Interview with IRENA Director General Nominee Hélène Pelosse

PelosseEuropean environmentalists dedicated the 2008 International Women's Day to a newfound heroine: Hélène Pelosse. The lead negotiator of a European Union directive to achieve a 20 percent renewable energy share of regional energy consumption by 2020, Pelosse delivered the agreement in time for the annual recognition of female achievement. Born in Montréal, Pelosse attended university in France and rose quickly through several government jobs, including work as a finance inspector and trade adviser, and she currently serves as the Minister of State's deputy head of staff of international affairs. She also advised Angela Merkel's office during the German presidency of the European Union.

Pelosse is one of four nominees to head the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). IRENA members are meeting this weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to choose a headquarters and select a director-general. Worldwatch staff writer Ben Block is interviewing candidates this week for Eye on Earth.

How did you manage to negotiate the European Union agreement to increase renewable energy to 20 percent by 2020?

We had tough discussions.... Europe was split. The big issue was how much flexibility countries would have and what would happen if they could not achieve the goal. Toward the end, the energy minister of Germany flew out of the meeting. Germany was the first to have large renewable energy capacity, [and he] was afraid that they would have their capacity taken by others [in a credit exchange system]. I had to run after him and ask him to strike an agreement with Italy. He came back.... We gave flexibility to countries and were still able to stick to our objectives. We didn't depart from the initial [20 percent] figures, which was a huge success.... If countries don't achieve the targets, they will end up in the court of justice. But we give states a degree of flexibility. You have some flexibility if you don't achieve your targets for any one year.

France plans to introduce a national carbon tax by 2011. Why is a tax the best way to reduce France's greenhouse gas emissions?

It's one tool that could be quite efficient. If you really want to change behavior, you have to give the right signal.... Fuel taxation itself is a type of tax on carbon. How do you widen it to all economic actors? Right now that is not the case. Right now we are taxing fuels - the U.S. doesn't really do it, but fuel is heavily taxed in France and generally in Europe. Also now we have the ETS [European Union Emission Trading Scheme] carbon quotas for the energy sector and heavy industry. They will be subject to some kind of carbon tax since they will be obliged to buy their quotas, and they'll need to do that more and more as time goes by.

What parts of the economy should the carbon tax include?

We have to think a bit more about that. But if you take the example of aviation, this is an industry that uses fuel - but fuel that is not taxed right now, although aviation has been included in a directive that links with the ETS system. That's something we need to think about. You have other industries not in the ETS system because of their smaller size, so what do we do with them?... Our president has [appointed] former Prime Minister Michel Rocard [to lead the carbon tax initiative] - someone who is widely recognized for being a consensus builder, in particular when he advocated a tax on social security, which is called the "Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG)."... If [Rocard] managed to pass the law on CSG he might be the right person to get consensus on the carbon tax, which is similarly no easy issue.

If France can figure out an effective carbon tax, should the rest of the European Union follow?

Climate change is a global fight. We need to make sure that you do not allow carbon leakage.... If we limit emissions in some places while you can emit as much as you want in other places, we'll go nowhere and the climate situation will not improve.... There has been discussion of an EU carbon tax at its borders. Basically, if you are based in Europe, importing goods from China or any other place in the world where environmental dumping would be going on, we would try to avoid the consequences of that by establishing an equalizing mechanism. Goods imported in Europe would have to pay a carbon quota as they cross the border. This has been proposed as part of the ETS directive, but we will negotiate that after international climate negotiators have reached an agreement at the Copenhagen United Nations summit in December.... Industrial countries, as historical polluters, must make a bigger effort than others but it does not mean that others do not need to do anything. We cannot afford to have huge constraints in some places and no constraints in other places.

A carbon tax would internal the costs of greehouse gas emissions and make renewable energy cheaper compared to fossil fuels. To what extent should renewable energy be subsidized as well?

Definitely [renewables] should be subsidized, especially in the beginning. We're starting something new.... Let's be serious for a second and compare it to what's happening with oil. Can you say right now there's no subsidies for oil? No. If we want to avoid windfall profits, if you don't want to hamper renewable energy, then you have to make sure there are not more subsidies on the other side.... It's a distortion, at the end of the day. There are energy sources we prefer because [they are] clean and climate-friendly, but they are not competing in a level playing field.... We have to phase-out subsidies for oil. That's definitely difficult as well. I won't give you any number of years [required] for abandoning subsidies for renewables. We are not quite there yet....

I tend to believe more in an approach along the lines that old energy forms should be utilized to finance new ones. We know our current source of energy, oil, will not be around for many more years. We should make sure this money can also be used to finance the next generation of clean energy. That would make sense.

What financing options must be adopted to accelerate renewable energy deployment?

First, a policy device. If you have a good policy framework, you are going to get the financing.... In Jordan and Morocco, they are working on a law to set up a fund that will offset the extra costs of producing renewable energy. Of course, it's much easier in Morocco because they don't subsidize fossil energy as they do in Jordan or Egypt.... The World Bank, development banks, and other dedicated funds have to work on program-based solutions under the climate change convention. Right now, the Clean Development Mechanism is not suited to finance renewable energy. It's too complicated. Small-scale renewable energy projects do not generate such large amounts of money.

The idea for IRENA is to do the job for everybody, at lower transaction costs, and to just make things happen. We have to be innovative and creative. We have to think of novel ways to get funds. We're not there yet. We should think about activities that are growing and leverage their revenue - maybe areas that are related to information technology, the Web.... There are lots of websites right now popping up everywhere around the world trying to raise funds for projects., a project in the Third World with no financing, raises $50 per individual donor - through microfinancing. It's something we should think about. It would also be possible to channel migrant remittances toward renewable energy projects.

Have you come across a good example of such innovation in the developing world?

In Bangladesh, they have experience with equipping villages and providing women with PV [photovoltaic] panels on roofs for $300, paid of course via microcredit schemes. This is being done on a very large scale. This is an example of how one of the poorest countries in the world can provide people with electricity. It's not much. Each home has two light bulbs, one PV panel, and a charger for their mobile [phone] and a TV. It's changing lives. Half of the products are produced in Bangladesh - not the PV panel, but in time it too will be manufactured in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi women manufacture all the rest, all the rechargers. We have to build on those experiences and see how we can expand them worldwide.

Should IRENA promote specific policies such as national renewable energy portfolio standards, which set a specific target for clean energy, or feed-in-tariffs, which guarantee a market and fixed payment for renewable energy producers to sell their power to the grid?

I do think that those types of tools are very powerful, but you can't use them in every country.... With a feed-in tariff, some countries just can't afford that. For some, it would be very difficult because they are already subsidizing fossil energy prices.... It's very difficult to switch to renewable energy because renewables are way more expensive. We need to find smart ways.... For example, in many African countries the energy staple is biomass-women grabbing some wood to cook with. You want to establish a feed-in tariff? Well, good luck with that! In that case it would be better to start a different program: improved cooking stoves. Improve the situation of women so they can be healthier, burn less wood, be much more energy efficient. That's how pragmatic you have to be with renewable energy.

France often talks about low-carbon energy solutions when fighting climate change. Should IRENA expand its purview to include any low-carbon solution?

Should IRENA deal with nuclear? No. We already have an international organization that deals with nuclear energy.... I do not think that IRENA should have anything to do with that. It is certainly not going to deal with nuclear energy; that would not make any sense. Nuclear energy is a totally different story. It is a mature technology, it has its own risks, and then there's the issue of waste. Unlike renewables, it is not a universal solution.

I ask because renewable energy advocates have expressed concerns about a so-called "nuclear tainted" IRENA. The concerns are based largely on the fact that the United Arab Emirates has agreed to nuclear energy deals with the United States and France. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is lobbying to host the agency.

Of course there is cooperation between France and Abu Dhabi. Of course France knows that nuclear energy is not at all a renewable form of energy. In fact, early last year, France accepted a target of 23 percent renewable energy by 2020 - more than Germany, at 18 percent - and the [French] target is nuclear-free. But there is nuclear energy in France.... Some countries want to import nuclear energy - it's their choice. The idea that IRENA would be tainted by nuclear interests is simply wrong: firstly, [nuclear] is not in its statutes. Second, there already is an international organization in charge of nuclear energy. There is no way IRENA is ever going to deal with nuclear energy. Certainly not with me if I'm elected.

Note: The fourth nominee, Centro Nacional de Energías Renovables Director General Juan Ormazábal of Spain, was not available for an interview.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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