Published 2019-04-15

This post is also available in Swedish

Ideas Lab — a conference for new thinking

This year, the Ideas Lab, a conference held by the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) think tank, invited attendees to numerous highly topical seminars on Europe’s future. Mistra was on the spot and participated in several of them.

Can the EU use its trade with other regions to induce fossil-heavy industries to cut their carbon emissions? Is it time to introduce border taxes on the import and export of greenhouse gases embedded in products and materials? If so, is it possible to do so in a way that is compatible with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules?

These were some of the issues discussed at a seminar on energy and trade at the CEPS Ideas Lab in Brussels on 21 and 22 February, attended by Mistra’s CEO Åke Iverfeldt, staff from the Foundation’s secretariat and researchers from various Mistra programmes. Their involvement is explained partly by both Mistra’s collaboration with CEPS and its role as one of the conference’s sponsors.

Today, there are means of producing steel, cement, chemicals and other energy-intensive products with considerably lower carbon emissions than just a few decades ago. Yet this is not done to a sufficient extent. The explanation is simple: demand for cement entailing low emissions is too small.

One reason for this is that cement and steel are rarely sold in their own right. Rather, they are embedded in products such as houses, boats, cars, etc. This makes it difficult for a car buyer to know whether the steel in the car is produced with green electricity or with fossil-powered electricity. It may be even harder to induce buyers to pay a higher price for a car manufactured in a ‘green’ way.

Is it time to introduce border charges on carbon embedded in other products? This would stimulate new and greener industrial processes and force those producers who, today, offload the climate costs on third parties to assume greater responsibility.

This turned out to be an issue that divided the conference panel, which consisted of researchers, industry representatives and officials from the European Commission.

Susanne Dröge of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin, answered yes to the question. Although it may not apply across the board, she argued that some products, such as bulk steel, might be suitable for such border charges. Cement clinker is another example of an import from Morocco and elsewhere being used to bypass the EU emission allowance system.

‘With a price on this, people can decide whether they want to pay the price or choose products with lower emission levels. There’s a climate cost that someone always has to pay.’

Mark Sanctuary of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, former programme director of Mistra’s ENTWINED programme, had objections to border charges. One was that the system could be hijacked and used for protectionist purposes. Another is that he doubts it would be effective: rather, it might upset the balance of trade.

‘Today, successful companies with big exports are often greener and cleaner than their competitors that don’t export so much.’

The seminar was an example of how different positions on complex problems can be thrashed out, the seminar’s host Christian Egenhofer, Director of CEPS Energy Climate House, emphasised.

The Ideas Lab, the key annual event at CEPS, attracts hundreds of participants, including many at senior decision-making level. The EU Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was the keynote speaker. Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s former Prime Minister, also took part in a panel. Mistra has been collaborating with CEPS for years, and is one of the sponsors of the Ideas Lab.

According to Egenhofer, the actual design of the CEPS Ideas Lab contributes to making the conference attractive. Previously, CEPS held more traditional conferences, but then decided to apply a more radical touch.

‘We shut people in a room, make sure it’s very hot and then let them talk frankly for five minutes. It’s proved successful.’

One participant was Jan Riise of Mistra Urban Futures. He attended a seminar that raised the question of how to boost popular participation in democratic and political processes in Europe.

The EU is often portrayed as an elite-driven project, deaf to popular movements and popular involvement. Ordinary Europeans’ scope to influence EU decision-making processes and the mechanisms that can open up such influence, and whether such social movements can lead to real results, were therefore discussed during the seminar.

Riise pointed out that vital knowledge of what results social participation can provide is still lacking, however, and research in the area has begun only relatively recently.

‘We need more knowledge there. We also know that the earlier citizens, residents or, for that matter, others concerned, like companies and associations, enter the process the better it is.’

Relevant experience, such as that of British social housing, shows that residents’ well-being and care of residential areas improve if the residents are involved in decisions early in the process.

‘People often talk about empowerment, and our thesis is that it improves the quality of life. If we’re to achieve sustainability, then social sustainability is important.’

Riise believes that local participation can get positive processes going.

‘We must have realistic hopes. Although European and local issues don’t contradict each other, it’s probably primarily at local level that participation can take place,’ he says.

The Conference, CEPS Ideas Labs, took place on 20–21 February in The Egg, Brussels.

Text: Thomas Heldmark