EU Leads the Way
Air Date: Week of March 16, 2007
Vijay Vaitheeswaran (Courtesy of Vijay Vaitheeswaran)
The European Union approved an agreement that would require member states to invest in renewable energies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to certain target levels. The Economist correspondent Vijay (Vee-Jay) Vaitheeswaran (Vie-thee-swa-ran) analyzes the treaty, along with a bold bill put forth by the United Kingdom, and the challenge they present to the United States and other large carbon-emitting countries.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
There’s big news out of Europe on climate change policy. First, the Labor Government of the UK led by Tony Blair has formally filed legislation that would cut Britain’s global warming gases by 60 percent by the year 2050. The bill has yet to be enacted but under the British parliamentary system such a majority measure almost always becomes law.
In the meantime a summit meeting of the European Union has led to a commitment to reduce the E.U’s total global warming gases by at least twenty percent over 1990 levels within thirteen years—raising the ante from the EU’s more modest commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.
The moves put the UK and the other 26 countries of the European Union onto a much faster track toward a new energy economy. And it puts them far out ahead of the world's largest contributors to global warming, countries like the U.S. and China.
Joining us to discuss these developments is Vijay Vaitheeswaran. He’s a correspondent for the The Economist magazine. Vijay, thanks for joining us.
VAITHEESWARAN: Hello there, good to be with you.
CURWOOD: So what did the EU decide to do?
VAITHEESWARAN: The gathered heads of state from across Europe agreed on a plan for greenhouse gasses that goes beyond the current Kyoto treaty, which is about to expire. And they also agreed on targets for renewable energy, on biofuels for the transportation sector. And they even talked a little bit about if the rest of the world, which is subtext for the United States, gets on board they might even have a plan for the next round of Kyoto, how to go even further ahead on tackling climate change.
CURWOOD: Alright, let’s look at those. What’s their plan to go forward for the next round of Kyoto if the United States can get engaged?
VAITHEESWARAN: Well if the world joins on board and the US will insist China does something. So you can say in a way those are the two litmus tests. Europe is ready to cut its green house gas emissions by 30 percent below the level they were at the 1990s. Now what they say is even if the US does nothing they’re still going to cut by 20 percent over the next 15 years, by 2020.
CURWOOD: Early on it was easy for countries like the UK to say they were going to reduce emissions below 1990 levels because in fact they had already. But now-a-days the EU is a lot bigger. You’ve got states like Poland and the Czech Republic that are using a lot of very cheap coal and oil and aren’t particularly set up to meet the goals of this EU proposal. How are they going to be able to fit into this?
VAITHEESWARAN: Well, you asked absolutely the right question. The key is coal, just as it is in looking at the global climate picture. When you look at Eastern Europe, Poland for example, was very vocal at this summit as were some of the Eastern European countries that rely on dirty fuels. They said, “Look we’re poor and we need to grow. And we have lots of domestic coal and equally important we don’t want to become reliant on Russian gas imports.” And so what they got the richer, more environmentally minded Western European countries to agree to was a language that said all of Europe will embrace a target of 20 percent renewables by 2020 but we won’t dictate to individual countries what their target should be. And that allows them some wiggle room.
VAITHEESWARAN: The technologies are there, there’s no question. Denmark for example is a world leader in the wind industry. We have, Germany is now the world’s largest market for solar, thanks to massive subsidies of course. And we have, if you want to talk about a very controversial low carbon technology, France is probably the world’s leader on nuclear power, ah, which they managed to sneak into this treaty as a footnote. We might even see this treaty unravel in a way if the definition of renewables goes the way that France wants so that renewables includes nuclear power.
But all this goes to say that they have a multiplicity of technologies available. The real question is how expensive will they be? They’re going into the unknown. There’s good reason to think that the costs will not be high, that, you know, they’ll build new industries. Europe could even be the world leader in many of these fields. But you can’t prove that before the fact so it is something of a risk.
CURWOOD: Now, what about the UK’s move, this call for a 60 percent reduction by 2050, ah, has been announced as a goal but now there’s an actual tangible bill to do this. What does that bill exactly entail?
VAITHEESWARAN: I think Tony Blair is the unheralded hero of the fight against climate change. I think history will be very much kinder to him on this than it is at the moment. Ah , but this new bill is actually the most important piece of his legacy because it translates into law, assuming the bill is passed. Specific five year plans, carbon budgets that would be drafted by independent board of experts; imagine something like the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. They would say what is a reasonable target for Britain in the next five years and Britain would pass it into actual laws with teeth.
And more than five years out, they would actually pass the next three five-year plans, meaning businesses would have 15 years of legal certainty. I mean that is astonishing. That is money in the bank as far as industry is concerned. Because the thing that’s holding up investment in green energy more than anything else is uncertainty. Business can’t invest in a power plant when you don’t know for example, what Washington’s gonna do. So businesses actually hate uncertainty even more than they hate regulation. And what Tony Blair’s new bill, assuming it goes into law at some point, will give Britain a dramatic advantage and give British industries a dramatic advantage in entering a low carbon age.
CURWOOD: In some sense then, Vijay, this summit of the EU leaders and the British bill, does it mean in a broad picture?
VAITHEESWARAN: I think this really sets the stage for how we will look beyond Kyoto to a more sensible global round of international climate negotiations. Germany has the presidency of the European Union at the moment and will also be chairing the very important G-8 summit, which includes of course the United States, and the chancellor of Germany has made it very clear she’s putting a lot of political clout on the line. And especially given that her own car companies are very reluctant to do this she’s showing great political courage. And I think that actually moves the bar and makes it hard for President Bush and any future American administration to do so little on climate change.
CURWOOD: Vijay Vaitheeswaran is a correspondent in Washington for The Economist. Thank you so much sir.
VAITHEESWARAN: It’s a great pleasure.
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