The EU’s Kyoto shell game

Failure to meet emission-cut targets is marketed as a success


With each passing year, the impending crisis of global warming looms closer and closer. Time is running out for preventive action to be taken. The European Union’s “20-20-20″ mantra aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent relative to their level in 1990 and to increase the share of renewable resources to 20 percent by the year 2020. Is it really viable?

The EU seemingly has a long-term record of championing action to prevent climate change. In 1994, the EU committed itself to the greenhouse gas reductions set forth by the Kyoto Protocol and ratified it in 2002. The EU-15 promised an 8 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010.

Every industrial nation that has not ratified the Kyoto protocol, first and foremost the United States, has been criticized for being “environmentally irresponsible.”

But in the 15-year period between 1990 and 2005, the EU-15 managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 2 percent, and it is now obvious that the EU-15 will not fulfill its Kyoto commitment. Only five of the EU-15 countries are on track to meet their targets. The EU-15 could, under the best of circumstances, reduce its emissions by 4.6 percent by 2010.

The failure of the EU-15 to meet its Kyoto target does not come as a big surprise. However, what is surprising is that the EU-15 have managed to market their failure as a success.

When the 20-20-20 commitment was adopted in March 2007, the decision was much trumpeted and sold to the public as another success for EU climate change policy. Then EU Council President Angela Merkel called it “a breakthrough,” and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso proclaimed it “the most ambitious package ever.”

However, when it came to sharing the burden of emissions reduction among EU member states, the European Commission proposed in January 2008 to change the base year from 1990 to 2005. This approach — endorsed as a basis for negotiation in the recent EU Council — amounted to allowing some member states not to fulfill their supposedly binding Kyoto burden-sharing targets.

The reason was simple: The EU-12 — the new members admitted in 2004 — have been outperforming the EU-15. The new members have not agreed to a collective Kyoto goal, but as a group they are projected to reduce emissions relative to 1990 by around 20 percent by 2010.

Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have, for example, managed to more than halve their 1990 emissions by 2005. This can partly be attributed to the collapse of heavily polluting Soviet-style industry. But, in changing the base year for absolute emission levels from 1990 to 2005, the commission also seems to be trying to cover up the EU-15’s failure while pushing excessively large reduction targets onto the EU member states that are already the most environmentally efficient.

By sacrificing the needs of growing economies that have met their goals to those of more established markets, the commission is rewarding inefficiency and reducing the effectiveness of the European Union’s climate change policy and its common market. With the EU-15 comprising around 80 percent of all EU greenhouse gas emissions, these countries should be the ones taking a leading role in EU climate change policy. It is past time that they step up their efforts.

Valdis Dombrovskis is a member of the European Parliament from Latvia. © 2008 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)