Published 2019-11-06

This post is also available in Swedish

Beer-loving policy nerd Mistra’s latest Fellow

Milan Elkerbout is the policy nerd borrowed from Brussels to reinforce Mistra Carbon Exit. His days are spent at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute on a Mistra Fellowship. The aim is to achieve the policy mix that will make the EU the planet’s greenest region. This is not entirely easy.

‘It’s extremely complex, not least when it comes to understanding industrial processes and conditions for industry. Sometimes I’m shocked by how much you have to understand. I’m a political scientist, but I must at least have basic knowledge of industrial processes… not like the people across the street, but still.’

Elkerbout nods towards the window. We are on the KTH Royal Institute of Technology campus, where IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute has its premises. The engineers — the industrial experts — are located on the other side of the courtyard.

Elkerbout himself is an expert on something of the utmost relevance to European industry: the EU’s environmental policy and, in particular, carbon emissions trading. This is an issue he has been working on since his Master’s dissertation at the London School of Economics, and is deeply interested in.

‘I was captivated by the fact that this is a market created by regulations. It’s not a natural market, but one that can be used for the public good. And after a while, I noticed that emissions are only a small part of the whole solution,’ he says.

Emissions trading is something of a Gordian knot in the EU’s transformation to a fossil-free region. It is a tangled web, with a high proportion of the rights distributed free of charge, and there is a risk of industry leaving the EU if the lucrative emission rights are tightened up or removed. But if industry is offered protection in some other way, the knot will be untied and everyone will be happy and satisfied.

This ‘other way’ might be another tax on carbon in products, especially cement and steel. The imported steel and cement that are embedded in products, and manufactured in ways that cause heavy emissions, would then be subject to palpable customs duties.

‘It’s vital to enable industrial enterprises to remain in the EU, while devising incentives for them to develop new, greener technology. This might be one way. Anyone who imports carbon-intensive steel would have to pay environmental tax,’ Elkerbout says.

Customs tariffs on carbon in products are in fact an issue the new European Commission, presided over by Ursula von der Leyen, has placed high on the agenda. But hard work and political flair are called for (1) to make them acceptable to EU member states and their industries, (2) to simultaneously avoid trade wars with China and other countries, and (3) to make such customs tariffs compliant with WTO rules and not too difficult to administer.

Elkerbout says it is a complex issue and he by no means has all the answers. But he is one of the people who understand political processes in the EU.

Elkerbout grew up in the Netherlands and began to take an interest in politics early on. He studied economics and European studies, an interdisciplinary study programme focused on integration issues, at Maastricht University. He went on to the London School of Economics where he studied political economy, which is where his interests in policy and climate merged.

‘My Master’s dissertation was about the EU’s emission strategy. But my background is broader than that. Am I a policy nerd? In a way, I suppose I am.’

In 2014, Elkerbout was recruited to the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) — a think tank with great influence in the EU, with which Mistra collaborates extensively.

Another issue that keeps Elkerbout busy at IVL is that of carbon capture and storage — removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. With his colleagues, he is currently working on various short papers, one of which is about carbon storage. This is a relatively uncontroversial issue where, he says, getting industry on board is easy.

The brevity of what he writes means that the papers are for presentation as decision support in the EU. This imposes a limit on their length. How much of what he is doing involves finding new knowledge, and how much is it about communicating knowledge?

‘Sometimes it’s hard to draw that line. But basically, this is new knowledge we’re developing here,’ he says.

Elkerbout will spend six months at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, a workplace he praises for its informal work culture.

‘CEPS is also an informal workplace but, on the other hand, as a city Brussels can be quite rigid and hierarchical,’ he says.

Name: Milan Elkerbout.
Age: 34 years.
Lives in: Hammarbyhöjden, in South Stockholm. ‘Green and pleasant. Stockholm and Brussels are opposites. Brussels is much more chaotic.’
Likes: (apart from reading about politics): craft beer, microbreweries — ‘Stockholm’s a good place for it.’