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COP21 Interview: Joost Venken

David A. Andelman, World Policy Journal's editor emeritus, continues his reporting from the Paris Climate Conference. This week he interviews Joost Venken, the deputy mayor of Hasselt, Belgium, a city of 80,000 inhabitants. Venken is charged with overseeing urban infrastructure improvements in regards to climate change. 

DAVID ANDELMAN: There’s been a lot of discussion about how countries may not come to an agreement that will allow the world to remain at 1.5 [degrees], but that there’s hope that the municipalities, the companies, [the] individual people can take the kinds of initiatives that are necessary that will get us there even, with countries - especially countries like the United States, where you have Republicans in the Senate and others who are, who don’t believe in global warming - that nevertheless, people and cities around the world can do enough in order to get the world there, even if the whole countries cannot. Do you believe that that is [...]​ in fact possible? 

JOOST VENKEN: Well I think it’s as important. I do think you have both of them, you need both of them, it’s complementary. I would like to hope that cities alone will be enough… one can go without the other. For instance, if you take a look at what the major sources of CO2 emissions are, transport, for instance, is something that you have to tackle at a national or supranational level, because it’s the globalization and the worldwide transports that is mostly responsible for these emissions. But on the other hand, one of the other major sources is the household warming, household heating. That is something that you have to tackle, I guess, at a municipality level.

DA: Well and also there’s the numbers of taxi cabs, the fuel that municipal buses burn, how many cars are going through the streets on a daily or an hourly basis. And congestion and so on. Those are all municipal issues, right? And those affect this as well. So, do you find that you have a will among your people to allow the government, the local governments, to be able to control these [issues]? Is there, you sense in emotions among the people, that they believe suddenly that this is something that’s necessary for them to participate in?

JV: I do think so. Of course, not everybody […] has the same idea, but there are a lot of people who are really, really asking for a policy concerning climate, and would take steps themselves by, [for example] eating a lot less meat - because Belgium is a country where the tradition of [a lot of] meat. So you see that people really want that. when you [make] decisions… well, they tend to agree. Because sometimes there are decisions that aren’t so […] budget-friendly for people, and then they tend, of course, to be against it. But when it concerns climate change, I think that there’s quite some support.

DA: So, give me an example of some of the kinds of initiatives that Hasselt is taking to try to improve the climate. [Like] transport, what have you done on transport?

JV: We have different aspects. You mentioned transport […].  We’ve done several things. Fifteen years ago, we made the public transport free in order to get people on the bus, instead of the car, and we also made…well, we have two ringways, an inner and an outer ringway, around the city, and the inner ringways was just [like] the outer, a four-lane street. So two lanes in each direction. And we gave up half of it - so now there’s only two lanes left in one direction, so you can only go in one direction, and then the other part is transformed into a boulevard, a green boulevard with trees and a place where you can walk and take bicycles. Those are measures that force people to consider other ways of transportation, of ability. Also, in the city center, I think about half of the city center is car-free and the other half is [restricted].  It’s made difficult and there are times where you cannot go into certain streets, so there isn’t much traffic - well, there’s a bit [of] traffic, but not much, not [as] much as in a normal situation. So those are things we have done with regard  [to] mobility - well, at least the mobility of the car transport[ation]. 

We also try to stimulate using bicycles on different levels, by putting rental bikes at the train station so that you can easily go to the train station and from there on […] to your office, because it’s mostly the last mile that makes it hard for people to decide to take […] public transport. So those are sort of the amount of measures concerning transport.  

DA: You mentioned that you eliminated two lanes of the ring roads [around the city]. Sometimes, people would say [that] what that’s going to do is raise congestion. So the cars get in a traffic jam more often, and they sit there and they idle […]. Do you find that [to be] a problem, congestion? Because there are fewer roads, if there aren’t fewer cars there can more congestion and in fact more pollution? Or are people now saying “I’m going to leave my car at home entirely because of this,” and then therefore that will cut it down? 

JV: I think there are two strategies that people choose. You have a group of people that will indeed say “I evade, I’m making sure that I don’t go near the center with the car because it’s quite difficult and I won’t find [a] parking space, etc.,” and that’s a good evolution. On the other hand there are still people who say “Well, I want to park near the shop where I want to be, and I will [hope] that one place will be open for me,” but that doesn’t lead to congestion. So I do not think that that’s a problem at the moment...well I can’t predict the future, but it’s not a problem. 

DA: Yeah. Now, [...] about housing, household things…

JV: [Yes], household heating. In Belgium we have houses with very limited insulation in the walls and roofs . While that is historically grown, we are trying to stimulate people to renovate. But that is a quite difficult process because when you are in possession of a house, you have to let somebody do an audit, and you have to see what kind of material there has to be, and when you retrofit...well, it’s always complex, and there are a lot of people who don’t undertake that whole mission, the whole process. I’ve been trying to help those people the most by facilitating them… We try to promote collective renovation. So we have people who go around […] literally someone going door to door, ringing the doors, and asking how the situation is and if they may come in, if they may check your insulation, etc. And then we try to collectively do a procurement so that people get a good price, and they get the, um...they’ll be facilitated by that person. He will be there for the whole process.

