“It is the social dimension and the human factor that we need to pay attention to”: Teresa Ribera on the need to work across governmental departments to produce a socially just energy transition.
In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich spoke to Teresa Ribera, Minister for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, and Fourth Deputy Prime Minister of Spain.
Teresa insists on the importance of working across governmental departments if the impact of the ecological crisis is going to be tackled. The conversation then moves to the social impacts of the move away from fossil fuels. We need to “pay a kind of tribute to communities that for decades had been providing welfare to our economies and to our societies,” Teresa says. The conversation ends with a discussion on the role of women negotiators in environmental talks.
Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Michael Liebreich: Teresa, welcome to Cleaning Up. You have a long ministerial title: The Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge. You are also the Fourth Deputy Prime Minister. Does this mean you coordinate across issues and across ministries?
Teresa Ribera: Well, we are trying to combine different transitions. Of course, the most important and visible one is the energy transition within our system. But at the same time, it's true that we also need to think what we could introduce as the adaptation challenges. So, what does this mean for nature? What does it mean for water? What does this mean for soil? What does this mean for the people, and the cities? I think the coordination work is going very well. The need for consistency explains why there is a Vice Prime Minister working on the social aspects, a Vice Prime Minister working on the economic aspects, and the Vice Prime Minister working on the environmental aspects, which is me. And then all the ministries working in a team trying to ensure that things go smoothly and well. I mean, of course, we may have some internal disputes on how fast and how far we go in mobility or urban planning or agriculture or whatever, but with the same type of spirit and targets. And it goes reasonably well.
When we think about what is happening in technology solutions, research and innovation in basic observation and basic science, it relates back to ecological challenges. It's the type of work we all experience in our normal social relations; we work in networks and we understand that things feed in a type of ecosystem. It’s not just you on your own in an isolated manner, taking decisions that solve whatever you've got in front of you.
I think we have been educated to think in a siloed way, and we are learning that this doesn't work because reality is much more complex. It demands a personal commitment to ensure that systemic thinking happens at all levels of the administration, and that these relations with your colleagues go smoothly.
ML: It’s a different era because almost everything is connected to everything within the net-zero and ecological transformation. There is almost no government department where you can say: “now you just go off and do your thing.” In many ways, it probably is reminiscent of a wartime challenge where every single piece of the system is going to experience change. If it's not leading change, it's going to experience a change. And there are terrible trade-offs. In France, we saw the yellow vests. In the UK, we didn't go as far as the yellow vests, but we have got trade-offs in terms of the levelling up agenda to ensure that no regions are left behind in this transformation. Some of those trade-offs are very difficult. You dealt with a few very early in your time back in government, correct?
TR: We need to ask ourselves: who is going to get the impact? And how strong is that person or that community to be able to digest that impact. And if you don't think about this potential spillover effect, you may face a situation that is not manageable anymore. Sometimes you don't realize until the moment it is very late. But it is very important to try to anticipate as much as possible, and to think about the type of social responses that can facilitate and smooth this transformation.
In the phase-out of coal, there were a couple of things that were very, very important. The first of them being the need to pay a kind of tribute to communities that for decades had been providing welfare to our economies and to our societies. So, it was the grandparents, the parents, and the sons working in mining. There were many things that were very important for them and you cannot just say, “hey, sorry, this is not your time anymore. Bye, bye.” No, I think it is important to pay a tribute to these memories, and at the same time to invest in the creation of opportunities in those areas. So, how can we invest, how we can facilitate this transformation? As I said, this is not just macroeconomics, this is not just the market, this is not just because technology is easier and cheaper. It is the social dimension, the human factor that we need to pay attention to.
ML: Absolutely. You get quite a bit of resistance from some of the people working on climate, who find it outrageous that one makes a payment to the mining sector, for example. They see that as rewards for bad behavior. Sometimes they are their own worst enemies and fight any sort of engagement with oil, gas, and coal companies and with the communities that are dependent on those industries. I agree with you, I think one must engage and understand that they have legitimate claims for funding and for social inclusion.
TR: For me, it is important to assess who deserves solidarity and who can manage on their own. A big corporate has more instruments to make their own transition than a small community of workers, for example. Second, I guess the debate is not so much day-to-day, but how much time we've got to prepare ourselves. So, it's not a question of punishment, but the question of facilitating the transformation.
Let's focus on the future and see how we can provide new opportunities for people, and how corporates can evolve because we need the utilities working in a different kind of energy model. So, let's avoid the confrontational aspects and instead identify what the common ground is to facilitate being together in this transformation.
ML: Talking about facilitating the transformation. I have done these Cleaning Up conversations with Rachel Kyte, Christiana Figueres, Amber Rudd, and Claire O'Neill. I’ll be speaking to Laurence Tubiana in the coming weeks. These are all women who, like you, were deeply involved in the Paris climate negotiations and the Paris Agreements. Did it make a difference that so many of the leaders of that process were women? Contrasted with COP 15 in 2009, which was the kind of the ‘guy COP’ and failed. But the ‘women's COP’ in 2015 succeeded. Is that a fair characterization?
TR: At the beginning there were no women in the different governing boards of the UNFCCC, which was striking. Leading negotiators tended to be men rather than women. We started to realize that there was more capacity, flexibility, and pragmatism in some of the women negotiators than among their colleagues on the men's side.
In 2009 the Venezuelan negotiator Claudia Salerno stopped the plenary and said “hey, guys, I'm not here to stay forever. I have kids at home waiting to enjoy Christmas. So, let's be pragmatic and solve the problems.” I think this is an approach which is very common in many of the women negotiators.
ML: I do worry that when the historians write the history of this period, they will say the guys nearly trashed the planet, but then the women took over and fixed it. And that will be the entire history of a sort of 50-year period.
TR: Well, let's try to work in a much more inclusive way. Men and women working together.
ML: Okay, so maybe there's still hope for us.