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»As long as you stay credible, people will listen to you«

Interview — As chairman of a government-appointed Danish Council on Climate Change, Peter Birch Sørensen refused, right from the beginning, to submit to the government's political logic. So he was dismissed, and now he is back on his professor seat at the Department of Economics. But he does not bear a grudge. In his experience, credible proposals from researchers always end up victorious.

It is 1,200 metres, as the crow flies, between the Danish parliament and Peter Birch Sørensen’s office at the Department of Economics in Øster Farimagsgade.

For several years, the two worlds were at the centre of the 64-year-old economics professor’s working life. First as chief economic adviser, then as chairman of the former centre-left coalition government’s productivity commission, and then, most recently, as chairman of the Danish Council on Climate Change, or ‘Climate Council’.

Now it’s all over.

Even though Peter Birch Sørensen would have liked to have taken another term in the Climate Council, he was dismissed in November 2018 by the Minister for Energy, Utilities and Climate, Lars Christian Lilleholt.

He is now, as a result, concentrating on his work as a researcher and teacher at the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen.

»My secretariat had let the ministry understand that if it wished that I would take one more term, then I was available. But I fully acknowledge the minister’s right to choose someone else. And seen in relation to the process that took place, I was not surprised that he chose to appoint someone else.«

It can’t be put more diplomatically.

The Danish Council on Climate Change’s analyses were professional, and our recommendations were fully borne out by the analyses.

Peter Birch Sørensen

But behind the words is a sticky case that is all about politics and respect for letting independent experts speak out freely.

The switch in the chairmanship came in the wake of a public dispute between Lars Christian Lilleholt and Peter Birch Sørensen on the Council’s latest report, which criticised the Danish government’s climate policy.

Peter Birch Sørensen called the government’s climate policy ‘unambitious’, and the minister responded by calling the criticism ‘muddled’ and ‘nonsensical’.

Four days later, the Ministry for Energy, Utilities and Climate issued a press release in which the Ministry rebuked the climate council’s criticism of the government. And later that same day, the Ministry announced that professor Peter Mølgaard from the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in Holland would be the climate council’s new chairman.

Peter Birch Sørensen

· 64 years old, born in Nørre Åby on Funen

· Lives in Charlottenlund, with his wife. He has two adult children

· MSc in economics from the University of Copenhagen

· PhD in economics, 1985

· Professor, Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen since 1995

· Chairman of the Economic Council 1997-99

· Chief Economic Adviser 2004-10

· Deputy Director of the Danish Central Bank, 2010-11

· Chairman of the Danish government’s Productivity Commission 2012-14

· Chairman of the Danish Council on Climate Change 2015-19

The process had opposition parties and policy experts accusing the government of firing Peter Birch Sørensen to silence him.

Both the climate minister and Prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen rejected the idea that is was politics that had him dismissed. They said that the decision had been made before the climate council released its critical report on the government’s climate initiative. This turned out to only be a half-truth.

Access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act made it clear that the Ministry knew about the report’s conclusions before it decided to get rid of Peter Birch Sørensen as chairman.

But for Peter Birch Sørensen, this is not essential. The disagreement between him and the minister had started a long time before this.

A long-standing conflict

»The Minister’s officials had known the report’s main conclusions before it was decided that I should stop as chairman. But the dispute went back further. It can therefore very well be true when the minister says that the switch in chairmanship was not due to the most recent report,« says Peter Birch Sørensen.

The professor already had one of his main controversies with the minister when the Danish Council on Climate Change presented its first climate report back in 2015:

»In the report, we looked at the objective of Denmark reducing CO2 emissions by 40 per cent in 2020 compared to 1990. The minister took issue with this, as this was not the government’s objective. He believed that we were the Danish government’s advisers, and that we only had to advise the government in relation to the policy objectives that they had stipulated. I disagreed.«

Peter Birch Sørensen has taken part in government-sponsored analysis work for many years. So he does not let himself be steamrolled by a minister who calls his expert analyses for ‘nonsense’ and a prime minister, who believes that he’s ‘trying to make a martyr out of himself on this.’

»I find it hard to see that the Council on Climate Change could have done anything significantly different. Our analyses were professional, and our recommendations were fully borne out by the analyses.«

He therefore has no regrets on what he has said, or on what the climate council has recommended, he says.

Disagreement about the role of the Climate Council

When Peter Birch Sørensen looks back on his four years in the Council of Climate Change and the challenges that came with his chairmanship, it is especially the disagreements concerning the role of the council which has given rise to conflicts between him and the minister:

»Me and the others on the climate council believed that it was relevant and legitimate to concern ourselves with the objective. Both because it was mentioned in the climate legislation that was the basis for the work on the climate, and because there was a parliamentary majority behind it.«

It's not an objective in itself to get into conflict with those who you are to advise.
Peter Birch Sørensen

The dispute concerns a matter of principle. Is the climate council a kind of internal consultant for the current government or is the climate council also an independent advisor to the Danish parliament?

