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  • EU and the environment: growing up is hard to do

    Opinion by Jos Dings - T&E Director Pick up a newspaper these days and it looks as if the EU is about to start a political world war.

    The Canadian government has launched a dirty public-relations war against the fuel-quality directive because it rightly says that the production of oil from tar sands is particularly carbon-intensive. Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia are readying their lobbying weaponry against any move by the European Commission to tackle the issue of land-use change indirectly caused by production of biofuel – in short, deforestation caused by crop cultivation. As for the EU’s inclusion of the aviation industry in the EU’s emissions-trading system, that was enough to re-launch the Cold War – only this time Russia, China and the US are fighting on the same side, against Europe.

    There are some common themes here. Each policy reflects an attempt to do something genuinely constructive, in other words to start counting the carbon emissions from various aspects of transport, and to try and reduce them. All three push the market towards cleaner technologies and processes, without imposing any arbitrary bans, and without taxes. The response from third countries reflects that they haven’t been able to come up with something better; they just say the EU should ‘do nothing’, which is clearly not an option. In response to the recent ‘coalition of the unwilling’ meeting on the EU-ETS and aviation in Moscow, the EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard summed up the point rather succinctly on Twitter: ‘What’s your concrete, constructive alternative?’

    Another common thread is that the problems have all come about at the implementation stage. These laws were all passed three years ago, but the EU cannot just be content with laws being adopted that cut carbon on paper. Implementation is what counts.

    There is a tendency, particularly in the media, to see these battles as the EU taking things too far. But they miss an important point. These EU initiatives are creating leverage. After a decade and a half of sitting on its hands, Icao has announced it will announce policy measures for international aviation by the end of this year. The IMO (Icao’s de facto sister organisation for shipping) is also trying to look busy as the threat of EU action hangs over its head. Canada is certainly taking the EU more seriously than two years ago, and it has to weigh up an important future trade deal at the same time as protesting for its dirty oil to be let off the hook. So the EU is more powerful than it often thinks it is and should not be embarrassed about setting green standards for everyone who wants to do business with the bloc.

    In the past European green standards such as pollution limits for new cars have been copied and pasted around the world. China’s biggest cities are about to adopt Euro-5 to cut fine particle pollution from cars; just one example. But these new laws mark a new, less cuddly phase as environmental policy grows up and starts having an impact on a global level. Given that the most daunting environmental challenges – climate change, biodiversity, resource use – are truly of a global nature, this phase is unavoidable. It’s not going to be easy. But given the urgency of the issues and the weakness of our global institutions, someone has to show the way forward, and make it clear that there is no way back.