Monday, November 28, 2011

Why won't Europe heed the doctor's advice on climate change

When you feel unwell, who do you consult? Your doctor, who has been trained to treat you? Or your boss, who hasn’t?

In a letter published by the British Medical Journal last month, numerous health professionals called for robust EU action against climate change. A 30% reduction in the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (when compared to 1990 levels) would save more than 80 billion euros per year, the professionals said. These savings would result from both a fall in the numbers of people suffering from cardiac and respiratory diseases and from the increased productivity rate of a healthier workforce.

While this would appear to be a far more sensible way to slash medical bills than through austerity, policy-makers are refusing to follow the advice. Rather than going to the doctor, they take their prescriptions from corporate interest groups.

BusinessEurope, one of the most influential organisations in Brussels, has prepared a concise two-page briefing ahead of this week’s climate change negotiations in Durban. Its core messages are firstly that the Union should not go beyond its existing target of cutting emissions by 20% over the 1990 to 2020 period. And secondly, it warns that many companies will quit the EU if it unilaterally sets more ambitious reduction goals than the rest of the world.

Privileged access

Nick Campbell, the chairman of BusinessEurope’s committee on climate change, enjoys privileged access to the European Commission. A report by Carbon Trade Watch and the Corporate Europe Observatory has documented how he held discussions with EU officials preparing a “roadmap” for moving to a low-carbon economy in March this year. Campbell was exercised by proposals contained in a draft of that plan relating to the EU’s emissions trading system, under which firms buy and sell permits to pollute. Because many energy-intensive industries had been granted a surfeit of emission allowances in the past, the Commission’s draft recommended that 500 to 800 million should be set aside from phase three of the system (running from 2013 to 2020). After Campbell objected to that figure, it was deleted and the final version of the “roadmap” contained only a woolly commitment to “consider” the notion of setting allowances aside.

Campbell is a busy chap. He is also a lobbyist for the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). As chemicals account for one-third of all industrial energy use in the Union, CEFIC should theoretically benefit from a shift towards electricity generation from renewable sources as they are less hazardous than coal, oil and nuclear power. Yet because the council’s members include fossil fuel addicts such as Shell, BP and Total, it is resisting saner energy policies. Giorgio Squinzi, the council’s president, recently contended that the EU’s 20% target was adequate. “Targeting greater C02 [carbon dioxide] reductions when other markets outside of the European Union are dragging their feet would be a lonely and bold move,” he said. “But it would not necessarily be the right one, and might achieve perverse effects.”


Squinzi went on to predict that chemical companies will have to move out of Europe if its policy-makers hug too many trees (not his exact words, I hasten to add). This is an old trick and it has worked wonders. Indeed, the trick has been played so many times that a concept called “carbon leakage” has emerged to describe industrial sectors considered at risk of financial loss from tougher climate change regulations. Those sectors are deemed eligible for higher numbers of free permits to pollute under the emissions trading scheme than other sectors.

This concept has turned into a joke. I was astonished to hear an EU official state last week that the list now covers 169 sectors, including wine and bicycle production.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s “climate action” commissioner, appears to be using Twitter as a negotiating tool. In a tweet earlier this month, she vented her frustration with India and the US for opposing legally-binding emission reduction targets ahead of the Durban conference. While Barack Obama should certainly be reproached for reneging on pre-election pledges to take climate change seriously, Hedegaard might contemplate sharing the blame around a bit more evenly. The truth is that the EU’s own actions on climate change are not worthy of celebration.

Speaking in Oslo last week, Hedegaard said that the EU’s emissions have gone down by 17% since 1990. By 2020, according to forecasts that the Union’s officials appear fond of citing, the EU is expected to account for 11% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. By focusing so selectively on those apparent achievements, however, Hedegaard has glossed over Europe’s historical role as an environmental villain. The Third World Network, an anti-poverty group, has pointed out that industrialised countries have belched out over 70% of the world’s emissions since 1850, even though they host just 20% of the world’s inhabitants.

Hedegaard continues to promote the emission trading system as the lynchpin of the Union’s climate policy, despite how it has been plagued by fraud. Plans to bring aviation within that system will do no more than add two euros to the price of a trans-Atlantic air ticket, the Commission estimates. When emissions from aviation are projected to jump by 70% between 2005 and 2020, that step will clearly not bring the necessary reductions in air travel.

Humanity will be let down in Durban. But I guess that’s what happens when polluters are taken more seriously than doctors.

●First published by New Europe, 28 November 2011.


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