Climate Change, Environment, Europe, Headlines

CLIMATE CHANGE: EU Gives Polluters a Christmas Gift

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 12 2008 (IPS) - Polluting industries have received an early Christmas gift from European Union leaders who have agreed to weaken their proposals for fighting climate change in order to protect short-term commercial gains.

Winding up a two-day summit in Brussels Dec. 12, the EU’s governments decided that a plan to make energy-intensive firms pay for their emissions of greenhouse gas emissions should be drastically amended.

Under plans for revamping the EU’s Emissions Trading System put forward by the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, earlier this year, firms would generally have to buy permits to pollute from 2013 onwards. Intense talks held in recent months, though, have resulted in an agreement which would allow the manufacturing sector generous exemptions from having to pay.

This capitulation followed demands from Germany, Italy and Poland to alter a series of measures known as the climate and energy package to make them more acceptable to industry. Poland, which generates about 95 percent of its electricity from coal, had been adamant that allowances to pollute should be awarded free of charge until 2019 at least.

BusinessEurope, an umbrella group for multinational firms, had also demanded that core elements of the package be rewritten. Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the organisation’s president, said that the original plans would have “considerable negative impacts” on European firms.

Green and anti-poverty organisations strongly denounced the deal reached by EU leaders. In order to encourage emissions cuts, it is necessary to set a strong price signal for carbon, the campaigners argued. Yet the new arrangements for the ETS fails to deliver that objective.

“We have never seen such deterioration in European environmental law before,” said Stephan Singer from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “As a former leader on climate change, the EU is failing and looks set to wreck its previous commitments. As it looks now, the EU climate package is paltry, and efforts to tackle climate change in Europe will be minimal.”

Even though the effects of climate change – particularly drought – are likely to hurt poor countries disproportionately, according to predictions by scientists, the Union has not offered any new development aid funds to help them adapt.

Oxfam’s Elise Ford complained that “millions of poor people have been left in danger because EU leaders bowed to business lobby pressure and faltered at an historic moment.”

She suggested that the Union’s weak stance would not be helpful to the negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations in the Polish city Poznan. These are supposed to pave the way for a new international agreement on climate change in about 12 months time. “Europe’s package looks too much like business-as-usual tied up in a green ribbon,” she added.

Senior EU figures nonetheless tried to put a positive spin on the outcome of their summit. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who chaired the event, said it would “force us to restructure industry so that we pollute less.” José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, glossed over how the proposals put forward by his institutions have been weakened. He encouraged Barack Obama, the U.S. president-elect, to work in tandem with the EU on protecting the environment.

“Europe has decided to keep its commitments,” he claimed. “Our message to our global partners is ‘yes you can’. Yes you can do what we are doing.”

Others have bemoaned how the Union’s politicians appear even to have botched what should be simple steps in addressing one of the greatest crises ever to face humanity.

Ahead of the summit, the EU’s main institutions reached an accord on the future of the energy-gobbling incandescent light bulbs which are typically found in homes throughout Europe.

Under it, these will be banned from 2012. Yet a reprieve has been given for halogen light bulbs for a further four years. This is despite the fact that more efficient alternatives are already available.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Emilie Johann described the move as a “half-hearted attempt at improving energy efficiency in European households.”

Another component of the package is that 10 percent of the Union’s transport needs would derive from renewable sources by 2020. Most of these are expected to come from biofuels, food crops turned into a source of energy.

This goal, originally set in 2007, has been reiterated this week despite warnings from food policy experts that making energy generation compete with agriculture could be a recipe for starvation. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has held the greater use of biofuels in cars partly responsible for rising food prices; it estimates that the number of hungry people in the world climbed to 963 million this year. That represents an increase of 40 million over 2007.

Tim Rice from ActionAid said that the EU’s policy “will have enormous implications for food security in the developing world because it will trigger an even more intense race to grab land for biofuel production.”

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