Heated debate in Hamburg: As America quits, Europe tries to lead on climate change

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CAN Europe carry the Paris agreement on climate change forward now that America has left? That was one of the big questions as leaders of the world’s largest economies gathered for the G20 meeting in Hamburg on July 7th and 8th. Donald Trump’s promise that America will pull out has weakened the deal. Many fear that other countries’ future pledges to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be less ambitious without the world’s second-largest polluter (after China) doing its share.

Yet America’s departure has galvanised China, which promotes itself as a champion of the deal—and Europe, which thinks itself in the vanguard of greenery. If they remain staunch, reluctant converts such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely to stay the course. The G20 meeting was just beginning as The Economist went to press, but laying out the next steps for the agreement was on the agenda.

Europe has always played an outsized role in the climate-change debate. It was a Swedish scientist who, in 1896, first posited a link between surface temperatures and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A century later the European Union’s environment ministers (who at the time numbered among their members one Angela Merkel) adopted the aim of keeping global warming to below 2°C. For years the European Union has set policies to curb emissions and discourage energy use (see chart). Germany is switching to renewables in a massive “energy transition”. The Paris agreement, which saw more than 190 countries pledge to keep global warming to “well below” that threshold, was a triumph of Gallic diplomacy.

At least, so goes the boosterish story Europeans tell themselves. In fact, the EU’s stated goal of a 40% cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, as measured against levels in 1990, is inadequate if it is to do its share in keeping global warming below 2°C. Its policies for electricity generation have misfired, too. True, subsidies have boosted wind and solar power, and by around 2030 these will become the EU’s largest source of power generation, according to the International Energy Agency. But that has had two perverse consequences. The first is lower wholesale electricity prices, meaning squeezed revenues and lower investment. The second is rising imports of fossil fuels to keep the lights on when the sun is hidden and the winds are still. Together, these have meant a heavy reliance on plants burning cheap-but-dirty fuels such as brown coal. Europe’s shift away from nuclear power, which generates no carbon dioxide, has made reducing emissions harder—especially in Germany, which decided in a panic to close all 17 of its nuclear plants after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.

Natural gas could provide a bridge between a smoggy past and a clean future. But supplies depend on a hostile Russia, which provides about a third of the EU’s total. That share would rise under plans for Nord Stream 2, a proposed Russian pipeline. And though natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal, it is not truly green. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for more than 500 years; methane, the main constituent of natural gas, lingers for about 12 but can be 25 times more potent. No long-term environmental plan can rely heavily on it. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme has also fallen short. After the financial crisis of 2007-08, there was a glut of carbon permits. Prices have dropped by four-fifths since then, to around €5 ($5.67) per tonne. To help the planet much, they would have to be €40 or so.

Some lessons have been learned from past failures. From 2021 on, the number of carbon permits is supposed to be cut. President Emmanuel Macron wants to set a minimum price of €30 per tonne in France in the hope that other countries will follow. The European Parliament is discussing laws to help meet climate targets after a package of energy policies was unveiled by the European Commission last year.

Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron are emerging as the bloc’s green champions. The commission says its clean-energy package will create hundreds of thousands of jobs by spurring investment in smart meters, electric cars and so on. Sceptics retort that it will destroy jobs, too, by increasing costs to businesses. Nick Mabey of E3G, a consultancy, says the EU now needs to focus on its diplomacy. The talks in Hamburg, and the need to keep everyone besides America on board, will test them sorely.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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