers Live. Now, what is a change maker? A change maker is somebody that goes beyond the standards, somebody that goes beyond conventional culture to make a change. This can be in society, this can be in business and this can be in politics or anything else that touches your environment, including your family.


[2:22] So today is kind of a particular day. There have been many developments and tonight there was supposed to be a great person coming to the event, which is Anne-France Didier. She was part of the “One Planet summit for the Ocean”, the “One Ocean summit” in Brest. So nobody better than her could be there to explain what happened. She’s part of the “Ministère de l’environnement, d’énergie et de la mer”, part of the environmental transition of French governmental posts. So what happened in Brest? There was a summit, just to make a point for all of you, there was a summit where […] 42 countries got united to engage themselves to discussing the limits, legislations and what to do with the environment, especially with the oceans. Now, some of these countries were Germany, Canada, Barbados, Cyprus and many others. France, of course. And what has been discussed in one week is that there have been several agreements, there have been several alliances on protecting the environment. This is one of the most important things. There have been more than 84 countries that have agreed on the objective of safekeeping 30% of the oceans, which means controlling and blocking all kind of exploitations, all kind of activities that might endanger them, might harm the oceans.

[4:40] This is a plan for 2030. So this is quite a good step forward. Obviously, 2030, it's a long way ahead. We're in 2022. It means eight years of full exploitation, and also governments change. People change. So this might have to be re-seen and reevaluated through time. But this is an important step and we have to keep on going. We have to make progress and unite and push the administrations forward. Now, I repeat, this has to be bottom up rather than a top down approach. So yes, we are waiting for the governments and administrations to regulate this. But us as people, we have to make sure that our territory, our home, which is the entire Earth, is respected and rightfully treated. So it's up to all of you guys that will be watching this, that are watching this, to make sure that your territory, your lands, your sea is respected. Even if you live in the country or in the mountains, the sea is part of your territory. This is all our house. This is what belongs to us and to our children, to future generations.

[6:23] So there have been several points. So there's been a focus on biodiversity and how to protect it. So this was a [promise for a] 30% protection of the sea. There have been acts concerning climate change such as the Green Marine Europe, which is an interesting point. 22 shipyards have agreed to adhere to eight objectives. To diminish noise, marine noises, whether above or below sea, [to diminish] emissions of atmospheric pollution, emissions of gases, like carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and the treatment of oils and other waste products, as well as the recycling of boats. Now this concerns us of course, because our project is, as you all know, to prepare two boats to set off into the ocean to collect and convert plastic waste into green energy, hydrogen, that will be used to power the boats themselves, and the transformation process. So this is important because we're going to be reaching out to those shipyards, to those ship manufacturers that have agreed on this Green Marine Europe agreement because there is a recycling of boats. And so we will not be using a new boat. We will recycle a boat that has been used. We'll be recycling this and will adapt it with the technologies that we are developing right now with one of the biggest research centers in Europe, the most accredited, that will develop this with us starting from March. And I will disclose the name of our partners at the end of the month. So we are going to be working together with them and with other partners, very important partners to advance on this. Why? Because we believe that we have to make a difference. But the difference that we have to make is using the materials and using the products, the elements that we already have. That means recycling, up-cycling, reusing and adapting, other than just generating new products and throwing it to waste again or wasting other products that could have been used. So this is the approach that we are having and definitely I'm very happy for this Green Marine Europe.

[9:27] Then we also have 18 of the European ports that have agreed to actually accelerate the supply of electricity, high volumes of electricity to power electrical boats and ships. So this is a good transition point. Obviously there also has to be some laws and regulations of where this electricity comes from, from what kind of resources, whether it's renewable, whether it's just coal or petrol or gas, which is the same thing. So we have to understand also the origins. And you see the transition is good. We're talking about 2030, we're talking about for most things it's 2030 [at] the least. It's good, it's better than nothing. But we have to start making a change now for us, to start making the change this year, not wait another year or wait until somebody else comes along and does it.

