Sunday

3rd Mar 2024

EU sticks out neck in global climate change battle

  • Tornado: the cost of doing nothing on climate is more scary than the EU's leap into the dark (Photo: Wikipedia)

Member states on Friday legally bound the EU to use 20 percent renewable energy and cut CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020 in the hope the US and China will follow, but nobody knows how Europe will make the new "industrial revolution" into reality or who will pay for it, with years of complex negotiations ahead.

"I'm getting the feeling that not only in the US but in the industrialising countries as well, there's growing sensitivity when it comes to realising the importance of these issues," German chancellor and EU president Angela Merkel said. "The member states have said 'Yes. We want to go down this road.' We are proud to hoist our colours to the mast [on climate change]."

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"At the G8 meeting in June we can say to the world 'Europe is taking the lead. You should join us'," European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said. "This was in my opinion the most significant summit in which I've participated...it was a great moment," he added, talking about the renewables decision in historical terms of making changes "for generations to come."

The EU agreement comes after the UN in a major report last month crowned a decade of research saying human activity is causing potentially catastrophic changes in world temperatures, with the commission predicting that a 5 degree Celsius rise by 2100 could see 40,000 deaths a year in Europe from floods and hurricanes and severe drought in Mediterranean states.

EU haggling went on until the last minute on Friday, with Austria resisting then accepting French proposals that nuclear should be on a political par wind or solar power and should somehow count toward meeting renewables and CO2 goals. "I insisted on placing renewable energy in a larger framework of low-carbon energy," French president Jacques Chirac said at his last EU summit, adding this category includes "nuclear energy."

The crux of the renewables deal lies in letting each member state make a different contribution to the 20 percent target based on how technologically advanced it is already, with Polish experts for example imagining Poland might throw a 10 percent national target into the pot while Denmark might contribute 30 percent.

Work on national targets will start with a commission proposal for a settlement mechanism in autumn, but Ms Merkel acknowledged the risk each EU state will seek special concessions, such as renewable-advanced or nuclear states saying they can do no more. "Each member state sees itself as a special case, so in a sense everybody's equal," she said.

Who will pay?

When asked how the EU - the world's largest economic bloc - will pay for the epic switchover from gas, oil and coal to wind, solar, hydro and biomass power and all the energy-saving gadgets the new targets will require, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said "With all the best will in the world, I can't tell you that."

Her finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, said EU finance ministers envisage the EU's €7 billion year science research budget should lead to technological breakthroughs, that member states will probably offer tax incentives for renewable-type firms and that the 2009 EU budget review might have to take the climate goals into account.

"We'll have to assess which priorities will have to be rejigged [in the €100 billion a year EU budget architecture]," he said, while Mr Barroso urged that "the cost of doing nothing" is more scary than unquantifiable investment. "We'll have to find the resources for new technology," he said.

Key aspects of other EU energy commitments also remain vague at this stage: EU states said they would push for "effective separation" of energy supply and distribution in a move initially designed by the commission to break up energy giants like E.ON or EDF and help up-and-coming renewables firms break the giant hydrocarbon firms' stranglehold on the EU market.

But the agreement on the so-called "unbundling" initiative did not commit itself to any specific legal model yet, with EU politicians at any rate ruling out the commission's desired option of forcing firms such as E.ON to sell off their pipeline or electricity supply assets.

Lightbulb revolution by 2009

Amid the grand rhetoric of 2020 goals, the EU states also sneaked in a surprise request for the European Commission to "rapidly submit" proposals to install energy-efficient lightbulbs in EU streetlamps and private households. The street lamp bill is to become law in 2008 and the household law by 2009.

"It's a practical step where people can make a difference," Ms Merkel said on the step. "Each individual can make a contribution."

The commission's Mr Barroso also underlined the wider political implications of the energy deal. "If we achieve what we set out today we'll have a more integrated [energy] system than the US, which is one country," he said, hoping for energy to spin off a "virtuous circle" that will ease agreement on the EU's 50th birthday declaration in March and the EU constitution down the line.

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