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UPI: Walker’s World: Europe’s Green wars begin

Published: Jan. 28, 2008 at 10:41 AM
UPI Editor Emeritus

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) — It is ironic that Europe, which likes to think of itself as the center of environmental correctness and the green revolution, should now be the scene of a sharp political struggle over its ambitious emissions targets. Indeed, few EU proposals have aroused quite such a chorus of complaint and derision.

“This is a historic plan to make Europe the first economy on the post-carbon age,” EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament.

The EU is to require its 27 member states to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the year 2020, to ensure that 20 percent of its energy comes from renewable resources like wind and solar. The EU also aims to have biofuels power at least 10 percent of its transport.

There will also be a bolstered Emissions Trading Scheme, in which the right to pollute will be auctioned. And if the world’s big polluters like the United States and China do not join in, then the EU may either give these emissions trading rights free to European firms, or even apply special “green” tariffs to “dirty” imports.

The predictable results included a strike among Belgian steelworkers, protests from politicians in almost every EU country, storms in the media, angry threats from Washington and other countries, and — less predictably — anger from environmental groups.

Europe’s Greens pointed out that biofuels may not be the blessing the EU thought it would be. Biofuels can raise food prices by taking up arable land and encourage deforestation. It also seems that when the carbon emissions of the fertilizers and tractors and soil-turning are all included, biofuels can be just as polluting as gasoline.

“Most biofuels now appear to be worse for the climate than oil,” said Friends of the Earth Europe’s Sonja Meister.

“The European Commission’s failure to act on the many warnings is shockingly irresponsible,” said Corporate Europe Observatory spokeswoman Nina Holland.

The Belgian steel workers were equally blunt. “You could call this the first carbon dioxide industrial action,” said Fabrice Jacquemart, a spokesman for the FGTB union. “There is something utterly absurd about a policy that creates more unemployment in Europe.”

The EU announcement came as Jeroen van der Veer, chief executive officer of Shell Oil, released the startling warning that “the world’s current predicament limits our room to maneuver. We are experiencing a step-change in the growth rate of energy demand due to rising population and economic development. After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand.”

These are the opening shots in what will be a long war, as the world fails or succeeds over the course of this century in surmounting the threat of global warming. Barroso claimed these measures would cost less than $100 billion a year, or about 0.5 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product. As insurance, he claimed, this was cheap at the price, and the cost of inaction would be many times higher.

That is not the way the media saw it. In Britain, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun, the Daily Express and the Evening Standard all gave prominence to a report by the Open Europe think tank that the EU’s drive for renewable energy would cost the average family about $1,500 a year. Others noted the warning from the Greens that the biofuels policy would make things even worse for the world’s poorest people in the developing world.

Usually sympathetic to the EU and to environmental causes, the Guardian sniffed that “bits of the plan are disappointing. Why does the EU insist on wasteful biofuels being used for road transport? It is hard to see it as anything other than yet another sop to European farmers.”

In Germany, the news magazine Der Spiegel put the headline “A Total Disaster” on its assessment of the EU’s biofuels policy. It reported: “Paul J. Crutzen, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry, estimates that biodiesel produced from rapeseed can result in up to 70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Corn, the preferred biofuels crop in the U.S., results in 50 percent more emissions, Crutzen estimates.”

The United States has already warned of the dangers inherent in a proposal to impose “green tariffs.” At last month’s meeting in Bali, Indonesia, that agreed a road map to negotiate the next phase of the Kyoto protocol against global warming, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab warned the Europeans that this cold “backfire.”

“Restricting imports easily leads to covert protectionism, undermining both environment and economic standards,” she said. “Trade restrictions that seek to force actions can backfire and lead to tit-for-tat.”

The Americans were not the only ones alarmed. Ujal Singh Bhatia, India’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization, said: “If the countries imposing such measures invoke GATT provisions to justify them, the dispute settlement mechanism in (the) WTO would face serious challenges and create divisions along North-South lines.”

While the EU’s intentions were evidently high-minded, the result has been an object lesson in the difficulties the world will face in agreeing on mechanisms to reduce the threat of global warming.

The EU is not the only body that is mulling this kind of “green tariff” to force other countries to abide by tough targets to cut carbon emissions. The U.S. Senate is considering two bills with similar effect. The bills have strong backing from both the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and from the giant American Electric power group. The bills are likely to face similar objections from India and China in the WTO, just as U.S. farm subsidies for the production of ethanol from corn have aroused growing opposition from the Green lobbies.

The award of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the scientists of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change symbolized the degree to which there is now a broad consensus that climate change is a realty, that human activity is a major cause and that its implications are so dangerous that dramatic measures will be needed to alleviate its effects. But the reaction to the EU’s proposals showed just how hard and contentious that will be.

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