[10:36] Now, another point that was discussed in the ocean summit was the ocean pollution, especially plastic, because we're talking about different forms of pollution. But plastic pollution is one of the most observable. We can see it because it floats, part of it, and most of it sinks to the bottom. It's true. But we have a great quantity that still stays around and accumulates and goes either on the shores or in the gyres in the middle of the oceans. So we have the European Bank of Reconstruction and different banks, French development AFD, the German bank KfW, Italian CDP and Spanish ICO. They have all joined forces to double their intervention. So this is another good point, bringing up a total of €4 billion of financing from here until 2025 for initiatives that actually make a better solution and clean up and solve this problem with the plastic entering the oceans and eliminating the plastic in the oceans. Now I hope this is not just a pure financial tool because most of the time these are very good incentives for companies, but there are some limitations to it and not everybody can access it, everybody with a good scope and with an honest scope. Which I'm not saying is bad. It's a positive thing that there is this ambition in growing and pushing, but it has to be available for the actors, especially the actors in the field.

[12:42] So there is an engagement, also, a world engagement on the economy of plastics. So we're going towards 100% reusing and recycling of plastic, which is very good. We have countries like Greece, Italy, Colombia, South Korea that have joined the engagement, the world engagement for a new economy on plastic. Now I would like to launch a proposal. I said it last time, the carbon taxes. Maybe we should launch plastic taxes. Like what is your plastic amount that you use, that you produce, that you consume in your work? And what can you do to counterbalance this? What kind of action do you take to counter balance this plastic amount that has been used or reversed or destroyed? Okay, so kind of like a carbon tax, I think there should be also a plastic tax, plastic credits and plastic taxes to incite, to motivate into the investments, into donations, into participation, into actions. What I'm saying is plastic credits should be given not only for donating money to associations like Gaia or anybody else who cleans but I think they should be given also, should be accredited for actions that people do like clean up actions, like companies may organize a cleanup action on a beach, on land or anything, or some socially, environmentally respectful action that might give them the credit. So these are important steps that should be thought of. Maybe in the future, I hope it will come.

[14:54] So we have a very strong international political agenda on the oceans. So we have the next major conference from the United Nations on the ocean in Lisbon in June and the COP 27 will be in Egypt. But there are many other events actually, the Economist is doing some important events at the beginning of March, online events on the oceans. There's the Monaco Week, Monaco Ocean Week, which will be held in Monte Carlo. This is at the end of the month and where I will be representing Gaia first, and then there will be many others, actually this year it seems to be a very important year for the oceans and for the actions that need to be taken and that are going on right now. So it's an excellent start of the year. We have already the booking of France and Costa Rica in a joint effort to work on the United Nations conference on the ocean again in 2024. So we already have expectancies.

[16:20] So France right now is leading a little bit the way, showing that they are very capable, that they are knowledgeable and they are important in this transition, in this waking up on the importance of the oceans, which is very good. Again, I understand it's coming close to the election period but I am sure that whoever is proposing this will keep the promises because it is an important matter on international levels. So we have many promises, many engagements. Hopefully we will have Anne-France, as I said, Madame Anne-France Didier, who was not able to join us today, this quarter of an hour, this 20 minutes with us. I'm sure there will be another occasion, maybe next week or in two weeks, so she can tell us directly how the discussions have been going on and what are the points there, the important points, the positive points that came out of that summit in Brest.

[17:43] Now today we do have a very important guest which is Michael Christensen who is with us. He is the ambassador of Denmark to France and what's important is he's invited to the Change makers Live because he's a Change maker. He has previously worked for the Danish Prime Minister's office, especially as advisor for Climate and also as deputy head of Cabinet of Commissioner for Climate Action in the European Commission. So here is Michael. Hello, Michael. Thank you for joining us.

Michael: Can you hear me okay?

Gianni: Yes, I can hear you a little far, distant, but I can hear you.

Michael: Okay. Sorry, I don't have my headset, but I'll speak loudly.

