Why the EU's policies on climate change will fail


April 24, 2007 19:01 | by Steve McGiffen

The recent high profile adoption by the European Union of a position on climate change which envisages drastic cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases over the next quarter century risks, once again, creating the impression that the unelected, unanswerable institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg and Frankfurt are at least a potential part of the solution to the world's ills.

They are not.

On the contrary, the EU is very much part of the problem, and must take enormous responsibility for an environmental crisis from which there may, I fear, be no comfortable means of escape.

True, in order to to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU has taken a range of measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately what it cannot do is evade the logic of the system whose existence it was established to perpetuate, a 'free market economy' which is in reality no such thing.

Far from being 'free' the market is continually rigged in favour of the most powerful concentrations of capital to the detriment not only of working people and the world's poor, but of small enterprises, unorthodox economic formations, and any capitalist foolish enough to put any consideration before that of short-term gain.

The EU's main measure to combat climate change, the Emissions Trading System (ETS), is based on that same rigged market, and so will achieve nothing.

Under the ETS, each member state draws up a National Allocation Plan (NAP), assigning greenhouse gas emission allowances to power stations and other plant.

Not all sectors are covered, but firms in those which are have the choice of using the permits to cover for its emissions, selling what it doesn't need or buying additional permits.

The idea is to create a 'market' in polluting rights, so that companies will decide 'rationally' on the basis of hard economics whether to keep polluting or cut emissions.

All other things being equal, they will do what is cheapest.

Unfortunately, most states have overallocated emission permits to companies, allowing them to continue to pollute at the same or even higher levels than before and maintaining a price for emission credits too low to act as an incentive to cut emissions.

Worse still, some of the most polluting sectors, including transport, are not included in the scheme.

The Linking Directive, adopted in summer 2004, plugs the ETS into the global system established at Kyoto.

Under the so-called "flexible mechanisms" of the Kyoto Protocol, credits for emissions saved through co-operation with countries outside the EU can also be bought and sold under the ETS.

This will mean that instead of using the ETS for the purpose for which it was intended, companies will buy cheap credits from developing countries, credits based on what are often in reality environmentally damaging projects whose effects on carbon emissions are speculative and, even if positive, offset by other impacts.

The announcement in February that EU environment ministers had agreed in principle to cut greenhouse emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 and seek a 30% cut worldwide if matched by other developed nations should be seen in this light.

To take a further example, the Renewables Directive was introduced in 2001.

Its aim is to increase the share of electricity produced from renewable energy sources in the EU to just over 22% by 2010.

The full implementation of this directive would make a big dent on that 20% target, representing a 6% cut against the 1990 base line.

Unfortunately, the weakness of national implementation measures means that the EU will not meet the target.

The latest announced targets are likely to meet the same fate.

Other measures are in every case undermined by what one can only conclude is a lack of political will.

The Cogeneration Directive, for example, aims to save power by encouraging the simultaneous production of electricity and heat, massively increasing efficiency.

Unfortunately, the directive's failure to set quantified targets for each member state has effectively made it into no more than an advisory measure.

The EU's inability to take effective action is a result of the enormous influence of corporate lobbyists at both national and European level.

But it is also a result of the fact that the EU's founding treaty, its underlying philosophy and the ideas guiding its key decision-makers share the worldview of those lobbyists and the people they represent.

This is why no binding legislation has been implemented in the most obvious area of road transport efficiency.

Instead, we have farcical 'voluntary agreements'.

Unsurprisingly, though these do include quantifiable targets, the industry will not meet them.

The same is true in a host of other sectors. Housing is responsible for 40% of the EU's energy use, yet legislation applies only to buildings larger than 1000m2, around 10% of stock, and fails even to set binding minimum efficiency standards.

Even were these measures more effective, however, the EU's broader activities would surely undermine them.

Transport policy is designed to encourage the building of more roads to facilitate the single internal market and promote growth, so that although there has been an impressive rise in fuel efficiency, this has been more than offset by the increase in road traffic.

Particularly in the new member states, where private car ownership is growing rapidly and the road sector's share of passenger and freight transport increasing, these developments are accompanied by uncontrolled ribbon development and urban sprawl, all of which mean higher emissions.

Capitalism will never be capable of curbing its rapacious appetite for growth, or of investing in the kind of technologies which might mitigate the harmful effects of that growth.

Still less will it ever be capable of escaping its own merciless logic and adapting to a society based on cooperation in the pursuit of the satisfaction of real human needs and desires in full respect for the environment, the planet, for everything which lives.

Steve McGiffen is spectrezine's editor and a former environmental adviser to the European Parliament's United Left Group. This article first appeared in The Morning Star

See also: