If the definition of a successful compromise is that it leaves no one happy, then the agreement on climate change targets that came out of Brussels last Friday must be reckoned a modest victory. This, at least, is the charitable reading that is dominating the German press, which normally expresses strong support for climate protection measures. Only the left-wing Berliner Zeitung viewed the conference as a total failure.
Many commentators seemed heartened that the meeting didn't result in any major leaps backwards. In the middle of what many in Europe are calling the worst economic crisis since 1929, European Union leaders recommitted themselves on Friday to the EU's ambitious "20/20/20" targets: a 20 percent drop in CO2 emissions beneath 1990 levels, a 20 percent rise in energy efficiency, and a promise to have 20 percent of all energy come from renewable sources. All of these goals are still on track to be met by 2020. In the event that next year's Copenhagen conference (where the successor to the Kyoto Protocol is to be debated) produces a satisfactory worldwide global deal, the EU's emission-reduction target could rise to 30 percent.
Then came the softening. First, Eastern European countries, which tend to be deeply reliant on dirty coal, will get most of their emissions credits from the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS) for free until 2020. Originally, all emissions credits were supposed to be auctioned off to the highest bidder by 2013, with the proceeds going to help invest in green technologies. Now those funds will come only from Western Europe, and at least 12 percent of the revenues will be diverted to a "solidarity" fund to help eastern European countries modernize their power systems. ETS will also continue to provide emissions credits for free to plants that weren't connected to Continental Europe's main power grid by 2007.
Some sectors, like shipping and construction, will be exempt from the emissions trading system altogether. These and other exceptions have led some environmental experts to criticize the deal. Ottmar Edenhofer, chief ecologist for the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in an interview with the Neue Osnbrücker Zeitung that the agreement did not mark "a great day for climate protection." He was particularly critical of what he deemed the "generous gifts" doled out to German heavy industry with regard to free emissions credits.
On the other side of the debate, representatives from German energy producers complained that relaxation of targets didn't go far enough. In an interview with the wire service Agence France Presse, the CEO of energy giant RWE said the deal would hurt the competitiveness of German energy companies, which rely more on coal than their nuclear-heavy French rivals.
With criticism coming from both sides, German editorialists were reasonably satisfied that no particular lobby had won the day. The agreement now must be approved by the European Parliament, which will consider it next week.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Between climate change and the demands of the economic crisis -- demands promoted by an engaged Nicolas Sarkozy as well as a generous chancellor (Merkel) -- the government leaders agreed on a climate package that followed neither the clear doctrines of environmental activists nor the economic lobby -- and this is exactly where some hope lies."
"There are three messages (from the conference), especially, that give cause for optimism -- and make Europe's leading role in the fight against climate change seem plausible. Europe is sticking by its ambitious reduction targets. To this date, no other continent or country in the world has arranged anything comparable. Reductions will also apply in the economic sector. Every year industrial producers and power generators will receive fewer and fewer of the emissions allowances they need for their production. No matter whether these are freely distributed or must be auctioned -- the total amount will sink, which will incentivize more efficient production. Western European energy producers will even have to purchase all of their certificates by 2013. The revenues from that will flow to national budgets."
"Countries such as China or India might heedfully register the signal of fairness. For a limited time, Europe is giving its poorer member states, especially those in eastern Europe, less stringent climate obligations. The rich countries will shoulder the costs for this, above all Germany. Without similarly fair rules, developing countires will never sign on to an international climate agreement. The climate package also gives incentives for investing in modern technology for clean power plants, for environmentally friendly cars, and for renewable energy."
"To be sure, the small print contains many loopholes and there is no guarantee that everything will be carried out as promised. Nevertheless, the European climate package is a quantum leap in the global learning process. Who would have bet 10 years ago on this kind of climate change regulation?"
The business newspaper Handelsblatt writes:
"For the EU states it was all about minimizing the risk of possibly falling short of their climate targets for 2020. They are hubristically pocketing the billions in revenues from emissions trading. Unanimously they brushed off the demands from Brussels to invest the money in climate protection. Germany, for example, would rather use the money to subsidize social insurance rather than give it back to companies to help develop better bio fuels or heating systems. Along the way, the [German] government is exposing itself, demonstrating that neither climate protection nor Merkel's ever-increasing emphasis in Brussels on economic well-being really counts for much as soon as it has anything to do with the national budget."
"These contradictions are of far greater concern than the much-criticized decision to give out CO2 credits for emissions trading. It has no impact on the climate whether companies get the credits for free or whether they are auctioned. What counts is their total quantity. That will be significantly reduced by 2020, and on that score that the EU summit didn't change anything. For this reason, the chances remain good that the price for a ton of CO2 will continue to rise and, with it, the incentive to invest in climate-friendly production methods in place of simply purchasing additional pollution rights. All the more because the certificates are only free up to the threshold of the best plants. Big polluters will have to buy additional credits."
"The EU has set up a framework that leaves a lot of wiggle room between courage and cowardice. They can use the framework, if they really want, to reach their climate goals. They could also fail miserably. That would be unforgivable. The economic crisis will, at some point, come to an end. Climate change will continue. Europe has taken the first steps toward halting it. More steps must follow. Now, however, the EU must first convince the rest of the world that there is no alternative to dealing with the problem quickly.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The problem is not so much that industries will now get a big part of their emissions rights for free and won't have to auction them, as Angel Merkel has established. Regardless whether environmentalists scold the chancellor for this as a 'fossil' or 'fallen one,' it makes no difference for the climate how the carbon dioxide rights are distributed as long as the upper emissions limits continue to fall and the quantity of corresponding CO2 certificates continues to be reduced. Still, an auction would have been the more efficient and fairer method of distribution. However, as long as the United States and developing countries are not obliged to follow a similar system, Merkel must save German heavy industry from additional costs that might make them fall behind their competitors overseas."
"Neither is it a big problem that Eastern Europeans will only gradually be forced to implement the auctioning of emissions rights for their coal-fired plants. The governments in Warsaw, Budapest, and Vilnius traded their approval of the climate package for a couple extra billion euros for the modernization of their power generation network. Such deals in Europe are established practice. The only disadvantage in all the relaxation of emissions trading rules is that by 2020 there won't be the originally forecast €75 billion in auction revenues across the EU for spending on climate protection, but rather only €30 billion."
"The main problems with the climate compromise are the laughably weak demands put on sectors that won't be included in emissions trading -- the road traffic, shipping and construction sectors that together account for 60 percent of emissions. In these sectors emissions should be cut by 10 percent by 2020."
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Expectations for the world climate conference in Poznan were low from the beginning. Forward-looking measures on the path toward a new global agreement were unlikely because the world's second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases was essentially absent: the USA. President George W. Bush didn't want to negotiate anymore, and his successor Barack Obama was not yet allowed to. Without the participation of the US, only so much can happen with climate policy."
"Still, in the end, even humble expectations were disappointed. Apart from a vague working plan, barely anything notable came out of the conference. It is perhaps understandable that the participants could not, at this early point, come to a consensus on concrete goals for a global agreement. But that even relatively undisputed problems were not solved is concerning. Thus the conference refused to compel developing countries in any concrete financial way to adapt to climate change. Even in the struggle against the destruction of rainforests the participants failed to make any progress. As a result of this deadlock, it is becoming ever less likely that the planned breakthrough in Copenhagen next year can be achieved. But that would be disastrous. For then the world would possibly be left without any climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. In view of the urgency of the problem, that would be irresponsible."
-- Christopher Glazek, 2:30 pm CET