Carbon masochism: World pays lip service to climate change, while Europe pays the price

Despite a flurry of grand initiatives, Doha 2012 has yielded few specifics – with Europe the only major carbon emitter prepared to set clear emissions targets. Its zeal is likely to hamper growth, while doing little to lower worldwide CO2 levels.

­The two-week UN climate change conference in the oil-funded opulence of Qatar had to be extended by a day to produce an agreement that is only as much in name. The lasting image of the summit was chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah bringing down his gavel and declaring “It is so decided!” as delegates in the auditorium continued to bicker.

The biggest formal triumph proclaimed at the conclusion was the extension of the Kyoto agreement for another eight years beyond 2012.

The 1997 pact is the only binding treaty that forces countries to cut carbon dioxide emissions at the risk of economic penalties (though if they do not meet their targets, they can always just withdraw, like Canada). It is also grotesquely inadequate – setting big targets for developed countries and none for the developing world, exactly where emissions are growing fastest of all. For example, since the 1990 benchmark, Europe has cut its emissions by 5% while China’s have more than quadrupled, making it’s the world’s biggest emitter. Net result so far, a 58 per cent worldwide rise in emissions.

Meanwhile, the UN’s own climate experts say that to combat inexorable and catastrophic global warming, cuts of 80 per cent to the base levels are necessary. Taking into account the rises that have already happened, the cuts actually need to be 87 per cent from the current levels.

Simply put, this is not going to happen.

Even those countries that initially supported the treaty – Russia, Japan – have bailed from it, whether over ideology, lack of faith over its effectiveness, or the inability to profitably sell unused carbon allocations under the incoming extension. The remaining signatories, primarily in Europe (Australia has also joined, but has a much softer set of targets) account for only 15 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions.

Greenpeace called the outcome a “failure,” Friends of the Earth – a “sham,” and the Union of Concerned Scientists said the deal was a victory for the coal and oil industries.

Indeed, the US, BRICS and other expanding economies will continue to ignore the treaty, firing up new – often coal-powered – power stations on a weekly basis.

Faced with a situation where it can’t seriously reduce emissions, even if it shuts down every factory and turns out all the lights, Europe is left with the moral high ground. But that doesn’t come for free.

With ever more dangerous carbon levies and subsidies to ambitious but unviable clean energy schemes, European businesses, already burdened with inflexible labor laws and high wages, will lose even more competitiveness.

And it’s not like Europe can afford saintliness. While the world economy will grow by three per cent this year, and the US by two, Europe will record no growth at all. In fact, at the current rate some already uncompetitive European economies such as Greece and Spain will be able to achieve the necessary emissions reductions through sheer economic shrinkage, without the need for any fancy renewables.

But at least Europe will be pulling its weight – or so it seems. Although its impact is almost impossible to calculate precisely, “carbon leakage” has already been identified as a major problem arising from the not-quite-global Kyoto treaty.

In a globalized economy and faced with stiff emission-curbing legislation, companies are simply relocating from Europe to other non-signatory countries. Even more so, when deciding where to build new plants. The outcome of this is simply that the CO2-emitting industry is simply shifting to different locations, with no net decrease. In fact, ironically, the new manufacturing plant – located, say, somewhere in China – is likely to be more polluting than one that was shut down for ecological reasons back in Europe. But as Europeans watch their Japanese-made TVs, read through environmentalist blogs on their Chinese-assembled iPhones, and eat their South American-imported fruit, they can rest easy in the thought that they, personally, live in a “green” country.

European politicians believe that they are “leading the way” on climate change – hoping the others will catch up to their messianic fervor, and standing to profit from its green innovations. But whether it is due to the economic turmoil of the past few years, or the subtly but inexorably rising amount of skepticism about climate modeling science, the world has stopped following.

A continent that is used to leading the world, Europe has to understand that it is now – in terms of land, population and influence – only a small part of it. Instead of arrogance, it needs adaptability. Otherwise, it risks not becoming the green paradise it fancies itself as, but an impoverished, de-industrialized land, dependent on neighbors for everything material, and in return offering them nothing but its superior wisdom.

­Igor Ogorodnev, RT

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