The next victim of Europe’s economic crisis is becoming the global effort to restrain fossil fuel emissions and curb pollution now at record levels.
The European Union, which led the fight by establishing the biggest market for carbon emissions, is letting the matter slip as a priority. EU leaders didn’t discuss climate strategy at their four summits this year, while France, Germany, Spain and Britain are focused on paring the region’s 10.5 percent unemployment rate and 10.8 trillion euros ($13.9 trillion) in debt. The matter didn’t emerge during U.S. presidential debates.
“What scares me is that climate policy is sliding off the international policy agenda,” International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih Birol said in an interview in advance of the United Nation’s annual round of talks on the issue that start in three days in Doha, the capital of the Qatar.
The inaction contrasts with widening concern among scientists that the time to react is passing. Sea ice in the Arctic shrank to its lowest on record this summer as drought devastated corn crops in the U.S. Midwest and superstorm Sandy pummeled the East coast after becoming the largest ever tropical system in the Atlantic. The World Meteorological Organization says greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere touched a high in 2011, and the UN says that will make the weather more volatile.
For now, the economy remains the focus of policymakers across Europe, leaving the biggest polluters in the U.S. and China with little impetus to break their deadlock over how to act. The 27-nation EU expects the economy to shrink 0.3 percent this year, the second recession in four years.
While the union is working on energy-efficiency measures and curbs for emissions for autos and industry, its leaders express frustration that other nations aren’t following their example with more aggressive action.
“Nothing is easy because of the crisis,” EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in an interview. “The big thing that people globally need to understand is that we don’t only have an economic crisis. We also have a social and job crisis, and we still have a climate and environment crisis. We can through climate policies also help create some jobs we need so badly.”
The EU will exceed its goal to slash emissions 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, she said. Even so, there’s less zeal in EU member nations to go further on environmental goals.
The bloc’s five biggest economies have lowered support for renewables in the past two years. Germany, which leads the EU in developing clean energy, is reducing subsidies for renewables and burning more coal. Spain, saddled with a budget deficit more than twice the region’s limit, shut off aid to new renewable projects in January. Italy, the U.K. and France have all cut solar subsidies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who started her career in government as environment minister from 1994 to 1998, hasn’t made a speech focusing on climate change since July 16. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government has been squabbling over carbon cuts and incentives for wind power. Concern is spreading that the existing efforts may hurt growth across Europe.
“We too often hear that the EU is the party that holds the key to all kind of agreements,” Tomasz Chruszczow, a Polish diplomat who led the EU at the UN talks last year, said Nov. 15 in Brussels. “But we cannot be held liable for the inaction of others. We can’t accept the excuses of the biggest economies of the world that they can’t do something before the EU.”
Poland, which relies on coal for 90 percent of its power, says it will oppose stricter EU climate policies without similar moves abroad. It blocked efforts to boost the carbon price in the EU and attempts to deepen the emissions cuts by 2020.
“The top three factors that have held the EU back in terms of politics are Poland, Poland and Poland,” Samantha Smith, who heads the environmental group WWF’s global climate and energy program, said in an interview. “The financial crisis certainly is affecting how EU political leaders see their mandate.”
The EU has long been at the front of global efforts on the environment. As well as establishing a carbon market, it spearheaded efforts at UN talks in South Africa last year that agreed to devise a new global treaty. The EU also is on track to meet commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
“The Europeans must lead on climate protection to put pressure on others and ensure that the global debate on climate protection continues,” German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier told reporters in Berlin today. “That will only be possible if the Europeans at home ensure that everyone sees that we’re taking climate protection seriously and we’re willing to commit ourselves to ambitious targets.”
Leaders of the EU haven’t discussed climate strategy this year. They mentioned climate change in the concluding statement of just one of their three regular scheduled summits this year. That’s down from two out of five times in 2011. In 2009 and 2010, climate came up at all nine meetings. The lull leaves the U.S., China and India, the three biggest emitters, with little pressure for action.
Envoys from more than 190 nations gathering this weekend in Qatar are working on measures intended at keeping the rise in the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. They want to agree on a schedule for talks on a new treaty in 2015 that would come into force in 2020. The meeting is scheduled to finish on Dec. 7.
“The economic crisis, which is unparalleled in modern times, has caused everyone to stop and re-evaluate everything that the government is doing,” U.K. Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said in an interview. “Taking action in most cases isn’t without cost,” though the costs of climate change may outweigh the price of fighting it, he said.
Last year, the latest for which full data is available, was the ninth warmest on record at about 0.51 degree Celsius above the baseline for the middle of the 20th century, which is about 14 degrees, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Nine of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since 2000.
“We are now facing a timing challenge where we have to wait until 2020 for all countries to adopt legally binding emission-reduction targets,” Gambian envoy Pa Ousman Jarju, who speaks for the UN’s 48-nation Least Developed Countries group, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The risk with this situation is that no one steps forward to reduce emissions because they are simply waiting for others to join.”
By 2017, it may be impossible to avoid warming greater than the 2-degree target, the International Energy Agency says. UN scientists in 2007 calculated that developed nations must cut emissions 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to stay on track.
“We are not seeing that from any quarter,” Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, the lead climate envoy for Brazil, told reporters on Nov. 14. “Science is telling us with increased certainty the dangers of inaction.”
The EU is promising a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions and has indicated it would raise the target to 30 percent if others followed.
The comparable actions the EU seeks from other major economies haven’t materialized. Japan, Canada, Russia and New Zealand have all backed away from taking on new commitments under Kyoto, leaving the EU, Australia and a few other European nations to take the treaty into its second phase of cuts.
China and India, the first- and third-biggest emitters, aren’t given targets under the current climate treaty because they’re developing nations. Along with Brazil and South Africa, they released a statement this week in Beijing calling for more action from the industrialized world.
The U.S., the second-biggest emitter, never ratified the last climate treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. It has pledged to cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. That’s equivalent to a 3 percent reduction from 1990.
“We haven’t done as much as we need to,” to fight climate change, President Barack Obama told reporters Nov. 14 in Washington. “The American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth.”
As well as agreeing to the new commitments under Kyoto, envoys in Doha plan to fix a timetable for talks leading to a deal in 2015. There’s pressure from poorer nations on the richer ones to spell out how they intend to fill the Green Climate Fund set up last year. That fund will channel a portion of the $100 billion in annual climate change aid developed nations have pledged to mobilize by 2020.
Countries also need to “urgently speed up” the pace of their emissions cuts, said Christiana Figueres, the diplomat leading the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organizes the discussions.
The World Bank this week said that 4 degrees of warming by 2100, which is possible without a major action, would cause “cataclysmic changes.” That may include a 1-meter (three-foot) rise in sea levels, depleted crop yields and dissolving coral reefs.
“The later we decide to tackle climate change, the more costly it will be,” said Birol of the IEA, which is based in Paris. “The more costly it is, the more difficult it will be to have an agreement. We are going to have a vicious circle.”