Thursday, January 11, 2007

The EU and the environment: rhetoric and reality

The EU’s statement on climate change and energy security came out yesterday. It said several eye catching things:

First some dramatic predictions: southern Europe will become a desert, thousands will die from floods and forest fires, millions of environmental refugees will migrate northwards and decent English wine may finally be a possibility. Then the Commission also touted (out of pretty thin air) the possibility of 30% cut in EU emissions relative to 1990. The BBC's coverage led on the Commission's headline grabbing call for a second "industrial revolution" in clean technologies.

All that was enough to get the attention of the media. But to what end?

The report itself suggests that the authors spent a lot longer thinking about how to enlarge the power and role of the EU than they did thinking about energy security or climate change. There are pages and pages on setting up a single energy regulator for Europe, a "European Energy Observatory", getting member states to sign up to "solidarity agreements" and spending more on trans-EU interconnections (all longstanding pet projects of the Commission). There is also a suggestion (unlikely to be accepted by Germany and France) that they should break up their monopolistic public energy companies.

But even if all this happened, it won't solve the problem. Creating a free market in energy (some chance) would be good in its own right, but wouldn't decrease the EU's overall dependence on Russia or reduce emissions (in fact if it led to marginally lower prices it might mean marginally higher emissions).

Other suggestions would be meaningful but misguided. The Commisison suggests EU wide targets for biofuels and renewables. But that isn't the best way to go - in some countries biofuels and renewables might be the most cost effective way to cut emissions, in others not. Why impose a one-size-fits-all strategy?

Hugo from Open Europe debated the report with Will Hutton yesterday. Hutton conceded that the EU’s flagship Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) “hasn’t worked well” in its first phase, branding it a “pointless, fruitless exercise”. However, he then went on to claim that “the mood has changed over the past two years…all the continental countries that have got any high ground have noticed there being lack of snow this year. I was in Rome at Christmas and cafĂ© life was conducted as if it was June."

This is a nice example of the europhile style in two respects: (a) the admission there were problems in the past but they have now been solved - a perennial europhile claim - and (b) a certain kind fuzzy logic, as part of which demonstrating "concern" is more important than focussing on effectivness.

On the upside, the Commission suggests spending more of its research budget on energy (although that sort of policy pledge often leads to all kinds of existing projects simply being 'relabeled'). There is also a screaming u-turn on nuclear energy, which the Commission now seems to be a big fan of.

But overall the document is a lot like the Lisbon agenda: the Commission proposes all kinds of targets which are outside the control of the EU, but doesn't look at the effects of its own policies: For example, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is very expensive to run, costing the UK 1.5 billion in its first phase, but it has failed to reduce emissions. The EU’s waste policy creates pressure for more and more burning of rubbish. The huge CAP budget is still being used to encourage intensive agriculture (if you must have subsidies why not for biofuels?) and the fishing policy has caused the dumping of millions of tonnes of dead fish in the sea. Thanks a bundle.

All this is not helped by the EU's agonisingly long implementation of reforms. According to a recent paper circulated to the Council, the Commission will not even consider making changes to the failing ETS before 2013.

The paper reinforces the sense that the EU and advocates of deeper integration are essentially using the climate change and energy security issues rather than taking them seriously. As David Milliband wrote: "The environment is the issue that can best reconnect Europe with its citizens and re-build trust in European institutions. The needs of the environment are coming together with the needs of the EU: one is a cause looking for a champion, the other a champion in search of a cause."

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