The European commission opened the year that is now drawing to a close with a unilateral proposal – which later became a commitment – to reduce the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.
The EU’s executive was spurred by the urgency pervading the Stern report, published in October 2006. It starkly argued that leaving climate change unaddressed would cost more than acting to reverse it.
By setting itself that goal, the EU was consistent with its long-held conviction that Europe has all to gain from remaining a leader in environment-related policies. And it was staying loyal to its focus on targets. As it celebrated its 50th anniversary on 9 May the EU could gloat on its green protection success, secured by a comprehensive legislative framework. But the difficulty of relying entirely on the end result of policies (targets) at the expense of widening and sharpening the means to achieve those results has become evident through 2007.
On climate, the ongoing struggle to reduce carbon emissions within the bloc has highlighted the need for answers beyond buying credits from abroad. On sustainability, the goals of lower resource use, greater energy efficiency and better waste management have proved elusive.
A renewed push to boost Europe’s green leadership with technology emerged mid-year. In May the commission’s second report on the EU’s 2004 green technologies action plan said much more must be done to enhance eco-innovation. At the end of its EU presidency in June, Germany stated that eco-innovation was the only way to confront climate change, resource shortage and biodiversity loss.
As the end-of-year international talks in Bali approached, climate change made all the headlines. In October former US vice president Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received international acclaim after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In November the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister Gordon Brown made landmark speeches about their commitment to the environmental cause.
But the most striking news came from other continents. Australia’s new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, won the elections on 26 November on the back of a strong green agenda, including a promise to ratify the Kyoto protocol. A plausible US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, acknowledged that climate change must be addressed and promised to reduce her country’s burgeoning carbon emissions by 80 per cent.
The EU is no longer a solitary fighter against carbon emissions. And its emphasis on targets appears vindicated by countries such as the US – which has traditionally focused on the means to achieve environmental gains (technology) – finally accepting that true progress towards sustainability is hard to make without clear targets providing a sense of direction.
Will 2007 be remembered as the year when most world leaders agreed to act on climate change? Probably yes. But it may also be seen as the time when environmental technologies made it to the top of the global green agenda.
The challenge for the EU and the rest of the world is to put into practice the newly gained understanding that stringent policies with ambitious targets and a bold approach to green technological innovation are both necessary to progress towards environmental sustainability without compromising economic stability. As 2008 approaches, the EU’s New Year resolution must be a true commitment to green technologies that will allow it to meet environmental goals and create competitive advantage for its industry at the same time.
Nadia Weekes, editor
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