“It is not crystal clear in the climate legislation. It says that we should advise the government. But the government has to subsequently explain to the Danish parliament how it relates to our analyses and proposals. In this sense, the Danish parliament is also involved,” says Peter Birch Sørensen.

But the dispute was about more than that. It is also about a basic distrust of the experts’ objectivity and impartiality. The government called Peter Birch Sørensen’s political independence into question.

The governing Liberal Party has repeatedly made it clear that they see you as a man from the opposition party. Are they right?

“No, I really think this is an unreasonable accusation. Everything that the climate council has recommended during my term, has had the complete backing of the whole climate council, which consists of six members and a chairman, all of whom are selected based on their professional expertise. Four of the Council’s members were appointed by the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in connection with the former Climate Commission of 2008-10. It is therefore very strange if we suddenly have become a political tool of the opposition.«

But it is worth noting that you as an expert can select different methods depending on your personal convictions?

»It is clear that no matter how objective you try to be, you can have a skewed approach to a problem. But this is also why there are seven members on the Climate Council, who are each experts in their respective fields, and that there, in addition, is a secretariat with skilled professionals. This helps ensure that one single person does not just run off on a tangent with an obvious ideological standpoint. Otherwise we would undermine our own credibility.«

Peter Birch Sørensen looks out the window and lets a hand pass through his beard.

»It’s not an objective in itself to get into conflict with those who you are to advise. You would like to be on good terms with them, but you have to stand on a professional basis and be loyal to the climate legislation. This is your duty.”

Not without influence

He could have wished for a better start in the Climate Council. But he is happy for the four years he managed to be chairman of the council. And despite the lack of responsiveness on the part of the government he feels that it has been worth the effort.

DANish Climate on council CHange

· Independent expert body set up under the climate legislation of 2014

· Set up by the Social Liberals, Social Democrats, Red-Green Alliance, Socialist People’s Party and the Conservative Party

· According to the climate legislation, the council is to evaluate Denmark’s fulfilment of climate objectives and international commitments.

· The council select its own tasks. The Minister may not require that the council takes up certain themes, or avoids other themes.

· Consists of a chairman and six members

· Peter Birch Sørensen was chairman from December 2014 to December 2018.

»It has not been the best starting point that the climate council has worked under a minister, who voted against the original climate legislation and the set-up of the council. But there has, in general, been considerable interest in what we have done. This both on the part of the public and on the part of politicians in parliament that work on climate issues. So it has not been the case that we had to fight to bring attention to our analyses.”

In this way, the work in the Climate Council is a lot like the other posts that Peter Birch Sørensen has held as a economic expert:

»I have also been Chief Economic Adviser for a few years, and the government of the time was often annoyed by our advice. But that does not mean that the economic advisors have been without influence on the development of society. It just means that you must seek influence through other channels and enter into dialogue with the other stakeholders who are included in the political process. As long as you stay credible, people will listen to you«

He points out that the Danish parliament on several occasions has directly followed some of the Climate Council’s recommendations and that it has therefore not been without influence.

»We recommended, for example, a tax deduction for the battery cost in the purchase of an electric car. This has been introduced. But more importantly, we recommended prior to the energy agreement last year that we should aim for a 55 per cent renewable energy share of energy consumption in 2030 instead of the 50 per cent which the government had proposed. The politicians took this on board.”

Environmental interest from secondary school

Peter Birch Sørensen gets up from his chair and walks over to the bookshelf. He lets a finger slide over the spines of the books until it hits a worn paperback, which he pulls out and puts on the table.

“One of the reasons why I started studying economics, was this book, which I read when I was in upper secondary school. It argued that the world was moving towards a catastrophe if we did not stop the increasing environmental degradation,” he says.

The book The Limits to Growth was dismissed by many economists as doomsday hysteria. But it sparked Peter Birch Sørensen’s long-standing interest in environmental issues, which started back in upper secondary school at the beginning of the 1970s at Skt. Knuds Gymnasium in Odense.

“I have since then got a more nuanced picture of the relationship between growth and the environment. But the book made a deep impression on me and helped to awaken my interest in environmental problems,” says Peter Birch Sørensen.

He is now back on full-time, teaching and researching at the Department of Economics and has already taken up new projects that he hopes might be able to influence climate policy in a positive direction.

What is it that you can contribute as an economist?

“For me as an economist, it’s about thinking environmental and climate policy and economic policy together. That is why I am helping develop an environmental-economic model for the Danish economy. I am also helping lead a large research project to calculate a green GDP for Denmark, which corrects the traditional GDP for environmental and climate effects. In this way, you can see whether the environmental costs have been so great that there has been no growth if you deduct them.”

Are you optimistic about whether your recommendations will be used?

»Yes I am, actually. We have not finished our projects. But there is a growing political interest in the UN sustainable development goals and our commitments in the climate area, which means that I believe that this may have an impact.«

Translated by Mike Young