EU and climate change
The EU had placed great expectations on the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen and had played a protagonist role in the negotiations leading to it and during it. The results of the conference, which ended on 19 December 2009, fell far short from EU goals. We review here what was at stake in this conference, notably curbing the greenhouse effect by legally binding measures, the efforts of the EU to this end and the disappointing outcome of the conference.
The greenhouse effect
The climate has and will always vary for natural reasons. In fact, energy from the sun warms the earth's surface and, as the temperature increases, heat is radiated back into the atmosphere as infra-red energy. Some of the energy is absorbed within the atmosphere by 'greenhouse gases'. The atmosphere acts in a similar way to the walls of a greenhouse, letting in the visible light and absorbing the outgoing infra-red energy, keeping it warm inside. This natural process is called the "greenhouse effect." Without it, the global average temperature on earth would be -18°C, whereas at the moment it is +15°C.
Over the past 100 years the average surface air temperature increased by 0.74 °C globally and by almost 1°C in Europe, which is unusually rapid warming. As a matter of fact, the 20th century was the warmest century and the 1990s were the warmest decade in the past 1,000 years. This warming trend is continuing: the 11 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 12 years.
Natural causes of global warming include fractional changes in solar radiation, volcanic eruptions that can shroud the Earth in dust which reflects the heat from the sun back into space, and natural fluctuations in the climate system itself. However, natural causes can explain only a small part of global warming. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that it is due to rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by human activities. Such activities are adding greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, to the atmosphere, which are enhancing the natural greenhouse effect and making the world warmer. This man-made extra warming is called the "enhanced" greenhouse effect.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body which brings together hundreds of climate experts from across the world, projects that by 2100 the global average temperature is most likely to increase by a further 1.8°C to 4°C - and in the worst case by up to 6.4°C - unless the world takes action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Already, climate change is having many discernible impacts, ranging from the increases in temperature to rising sea levels as a result of melting polar ice caps and more frequent storms and floods. If we do not take action, climate change will cause more and more costly damage and disrupt the functioning of our natural environment, which supplies us with food, raw materials and other vital resources. This will negatively affect our economies and could destabilise societies around the globe.
The Kyoto protocol
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol provide a global framework for tackling climate change, defining objectives and showing how they can be reached. The UNFCCC assigns "common but differentiated responsibilities" to developed and developing countries, recognising that industrialised countries must take the lead in the fight against climate change and its impacts. After all, they are responsible for most of the current build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and have the financial and technological resources to reduce their emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, sets legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised countries. It also introduces innovative market-based mechanisms - the so-called Kyoto flexible mechanisms - to keep the cost of curbing emissions as low as possible. Under the protocol, industrialised countries as a whole are required to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) by around 5% below 1990 levels during the first ‘commitment period' from 2008 to 2012. A five-year period was chosen rather than a single target year to smooth out annual fluctuations in emissions due to uncontrollable factors such as the weather. There are no emissions targets for developing countries.
The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February 2005. In early 2009, 183 states and the European Union had ratified the protocol. This means that 37 developed countries plus the EU-15 (the 15 Member States when the protocol was signed) are committed to reaching their Kyoto targets. Only one major country that originally signed the treaty has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the USA.
EU Actions in the framework of the Kyoto Protocol
A variety of climate-related initiatives have been implemented at EU and national levels since the early 1990s [See ''The Kyoto protocol and the EU'']. A cornerstone of EU climate change policies is the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) launched in 2005. EU governments have set limits on how much CO2 some 10,500 power plants and energy-intensive factories are allowed to emit each year, accounting for almost half of the EU's total CO2 emissions.
The ETS gives a financial incentive to reduce emissions by establishing a market-based trading system. Plants that emit less CO2 than their limits can sell their unused emission quotas to other companies that have emissions higher than their allowances. Companies that exceed their emission limits and do not cover them with emission rights bought from others have to pay hefty penalties. The ETS makes sure that emissions are cut where it is cheapest, and lowers the overall costs of reducing emissions.
Other ECCP measures include improving the fuel efficiency of cars and the energy efficiency of buildings (better insulation can reduce heating costs by 90%); increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, sun, tidal power, biomass (organic material such as wood, mill residues, plants or animal droppings) and geothermal power (heat from hot springs or volcanoes); and reducing methane emissions from landfills.
