EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard

EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, image courtesy of the International Institute for Sustainable Development

The European Environment Agency (EEA) yesterday released its greenhouse gas inventory for 2008, showing a two-percent fall from 2007 levels across EU-27 countries and an 11.3-percent reduction from 1990 levels. The new data also show that the EU-15 (the 15 only EU members in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated) have reduced emissions by 6.9 percent since 1990, putting those countries on track to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitment of reducing 2008-2012 emissions by an average of 8-percent below 1990 levels. The European Commission points out that the EU-15 emission reduction—a 1.9-percent drop from 2007 to 2008—came as the region’s economy grew 0.6 percent, suggesting that economic growth and emissions cuts can be compatible.

Just last month, the European Commission had announced that emissions covered under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) fell even more rapidly: verified emissions from covered installations were 11.6-percent lower last year than in 2008. EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard cautioned that these reductions are largely due to the economic crisis, as opposed to ambitious actions by covered industry. The crisis has also weakened price signals in the trading scheme and slowed business investment in emissions-reducing innovations.

Earlier this year, the European Commission began arguing that the Union should commit to deeper cuts than a 20-percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020, calling instead for a 30-percent decrease. It released figures showing that, largely due to the economic crisis, the annual costs for cutting emissions will be lower than originally estimated by 2020. In 2008, the EU estimated that €70 billion per year would be necessary to meet the 20-percent target, but this cost estimate has now fallen to just €48 billion. For a 30-percent target during the same timeframe, the new projected annual cost is €81 billion—only €11 billion more than what EU countries have already accepted under the 20-percent target.

While some business organizations point to their weakened capacity to modernize during times of an economic crisis, and key countries including France, Germany, Italy, and Poland voice their resistance to overly ambitious unilateral EU goals, a 30-percent cut could create a boost for investment in green technologies and reclaim Europe’s reputation as the No. 1 international climate leader after the damage Europe incurred by the ambivalent outcome of Copenhagen. The Commission has invited discussion on several issues related to a stronger target, including its cost, potential long-term low-carbon growth strategies, various policy options, and the threat of carbon leakage.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 25 -40-percent cuts from developing countries are indispensable in order to avoid global average temperatures from increasing beyond 2 degrees Celsius this century, thus preventing climate change from spinning entirely out of control. Many climate scientists now consider more significant reductions, nearing 40 percent, as the necessary margin. Consequently, the EU should consider increasing its unilateral target (its emission reduction goal regardless of whether other major economies commit as well) to 30 percent and increasing its conditional target (reductions that depend on ambitious international collaboration) to 40 percent.

Climate negotiators are gathering at the UNFCCC climate consultations in Bonn this and next week for the first meeting since the December 2009 Copenhagen summit.  The conference is preparation for what could result in another failure of international diplomacy at the next climate summit in November in Cancun. Now is the time for Europe to lead again. Leadership means leading by example, not on the condition that others lead as well.

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Climate Change, emissions inventory, Europe, Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC