About Air and Water

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CLIMATE CHANGE: EUROPE FEELS THE U.S. SNEEZE

By Matthew Berger - TerraViva EU - Wed. July 1, 2009

LONDON (IPS) - Governments and interest groups around the world followed the U.S. House of Representatives' vote Friday on the first U.S. policy to limit the country's greenhouse gas emissions. They were especially interested in Europe, where a system similar to the bill's cap-and-trade scheme already exists and where EU countries agreed last December to tough emissions targets.

The reaction among European groups has been as mixed as it has been among their U.S. counterparts, with the notable difference that those opposing the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or the Waxman-Markey bill, largely feel it does not go far enough.

Most of the 212 U.S. representatives that voted against it, on the other hand, felt it imposed excessive restrictions and costs.

"We are disappointed. The U.S. has a responsibility when it comes to climate change," Sonja Meister, climate change coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe told IPS Friday. Developed nations need to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020, she said, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recommendation for the most ambitious government action.


The U.S. bill calls for a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. The EU's '20-20-20' targets call for a 20 percent reduction over the same time, compared with 1990 levels.

The position taken by many in Europe is that anything is better than nothing, however. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted by the Associated Press Friday as saying, "We want the U.S. to go as far and as fast as they can on climate change. We want Waxman-Markey to succeed."

On Monday, Lena de Visscher, the Commission's spokesperson for the environment office, told IPS, "We welcome the approval of the Waxman- Markey bill by the House. This is an important signal of Congress's desire for the U.S. to re-engage in the global debate on climate change."

The French daily Le Monde led its Sunday-Monday edition with the headline 'Climate: Barack Obama launches his green revolution', largely focusing on the change in policy since last year when, it says, "a law aiming to fight climate change would have been unthinkable."

This rejoicing that legislation addressing climate issues is on the table now after eight years of silence under the Bush Administration is not universal, however.

Leaders in Europe were following the Waxman-Markey bill very closely, said Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace International last week from Amsterdam. They are pleased legislation is on its way after nothing happening under former president George W. Bush, but are uncomfortable with the level of emissions targets at the moment, he said.

The cap-and-trade aspects of the bill have also been criticised in European environmental circles, where they have seen first-hand the successes and failures of their own Emissions Trading System (ETS).

The EU's system, agreed in 2005, distributed a set amount of allowances to industry, mainly in the energy sector. These were distributed for free initially, though the goal was to sell the carbon permits in auction by 2013. Many concessions, including the partial delay of this auctioning, were wrangled by industry as the EU tried to strengthen the ETS in order to bring it in line with the 20-20-20 targets last winter, and the story of U.S. legislation looks very similar.

Concessions to industry and opposition in the House led to the Waxman- Markey bill's original hopes being set aside in the name of simply getting something passed. Among the concessions included in the final draft, the bill would initially distribute 85 percent of allowances for free.

According to Meister, cap-and-trade programmes could work well, but only when they have 100 percent auctioning for all sectors, no offsetting, and earmarking of revenue to help the countries and industries that need the most help in adapting.


"Governments tend to over-rely on market-based solutions," she said. "Because of our experience in the EU, I'm skeptical that this could work, particularly because of the pressure that will come from industry and the loopholes that will develop over time as businesses adapt to the new restrictions."


But the most interesting aspect for Europeans may be not the efficacy of the legislation in the U.S. but the way it affects international climate change discussions, as will take place at the G8 talks in Italy Jul. 8 to 10.

De Visscher, speaking for the European Commission, said the bill shows the U.S. is "ready for a climate change deal in Copenhagen at the end of this year."

There seems to be one consensus - U.S. domestic legislation has an international effect which can raise or lower the bar for everyone else.

"It is really hard to push the EU to enact stronger targets if everyone else is much weaker," says Meister. "The EU says, 'Look, we have the strongest emissions targets.' But even those targets aren't in line with the science."


The bill now moves to the U.S. Senate, where it is expected to face even more scrutiny and criticism than it did in the House. The debate will surely continue in Europe, as well. Read more in TerraViva EU

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