Europe’s Leadership in Carbon Control at Risk in Credit Crisis

BRUSSELS — Europe’s role as a global leader in combating climate change risks becoming the next victim of the global financial crisis.

As the threats of global recession and rising unemployment loom after the expensive bank bailouts, some European leaders are demanding that the trade bloc backpedal on a pledge announced with much fanfare last spring to cut greenhouse emissions by 20 percent and to generate 20 percent of power through renewable sources by 2020.
At a meeting Monday in Luxembourg, the Italian environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, warned that her country had “many requests for changes,” and would support turning the potentially expensive pledge into law only if the issue could be reviewed again next year.
That follows threats by the leaders of Italy, Poland, Latvia and others at the European Union meeting last week in Brussels to veto the measures unless they were softened.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has pushed European leaders to stick to the deadline of December. That is when negotiations are scheduled to begin about extending beyond 2012 global efforts to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto climate treaty.
“There is now a greater possibility that the E.U. misses a deadline it set for itself,” Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said Monday. “That would call into question Europe’s willingness to back up an offer that was applauded by the whole world with specific policies.”
European leaders left the meeting last week saying that they would need unanimity to push forward.
Meanwhile, the American presidential election is likely to make the United States’ policy on climate change more proactive. That could further diminish the global influence that Europeans have so far been able to claim.
“We should not rule out that at some stage whoever becomes president may have completely new ideas,” said Christian Egenhofer, an energy and climate specialist at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “If the E.U. doesn’t have its policies in place it could be a very weak discussion partner.”
Some energy specialists say that European policy makers seriously misunderstood how difficult it would be to transform the energy sector.
Thomas Schneider, a member of IEEE, a professional association for the advancement of technology, said that some of the most direct ways to lower carbon dioxide would be to deploy large numbers of windmills and nuclear power plants. But he warned that even under the most promising timelines, that would be difficult for Europe to achieve by 2020.
“The financial crisis has exacerbated the issue of how Europe would meet its targets,” Mr. Schneider said, “but this is mainly an engineering problem.”
Even before the credit squeeze became a full-fledged banking crisis, European countries were displaying different levels of enthusiasm for the emissions measures.
On one side are Poland and other coal-dependent nations in Eastern Europe, as well as Italy. These countries face potentially higher costs under a system that caps carbon dioxide emissions from heavy industry, as introduced in 2005.
Some countries also say that they are being asked to do too much too quickly in areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
On the other side is France, which uses nuclear sources to generate most of its power, and Britain, which favors climate regulation, partly because it has become a hub for trading permits to emit carbon dioxide. Also favoring regulation are the Dutch and most Nordic countries, which have successfully installed several initiatives to replace fossil fuel-fired power with renewable sources of energy.
Officials in Brussels warn that signs of a weakening commitment by European leaders to fighting climate change could start a chain reaction, lowering ambitions among other central players, like China and India. The resolve of some developing countries to participate in a global climate deal could also weaken if they expect that a strapped Europe will become stingier.
The European system to control emissions is based on the sale of permits to emit carbon that are worth billions of euros. Under the planned overhaul of the system, industries would have to pay for a substantially larger portion of those permits.
Revenue would most likely be earmarked for European governments, but some funds could go toward helping developing countries combat climate change.
Mr. de Boer, the United Nations climate official, said that developing nations had already made it clear that they expected more financial support in exchange for becoming part of a global agreement on climate change.