Time for Europe to follow Obama and deliver on climate action

Stephen Tindale is a former chair of the Greenpeace European Unit and the co-founder of Climate Answers.

World leaders have gathered in Paris for the annual UN climate summit, which this year coincides with the 11th session of the meeting of parties of the Kyoto Protocol. US President Barack Obama is there, as is Chinese President Xi Jinping. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius chairs the summit. 

But that seems likely to be the main European contribution to the discussion. The EU likes to claim that it is a leader on climate change, but in reality is a support act. This is bad for international climate action – Europe remains a major emitter of greenhouse gases. It is also bad for ‘the European project’. Pollution does not stop at national frontiers, so anti-pollution policies are much more effective continent-wide than they are in nation-states.

It is true that Europe has in the past been a leader in international negotiations and target setting. The EU took on the greatest target for greenhouse gas reductions in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. And Europe led the world in establishing a supranational emissions trading system (ETS). But delivery of decarbonisation has been very poor, and the carbon price set by the ETS is so low that it is little more than a green fig-leaf.

The Paris negotiations will probably result in an agreement. Governments will proclaim a significant step forward; NGOs will condemn another failure; businesses will point out that the agreement does not deliver clarity on future policy. The Paris summit is being held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A UN forum is not the best place in which to set policy, and UNFCCC has in any case adopted a bottom-up approach in which convention signatories (including the EU and its member-states) say what they are prepared to do to reduce emissions. This approach has been chosen because the US president can then ratify the agreement without having to go through Congress – and the changes of the US senate ratifying an international climate treaty are at present zero.

President Obama regards climate action as an important part of his legacy, so is implementing ambitious climate and energy policies. In his first term he tried to introduce a federal cap-and-trade system, but failed to get his proposal through Congress. So he is instead using the 1970 Clean Air Act to regulate pollution from power stations. The 1970 act was passed to deal with toxic air pollution. But the US Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases are also pollutants, so can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Obama has therefore told the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate. Canada and the UK already have regulations which ban any new coal power stations without carbon capture and storage. The US regulations will do the same, but also impose the regulations on existing coal power stations, so that most of them have to close down.

With his focus on policy and implementation rather than target setting, President Obama is the world leader with the most effective approach to climate action. It is time for the EU to follow Obama’s lead. The Commission should propose a regulation to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that power stations are permitted to emit per unit of electricity generated. Council and Parliament should then adopt the regulation.

In an ideal world, a carbon price high enough to shut down coal power stations (unless they have carbon capture and storage) and to channel investment into low-carbon energy sources would be the best approach. But we do not live in an ideal world. Jacques Delors proposed a carbon/energy tax in the 1980s, but the proposal was rejected on subsidiarity grounds by member-states, led by the UK. Instead the EU introduced the ETS. Attempts to strengthen this approach and deliver a significant carbon price have been blocked, again in part due to subsidiarity concerns. Tax is a matter for national governments. Cap-and-trade is a market mechanism, not technically a tax. But attempts to make carbon pricing effective are condemned by politicians in Eurosceptic countries as creeping fiscal federalism. During the negotiations which led to the 2008 Emissions Trading directive, the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent a warning letter to the Commission that its proposals were too like taxation. So the Commission watered them down. And the ETS remains a fig-leaf.

In climate policy, as in policy generally, it makes little sense to make the unachievable best the enemy of the achievable good. Delivering effective regulation makes more sense than hankering after a significant carbon price. The EU has delivered significant reductions in toxic air pollution from power stations by using regulation: the Large Combustion Plants Directive, Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive and Industrial Emissions Directive. The last of these should be amended so that it includes an emissions performance standards – a limit on the permitted amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of electricity generated. This would deliver a significant reduction in pollution.

It might also deliver a large-scale coal or gas power station with carbon capture and storage. In 2008 the EU promised that ten to twelve such power stations would be operational by 2015. There are none. The lesson is clear. The time for promises and targets is past; now it is time for delivery.

Follow Stephen Tindale on Twitter @STindale

A French translation of this piece has been published by VoxEurop.


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