Gianni: Okay. All right. Let me just make this big so that I see you. Well, okay. Good. So we had loads of problems, actually, because we're supposed to do a live in between Instagram and YouTube, but there's a problem with the results, with the connection. So there is no Instagram. So we'll be publishing this afterwards on Instagram. So we're only going live right now on YouTube. But thank you so much, anyway.

I'm happy that you joined because there have been some questions. Actually, they were posted last time you were with us on the webinar on the importance of the oceans, of cleaning the oceans. And so many people have written saying how impressed they are with Denmark's love for the oceans and for the environment. Also, they found interesting points on the gasification system. For example, here I have a question from Olga Smith from Sacramento. She said, concerning exactly the uses of the gasification, it says, how long has Copenhagen been using gasification to deal with their municipal waste? And why don't more cities in the world use this? This is a big question. Why don't they do it? If it's so successful. And you're actually importing garbage, right?


Michael: Yeah. Like I said, we don't produce enough these days. Actually, I found out, and that's unfortunate, that we use more plastic for wrapping goods than any other nation per capita. So we have a tradition of putting everything in plastic. But now there's a lot of awareness, which means you start thinking about other ways, you don't need to wrap things. You can find some environmentally friendly emballage. But it's this awareness that's so important […] people don't realize how much garbage they produce until someone tells them you could do a lot better. And actually, it would make sense to do it differently. And I heard you talked about the plastic tax. I think you need to give incentives, which economic incentives work. That's why we talk about carbon tax. And I think also plastic tax. If people don't do it by their free will, let's move them in that direction. And there I think you need these kinds of economic incentives to change behavior sometimes. And I think it's fair enough to do it that way rather than just appeal to the voluntary efforts of every person.

Gianni: It’s true, because sometimes you have to push a little bit to get some reactions, right?

Michael: Yeah, totally.

Gianni: Just to install a habit.

Michael: I’m actually not sure how. I think the power plant in Copenhagen, it used to run on coal in the old days, and then it changed to gas, and now it's the garbage and biomass that is used. I think the new plant, power plant is not more than five/six years old. It's a very big construction, and it has a ski hill on the top, which is quite strange for Denmark, but it's actually not snow. It's some kind of topping, where you can ski.

Gianni: Isn’t that amazing, optimization of spaces.

Michael: Yeah. No, but it's to make it an attraction and say even a power plant can be fun. So you take an elevator up and you rent some skis, and you take the 1 minute right down and it becomes popular, even if it sounds crazy. And at the same time, you make it a brand for an environmental friendly zero carbon way of producing electricity and heating.

Gianni: Yeah, exactly. But look, I'm fascinated. Where is all this love for the environment coming from? Because you've been working for the environment, whether it's in the European Commission or with the Prime Minister. Where does it come from? And what's your end goal, your projection?


Michael: I think we were one of the first countries in the 70s to actually create a Ministry for the environment. Before that, nobody had very big environmental concerns. Pollution was not really a word. I think people knew about pollution, but it was not considered a political problem. There was no awareness of what the industrialization cost was for the environment. But in the 1970s, it started to become an issue. And that we had to set rules to limit, because it's the common good and how do you protect it? And now everywhere you'll have environmental ministers, but at the time, there wasn't really a focus on this. But that was not the climate. That was the biodiversity, that was the local environment that we were concerned with. That's like when we started to take lead out of gasoline because we found out that children actually could be quite damaged by the exhaust fumes from cars because there was lead in it. And I guess later, way up in the 80s and 90s, we started to talk about climate change and started to be concerned with the CO2 emissions. But if we look historically, it's rather new that we have had this awareness on these issues. So I don't know why we started. I guess there was also a trend in the late 60s and 70s to do things differently, maybe a bit of an anticapitalist trend that said that companies shouldn't just be allowed to do whatever they wanted. There should be a framework, there should be limits. And these environmental movements, which were also a lot of bottom up movements from people who were just not happy with the way things are, set the political trend at the time. And now with climate change, it’s been ups and downs. But I think now the trend is set.

[25:56] We have to limit emissions at the European level. They're quite ambitious targets. In Denmark, we set a target of 70% reductions. By 2030. The European target is 55, but we put it at 70. So you have to push yourself. And everybody said, you can't do 70% in ten years, but sometimes you need to set a target that is higher than what science or legislation tells you to do. So you push the limits. And I think that's one way, because if we only do what's possible today, we won't get to where we want to be in ten years because things develop. So, sometimes you need to push yourself above a target that is immediately possible. I remember I talked to people in Copenhagen and then they said, yeah, but it's a bit of a problem, 70%, because we have to stop eating meat. The cows are some really big polluters. So I said, okay, are you going to do that? And they said, it's difficult because it's also culture and tradition. So can you abandon cow meat in the menu? Can you abandon milk? It's not an easy thing to do, but I think the whole discussion about climate change means people eat less red meat. At least in some countries. People probably still drink milk, but still there is a bigger concern that when you set yourself at a table with a big steak on your plate, people will start thinking, maybe I shouldn't do this. So again, this information creates some behavioral change, which sometimes is good for lawmakers because it is quite difficult to forbid cows. I told it to French people in the Ministry of Climate and Energy, and they shook their heads and said, we are never going to talk about this ever.

Gianni: It is a delicate subject.

Michael: It is a very delicate subject, but agriculture is one of the last sectors we really need to deal with because we don't really have a plan for the agricultural sector. It's so sensitive in most countries, but it has to be part of the solution. So you have to push in all fields and try. What we try in Denmark is to bring the sector with us when we look for solutions. So instead of the Parliament saying, okay, we make these five things, they invite the organizations, the agricultural organizations, around the table and say, help us. We need to hit a target, and help us find a good way to do it. If you don't want to help us, we do it anyway. But you have a chance to influence the process. And at least in Denmark, it tends to work. People say, okay, we better sit at the table and influence it rather than watch somebody just do things we don't believe in. So it's not in every country you can do it, but it's worth trying on a sensitive area like agriculture.


Gianni: Well, one has to start. One country has to start, and then others will look up and say, look, they've done it, we can follow. I just wanted to go back to one point, which was interesting, that you said Denmark decided to apply these regulations all over the country in the 60s, 70s, and we dared, and actually it was good, and we created a movement. If we go back to the ocean now, regulations and laws and regulations on the ocean, it's a different matter because it's international waters, unless we're talking about the coastlines. But it's international waters. So although there are some regulations, there's no way of controlling. And even if there is control, who deals with, let's say not punishing, but bringing to court or convicting trespassers, like polluters, or whatever. So wouldn't it be better, just an idea, if we made, in an ideal world, the whole international waters area like a country, give it a state, call it Oceania or […] Atlantis, I don't know. But give it a name and a state where it has got its own power, its own legislations. And if somebody […] trespasses its laws, they’re convicted. And the other States, whatever the origin of the trespassers are, they convict like it would happen on an international ground. Wouldn't that be an idea?

Michael: It could be an idea, but it's not a simple idea, because who are the people running this nation you are creating? Would that be the coastal States, or would it be a United Nations forum? Because if you look at Antarctica, I think it's divided between a number, is it five or six countries that have interest in, or were discovering Antarctica, and they have decided here's a continent without people. So we five or six countries, we make decisions about Antarctica, and maybe it's easy because, well, it's a big chunk of ice and it's a resource.

Gianni: Yes, nobody goes there.

Michael: Yes. But if you do it with oceans, I think that's one of the questions for a United Nations oceans conference. How do you create a party that governs the oceans? And exactly like you say, how do you create a system where trespassing has consequences? It’s not easy. In the United Nations, it's easy to decide on governance. It's much more difficult to decide on penalties and consequences. But I think for oceans, there's no better way than to force much more regulation and control and consequence making. You need to see in what way the United Nations can do it. But we may need — I mean, we have these oceans conferences — but we may need other bodies who can actually handle these kinds of questions. We have the Law of the Sea in the United Nations, but often that's to govern frontiers. For Denmark, it's also, I think, the one that has to do with us, when we've tried to figure out who owns the North Pole. There are UN bodies that look into these kinds of things. But I think with oceans, we have like a vacuum in terms of being more strict in regulating how we treat the oceans. So there is a need for some international body with powers. I don't know the exact agenda for the UN conference in Lisbon in the end of June. But it's an issue because — we know you're focused very much on plastic pollution, but it's one of the many issues we have difficulty dealing with — because no one has a real responsibility here, and therefore it's nobody's problem. It's everybody's problem, but it's also nobody’s problem.

