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Newsletter 26th January 2007

- Squabbles at the EU: facing the realities of climate change policy - Meanwhile, across the Atlantic... - GM crops are increasingly popular with farmers - Politically correct weather forecasting - The green High Street

Squabbles at the EU: facing the realities of climate change policy
This week, the European Commission was due to put forward legislation on binding targets for motor manufacturers to reduce the average carbon emissions of the vehicles they produce. Hot on the heels of Europe’s occupation of the green high ground following the recent announcement of a target of a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (or even 30% if other countries join the game), the plan to reduce average emissions of CO2 from new cars to 120 grams per kilometre by 2012 was seen as a crucial first practical step along the road towards achieving these goals.
Instead, Mr Barroso put the plans on hold in the face of rifts among his fellow Commissioners. In a nutshell, the target was simply too ambitious to be achieved without considerable cost to the manufacturers and, ultimately, to car buyers. In one corner, Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner, has proposed a simple obligatory requirement for manufacturers to improve engine efficiency. In the other, Günther Verheugen, responsible for industry, suggests a broader package including the use of bio-fuels and incentives to change driver behaviour. And a year-long impact assessment would be needed before a full regulatory proposal of this sort could be published.
This highlights once more the split between the environmental fundamentalists who believe that stringent measures are vital, even at a significant cost, and those with a broader view for whom realpolitik dictates a more nuanced approach. The position of Mr Verheugen is not altogether surprising. He is charged with fostering the European industrial base, already less competitive than in the past. He also does not want to be the person who decimates the likes of Mercedes and the Volkswagen-Audi group in his home country.
Progress towards lower carbon dioxide emissions does, admittedly, seem quite slow. The average for new cars in 2005 was 163g CO2 per km, and there is clearly no chance of meeting the voluntary target of 140g by 2008. Without forcing people to buy smaller cars, or making a large-scale switch to the more expensive hybrid technology, progress is likely to remain slow. After all, the internal combustion engine has had a century or more of development and is now vastly more efficient than even a few decades ago. Without fundamental changes to car design, further significant increases in efficiency may prove difficult. Even in Japan, home of the Toyota Prius, the current target is for a modest 138g by 2015.
Politicians, quite rightly, are unwilling to force costly changes without some guarantee of effectiveness. According to the report in the Guardian on 25th January “Green campaigners said failure to announce legislation to meet the 120g target ‘would seriously undermine the Commission’s credibility’.” For once, they are absolutely right. Will the actions ever match the words?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic…
The much-derided President Bush made his penultimate State of the Union speech this week, to a Democrat-controlled Congress for the first time. He made what are seen as significant concessions on climate change policy, in particular putting forward a target to reduce petrol consumption by 20% over the next ten years while increasing the target for output of alternative fuels – bio-ethanol and the like – five fold. He has even asked Congress to allow him to set fuel efficiency standards which – given the high petrol consumption of most US cars – should be easy to achieve if the public can only be persuaded to buy the new generation of cars.
Although he paid lip service to climate change, and put forward proposals which the Democrats will feel are going in the right direction, the main motivation for the new policy is not carbon dioxide emissions reductions, but energy security. The President said that the reductions in fuel use would account for three quarters of the oil currently imported from the Middle East. Increasing the use of bio-fuels will also be hugely popular with American farmers. Already, more and more maize is being planted to supply the growing bio-ethanol industry, and prices are high despite the increased production.
The new direction of US energy policy is entirely sensible, but the political climate has forced even Bush to use the rhetoric of climate change.
GM crops are increasingly popular with farmers
It has been announced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) that over 100 million hectares were planted to GM crops worldwide in 2006, an increase of 13% over the previous year. Although the USA remains the world’s largest single grower, some 9.5 million farmers contributed to the global total, in all continents (other than Antarctica). India has shown particularly strong growth, with the area under Bt cotton now exceeding that in China. And even apparently GM-phobic Europe is part of the picture. GM maize continues to be grown in Spain (60,000 ha) and last year French farmers also grew 5,000 hectares of the same crop. Four other EU member states grow smaller quantities of GM crops.
Despite this rapid and steady growth, crop biotechnology continues to come under fire from environmentalists for a whole variety of reasons. Because of the heightened awareness created by their campaigns, many consumers are wary of the technology when questioned, although in practice few are likely to be concerned at the presence of clearly-labelled GM produce on supermarket shelves. Certainly farmers have embraced the technology enthusiastically. It would be nice to think that European consumers will have the opportunity to make up their own minds before too long.
Politically correct weather forecasting
Shades of McCarthyism on the US Weather Channel: Heidi Cullen, a climatologist who hosts their weekly “Climate Code” show, has called for meteorologists who question the IPCC view of global warming to be decertified by the American Meteorological Society. Fortunately, such open calls for censure and censorship are not common. Dave Roberts of Grist magazine had called for Nuremberg-style trials for climate sceptics but, more commonly, we hear (somewhat more subtly) that the science is “settled” and those who differ have their motives and funding questioned. None of this is healthy. Fortunately, there are plenty of individuals and organisations who are willing to voice legitimate doubts. Being treated in this way serves only to reinforce the doubts of those with open minds.
The green High Street
Marks and Spencer is planning to go carbon-neutral. Tesco is going to label products according to their carbon footprint. And these are just the leaders in the High Street: where they go, others follow. Greenery is the latest fashion and will be embraced fervently by all companies which think they can gain some competitive advantage from it. Good luck to them. In a free market, companies thrive by providing what their customers want and, at present, a significant proportion of shoppers like to feel that they are buying from companies which are kind to the environment. We just hope that they don’t expect to have any impact on the climate.