DA: Are you setting standards, building standards [like] “[if] you’re building a house it must have so much insulation”? Is that part of the process also? Like a municipal requirement that you have a certain amount […] of insulation? Or, if you’re going to renovate a house, you have to have a certain amount of insulation? [Do you have to] get a permit to do that?

JV: In Flanders [...]. Belgium is a complicated country. Belgium’s the federal state and Flanders is one of the regions. Flanders has some regulations, and they have standards, and everybody has to meet those standards. We do not have additional standards because they are quite good, and they are quite [progressive] - so each year it’s a bit stricter. And we are trying to get to the […] nearly zero energy, the European measure - that we, that the state has to […] put it to its own regulations. One thing I’d maybe add is that you have individuals who build houses, but you also have product developers who build fifty houses at once, and because their impact is quite large we try to negotiate with them. We try to negotiate to ask them to do more than the standards require, and we give them something back in return. For instance we say that “well, if you build houses which are very [well] insulated, which have a high standard - you may build a few more.

DA: Or have solar panels for instance?

JV: Yes 

DA: Why can’t you just mandate that? […] Why can’t you just say “these are the new standards”?

JV: Well, we have the regulations of Flanders […] And there’s [a] very complex system in our country regarding who may do what, […] and […] it’s quite difficult for us to do so. It would be something that you could fight against that you could fight against in court. So we’d rather not do so...

DA: You’d rather persuade someone to do it, or...coerce someone to do it, right? [laughs]

JV: [Laughs]. Yes, persuade. Or maybe some coercion, but…[laughs]

DA: Have you been able to see that there has been a change in your air quality, or in the amount of greenhouse gases? Do you measure that in your city, and have you seen any change in the last, say, five years or ten years, that it’s getting better?

JV: We [did] a baseline [study] about seven years ago. And we are now in the process of evaluating how much we have achieved. In the first years it went very, very slow - half percent, one percent - but where we are today is ...under investigation, if I may so? 

DA: Well you live there, I mean, do you feel the air quality is better? Do you feel that there’s a cleaner sense in the [city]? My wife can tell, for instance, if there’s soot coming in the windows in New York...

JV: Pollution, that’s something you notice faster, I think […] there are changes. The pollution levels, certainly. The particles of the diesel engines, [..] the small dust particles - that has been a bit better. Not very much, but it has been a bit better...mostly because we cut the road in half. You can’t have as [many] cars if you cut the road in half [laughs]. It’s simple math.

DA: So how translatable do you think this idea is, these measures that you take, to other countries and other cities? [Cities] in the third world especially  where it’s so terribly difficult. Do you see yourself as sort of an advance guard for how such a program could operate in New Delhi, or a small [or] medium-sized town in India or in China, or in Africa for that matter? Would you like to see yourself be able […] to campaign for things like that in venues like the COP21 conference?

JV: Well, our engagement is written down in the Covenant of Mayors - that’s a European initiative where, as the name says, […] the mayor signs it, but it’s for the whole local community, where you engage yourself to fulfill the 20-20-20 that the European Union had as a goal. 20 percent reduction of energy, 20 percent reduction of CO2 emissions, and 20 percent reduction of renewable energy […]. Next week, it will be launched worldwide. So the European Union has evaluated the system - or is busy with the evaluation - and the results are quite good, because it gives a framework in which you can operate easily, and the European Union also has subsidies connected to the system so if you are in that framework you can easily get subsidies...well, more easily than when you’re not, let’s put it that way. 

DA: So every city in Europe is a member of that framework?

JV: Well, not every city. But a whole lot are. For instance, in the province of Limburg - Hasselt is in the province of Limburg - there are 44 local governments, and all […] 44 are members of the Covenant of Mayors. And it’s now being rolled out across the world, and I think that it’s a real good framework that can be adapted everywhere.

DA: Are some of the third world or developing world cities […] insisting on [getting] subsidies from wealthier cities in Europe or the United States in order to implement this plan?

JV: A certain amount, yes, because the European Union has several NGOs, nongovernmental organizations like Climate Alliance, which are the ones that roll out the Covenant of Mayors, and they are also paying to roll it out across the world. So they are putting some money on the table to do so. I have no idea of the amount of money. But I do think that we have a responsibility in the West, and we have to answer to that responsibility. What we are doing in Hasselt, we have […] a few twin cities, one in America - Mountain View in California, I believe - one in Japan, but also two in Morocco. There’s a Saharan area in the south of Morocco, and the idea is that  we are helping them, especially on environmental topics, to have a different evolution than we have done here-

DA: How do you do that? You send experts there? How does this work? 

JV: There’s a lot of exchange [of] information, sometimes there are people from Hasselt going there, […] but today that is not really necessary to physically go. There are lots of possibilities to communicate, and it works. They had very little experience with […] managing parks and using green in your city to cool down, for instance […] . Also, on the topic of energy, of course we are trying to stimulate the use of solar panels because the region is ideal for solar panels, and you see that that helps because it’s […] an idea that has to grow. The region, [because] it’s quite rural, far away from the cities, it’s not something that you see there, solar panels. But at the moment, you do see it [...]. 

DA: That’s very encouraging, very encouraging.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of Peter Koves]

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