A second phase of the ECCP was launched in October 2005. The focus is on strengthening the EU ETS by tackling emissions from aviation and road transport, developing carbon capture and storage technology and funding measures to adapt to climate change. Proposals to include airlines in the EU ETS and reduce CO2 emissions from new cars have now been agreed.
In 2008, European leaders adopted a climate and energy package, with a series of proposals for concrete actions and a set of ambitious targets. Europe is now committed to cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions to at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, a commitment that will rise to 30% if other industrialised countries agree to do the same. To achieve this level of reduction, other targets have been set - to boost energy efficiency by 20% by 2020, to increase the share of renewable energy in energy consumption to an average of 20% by 2020 across the EU, and to derive 10% of transport fuels from biofuels by 2020 [see ''Renewable energy and the EU''].
The package strengthens the ETS to cover all major industrial emitters and introduces more auctioning. In sectors not covered by the ETS - such as buildings, transport, agriculture and waste - emissions are to be reduced emissions by 10% below 2005 levels by 2020. Other measures boost carbon capture and storage technologies, cut CO2 from cars and will introduce tighter fuel quality standards.
EU governments have also set aside more than €2.7 billion for investments in emission-saving projects carried out under Kyoto Protocol rules in third countries, mostly developing nations (Clean Development Mechanism [CDM] projects) but also other developed countries with Kyoto emission targets (Joint Implementation [JI] projects). These projects have the benefit not only of generating emission credits that help the EU member states reach their emission targets by 2012 in a cost-effective way, but also of transferring advanced technologies to the host countries and supporting them in moving towards sustainable development. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme also allows participating companies to use CDM and JI credits to supplement their emission allowances. According to market data, more than 2,400 CDM projects are in preparation.
But, the EU, responsible for some 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, cannot win the battle against climate change on its own. Climate change is a global threat that only global action can address effectively. In line with the UN principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities', rich nations have to take the lead, but climate change will not be tamed unless developing nations also contribute.
The Copenhagen climate conference
The Kyoto Protocol is only one stage in the fight against climate change. In December 2007, at the United Nations climate change conference in Bali, all major countries agreed to begin negotiations on a new global regime to tackle climate change for after 2012, when Kyoto expires. Progress continued the following year in Poznan, Poland and the aim of on-going negotiations was to secure an agreement by the end of 2009 at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The 192 countries involved in the talks had agreed that deep cuts in emissions would be needed if climate change was to be kept within safe limits. A crucial element of negotiations was the recognition that both developing and developed countries needed to take action, albeit with consideration of their respective abilities. While only the latter had emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, it has long been acknowledged that this approach would not be enough, especially when estimates are that emissions from developing nations will exceed those from developed countries by 2020.
The objective of the new agreement was to ensure that global warming does not exceed the temperature in pre-industrial times by more than 2°C, since a rise beyond this threshold could trigger irreversible and possibly catastrophic planetary changes. To stay within this temperature limit, worldwide emissions will need to stop rising by around 2020 and will then have to be cut to around half of their 1990 level by 2050. Developing countries should also make a start by taking action to slow the growth in their emissions. Though ambitious, these targets are both technologically feasible and economically affordable.
In October 2009, EU leaders agreed that international public funding of about €5-7bn would be needed each year up to 2013 - and more in the long term. They also agreed to contribute to the global pot if other countries followed suit. The aid would include funding to help protect coasts, preserve forests, modify crops and switch from fossil-fuel to low-carbon energy. The EU pledge was meant to increase pressure on other major industrialised powers to come forward with comparable commitments.
But the EU pressure did not curb the resistance of other major participants in the conference. The Copenhagen climate conference ended on 19 December by taking note of the so-called 'Copenhagen Accord', a not legally binding document. Although the Accord received support from the vast majority of Parties to the UNFCCC, due to opposition from a handful of countries the closing plenary session of the conference merely took note of the Accord without formally endorsing it. The conference also failed to deliver a comprehensive agreement on compensating countries for preserving forests, which play a crucial role in curbing climate change.
