An alternative planet or EU leadership?
Published in Parliament Magazine June 2005
Do political leaders think they are living in an alternative universe where the laws of nature are not in force, asked British scientific weekly New Scientist some weeks ago, after a ministerial meeting on climate. Before the ministerial meeting a scientific conference had taken place in Exeter, UK, on ”dangerous anthropogenic climate change”. The message of the scientists was clear: we have no time to wait. The global warming can ”wake up sleeping giants”, trigger irreversible and dangerous processes, as melting of the Greenland ice cover or halting the Golf stream, or turning forests and soils from a carbon sink to a carbon source accelerating the warming ever further. But the ministers paid very little attention to these warnings.
Many political and economic leaders indeed speak as if environment would have nothing to do with economy, except that new environmental regulations cause harmful extra cost. But if we loose the ecological basis of our societies, also our economies cease to exist.
Sometimes I wonder if the global response to climate change would be more determined, if a similar danger would be threatening us from outer space, by attacking aliens.
Extremely worrying processes are already under way. The rising sea level may contaminate many groundwater reservoirs with salt, among them many drinking water sources for big coastal cities. One of them is Buenos Aires, the host of the latest climate negotiations. The glacier of Himalaya has started to melt. In Nepal the borderline of the ice is retreating some 20 meters a year. Several big rivers of South Asia start in the Himalaya region. What will happen to these rivers and what are the consequences to farming fields feeding 2-3 billion people?
The Kyoto Protocol says nothing about the time after 2012. The government experts have recently met in Bonn to start discussions on how to continue after that. Which countries take commitments and which kind of commitments?
One of the proposals presented is that countries are grouped in several categories. Industrialised countries cut our absolute emissions, more advanced developing countries reduce their emissions per unit of GDP, poorer countries would only have non-numerical commitments.
Emissions are growing fastest in countries like China and India. Soon it is not possible any more to reduce the global emissions only with the effort of the rich countries. But the historical burden for starting the climate change lays mainly on us. Also our emissions per capita are far bigger. In 2000 the average emissions of one European were 5 times those of China and 10 times those of India.
People and leaders of developing countries can say: Each human being has the same right for the atmosphere, so the emission rights should be proportional to the population. For industrialised countries this would mean huge emission cuts very rapidly, or an obligation to buy emission rights from poorer countries. I guess anyway that in some decades we will see some version of the ”contraction and convergence” model which means approaching a system of emission rights proportional to the size of population.
For two reasons it is difficult to find a solution acceptable for all. First, the market is global, we do not want our factories to move to China because of cheaper emission rights. Secondly, the poorer countries want to develop their economies, their people have a full right to say that wealth cannot be a privilege reserved only for ”whites”.
We need to solve this difficult equation rather sooner than later, because to limit the global warming under two degrees Celsius the global emissions need to peak and turn down in the next 10-20 years, and be halved by 2050.
Kyoto Protocol would not exist without EU leadership. Leadership is also needed in the negotiations on global climate policy after 2012. If EU is not leading, there will be no one else to do it. So far I can be proud of EU. In the January resolution the Parliament translated the 2 degrees objective to emissions targets for industrialised countries. Some weeks later practically the same figures were adopted by EU environment ministers and in March by the EU Summit. So, the EU is showing the way and the Parliament has showed the way in EU.
Parliamentarians may have an important role also helping the climate negotiations. Ministers usually have a rather narrow mandate from their governments. Parliamentarians have more freedom. Therefore I think it is very important that UK is organising a climate seminar for parliamentarians from all continents in July, during the first days of the UK presidency. Several MEPs are going to take part in this seminar. I really hope that this parliamentary networking can help in creating the mutual understanding which is needed for the global deal for the next climate commitments.
I do not want that my children and possible grandchildren have to live on an ”Alternative Planet Earth” where the climate and ecosystems are very different from what they have been for 10 000 years after the last Ice Age. EU leadership is needed to prevent this.