Page last updated at 07:21 GMT, Tuesday, 20 April 2010 08:21 UK

EU can afford to increase its climate ambition

Bryony Worthington
Bryony Worthington

The EU is not doing enough to deliver meaningful cuts in its emissions, says Bryony Worthington. In this week's Green Room, she says the economic recession has resulted in a sharp fall in emissions, meaning the 27-nation bloc can hit current targets with little effort and little investment in green technologies.

Patnow power plant near Konin, Poland - 3/12/2008
The number of allowances that have been issued exceed current emission levels

Emissions in the European Union fell dramatically in 2009.

Recently released figures for the 27-nation bloc's power and industry sector, which makes up half of all carbon dioxide emissions, showed a 11% decrease in just one year.

The previous year had already seen a 6% drop compared to the year before.

This dramatic drop in emissions is down to the impact of economic recession. As belts tightened, demand for energy fell and many factories saw production levels go into steep decline.

This is not good news for Europe, but there would be a silver lining for the environment if it led to the adoption of more ambitious climate targets.

The environment will not necessarily benefit unless tighter targets are introduced, because the EU climate policy is pegged to the Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

Since 2005, emission levels in the EU have been pre-determined with fixed numbers of emissions allowances being created and handed out to industry.

The problem is the caps on emissions were set before there was any sign of recession, and the number of allowances that have been issued exceed current emission levels.

As allowances can be banked indefinitely, pollution levels will be able to grow back up to the level set by the overall "cap".

The caps are meant to create incentives to reduce emissions because allowances can be traded between participants.

The price someone is willing to pay to buy a permit creates an incentive for someone else to reduce emissions in order that they can sell the spare permits.

'Lack of ambition'

Like any market, this depends on the balance between supply and demand - too much supply and the prices will be low. An unanticipated drop of 17% over two years is, understandably, keeping prices low.

EU greenhouse gas emissions pie chart

The current caps that were set back in 2006 were never very ambitious and a new round of caps for the period 2012-2020 will be decided in June of this year.

The current proposals are also far from ambitious. Caps are set to reduce emissions by only 1.74% per year, delivering a 21% reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels.

This is not in line with the contribution Europe is expected to make towards reducing global emissions, which should be in the range of 25-40% compared to 1990.

The recession has provided a very clear reason to increase these targets.

As large volumes of spare permits expected to be banked into the next phase of trading, the cost of meeting higher targets will be significantly reduced.

Many companies will hold huge surpluses of allowances, meaning that they will be insulated from having to make any emissions cuts for some time to come.

'Piece of cake'

Our recent Carbon Fat Cats' report illustrated just how much money the surpluses held by large multinational companies could be worth.

Many of the same companies and sectors that are amassing large surpluses are actively lobbying to hold targets where they are.

But decision makers need to look at the evidence and resist the arguments of those who are trying to protect the status quo.

Mittal's steelworks in Dabrowa Gornicza, southern Poland
Many countries are looking to Europe to show how it is possible to achieve growth without increasing emissions

The recession, coupled with the trading scheme, gives the EU an excellent opportunity to increase its ambition without unduly damaging its competitiveness.

This would help to ensure that there were strong incentives for our growth out of recession to be green, and would help to restore trust in international negotiations.

The outgoing head of the UN's climate body, Yvo de Boer, recently stated that it would be a "piece of cake" for Europe to meet its current targets; and he is not wrong.

Huge cuts in emissions were made in the 1990's as accession countries' economies collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The "dash for gas" by energy providers in the 1990s saw the sector move away from coal, which is the most carbon intensive form of electricity generation. This also helped deliver big savings.

And in this decade, more huge cuts are being delivered that have nothing to do with dedicated climate policies.

What little there is left to deliver in the next decade could simply be met by using the generous "offsetting" provisions available to companies and countries.

This allows targets to be met through buying emissions reductions achieved in developing countries.

European model

Many countries are looking to Europe to show how it is possible to achieve growth without increasing emissions.

Only when they see that this is possible will they be inclined to adopt absolute reduction targets of their own.

The argument that we need to keep our targets where they are in order to allow us to grow out of recession simply serves to strengthen developing countries' concerns that we are not serious about being able to decouple emissions from economic growth.

When decision makers meet in June to decide the emissions targets for the EU in the next decade, the only logical thing to do is to increase them.

Then the silver lining of these recent falls in emissions will be genuine.

Investors in Europe will have a clear signal that growth in the EU will be through green investment; and our economy will be all the stronger for it, both in the short and the long term.

Bryony Worthington is a founding director of Sandbag, an environmental NGO that focuses on emissions trading

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Bryony Worthington? Does the EU need to set more ambitious emissions targets? Is the European Emissions Trading Scheme failing to make heavy energy users cut their pollution levels? Or doesn't it matter what Europe does, because climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution?