However, the Accord endorses for the first time at global level the objective of keeping warming to less than 2°C above the pre-industrial temperature, considered the threshold beyond which climate change may spiral out of control. It asks developed nations to make deep, verifiable cuts. Developing countries would begin curbing their emissions and report their results every two years, with "provisions for international consultations and analysis". Another positive element of the Accord is that it requires developed countries to submit economy-wide emission reduction targets, and developing countries to submit their mitigation actions, by 31 January 2010 so that they can be listed as part of the document. It will be up to individual countries to determine how far to go. The accord cites 2015 as a deadline for a review of action taken.
But, perhaps the most tangible result of the Conference was an agreement by developed nations to spend $30bn (€21bn) over the next three years and $100bn (€70bn) by 2020 to fund projects in poor countries to promote clean energy and deal with drought, rising sea levels and other climate changes. The EU has pledged €7.2bn of the €21bn in the fast-start funding, expected to come from a variety of sources, private as well as public.
The conference also mandated the two ad hoc working groups on long-term cooperative action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and on further commitments for developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol to complete their work at the next annual climate conference, to be held in Mexico City in November 2010.
However, the Accord does not refer to the conclusion of a legally binding agreement, a key objective for the EU, or set the goal of at least halving global emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels in order to keep warming below 2°C. The Accord also leaves many important details to be worked out to make the Accord operational. If these were be achieved they could, together with the outcomes of the two working groups, provide the basis of a new global climate treaty.
The EU at the Copenhagen Conference
These results fall well short of the European Union's goal of achieving maximum progress in Copenhagen towards the finalisation of an ambitious and legally binding global climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in 2013. Though disappointing, the Copenhagen Accord contained many of the elements the EU had fought for. These include: recognition of the objective of maximum global warming of 2 degrees Celsius; economy-wide emission reduction targets for developed countries and mitigation actions by developing countries to be defined by 31 January 2010; a substantial finance package for less developed countries of USD 30 billion for the coming three years and USD 100 billion by 2020; and a mechanism to accelerate technology cooperation. However, the crucial first step is to ensure that all key parties confirm their endorsement of the Accord and notify their targets or actions by 31 January 2010.
It should be emphasised that in this case, the European institutions have worked very efficiently: the European Commission with its timely proposals; the European Council with the backing of these proposals, despite some wrangling among its members; and the European Parliament and the Council with the adoption of appropriate measures [See ''The Kyoto protocol and the EU'']. The European institutions have shown much more responsibility towards their citizens and humanity in general than the federal institutions of the US and even the authoritarian institutions of China, two countries that pollute the atmosphere much more than the EU countries.
Discuss this theme
- 3 January 2010
I think that you rightly stress the difference of the European institutions and the American ones. I think that the greatest difference is made by the lobbies, which besiege the US Senate and do not let Senators decide freely and objectively on many issues, including the environmental ones. Such lobbies cannot work – at least not to the same extent – on the Ministers of EU member states, either individually or as a body sitting in the Council.
- 7 January 2010
The European Union cannot, of course, put pressure on other countries to take serious measures for environment protection, but it can show by its example what they should do.
- 11 January 2010
I noticed that Mr Barroso, the Commission president expressed disappointment at the Copenhagen outcome, saying that the text falls “far short” of EU expectations, which were a legally binding agreement to tackle climate change by all participants. However, he has insisted that the EU will remain committed to implementing its legally binding emission cuts – 20% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels. I think that, if the United States, China, Japan and other major competitors of the EU do not follow suit, the EU will jeopardise its economic viability, particularly in the present crisis situation.
- 13 January 2010
Je crois aussi que l'Union européenne ne devrait pas faire des concessions, aussi longtemps que les autres ne feraient pas de même.
- 19 January 2010
Nine European countries – the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland – plan to build a high-voltage direct current network within the next decade. The network, made up of thousands of kilometres of highly efficient undersea cables that could cost up to €30bn would connect turbines off the wind-lashed north coast of Scotland with Germany's vast arrays of solar panels, and join the power of waves crashing on to the Belgian and Danish coasts with the hydro-electric dams in Norway's fjords and its many hydro-electric power stations. The project could act as a giant 30GW battery for Europe's clean energy and could link into the vast potential of solar power farms planned in North Africa. It will be an important step in achieving the European Union's pledge that, by 2020, 20% of its energy will come from renewable sources. I hope that this project would be supported by the European Union and other countries would join it, particularly in the southern solar belt.
- 29 January 2010
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