Gianni: But nobody takes responsibility, exactly. It's like the Far West a little bit. I don't see it, I don’t deal with it. And then when I see and I know about it, it's not my problem. It's everybody's problem, and nobody takes responsibility.

Michael: Yea. Everybody talks about it, but nobody really knows exactly what to do about it. So it's also initiatives like yours, with collecting it and using these gasifications, it's really good, but it's an initiative you have to take because it doesn't come from any kind of international governing body, which probably should be in place to [tackle these issues].


Gianni: No this is what I was saying before, that the change has to come from below, from the bottom up, because institutions are slow. Institutions have got their own laws and regulations and paths they have to take. And it's very diplomatic and let's say everything has to be well organized and in accordance with the different governing bodies. Well, if it's from the people, the change is from the habits, from initiatives, then this is something that can be reached much quicker. And then also from the consumer side, we make the market. So if we stop using a certain type of packaging, or if we stop eating a certain type of food, we change the market in the long run, even in the short run, because companies still want to make money, so they will adjust themselves to the new market, the new demands.

Michael: Yeah. And it becomes, also for the companies, an interest in developing new methods because they can brand themselves as being better because they actually have changed their way of producing or transporting, or whatever. So I fully subscribe to the public pressure here and the bottom up process, and especially on environment, because, in many ways, it's serious problems, but politically it's easier to deal with than security or other issues that become geopolitical. I think environment, even if you go to China, it's actually okay to complain about environment. It's okay to be concerned with the environment. And therefore, I think with this and with the oceans, we are in a field where we can actually mobilize a lot of people if we can get to them, because it's okay to be concerned. And for many governments, there is an interest to actually change things in this particular area. I don't know how you move to a place where also the bigger actors get the sense that now they need to take action. But I think on these kinds of issues, it's possible to move things. And you mentioned several of the conferences taking place. I think every time, it's a step in the right direction, every time it's a mobilization of people and effort.

Gianni: Are you going to be present in any of those conferences?

Michael: I’m probably not personally going, but my country will be. For sure, the Oceans Conference and the Cop 27 in Egypt. I'm not immediately familiar with who will represent us in the other conferences, but it's definitely a political priority. So, we will be there, and often we are there as part of the European Union. So the European Union, the European Commission will be present and push for some of the things that unite the member States.


Gianni: Yeah. Okay. One thing that has been a remark, somebody wrote in and says France’s love for nuclear power versus Denmark's decision not to pursue nuclear power in the mid 80s. Denmark seems to be known for wind energy. In fact, it exports a lot of energy from the wind. How do you see this concerning the new regulations on nuclear power turning green?

Michael: To be honest, Denmark is not in favor of nuclear and we do not consider it a green energy. But the Commission has proposed — this new taxonomy proposal has come, and it includes nuclear and gas as a sort of transitional source. But for the long term I would say.

Gianni: Yeah, because a nuclear power plant is not a short term.

Michael: No. If you build it before 2045, it's okay. And then it lasts till 2100. So having stayed three years in France, I realized that it's very difficult to convince many layers of the society that they should skip nuclear. I’ve given up, myself. I choose to say that, okay, France has lived with nuclear for many years without accidents, at least none that I'm aware of, but we need to expand so drastically on our energy production and electricity production. Because we electrify our societies. We switch from carbon fuels to electricity. So the pie is going to be much bigger. So France also needs to expand massively on renewables. And there Denmark is a front mover on wind, especially offshore wind, which is now the only thing we do in Denmark for wind. And I think France can move forward on that path and be one of the big wind nations, even if it still has nuclear. They're also big on solar. So I think there is a lot of potential to expand in France, but it's true, the Commission has approved nuclear as a CO2 free source, which is necessary in order to reach the ambitions towards 2050. And I guess that's where we are. So I don't think that's going to change. But Denmark will never go nuclear. There's no political or popular support at all. And you see that in many nations, even in Germany, they're phasing out nuclear, and I don't think it will come back. I don't know that's what's going to happen if they end up closing the pipeline, the Nord Stream 2. But I don't think Germany will make a decision to say let's go nuclear again. So that just means, again, Germany is to invest and expand renewables heavily in the coming decades with wind and solar. So I think we are going into a real Renaissance for solar and wind. And it has a huge potential in Europe. So I'm optimistic even if the Commission's proposal was a setback.


Gianni: Well, okay, I follow your line as well. I agree with your point, and I understand also it's a difficult discussion. It's a touchy discussion. But nowadays the problem with the wind and the solar is the production and the request, especially for solar. Let's say the production is during the day and the request is also night. So there is a lot of storage that is needed or there are peaks and troughs that you have to balance out. Yeah, but technology is improving, right? So we have different approaches. We have accumulators. We have many different systems that can assist a steady flow of energy when needed. So I am a strong believer that wind energy and solar energy and maybe other technologies that might explode, polarizations or magnetic influences, might actually come up front quite soon because there is a search for new renewables. So hopefully they come before the validation of nuclear energy all over the place.

Michael: And that's one of the things. And even the French government and President says nuclear takes decades to construct. You don't build a nuclear power plant in five years. If you need energy in five years, you do solar or wind because you can quickly establish a wind farm or a voltaic panel farm in the countryside. So in the short term, you need to expand massively on the renewables because it takes too long to create the nuclear. And the French nuclear is aging. So what you build will replace the old, it won't expand the nuclear. It will replace the old nuclear, which is aging and will have to be closed down in maybe a decade, maybe more. But still, it takes time. So renewables has this fantastic thing that you can quickly expand it. And I think with the research on storage, which, for example, the whole power to “X” discussion, hydrogen is also a way, green hydrogen, is a way to store electricity from renewables. We will get much better in these storage facilities. So you need less and less backup, because that's what we were always met with here. You can build a wind farm, but then you need to build a nuclear power plant, because when there is no wind… It's an easy argument, but it's not true because there are technologies. That means that when the wind is not blowing, we use what we have stored last week. Don't turn on your light when there's no wind. It's too basic criticism. It's not correct. We don't have power cuts in Denmark, even if more than 50% of the electricity is produced by wind. So I think sometimes technology solves the issues for us, but we can't just sit and wait for technology. We have to move, because as we move forward, technology will follow. Because you have to create a market. For example, storage. If we didn't have a lot of renewables, who would think about developing the storage capacity? So sometimes you have to move into unknown territory and believe that we will solve the issues with storage and so on as we move forward, instead of just waiting to see when we have the technology. Because if we already created the market for the technology, it’s much more likely they will be developed.

Gianni: That’s a very good point and this is a good ending point, because we have reached the end of the Thursday Live. Just one last message, what would you say to change makers? Anybody out there, what would you say to them? A piece of advice to give them?


Michael: Always move on and never give up. Never be satisfied. I think change makers — change — is not an end point. Change is an ongoing thing. There is no point to where we say now we have done everything we need to do. There's always a need for change. So keep pushing even when you don't reach all the good results you dream of, but it's that push that pushes us a step forward. And reality is always slower than the ideal world, but I think it's the endless push for change. And never be satisfied with where we have reached. I think it's a struggle but it shouldn't be a struggle. It should be a positive push, but it just has to continue.

Gianni: It’s a continuous fight.

Michael: It’s a continuous fight. Yeah.

Gianni: Thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for sharing your experience and your passion. And thank you everybody for following us. And please don't hesitate to share, to follow us and to share our videos, and thank you again.

Michael: Okay. Bye.

Gianni: Bye bye. Thank you, Michael. Thank you.

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