Barriers to raising EU’s climate change target grow higher

A wall of resistance from European Union governments and industry stands in the way of the efforts of Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate action commissioner, to secure a pledge from the 27-nation bloc to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by even more than it is already committed to doing.

Hedegaard contends that the EU can afford to set itself higher targets, because Europe’s recent recession – the worst in its history – reduced economic activity and so slashed the cost of meeting the goals set in 2008.  The EU’s basic target is a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels.  Hedegaard would like to raise the target to 30 per cent, thereby maintaining Europe’s self-image as the frontrunner in world efforts to tackle climate change.

But several of the EU’s biggest member-states, such as France, Germany, Italy and Poland, remain to be convinced.  So, too, does BusinessEurope, the pan-European employers’ association.  It is also open to doubt whether all of Hedegaard’s fellow EU commissioners fully support her initiative.

Hedegaard’s data show pretty conclusively that greenhouse gas emissions fell sharply during the recession.  According to a Commission paper issued last week, emissions from EU businesses participating in the European emissions trading system dropped by 11.6 per cent last year from 2008 levels.  The document observes that low gas prices last year created an incentive to produce power from gas rather than coal.

Whether this justifies a decision to go for a 30 per cent target is another matter.  One central issue concerns the EU’s ability to extract far-reaching commitments from other big emitters, notably China and the US.  The evidence from last December’s global climate change conference in Copenhagen suggests that the EU’s powers of influence are depressingly limited.  In the words of a letter sent by Jürgen Thumann, the president of BusinessEurope, to José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president: “We are … convinced that any further increase of the EU’s unilateral 20 per cent emission reduction target at this point in time would be unlikely to convince other nations to adopt comparable targets.”

Environmentalists argue that this is special pleading and that European manufacturers have piled up billions of euros worth of unused carbon credits thanks to the recession.  Fear of competition from non-European producers drives the thinking of European industry, they say.

There is probably something to this.  But at the heart of Europe’s economic troubles today lies the question of how to generate sufficient economic growth to wipe out – or at least diminish – the horrendously high public and private sector debt accumulated over the past 10 years and more.  As long as the debt problem looms so large, it is difficult to see Hedegaard’s proposals making much progress.