Brussels Bickering EU Climate Stalemate Could Threaten Global Deal

Time is running out. If the European Union is unable to resolve internal differences over its ambitious emissions reduction plan, then global climate talks could suffer, say experts. The world needs European leadership.


The vision is an admirable one. Last spring, the European Union announced ambitious new goals to radically cut CO2 emissions across the entire 27-nation bloc. Once the details of the reductions were agreed on, the EU would be in pole position going into the global climate discussions which kick off this December. An ambitious and exemplary Europe, so the concept went, would be able to use the moral high-ground to urge other major polluters in the world to mend their ways.

The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland could become inaccessable as a result of climate change, a report from earlier this year says.

The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland could become inaccessable as a result of climate change, a report from earlier this year says.

That vision, though, may now be in danger. With just six weeks to go before representatives from around the globe gather in Poznan, Poland to work towards a successor to the Kyoto Protocol -- a process known as the Copenhagen process after the location chosen for the 2009 climate summit -- the European Union is having trouble passing a final version of its emissions reduction package. A number of EU members are demanding changes, exceptions or opt outs, meaning the bloc's role as a global climate protection leader could be compromised.

"If the European Union does not get its act together on a clear climate agreement and it does not continue pressing ahead globally, that would relax a lot of pressure on the US," Christian Egenhofer, a climate change expert who is a senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And that could very well lead to Copenhagen being a non-event."

Such an eventuality, say climate change experts, would be a disaster. The Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrialized countries around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expires in 2012. Already, the complex negotiation process has begun in an effort to come up with a successor agreement. The Poznan talks are part of that process -- as were the difficult Bali talks late last year. The series of negotiations will culminate in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Europe has long postured as a leader in the global approach to reducing harmful greenhouse gases. Last spring, Brussels announced its climate change goals -- reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2020 and increasing reliance on renewable energy sources -- to great fanfare.

Now, though -- with Brussels eager to finalize its climate change policy before the December talks in Poznan -- the time has come for Europe's environmental ambitions to be cast into a legally binding set of rules. And a number of countries seem to have suddenly discovered that the new policy could end up costing them money.

'An Act of Madness'

This time, Italy is leading the charge. Concerned about the effects of the package on Italian industry, Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo said at an EU ministerial meeting in Luxembourg that "the package as it stands right now is not suitable…. Significant changes need to be made." Italy's Minister of Public Administration and Innovation Renato Brunetta went even further, saying that passing the climate package would be "an act of madness."

Italy isn't alone in its skepticism. Poland and a number of Eastern European countries are concerned that the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) -- which foresees companies buying certificates allowing them to emit CO2 as of 2013 -- would unfairly penalize them. They would like to see the power sector, which in Eastern Europe tends to be heavily reliant on coal-fired power stations that are major emitters of CO2, exempted from the ETS until 2020.

A weak Europe would be doubly problematic for the discussions in Poznan because, as Egenhofer points out, the timing of the US presidential elections means that Washington likely won't be ready to actively participate until well into next spring, no matter who wins the election. "There have already been indications from Washington that it will take quite a bit of time for them to develop their position," Egenhofer said. And, he continued, China and other major polluters have become accustomed to hiding behind the US when it comes to the climate debate.

Almost lost in the entire debate, of course, is the fact that climate change itself continues to advance. The environmental group WWF on Monday warned that global warming is accelerating and may in fact be outpacing the forecast made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. The report said that global sea levels were rising faster than expected and carbon sinks, like forests and oceans, were losing their ability to absorb CO2 more quickly than many scientists expected. The WWF urged the EU to up its emissions reduction goals to 30 percent by 2020 instead of the 20 percent initially agreed on.

While that seems unlikely to happen -- the EU said in 2007 it would pursue a 30 percent reduction if other industrialized countries committed to large-scale emission cuts -- many Europeans said on Monday that they were confident an agreement would be forthcoming by the beginning of December.

"Of course we'll have to find an answer for the Eastern Europeans," German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Monday. "We can't ignore the fact that it is much more difficult for Poland than it is for Scandinavia or even for Germany." Both Gabriel and his French counterpart Jean-Louis Borloo stressed the importance of Europe maintaining its leadership position on the environment.

Egenhofer, for his part, suspects that, in the end, the European Union will reach an agreement. "Of course you're going to get countries trying to get the best deal possible," he said. "There is always going to be a bit of brinkmanship…. You will see it going down to the wire and some older member states will have to chip something in."

But, he said, if the EU is unable to find a compromise and if the economic downturn stemming from the financial crisis continues to take hold, then coming up with an international strategy would become much more difficult. "In that case," he said, "the impact on the Copenhagen discussions would be negative as everyone tries to save himself."


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