Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

There has been much talk of the Franco-German motor that has traditionally propelled the European Union breaking down recently. So the cancellation of a meeting last week between the two countries to discuss proposals to cut pollution from cars led to plenty of puns.

The German press said the process has stalled but the French government said that was overblown. Whatever happens, the two biggest automakers in the European Union will have to strike a deal over  whose companies will have to make the biggest changes to ensure the European Union meets – or at least comes close to – its climate change targets. Read more

Thursday’s thundering Financial Times editorial on the food crisis unfortunately arrived too late to change opinions on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the European Commission nerve centre. The day before the call for a pause in the push for biofuels was made Jose Manuel Barroso, Commission president, defended the policy.

He said the use of crops for fuel had so far had little effect on higher food prices. It can’t be often that the Commission disagrees with its multilateral brethren, the IMF, World Bank and United Nations. Read more

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, promised us a “new industrial revolution” last year and it looks as though he might just deliver.

Barroso seized on climate change as a new raison d’etre for the bloc on its 50th birthday, now that war between its members was a distance memory. An economy built on fossil fuel would have to be weaned off it, he said.

No one really believed him, though the club’s 27 members were dragged far enough along, with differing levels of enthusiasm, to endorse fairly stiff targets for greenhouse gas reductions – a fifth below 1990 levels by 2020.

The potential gains are great, but the pain is also becoming clear, and as the Commission prepares to deliver its medicine on January 23 howls are growing louder around Europe.

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A friend of mine who works for the European Commission’s internal market directorate  moaned the other day that it was “turning into the OECD”. In other words, it had stopped bludgeoning the barriers to trade in the EU market with a battering ram of regulations and was instead consulting, advising and recommending change . But the OECD, a dry economic think tank , seems to be turning into the European Commission, judging by the latest furore surrounding it.

In early September its round table on sustainable development met to discuss a report entitled “Biofuels – is the cure worse than the disease”. The academic paper fuelled a controversy that has burned for several weeks.

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How green is the European Commission? It claimed on Thursday it was very green indeed. A leader in fighting climate change and cutting car pollution, it would now seek to become a green imperium, pushing others around the world to adopt its ways.

The European Union’s global environmental policies should become “one of the core objectives of EU external relations policy”, a mid-term review said. There should be EU-wide taxes to encourage good environmental behaviour.

After all, commissioner Stavros Dimas pointed out, much remained to be done. "Global emissions of greenhouse gases are rising, the loss of biodiversity is not yet under control, pollution is still harming public health and volumes of waste are increasing in Europe,” he said.

What was needed was more money and ensuring a green tinge to everything from energy to agriculture policy. It was a breathtaking power grab and a huge contrast to when Jose Manuel Barroso’s Commission took office.

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Once again the European Commission stands accused of doing something of which we are all guilty: not putting its money where its mouth is. It calls for Europe-wide smoking bans while subsidising tobacco farmers; it throws money at poor countries while reducing their chances to enrich themselves by blocking some of their products.

The latest alleged hypocrisy is giving billions in aid to recent joiners for projects that will contribute to big greenhouse gas emission rises.

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If there’s one thing that Brussels can teach the world, it’s how to move VIPs around fast.

Most days you’ll hear sirens as elite police outriders clear the roads so that motorcades of black Mercedes and Audis can whisk visiting presidents and prime ministers to meetings.

The police teams are certainly effective at sweeping through the city’s clogged streets. One diplomat told me of a hair-raising seven-minute journey in a convoy from the airport to the EU district during rush hour. Ordinarily, that car ride would take 25 minutes in light traffic.

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David Cameron’s new Movement for European Reform is a strange thing. Launched by the British Conservative leader on Tuesday in Brussels, there were several things which struck me as slightly unusual about the inauguration of this new centre-right group.

The first was the fact that the Conservatives had gone to the trouble to bring along about 90 students from London schools to "see at first hand" Europe’s future being discussed: they also performed the useful role of filling empty seats at the back of the hall and looking youthful.

The second is the fact that the Movement for European Reform – which is intended to pave the way in 2009 to the creation of a new political group in the European parliament – does not actually really exist.

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Even in this age of putting a price on hot air, words come cheaper than carbon emissions. So not a few MEPs are unimpressed by a resolution on climate change to be approved on Wednesday.

This resolution calling for political leadership comes while the full parliament sits in Strasbourg, having been followed there by a convoy of lorries carrying documents and other essentials from Brussels and Luxembourg, its other seats.

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As previewed on Tuesday, the European parliament passed its resolution on climate change on Wednesday, calling for a unilateral 30 per cent cut in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by the EU by 2020, higher than the 20 per cent sought by the European Commission: The sponsor of the resolution, Karl-Heinz Florenz, is certainly doing his bit. For a year he has been energy self-sufficient:

"It is an individual responsibility: Everybody has a roof over their head and this roof could have solar panels on." He has solar panels and a wood-fired boiler fuelled by deadwood from the wood on his farm. "I use no oil," he says proudly:  Read more

Europe’s vets are more worried than they admit publicly about the outbreak of bird flu in the UK. Until now, there has been a familiar pattern. Wild migratory birds start dropping out of the sky, having brought the virus from Asia, and then their domestic farm cousins start keeling over too.

However, despite extensive searches around the Bernard Matthews turkey farm on the east coast of England, no infected wild birds have been found. There are some sea gulls, which can carry the disease without succumbing to it. Nor are there infections on nearby farms. Of course this could happen any time.

But it’s a long way from Hungary, where the same virus has been found among geese, and Hungary is a long way from the sea. Is there another explanation?

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There is a new odd couple at the centre of the EU – Gabriel and Glos. You often have to pinch yourself to recall that Sigmar Gabriel and Michael Glos are members of the same government – Germany.

Gabriel is the up-and-coming environment minister from the centre-left Social Democratic party. Glos is the Christian Social – for which read Christian Democrat – economics minister from Bavaria,  a conservative heartland and one of the richest areas of Europe. He wants it to stay that way. So he has no time for eco-warriors wanting to dent its way of life. The two are strange bedfellows in a grand coalition government and Tuesday once again proved why.

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Are Europe’s governments just blowing hot air when it comes to climate change? On Tuesday it was the turn of Belgium and the Netherlands to be told by Brussels that their proposed greenhouse gas emissions were too high.

Slovakia, meanwhile, is mulling over whether to take legal action after a similar order.

Last week the European Commission called for ambitious targets to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 but national governments seem reluctant to agree, undermining efforts to persuade George W Bush and others to join in a global scheme.

So far, the Commission has found 11 of the 12 plans for 2008-12 capped emissions at too high a level.

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Europe could soon have weaker pollution controls than the US. I’ll say that again. Europe could soon have weaker pollution controls than the US. In a surprising about turn, the European parliament voted this week to relax air quality controls.
The European Commission, the bureaucracy that comes up with the targets, was shocked. It has asked member states, who must ultimately agree them, to sharpen them again. If they refuse, the Commission could scrap its proposal altogether.

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