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Europe debates climate 'ambition'

Richard Black | 14:18 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Connie Hedegaard, the EU's Climate Commissioner, is seeking to open a debate on whether the bloc should adopt a tougher target than it already has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Connie HedegaardBack in the early months of last year, EU leaders signed off a target of 20% cuts from 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 30% if a global deal emerged at the Copenhagen summit that would see other countries and other blocs taking a commensurate share.

So the deal didn't emerge, as we know. But emissions aren't rising at the moment either - in fact, the latest evidence from the European Commission showed that carbon emissions from industries within the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) fell by 11.6% during 2009.

The recession, in a nutshell, has turned the calculations that led to the twin targets of 20% and 30% on their head.

According to Ms Hedegaard's latest notice, the cost of meeting the 20% target is now 48bn euros per year, down from 70bn when the numbers were crunched in 2008.

The new cost of a 30% target, meanwhile, comes out at 81bn euros per year.

The commission notes that the difference between going for 20% and 30% is just 0.2% of GDP.

Last month, meanwhile, researchers published a paper showing that aiming for 20% amounted to less ambition than "business as usual".

The commission isn't overtly advocating a jump in ambition to 30%, just saying that it wants "an informed debate" on the issue. Its announcement today categorically does not amount to a new European Union policy, as has been claimed in some quarters.

And while the new UK government supports moving to 30%, other countries - notably France and Germany - have issued cautionary words.

We can assume that some Eastern European countries are in their camp, given their previous opposition to strong carbon curbs; and industry groups such as Business Europe are lobbying against 30%, arguing that:

"[I]t would send the wrong signal to European industry in times of economic crisis."

How the 30% target might be achieved is very much up for debate. With the ETS still many euros short of a carbon price to challenge companies, mandatory energy efficiency improvements, "green" taxes and increased international trading of carbon credits are among the possible options.

As Ms Hedgaard indicates, there are two other calculations that EU governments will be making as they decide whether they should take the plunge into deeper waters.

New tidal energy deviceOne is purely political. Many EU governments have liked to see the bloc as leading the global community on climate change - a position that was stripped bare with breathtaking ease in December as the New World Order swept through Copenhagen's halls.

Moving to 30% now, it is argued in some quarters, would allow the emperor to don the robes of leadership anew.

The other calculation primarily concerns longer-term economic factors, and is centred on the notion that investment now in "green" technologies will pay dividends economically in the future.

As Joss Garman of Greenpeace UK (which supports a move to 30%) puts it:

"For a long time China has been getting ahead of us in green technologies, but this move would help us to catch up in the global clean tech race, as well as reducing our dependence on fossil fuels from dangerous sources like offshore oil drilling. Only polluters would lose out.
 
"So if European leaders agree to raise the climate target, it will be a win all round, providing a much needed boost to our economic recovery, raising our competitiveness and slashing our pollution."
The numbers you put into this longer-term analysis depend to a certain extent on what guesses you make about future climate politics.

A strong UN deal at some point, with stringent targets supporting a high carbon price, would increase the economic case not only for wind energy, but also for others such as wave and tidal power that are so nascent that it's hard to envisage a mass blooming before 2020.

Invest in them now, reap the economic benefits later, is the argument - with another strand coming from concerns over peak oil and gas.

Enthusiasm for this vision is not limited to environment groups, with finance house Ernst and Young commenting:

"With energy markets around the world competing for the attention of new investors, economic growth can be the direct result of our ability to harness sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and tidal.
 
"Europe can therefore be at the heart of this economic activity, rather than on the periphery."

Will the lure of global leadership on global climate politics and the shiny new green-tech economy be enough to persuade the bloc to make a move?

We shall see - and perhaps as soon as next month, when EU leaders gather for their next big summit.

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