In July this year, 200,000 Germans cheered Barack Obama when he promised a rally in Berlin that under his leadership, the US would join Europe in leading the fight against climate change. The only problem is that far from Europe showing the way, it is all falling apart.
As the European Union leaders meet in Brussels today, Germany, Poland and Italy are opposing key elements of the proposed new climate change strategy. The aim was to pass a binding European law making industries pay to pollute from 2013. A ceiling on emissions would be set and any firm emitting above the level for their industry would have to buy permits to do so. The ceiling would be gradually lowered, aiming for a reduction in emissions of 20% across Europe by 2020. The money raised from the sale of permits would be invested in developing alternative sources of non-polluting energy.
Now German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put the whole project in jeopardy, demanding that 30 key sectors, including chemicals, paper, glass, steel and cement, are given free permits. And since those sectors are responsible for 90% of emissions in the scheme, it would simply fall apart. There would be no incentives for, or money to invest in, alternative energy. The reason for Germany’s stand is clear enough – the corporations operating in those sectors in Germany have told the government that, in the midst of a slump, any additional costs are unacceptable. They have threatened to move their business to countries with no emissions caps.
Even if the scheme survives, what would happen to the income from the sale of permits? Britain wants most of it invested in developing new carbon capture technology, so that Europe can go on burning coal. But the majority of the other 26 countries want the funds used to subsidise the cost of meeting the targets. The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk says that since his country produces 90% of its energy from dirty coal, the scheme would destroy its economy and push up living costs. Overall, the poorest countries of the EU, he argues, would be bearing most of the burden.
And so while the 20% target will probably be agreed, the new scheme will operate with the same sleight of hand and market chicanery that has characterised the existing European carbon trading project. French Prime Minister Sarkozy, chairing the talks, is ready to allow a high proportion of claimed reductions to be met by companies buying cheap carbon credits from outside the EU. Just one example of what this means in practice was given this week by Kevin Smith of Carbon Trade Watch. He exposed plans by the German power giant RWE, to meet targets with credits bought from a Chinese dam project that has forced thousands of people from their homes and land. And of course, there will no reduction in emissions as a result – either in Germany or China!
This week Energy and Climate Change secretary Ed Miliband called for a mass movement along the lines of Make Poverty History, aimed at making climate change history. He has forgotten, apparently, that none of the agreements made by the G8 leaders at the time of that massive campaign have been fulfilled, and poverty is worse than ever as food and energy costs soar. Government actions are entirely linked to the demands and needs of the corporations, not the needs of the poor.
It was Obama who had it right, when he told that Berlin rally that climate change demands the same kind of mobilisation that brought down the Berlin wall. Of course that was just empty rhetoric on his part – but still, the kind of mass movement of millions of determined people that toppled the hated East German regime is exactly what we need to tackle climate change.