EU looks lonely on climate high ground

November 2, 2009

icebergNegotiations to save the planet from catastrophic climate change are heading for trouble, five weeks before a crucial U.N. conference in Copenhagen.

The European Union has been at the forefront in pressing for binding, internationally monitored reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and funding from industrialised countries to help developing nations switch to clean energy.

“We can now look the rest of the world in the eyes and say ‘we have done our job. We are ready for Copenhagen’,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso boasted last Friday after EU leaders papered over their differences over how to finance climate protection in the developing world.

Even in Europe, which last year adopted ambitious goals to cut its own output of carbon dioxide by at least 20 percent by 2020, there are signs of climate fatigue setting in.

This is partly because the Europeans have raised unrealistic expectations of a global treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol on climate change when it expires in 2012. The United States never ratified or implemented the 1997 Kyoto deal, nor did the main emerging countries.

The unresolved struggle in the U.S. Congress over a climate bill, and the reluctance of China and India to accept binding international curbs on carbon emissions mean the most that can be expected in Copenhagen is a political agreement based mostly on voluntary national pledges. Even that is uncertain. So the EU risks being stranded on its own moral high ground.

Last week’s wrangle among the 27 EU leaders over how to share the cost of helping poorer states fight global warming was a foretaste of the likely discord in the 193-nation U.N. negotiations from Dec. 7-18.

The leaders agreed that it would cost about 100 billion euros a year by 2020 to help developing nations reduce carbon emissions, and that up to half of that sum would have to come from public money mostly from the industrialised world. But when it came to deciding who would pay how much within the EU, they stalled because of Europe’s own wealth gap.

Poland led a cluster of nine ex-communist central and east European states that contend they cannot afford to contribute in proportion to their emissions, which are high due to a dependency on coal-fired power stations. They demanded that the EU apportion the burden based on national income instead.

That would leave wealthier west European states such as Germany, Britain and France bearing more of the cost. Unable to resolve the dispute, the EU created a working group to examine members’ “ability to pay”.

The Germans, the EU’s biggest paymasters, are worried that Europe is seen as a soft touch. Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed putting a firm figure for EU climate aid on the table at this stage but said the Europeans would have to pay about one-third of the cost of public financing if there is a deal in Copenhagen. Many in Berlin feel that Europe has made enough concessions up-front and that it is time for the other major players — particularly the United States, China and India — to move.

There is also some concern that the U.S. Congress, struggling to enact a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, will take fright at European estimates of the scale of international financing required to pay for a global deal. The Obama administration has requested only $1.2 billion to fund climate mitigation efforts overseas, while the EU estimate implies a cost of at least 10 times that much.

The Europeans papered over another internal dispute over how to shield energy-guzzling industries such as chemicals, glass, concrete and steel from unfair competition from countries that do not curb carbon emissions.

The EU has agreed in principle to hand out free carbon allowances to those energy-intensive sectors exposed to global competition, instead of making them buy pollution permits at auction, in the absence of a comprehensive climate deal. But France has led calls for Europe to go further and levy a carbon tariff on imports from states with lower environmental standards — a move which EU critics such as Britain and Sweden see as protectionist.

So, if the Europeans cannot agree among themselves on how to share the burden, what hope is there for reaching a global accord at the UN summit?

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