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Newsletter 27th April 2007

- Chinese response to climate change - Free market approach to energy effiency - GM approvals by default in the EU - St George's mushroom - Greening the European Parliament?

Chinese response to climate change

If we accept that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are a key driver of climate change, then it is clear that any mitigation response must have the commitment of all major economies if it is to reduce emissions significantly and have any hope of slowing the warming trend. The Kyoto protocol is acknowledged to be more in the nature of a demonstration project than a truly effective policy instrument. Despite the fact that this demonstration has been less than convincing,  many people are now pinning their hopes on introducing a more comprehensive and ambitious post-2012 emissions regime. The EU has committed to a unilateral 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 –  upped to 30% if the rest of the world joins in – but what are the real prospects of other major economies signing up?

The focus of many commentators over the past years and months has been on America’s intentions, but in most ways the most important country is China. Despite its totalitarian politics, free market economics hold sway, and growth in recent years has been consistently and breathtakingly fast. One result is that China is about to overtake the USA as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, a milestone which was considered still to be a number of years away even quite recently. What policies China introduces are now absolutely crucial to any effective global action. But for those who believe that cutting back carbon dioxide emissions is vital, the signs do not look good.

On one hand, China has taken the first steps along the road of cooperation in a global deal. On the other hand, there seems to be no sign that the country’s leaders are yet prepared to make any commitments or even set targets other than a goal of halving emissions of greenhouse gases per unit of GDP by 2020 (such reductions in energy intensity are, in any case, likely to be a natural consequence of growth and increasing efficiency). However, if the Chinese economy continues to grow at its present rate, GDP will be more than three times the current level by 2020, so GHG emissions would still be 50% higher than today even if the goal is achieved.

In the meantime, construction of (mainly coal-fired) power stations continues at a rapid rate. According to the International Energy Agency, China will install 800 GW of new generating capacity in the next eight years, which is equivalent to the entire current installed capacity of the EU. Each new power station will have a lifetime of several decades, and it is inconceivable that any country would willingly decommission power generation capacity without real compensation or incentives.

Such incentives can, realistically, only come from financial transfers from the West. But do we really have the political will to fund China’s (and India’s, Brazil’s, Indonesia’s…) “clean” development at the expense of our own economies? If the apocalyptic visions of the IPCC are indeed valid, then we may think this is a price worth paying for the benefits we will receive. Or will realpolitik win over idealism? In spite of the green rhetoric, most politicians seem to recognise that the general public is not prepared to sanction such radical policies.

Free market approaches to energy efficiency

There have been reports this week of initiatives by a number of high profile companies to make their businesses greener. Sainsbury’s are banning single-use plastic bag. Marks and Spencer are planning to recommend lower washing temperatures for many of their clothes. Tesco are reducing the price of energy efficient light bulbs.

Some of these ideas are perfectly sensible: washing clothes at lower temperatures must surely be a good idea if the results are as good. Others may be a little less easy to justify: plastic bags may be ubiquitous and an easy target, but would a proper Life Cycle Analysis really show them to be as bad as they are represented? However, the point is that good businesses have found ways to project a socially-responsible image (and so improve their competitiveness) at little or no cost to themselves. In some cases, their customers will benefit directly by themselves saving energy (washing, light bulbs). In others, they have the choice of feeling virtuous or not (shop at Sainsbury’s if you disapprove of plastic bags). However, the point it demonstrates is that the market economy can produce simple, effective solutions much more efficiently than a top-down, central planning approach.

GM approvals by default in the EU

After a number of years of limbo, we now have a functioning approvals system for GM crops in Europe. Well, sort of… It is true that a few dossiers are finally being approved, and that the majority of member states are now following the rules. Even in France, famous for the exploits of Jose Bové, the Confederation Paysanne and field trashing,  significant volumes of Bt maize are now being grown as farmers make their own rational choices.

But in practice, regulatory decisions are made by default according to the recommendations of the expert committees on environmental and food safety. The EU is split between those states which vote on the merits of a dossier (which generally means following the scientific advice) and those which automatically vote no for anything involving GM (which group, disappointingly, includes a number of recent accession countries). The result is that there is never a qualified majority result in Council votes either in favour or against approvals. The decision then reverts to the Commission, which follows the scientific advice and grants approval.

This position is not healthy. It cast doubts on the proper functioning of the EU and the willingness of politicians to take proper account of legitimate scientific advice. The fact that positive decisions are being made is little comfort.

St George’s mushroom

The St George’s mushroom is so named because in days long gone it could be harvested on the saint’s day, 23rd April. However, a few decades ago, the average fruiting time for this fungus was mid-May. More recently, this has moved forward to 22nd or 23rd April, making the name apt once more. Although reported as a sign of current climate change, the other implication is, of course, that the climate in this country was indeed warmer in centuries gone by. This is further indirect evidence of the Medieval Warm Period (or Medieval Climate Optimum), which was certainly not brought about by profligate use of fossil fuel by industry.

Greening the European Parliament?

One of the more farcical aspects of the European Union is the duplication of facilities for the European Parliament. Not content with having an expensive shiny new building in Brussels, the Parliament has a second home in Strasbourg. Having two sites is bad enough, but the Strasbourg building is used only once a month for plenary sessions, for which all staff and all necessary paper files (15 lorry-loads) are physically transferred each time.

However, the ascendancy of green politics could be the key to ending this ridiculous state of affairs (ridiculous to all except the good burghers of Strasbourg, of course, who are doubtless more than happy with the present arrangements). There have been reports this week of the carbon footprint of the Strasbourg caravan, calculated to produce more than 20,000 extra tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Regular readers will know that we have yet to be convinced of the desirability of reducing carbon emissions per se, but if this is the argument which will force the European Parliament into a single home – as for all national parliaments – then this could be a good case of the end justifying the means.