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Very quietly, the big issue of climate change has disappeared from the agenda. Even the former cheerleaders in Europe have given up

When Germany’s environment minister Norbert Röttgen took place alongside his rival economics minister Philipp Rösler last week to announce the compromise on the energy efficiency directive and the reduction in solar subsidies, he talked a lot about “industrial competitiveness”, about “supply security” and “price stability”. But two words the German environment minister did not mention were “climate change.”

Since the failure of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen two years ago, Germany, and indeed the whole of Europe, has lapsed into lethargy. Hardly any country still dares to call for ambitious goals in climate policy. Europe has committed itself to emit 20 percent less greenhouse gases in 2020 compared to 1990. This target will probably be met. But any debate about what comes after that is absent. “Compared to the years 2007 to 2009, the EU’s approach to climate policy is in complete crisis,” says Severin Fischer of the Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP) and author of On the way to a common energy policy.

At the climate summit in Copenhagen, the Europeans and their ambitious goals were virtually ignored. Above all, after Copenhagen environment minister Röttgen, then newly in office, seemed disillusioned. Copenhagen had a disastrous effect on him,” says Hermann Ott, climate policy spokesman of the Green parliamentary group. “Since then he has become cautious, almost timid.” Röttgen has struggled in vain ever since to achieve even minimal progress in international climate policy.

First nuclear phase

Even Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”, has set new priorities. The nuclear disaster in Japan one year ago changed Germany’s energy policy: now phasing-out nuclear power plants has top priority. Economics minister Roessler, intends to build gas and coal power plants with a total capacity of 20 gigawatts by 2020. This way, the elimination of nuclear power and the intermittency of wind and solar energy would be compensated. However, it also means more greenhouse gases.

In any case, only one issue currently dominates the political agenda – the financial and debt crisis. Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, no longer talks about a green Europe; instead, he talks about solidarity. Energy policy is no longer driven by morality, but by economic needs. “What used to be called climate protection has been re-framed as resource efficiency”, Fischer says.

Long-term climate targets are falling by the wayside. The EU Commission still publishes occasional “Roadmaps” on how Europe could cut up to 80 percent greenhouse gases by 2050 in order to limit the increase in global warming to two degrees. But these papers have all been ditched. Poland has refused even to take notice of the “Climate Roadmap” by Commissioner Connie Hedegaard. In December, Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger presented his “Energy Roadmap”, which shows several scenarios of how CO2 emissions can be reduced in Europe – among other things, with the help of nuclear energy, renewable energy or storing CO2 underground. But energy expert Fischer doesn’t believes that EU leaders will deal seriously with these “thinking exercises”.

Like two junkies

Unlike in 2007, today Germany and France, the green movers and shakers, are missing in action. What is more, southern and eastern European countries refuse to go beyond the 20 percent emissions target. Poland uses mainly coal-fired power plants in its energy mix. According to Fischer, the obstructionists are unlikely to accept stricter targets only if there were to be a global agreement.

But this is unlikely to happen. After all, the process was kept alive with great difficulty at the UN climate summit in Durban in South Africa late last year. By 2015 there should be a post-Kyoto agreement, which will enter into force in 2020. However, immediately after the end of the summit disillusionment set in again: Canada announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. China and the United States, the largest emitters, are still dead against joining it. The Green Party’s Hermann Ott is advocating an “alliance of the ambitious”. Only countries that want to advance climate protection should take part. Because so far, the participants of the climate summits have behaved like two junkies: one wants to stop – but with a caveat: “But only if you also stop.”

There is now a vicious circle: because international pressure has dissipated, there is now a distinct lack of vigour in Europe. Hardly anyone is talking about raising the EU’s CO2 emissions targets to a 30 percent cut by 2020. That was the EU’s agreed negotiation target – if a global agreement was reached. But environmental activists have long been demanding that the EU should act unilaterally. Denmark, currently chairing the EU presidency, suggested 25 percent. But because the proposal met with little interest, it is focusing instead on energy efficiency and has referred climate targets to subsequent EU presidencies: crisis hit Ireland and the small state of Cyprus.

More stringent climate goals are also needed to fix the emissions trading scheme, which has gone off the rails. Because of the financial and debt crisis, EU countries use less energy and due to Germany’s development of renewable energy sources, significantly fewer emissions certificates are required. The price for carbon credits has dropped by halve to about eight Euros per ton. The result is that the incentive to invest in climate-friendly technologies has dropped. Coal and natural gas are becoming more attractive as a result. Emissions trading, which covers about half the CO2 emissions in Europe, has turned against its original purpose: climate change is not being slowed. In Brussels, there are plans to cut back the amount of allowances for the next trading period from 2013 to force up the price of carbon credits. But what if the economy picks up and carbon credits become virtually unaffordable?

The extension of emissions trading to the aviation sector is highly contentious too. The EU wants airlines to buy certificates for flights to Europe from 2013. The United States, Russia and China, however, are dead against this scheme. Even in Germany the climate sceptics are advancing. Most recently, the book by RWE Manager Fritz Vahrenholt The Cold Sun made headlines and was selling like hot cakes in book stores. […]

Translation Philipp Mueller

Der Freitag, 5 March 2012