Environment

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. Read more

If you’ve been breathing a bit easier of late, there may be a reason: carbon dioxide emissions covered by the European Union’s cap-and-trade system fell a remarkable 11 per cent last year, according to preliminary data released by the European Commission. That is the biggest one-year fall since the emissions trading system began five years ago.

Unfortunately, the drop was not owing to the sort of forward-looking, green technology investments so frequently touted by Commission president José Manuel Barroso. Instead it was an unintended gift from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, which has slowed industrial activity. In weight loss terms, this is a bit like shedding 5 kilos through the accident of a stomach flu as opposed to the sustained virtue of diet and exercise. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

The biggest fights at European Union summits are usually about money.  It’s no different this time.  At their final summit of 2009, the EU’s 27 national leaders have been wrestling in Brussels with the question of what contributions each country should make to a “fast-start” fund to help developing countries address climate change.

It looks as if EU governments will come up with an offer of about €2bn a year – much of it coming from rich countries such as France, Sweden and the UK - for the three-year period of 2010 to 2012.  “Anything above €2bn will be an impressive offer,” European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said this morning. Read more

On Tuesday a numerically impressive delegation of Europeans will be in Washington for the first formal US-European Union summit since Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration last January.  Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister, will be there in his capacity as leader of the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  So will Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.  So will Javier Solana, the EU’s head of foreign policy.  So will Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external affairs commissioner.  So will José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president – and from what I hear, a few other bigwigs are going along for the ride as well.

This is quite a turnout.  It would be nice to think it reflects an exceptionally warm and constructive relationship between the Obama administration and its EU allies.  But as a timely new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, the real picture is less rosy.  “To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” write the authors, Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro. Read more

According to an opinion poll, more than half of Denmark’s population has little or no confidence that world leaders will strike an agreement on fighting climate change at December’s landmark United Nations summit in Copenhagen.  It is just a hunch, but I reckon one impulse behind this pessimism is the widespread European suspicion that China, which recently overtook the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will play an unconstructive role at the talks.

What if this suspicion is unfounded? Read more

What should be the top five priorities of the next European Commission?

1) Top of my list is the defence, and if possible the strengthening, of the single European market.  This is the European Union’s bedrock achievement.  It secures prosperity for its citizens, and it underpins the EU’s collective weight in the world.  Without the single market, the EU would lose not merely its cohesion but its very reason for existence.  The single market is under strain at present because of the emergency measures taken over the past year to prop up Europe’s banking system.  These have, in effect, suspended the EU’s state aid rules in this sector.  The Commission will need to be tough in making sure that EU governments do not manipulate the rules as the emergency measures are gradually withdrawn.  Meanwhile, it should continue to press the case for integrating and liberalising the EU’s service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all EU economic activity. Read more

Excuse the pun, but the Arctic is a hot topic in Brussels these days. So hot that I and many others struggled through wintry rain and darkness this morning to hear Elisabeth Walaas, Norway’s state secretary for foreign affairs, give a talk on the challenges facing the High North.

By now, the facts are well-known. The Arctic region is thought to contain huge energy resources, perhaps as much as 20 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable reserves. In an age of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, the temptation to exploit these resources is irresistible. Read more

How much will it cost the European Union to fight global climate change? Clearly, the answer depends on what your target is, how you propose to get there, and the size of the EU’s contribution compared with those of the US, China and so on. But a new report from the Centre for European Policy Studies thinktank offers some useful estimates.

The report assesses six recent studies, ranging from the Stern Review and a World Bank analysis to research prepared by Vattenfall, the Swedish energy company. In these reports, the average annual global costs for mitigating and adapting to climate change are put at anything from €230bn to €614bn, based on 2006 data. Read more

Read a European Commission document closely enough, and there’s usually a nugget in it somewhere. In the case of Tuesday’s communication on rising global food prices, it was to be found in the final paragraph, which asked the question: Should the EU drop its biofuels target due to rising food prices?

European Union leaders committed themselves last year to producing 10 per cent of their road transport fuel by 2020 from biofuels. Among scientists, car manufacturers and green campaigners, not to mention several EU governments, it was always a contentious target. But the Commission reaffirmed the goal in January, describing biofuels as one of the few measures “realistically capable of making a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions from transport”. Read more