Kyoto II in Poznan Can the Climate Survive the Financial Crisis?

Just as the world gathers in Poland to come up with a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the global financial meltdown threatens to torpedo the effort. But could a world recession actually help the climate?

For years, the world has known it was coming. And yet now that the next level of negotiations on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol is beginning in Poznan, Poland on Monday, things have suddenly got more complicated. The global financial crisis and concurrent economic downturn threatens to weaken the resolve of the 186 countries present to take far-reaching steps against climate change.

Climate negotiators are arriving in Poland on Monday to continue the process of hammering out an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Climate negotiators are arriving in Poland on Monday to continue the process of hammering out an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Foto: AFP

"The financial crisis will have an impact on climate change," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on Sunday. "You already are seeing around the world a number of wind energy projects being pushed back."

The Poznan conference will see 10,000 delegates continue the process, begun in Bali last December, of cobbling together a new global treaty to replace Kyoto, which expires in 2012. The timeline agreed to last year calls for the new greenhouse gas emissions reduction agreement to be ready in 2009, allowing plenty of time for the treaty to be ratified by participating countries.

But with stock markets around the world now plunging and a number of industries, particularly auto manufacturing in the United States and Europe, facing difficult futures, calls have been increasing in Europe to delay the introduction of more stringent rules aimed at increasing fuel efficiency and decreasing CO2 emissions from cars.

In Germany, many of those calls have been coming from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives. The latest voice in the chorus is the new Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, until recently the Minister of Agriculture in Berlin. In a letter to Merkel last week, he wrote that protecting the climate cannot be allowed to result in a loss of jobs in the auto-manufacturing industry. His plea echoes similar warnings from Christian Democrat honchos Christian Wolff and Jürgen Rüttgers.

The comments have primarily been aimed at Brussels. The European Union has long been planning to introduce strict rules on the amount of CO2 cars manufactured in the 27-member bloc are allowed to emit. The financial crisis has led to a renewed debate on the limits, set to be passed at an EU summit in the middle of December. Merkel has long positioned herself as a leading protector of the environment, both within the EU and further afield. But she has largely remained silent on the current debate.

Even her Environment Minister, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, seems to be leaning toward a compromise. He suggested over the weekend that rules under consideration to mandate maximum automobile emissions of 120 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2012 be pushed back to 2015 -- though at the same time insisting that the much stricter 2020 goal of 95 grams per kilometer be maintained.

But as policy makers seem inclined to back away from climate protection goals in the face of the financial crisis, there is evidence in Germany that the exact opposite tactic may be called for. Carmaker Audi, for example, claims that it is planning to hire more experts and engineers in 2009 in order to optimize fuel-efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions in its models. Over at Siemens, a company report indicates that sales of environmentally-friendly products and technologies rose from €17 billion to €19 billion in a single year.

"Any economic stimulus program should match up with climate and energy savings targets," says Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank. "The government should only stimulate purchases of those cars that are environmentally sustainable."

An unpublished report produced by the German Environment Ministry, seen by SPIEGEL, comes to the conclusion that, were Berlin to target CO2 reductions of 40 percent relative to 1990 levels, the creation of 500,000 jobs would be the result. (The country has already cut emissions by 22.4 percent relative to 1990 levels and measures already agreed on will result in a 34 percent reduction, say experts.)

"It is especially important in the economic crisis that the automobile industry focuses on saving energy and on efficiency," says Tanja Gönner, the Christian Democrat Environment Minister in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Mercedes is headquartered. "Those that develop cars with low CO2 emissions now will have a great opportunity on the world market of tomorrow."

US President-elect Barack Obama appears to be in favor of such a philosophy. Although he will not be sending a delegation to Poznan, he has indicated that under his leadership the US will take a leadership role when it comes to climate change, once he is inaugurated in January. It would mark a radical shift in direction from the environmental foot-dragging that characterized the eight years under President George W. Bush.

Still, there is concern that climate negotiations this year and next could be overshadowed by the worsening global economy. Yvo de Boer warned against making "cheap and dirty" choices when it comes to energy investments. "We must focus on the opportunities for green growth."

With reporting by Christian Schwägerl

cgh -- with wire reports

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