New E.U. climate chief must deal with both global warming and energy, a difficult job

Environmentalists yesterday gave mixed reviews to the former Spanish environment minister selected to succeed Connie Hedegaard as the European Union's top climate change official.

Miguel Arias Cañete will serve as the European Union's next commissioner for climate action and energy, a position that for the first time bundles the two major portfolios. Under it, analysts said they expect to see Cañete juggling the threat to gas supplies from Russia with negotiations toward a 2015 global climate change agreement.

A European Commission memo yesterday declared that the two issues were being merged because they are "mutually reinforcing" and that boosting renewable energy must complement industrial policies delivering affordable medium-term energy.

"Climate action and energy policy go hand-in-hand and are now in one pair of hands," the Brussels statement said.

But that way of thinking, as well as the choice of Cañete himself, came in for some debate. Environmental groups pointed to his ties to the oil industry in Spain and to his role as environment minister in pulling the subsidy rug out from under renewable energy. Several also pointed to comments Cañete was reported to have made last year that "holding a debate with a woman is complicated, because showing intellectual superiority could be seen as sexist."

Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe, said Cañete has "not exactly too good a track record on environmental issues" and said that worries the climate community.


"He will really have to have a very different approach if we are going to see Europe move forward," Trio said.

'Big shoes to fill'

Richard Klein, a senior research fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute, noted that despite the widespread concerns, Cañete did support Hedegaard at the most recent U.N. climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland, where he served as Spain's negotiator.

"He knows he has big shoes to fill," Klein said. "He will need to use all his political skills and talents to become a successful commissioner. First, he must ensure that the E.U. remains a strong and trusted player at the international climate negotiations, and that agreement at the U.N. climate summit in Paris in 2015 reflects the E.U.'s ambition of previous years."

Yet precisely what role he will play in the 2015 talks remains unclear. According to the E.U. memo, Cañete will support the vice presidency of Slovenia's Alenka Bratushek. Yet Bratushek, who is charged with shaping an "energy union," is not clearly charged as the lead E.U. official in the climate negotiations.

Trio said it is too soon to tell if that apparent lack of clarity will pose a problem for the European Union and said he hopes climate change does not take a backseat in the new dual portfolio.

"It's a pity that climate change has not been identified as a more important issue in the agenda," he said.

Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund, said he thinks Cañete's new dual role could bode well for the 2015 talks.

"The merger of energy and climate roles should increase Cañete's leverage to help bring about not only a valuable climate agreement in Paris next year, but more immediately, important reforms to the E.U. ETS [Emissions Trading System], so that it can play a more productive part in driving down European emissions over time," he said. "Having the energy portfolio may also allow for a more systemic integration of E.U. energy and climate policies, which have sometimes seemed at odds."

Klein said Cañete also will face challenges in getting all E.U. member states to sign onto a unified climate action plan -- the current proposal is to cut emissions 40 percent by 2030 -- as well as to bolstering the European trading system.

Finally, he noted, Cañete "will have to fight his battles within the E.U. Commission, with E.U. commissioners who may support climate action in theory but also have other interests to defend." He called on Cañete and Bratusek to "fight those battles as a team."

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