Looking at some of the comments here it seems the small but highly vociferous band of climate change deniers are enjoying a last ditch renaissance of late. While I understand their passion, all I say to those people is that there is no way on Earth you can expect to pump 1 Trillion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without something unpleasant happening to the world. And we're on track to hit that target very soon. Speaking as a Control Engineer don't expect a smooth rise in temperatures - instead expect sudden jumps as we hit new stable states for the planet. Might sound benign, but these will devastate agriculture and thus us.
Andrew Smith, Milton Keynes, UK

Hello Bryony. Your opinion that the CAN do more and that you believe EU cap-and-trade is flawed is clear. But I like to correct you in 3 points: - Bloomberg/New Energy Finance reports in Febr. 2009 showed that half of the EU CO2 reductions in the first half of 2008 was due to cap-and-trade. Remember tye prices were high than, and will be again - the fact that allowances can be banked is not bad for the environment, cause agreed emission levels are met: the target levels in the future (2020) can still be increased of course - the surplus allowances that are banked to the future do NOT endanger the 25-40% target for 2020, because the IPCC scenatrio's calculate the Kyoto budget for 2008-2012 as EMITTED in 2020,. That has been delayedm so is even BETTER for meeting the target.cheers
Jos Cozijnsen, Utrecht, The Netherlands

How sad. Really, it's just pathetic how the beeb's environment desk is publishing more and more hysterical articles promoting the climate change agenda. The piece on a 40 yr old "island" in a river delta with a max elevation below the annual tidal variance disappearing - Shocking! Another on a pint "embedding" 74 litres of water - Alarming! And now this on the "need" for higher targets for capping emissions - Lord save us! The reality is we have few hydrocarbon resources left in Europe, so we are at a comparative disadvantage in the modern global economy. Carbon trading helps a little if we do it on our own, but relevels the playing field if we can get the rest of the world to buy in. So I'm all for it. And if Bryony makes a little extra on the side, well she's working for it ain't she. But the bin Eco angle - it was never going to pan out. Our collective understanding of the input variables for weather is childlike; which is why the farmer's almanac gives the MET a run for !it's money. And climate is far, far more complicated than weather. The AGW king has no clothes and the public is wising up. Stop now before you lose their trust forever, because heaven knows there are better uses for long chains and our economy needs the leverage.
Tom, Cheltenam, Glos

People,people, if you are really going to go into the whole 'global warming is not man-made' then rely on PEER REVIEWED SCIENTIFIC PAPERS for your facts. All of you are recycling opinions. As a scientist in the field, I can assure you that man-made emissions are having a very real effect on the globe. If you refuse to believe me, well - that's just confirmation bias in action. As to the joke notion that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas.... It absorbs IR wavelengths emitted from the vegetation on earth as light and UV are incident on them. Of course it is a greenhouse gas. To claim that concentrations go up AFTER a warming event is pure fantasy. Hold these views if you must, although you are stepping on the future (which is where your children will live), but please don't act as if you understand science. Clearly, if you did you would have been using proven, peer-reviewed statistically significant data. Not recycling opinions from websites and newspapers as the people that write these carry agenda. It is the job of the scientist NOT to carry agenda. Trust scientists, not journalists.
Roman, UK

The recent economic lull in production and energy use is the last chance the world will see to reverse direction. It's a chance to ratchet down energy use and retool for the switch to renewable and sustainable business practices. More power to the EU if you choose to lead in reducing emissions. Hopefully a worldwide plan for unified action which reflects the true cost of carbon and greenhouse gasses will be adopted this year.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

I agree with Bryony to an extent. If we are to use emission trading as a way of bringing down CO2 emissions then targets do need to be much more ambitious. I don't think the market is the best place to deal with climate change. The greed of the institutions and individuals who drive our financial markets has meant that we can't even keep basic things like banking from collapsing. How long will it be before we see people short-selling the carbon credit to make a quick buck? Funny how the climate deniers are always so quick to jump on these comment sections. This is my first time and it saddens me to see so many people dedicated to making future generations, (including my children if i one day am happy to have them) lives potentially unimaginably difficult. Your obviously massive risk takers (Questions: do you smoke? would you bet your child's life, 50:50 for $1,000,000,000?), or your certainty is verging on the insane. If only it was only you who was jumping into the raging river for your pot of gold, but your dragging us all down with you.
Andrew Taylor, Oxford

When are we going to stop listening to whining leftists who keep trying to lie and scaremonger us into believing that a natural phenomenon (ie climate change) has somehow become manmade. Climate change is a natural phenomenon and is not man made, left wingers should stop lying and stop saying it is. All they want is massive new taxes which are to be divided amongst these very same scaremonger types and their organizations. And by the way, CO2 is like oxygen to plants and trees. Messing with the environment might have unexpected and unintended consequences, anyone ever thought of that? By the way, does the author of this article get a substantial pay check from her carbon trading company, and in other words is personally interested in perpetuating this disgusting hoax? If so, Al Gore wouldn't be the only one to stand to personally gain from this hoax. The climate controls us, not the other way around.
Marcel, Rotterdam, Netherlands

One thing not mentioned in the article is that the emissions fell without using any new expensive technology. If new caps are set lower, then any company wanting to grow will have to invest in new technology, instead of increasing the use of old technology.
Adam Piwocki, Warsaw, Poland

Bryony seems correct that green investment is a 'must' to decouple economic growth with emission. Why not development of new forests does come under the periphery of economic growth? Why not the efforts of the group which checks human numbers comes under category of the economy? Why every time for gaining economy growth we have to destroy the environment and forest? Why do we have infinite rights without any duties for preserving natural wealth? Functionally rights don't have any meaning unless we do not fix certain duties. What is competition? What is hurry? We should not fool ourselves with the names like 'green', 'sustainable development' and alike. I have seen number of funny names in my own country. If you travel, you get a small plastic water bottle with name 'natural spring'. How plastic is going to help the nature? Some of the funny names of the townships created after cutting the forests and constantly occupying the valuable lands in the urban outskirts are 'Ocean park' 'Green City' 'Eco City' and alike. One car company has launched a model with name 'Eco'. We need bold initiatives to redefine the economy and energy. We can not move like that, without putting check on human numbers. Recently the prime minister of my country has written letters to the chief ministers of the three states for protecting tigers.India is a country where every year 15 to 18 million people are being added in its existing population of 1.2 billion. Without controlling human population how tigers would be saved in my country. I do not know.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

with more than 50% of the human inhabitants on earth now living in the urban environment, we need to consider a few adjustments to our consumption. mainly transport and energy. there has to be more efficient methods for these issues. community gardening on the grander scale. large vertical green houses with enough c02 gobbling plants to reduce a cities smog efficiently. i'm not saying "green tea and harmony" is the way but since the majority of people don't consider where their big mac is coming from, why not have the lettuce and onions growing on the 4th floor next to the coffee trees for their morning cuppa. we've all seen the economic benefits of aquaculture so let's take it the step further. wind power and recycled waste water can produce enough energy to spin the turbines to fuel the garden which in turn reduces the transportation emissions. urban-agriculture and lower industry emission could create the right balance our environment needs for the generations to come.
Jordan Jacquard, halifax, canada

Propaganda, it is all about money. See BBC film "Global Warming Swindle".
Zbigniew, Lublin, Poland

the way everyone is going on about c02 you would think it was a poison. all life would cease to exist without it and plants love it. this so called manmade global warming is the biggest lie ever sold. the planets climate has being changing for millions of years and more, let the earth's climate change in peace and stop moaning and crying like little children when it does decide to change a little for gods sake it's all a natural process.
hank, ireland

Jeremy Hunt: your scientific ignorance is horrifying. Is it also deliberate? "Carbon Dioxide is a gas that is REQUIRED for life. Without it Mammals die as it triggers breathing. It also is not and never has been a "Green house gas". Carbon Dioxide increases AFTER temperature rises..." The respiratory urge is triggered by metabolically-generated CO2 in an animal's bloodstream - not by CO2 in the air it inhales. Breathing in air containing 1% or more CO2 is actually toxic to humans. And CO2 IS a greenhouse gas, because it absorbs infrared radiation from the ground which would otherwise pass out into space - thereby warming the atmosphere. Bryony Worthington is quite right. The recession may have been a disaster in many ways - including setting back a number of green technology startups. Yet if it also interrupted the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the international community can look on that as an opportunity to arrest them permanently. Getting European economies back on their feet by stimulating clean industry and power generation will be an example to the World.
Nicholas Wordsworth, Leeming, UK

To make a long story short: the industry is down and emissions follow. If one freezes emissions at the current level, industry trying to follow the global growth and reopen will hit the wall and be handicapped. No wonder the world is looking at Europe waiting for the new emissions targets.
Piotr Borycki, Warsaw, Poland

Somebody with an interest in Carbon trading did this article!!! The BBC is supposed to be impartial and yet we see more "propaganda" from a "interested" party. Let's get one thing straight. Carbon Dioxide is a gas that is "REQUIRED" for life. Without it Mammals die as it triggers breathing. It also is not and never has been a "Green house gas". Carbon Dioxide increases AFTER temperature rises, it does not cause them.
Jeremy Hunt, Leeds, UK

i despair at this sort of article. the assumption that growth is sustainable, as long as it is 'green' and appeases the AGW gods is completely false. climate change is only one serious consequence of growth of the human project (im far from a denier). we are ignoring the main issue here with the obsession with climate. not only is 'sustainable growth' an oxymoron, the major problem is our cities and culture depend wholly on the already complete take over of the earths landmass for industrial agriculture, which is entirely dependent on oil energy that cannot be replaced by any other form of energy. this is the real elephant in the room an ignored by nearly everyone. all systems that grow without controls will ultimately collapse when they reach the limits of nature. those limits have long been surpassed. grab your seats and watch the show.
andy765gtr, coventry

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