Time to lead by example

The EU recognised the risk of climate change as early as 1990, when we committed ourselves to stabilising EU emissions of carbon dioxide at the 1990 level by the year 2000. We succeeded in stabilising emissions and, through our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, we have set ourselves even more ambitious goals as we strive to reduce emissions in absolute terms. The EU, which today accounts for 14 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, will have reduced that figure to around eight per cent by 2050.

Today, we are around three percentage points below 1990 levels, whereas the US emissions have risen by more than 30 per cent since 1990. And according to the US Department of Energy, US emissions are expected to rise even further. Since 2000, the EU has launched more than 30 initiatives to address climate change, including R&D on energy efficiency and alternative renewable energy sources such as bio-fuels, wind power, sun, water and even waste. Our efforts range from getting factories and power plants to reduce their emissions to addressing what we as individuals can do to make a difference in our daily lives.

We have demonstrated that proactive climate policies produce results, and do not necessarily endanger economic growth. Danger to economic growth was one of the (in our view, incorrect) arguments the Bush Administration advanced for not ratifying Kyoto Protocol. Lack of action on climate change will have costs for economic growth too. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that a rise in global temperature of ‘only’ 2.5°C would cost 1.5-2 per cent of global GDP. A study from Cambridge University indicates that costs to the economy may be around US$95 trillion. Direct economic costs of global warming include extreme weather events, increased water stress, public health problems, higher insurance premiums, desertification of currently fertile soil, migration of parts of the population and lower agricultural yields.

According to a Colorado study by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), continued elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere may reduce forage quality in the world’s grasslands and lead to a reduction in weight gain among animals.

We must also be wary of over-simplified solutions. Suppose we were to try to replace all the gasoline needed in US motor cars with corn-based ethanol. What extra agricultural acreage would that require? I have seen one estimate suggesting that it would require twice the entire agricultural acreage of the US to grow enough corn to produce enough ethanol to fuel all of America’s cars each year. In the meantime what would Americans do for food? Using sugar cane-based ethanol, which is a more efficient source of ethanol than corn but cannot be grown everywhere, would require more than a third of the entire cultivated land in the world, or nearly all the agricultural land in the tropics, if it were to meet world demand for transportation fuel.

Greenhouse gases would also be generated in fertilising, harvesting and transporting energy crops. Over the past five years, the US administration has set aside impressive amounts of money for research and development on the causes of climate change and alternative forms of energy. But it continues to stress that new technology and energy efficiency are the key instruments to tackle climate change. The EU fully agrees that technological development is crucial, but we would point out that even with major government support for R&D, technologies will not be developed at all, or will be developed too slowly, unless there are concrete signals from government on (future) regulatory action to mandate their adoption; it may take 40-50 years before some of the technologies are available for commercial use; and, very importantly, the effect of measures on the climate change may take 100 years because of the slow reactions by the climate system.

The EU says that we need to do more than focus on supply-side technologies. We must develop demand-side policies. There is a place for government regulation, just as there is a place for market-based incentives and disincentives. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards are a very good example of government regulations that got results, and got them quickly. Only if the EU and the US lead by example at home can we demand that developing countries make sacrifices to tackle climate change.

Edited extracts of a recent speech given by John Bruton, former Irish prime Minister and now EU ambassador to the US