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EU climate deal - can it, or can't it?

Richard Black | 15:03 UK time, Friday, 12 December 2008

POZNAN, POLAND: So the numbers are still in the deal; and if the numbers are all, as the EU claims, then everything in the world's climate garden smells of roses.

Following what have apparently been strenuous talks, the 27 EU nations that have just agreed an energy and climate package in Brussels are still intending to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.

Jose Manuel BarrosoEuropean Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it "the most ambitious package anywhere in the world". The targets themselves aren't the world's most ambitious, but the bloc is the first to set out a detailed raft of mechanisms for making the cuts.

The EU decision has practical and symbolic significance - practical because of its impact on greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and symbolic because the EU traditionally claims to be the world's leader on climate change, and so what it does affects what others are prepared to do.

So we find the Brussels decision reverberating around the halls here in Poznan, half a continent away, where 189 members of the UN climate convention have been haggling for two weeks over what might and what might not go into a new global pact which is supposed to be finalised in a year's time.

Stavros Dimas, the EU's environment commissioner, suggested here that the numbers are indeed all, as did French ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Their line is that the rest of the world will look at the EU decision, see the 20% figure intact, and be satisfied that the bloc is making firm commitments to reduce emissions at a time of financial strife.

As Mr Barroso put it, in a play on Barack Obama's campaign mantra: "The EU's message to global partners is 'y‎es you can'."

But the small print of the agreement may tell a different story.

Let me bombard you with a few numbers. EU emissions are already about 9% below 1990 levels; so a further 11% is needed to reach the 2020 goal.

Countries will be allowed to purchase 3-4% of that by buying emission credits outside Europe - through, for example, building renewable energy facilities or paying to plant carbon-absorbing forests in developing countries.

So that leaves a target from now of 7-8%. But companies and countries can, if they want, buy extra credits on the open market until 2012 and bank them, effectively betting that the early investment will save them money in the long run.

Calculations by WWF suggest that could result in a further 3-4% being lopped off the target; so now the concrete pledge could amount to a 4% reduction over the next 12 years.

One more number crunch. The EU package envisages not a 20% but a 30% cut by 2020 if there is a global deal.

The UK Committee on Climate Change, when presenting recommendations to the UK government at the beginning of the month, took a twin tack approach, effectively saying "you should do x if the EU target is 20% and you should do y if it ends up being 30%."

The European Council deliberations over the last two days have barely mentioned the 30% target, let alone plotted a path towards achieving it if it comes into play.

Nathalie Kosciusko-MorizetMme Kosciusko-Morizet said a decision was taken to "prepare for 20%, and then set up a decision-making process that would enable us to adapt to the 30% figure".

Remembering that from today's levels of emissions, 20% and 30% really mean 11% and 21%, that means the EU may suddenly have to decide how to double the level of its existing commitment - and the option of buying carbon credits from abroad has already been heavily exercised.

Plus the concentration on 20% could send the message that the EU isn't expecting a global deal any time soon.

Phew. Sorry to burden you with so many numbers, but the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined for this issue - it's a perfect description, and one of the reasons why I have lost so much hair doing this job.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the other numbers that have some observers hopping mad - the derogations that will allow some sectors of industry to get their pollution permits for free rather than having to buy them.

Predictably, environmental groups have condemned the package.

Tomas Wyns from the Climate Action Network called it "a very dark day for EU climate politics", for Stephan Singer of WWF it was "an embarrassment".

Oxfam's Elise Ford, concerned that the package will not now be raising funds earmarked for helping the poorest countries adapt to climate impacts, said that "millions of poor people have been left in danger because EU leaders bowed to business lobby pressure and faltered at an historic moment".

This isn't the final EU word on the matter. The European Parliament meets on Wednesday, and it could yet throw the package back to governments; certainly some MEPs are already talking of rejecting it as unacceptably weak.

If that happens, the game of ping-pong could go on for some time.

The impact on developing countries, without whose engagement there cannot be a global deal, will take some time to emerge; there is lots of small print to digest.

One African delegate I spoke to wasn't impressed by the level of ambition. "It's not enough," he said.

If that turns out to be a widely-held view, all bets on reaching that elusive Copenhagen deal would be off.

Delegates here stood and cheered Al Gore's speech to the rafters as he, too, used the Obama line of "yes, we can".

While the large print of the EU package might give the same message, there's a chance that the small print will be heard as "no, we couldn't" - in which case, the response might be "well, we can't either".

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