Monday, October 11, 2010

Europe sleepwalks into climate disaster

Brussels turns into a different city on Car Free Day. For 10 hours on an autumn weekend, the traffic that normally clogs our roads is replaced by the hypnotic sound of bicycle gears being shifted and leg muscles being toned. The resulting ambience has a feminine quality; for once we are given a respite from speed freaks displaying a phallic pride in their gleaming vehicles.

Why can’t we have a car free day throughout Europe every week? That would give everyone on this continent a sound reason to lampoon those “drill, Baby, drill!” Americans, who think that they are more entitled to own an SUV than to have health insurance. As things stand, though, the EU has for the most part refused to take the kind of radical green initiatives that are worthy of celebration.

Under some circumstances I would applaud European commissioners who have the temerity to criticise the ruinous policies of the US. Yet I was less than impressed with the recent speech given by Connie Hedegaard, the climate “action” chief, in Harvard, in which she berated American legislators for failing to approve a bill on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to Hedegaard, the EU would be prepared to accept a legally-binding accord at the international climate change negotiations in CancĂșn this December but dithering in Washington has made such a breakthrough impossible.

Although the US has correctly been cast as the biggest villain in the epic global warming drama, the EU has been far from virtuous. George W. Bush’s umbilical relationship with the oil industry and Barack Obama’s all-mouth-and-no-trousers posturing have created a convenient situation for senior European politicians, allowing them to pose as environmental leaders without having to do very much.

The Union’s emission reduction targets offer a case study in how us journalists are frequently duped by unscrupulous spin-doctors. On paper, the goal is to cut the amount of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere by 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. The all-important caveats flanking this target are usually ignored. Did you know that that most of the reductions do not have to take place within the EU? In 2008, the European Parliament decided that about three-quarters of the cuts would be achieved through a process of creative accounting. Essentially, this means that we can carry on polluting here and then “off-set” our emissions by financing “clean development” projects in other parts of the world.

Just imagine that this approach was taken in other policy fields. Would anyone treat seriously a campaign against tobacco where we paid foreigners to ban smoking in the workplace, while we continued lighting up at our own desks?

Not only was the off-setting decision morally deplorable, it could transpire to be counterproductive in practical terms, if recent experience is anything to go by. When the Kyoto protocol to the UN’s climate change convention finally came into effect in 2005, it allowed rich countries to buy “clean development” credits in poorer parts of the world. Over half of the 420 million credits issued until now have related to the destruction of HFC-23, a gas used in refrigeration which is 11,700 more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. Evidence gathered by environmental watchdogs in the past few months indicates that because the system is market-based, manufacturers were deliberately producing HFC-23 so that they could be paid to destroy it. In other words, a system nominally encouraging clean development was rewarding decidedly grubby activities.

The Parliament behaved disgracefully again two weeks ago when its environment committee voted for less stringent pollution thresholds for vans than those advocated by the European Commission. Whereas the EU executive had proposed that an average van should release no more than 135 grams per kilometre by 2020, MEPs increased the limit to 140g/km, playing blind to how transport is the economic sector with the fastest growth in emissions. Hedegaard nonetheless sounded an upbeat note in her reaction to the vote, claiming that the Parliament is committed to an “ambitious” goal.

This is hogwash. But sadly it is typical of the EU’s entire agenda on climate change. Rather than trying to mitigate the effects of a catastrophe that is already claiming 300,000 lives per year (as Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum has estimated), the Brussels institutions have become fixated on avoiding any short-term pain for polluting industries.

BusinessEurope, the employers’ confederation, has been adamant that the EU must not move beyond its target to cut overall emissions by 20%. Its pressure has paid off. Reluctant to do anything that would harm “competitiveness” – a quasi-religious concept in this city – the Commission has so far declined to recommend tougher goals. As a result, the Brussels bureaucracy is out of step with the Union’s three most powerful governments. Environment ministers from Britain, France and Germany have all publicly declared that they would be in favour of a 30% goal for 2020.

During 2009, the medical journal The Lancet described climate change as the biggest threat to human health this century. Once global temperate levels rise by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the serious consequences will no longer be confined to the poor parts of the world that our governments frankly do not care about. Heatwaves and other extreme weather conditions will affect our health in Europe, too.

By prioritising corporate profits over the future of humanity, the EU’s representatives are sleepwalking into a disaster.

·First published by New Europe (, 10-16 October 2010

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