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Crunch time on climate

This autumn will be a critical period for EU climate policy. After the summer break European commission officials will sit down to finalise formulas for translating the EU’s targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and boosting renewable energy by 20 per cent by 2020 into quantitative national obligations for the 27 EU states.
They have been told to have these “burden-sharing” proposals ready to be tabled on 5 December, days before EU environment ministers meet international counterparts in Bali, Indonesia for world climate negotiations.
In the run up, officials will doubtless be subject to pressure from EU governments seeking to limit their share of the burden. Indeed, one reason the commission has fixed on the 5 December deadline is to prevent ministers being distracted at Bali into late lobbying over the targets.
Last month, an internal British government briefing paper on climate change and renewables was leaked to the media (see page 1). It provides a fascinating window onto the dilemmas and conflicting interests that run through the climate debate.
The paper aroused scorn from environmentalists. Its admission that the UK has so far largely failed to capitalise on copious renewable resources has the merit, at least, of being honest. But its talk of interpreting the 2020 targets “creatively” and “statistically” deserves the contempt is has received.
Other aspects do not merit criticism, however. Green groups complained that the paper showed the British government had signed up to the 20 per cent renewables target in the knowledge it had no hope of meeting it. This is unfair.
First, the target was never intended to be uniform across EU countries. Hence the idea of burden-sharing. Second, if EU politicians only ever agreed targets they were sure to meet, Europe’s environmental policy achievements to date would be less than they are.
Part of the value of these EU-level targets is their cajoling character. This should be clear from the number itself: 20 per cent is suspiciously round, calculated aspirationally more than empirically. All EU climate targets are a multiple of ten these days.
And here the UK paper also makes a valid point: setting too high an arbitrary target risks undermining private sector buy-in to meeting the goal, since business “will need some convincing that it will be strictly enforced”.
Moreover, and largely unnoticed by commentators, the paper contains a proposal that should be celebrated by advocates of strong climate action. This is to tighten even further the cap on industrial carbon allowances, to ensure the EU’s emission trading system (EU ETS) remains a strong driver of greenhouse gas reductions.
Notwithstanding the UK’s desire to protect London as the emerging carbon trading capital, this shows how firmly entrenched carbon trading has become. Governments are now talking in terms of the benefits of limiting their own CO2 emissions.
The legal action being taken against the European commission over the EU ETS by eastern European EU members (see page 3) – does not contradict this. These countries will overachieve their Kyoto targets and are arguing over the number of allowances – free subsidies, in effect – they can give to their industry. They do not question the scheme itself.
As the UK paper points out, having a strong ETS is one of the most valuable cards the EU ETS will hold at Bali – as the potential basis of a flexible instrument to build a global carbon market and incentivise international action.

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