Europe looks to bolder targets

By Bryan Walker 22/02/2011

No doubt the New Zealand climate change minister will point out that the New Zealand’s emissions profile is different from that of the EU and that the exchanges about reduction targets that have been taking place in Europe in recent days therefore have little relevance for us. Nevertheless I have taken heart from reading about them in their own right, whether they have relevance to us or not — though I think they do have at least some.

Currently the EU has a target of a 20% cut in emissions by 2020. The Guardian reported last week that the UK’s climate change secretary Chris Huhne (pictured) wants to see that target toughened to 30%. Günther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, disagreed on the kind of cautious grounds that we are all too familiar with in New Zealand.  ”If we go alone to 30%, you will only have a faster process of de-industrialisation in Europe. We need industry in Europe, and industry means CO2 emissions.”

Wrong, said Huhne. “The short-termist view of sticking to 20% doesn’t cut the mustard. Moving to 30% would give our businesses a head-start in new green industries and get us off the oil hook quicker, insulating us from oil price spikes.”  Competitiveness is at stake: “Decarbonising further, faster will keep us ahead of the likes of China who are already snapping at our heels.

Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for climate change, while being careful not to criticise her fellow commissioner, insisted that tougher greenhouse gas targets would improve the EU’s economic performance, rather than push businesses overseas. “It’s very important that everyone understands that to produce more does not mean you have to emit more. That was 20th century business, this is the 21st-century model.”

Huhne has been gathering support for his plan to press for the higher goal, and has already won the backing of his counterparts in France, Germany, Denmark and Spain.

Interestingly and importantly, some businesses are in support. The CEO of The Climate Group Mark Kenber said:

’Now is no time for Europe’s leaders to have a crisis of confidence or present false choices. The EU businesses we work with want a 30% carbon reduction target to boost Europe’s share of the €3.5 trillion global market for low carbon goods and services. Business understands there is no such thing as a high-carbon, low cost future for them in Europe or anywhere else. Europe’s economy needs a clean industrial revolution to stay competitive, to cut emissions, and to boost growth and jobs.’

The Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change also chimed in. Director Sandrine Dixson-Declève, said:

“Business leaders working with us have repeatedly said more ambitious short- and medium-term targets are essential to help drive up the carbon price and incentivise the low carbon investments needed to reach the EU’s climate goals.”

Campaigners have not been backward. Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace:

“While Oettinger peddles scare stories about polluting industries fleeing to Asia, Europe’s timidity on emissions targets is more likely to result in clean-tech jobs and new industries going to China and California.’

The European Climate Forum yesterday presented a report in Brussels which describes how mitigating climate change should not be seen as a trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. It states that post-crisis Europe can revitalise its economy by tackling the climate challenge. Raising the European climate target from 20% to 30% emissions reductions can open the way towards higher growth and increased employment. A decisive move to a 30% reduction target can be doubly beneficial: for the global climate as well as the EU economy. Chairman Carlo Jaeger discussed the issue at greater length in a Guardian article.

Of interest in this context was a confidential draft policy document from the European Commission which was leaked to the Guardian last week and reported by them as showing that tough action on climate change is cost-effective. The document presents a roadmap for action which would enable the EU to meet the agreed 80 to 95% reduction target by 2050.  It considers that Europe is already on track for a 20% reduction by 2020 and that full and effective implementation of the energy efficiency plan is all that is required to bring that up to 25%.  By 2030 the reduction level needs to be 40%  of 1990 emissions. It too sees the economic positives in taking fully appropriate action to combat climate change, pointing out how the actions fit in with other desirable developments such as accelerating innovations and increasing energy security and competitiveness in key growth sectors. Standstill is not an option for the EU, as it would mean losing ground in major manufacturing sectors.

The document is only 11 pages long and easy reading for any who can spend the time. It covers the various sectors of the economy and describes how each of them will need to be shaped over coming decades to deliver the needed reductions. Renewable energy, smart grids, passive housing, carbon capture and storage, advanced industrial processes, and electrification of transport (including smart grids and energy storage technologies) are key components. The major and sustained investment required to finance them is estimated to be around 1.5% of EU GDP per annum on top of the overall current investment representing 19% of GDP. If this seems a lot, the document notes the investment levels in China (48%), India (35%) and Korea (26%) showing emerging economies’ strength in rapidly modernising their economy.

What encouraged me about all this was the reasoned optimism and let’s-get-on-with-it tone. The EU Commission’s document acknowledges that with little more than 10% of global emissions the EU can’t tackle climate change on its own. Nevertheless, it points out, the ambitious climate change plans it has been pursuing for more than a decade have been influential with other countries and brought them on board. I have been looking at our own climate change minister’s position paper on our modest 2050 reduction target in the last day or two as I try to prepare a submission on it. I miss the EU sense of resolution and conviction that the economy can prosper in a low carbon future. There are one or two acknowledgements of such a possibility, but the general air is cautious and dominated by a feeling that risk is greater than opportunity. ’Setting a target is a balance between achieving the reductions in greenhouse gases we want and the impact on the economy and our lifestyle.’ We won’t make sufficient progress under such motivation. But I guess one can be thankful that it’s closer to the European vision than to the fevered disorder currently obtaining among the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives.