Climate change: king of the road(map)

The fight against global warming is an economically beneficial one, the Roadmap says

‘Roadmaps’ are often disappointing in politics. George Bush had a roadmap for peace in the Middle East, until the election of Hamas in Gaza and other off-piste developments consigned it to failure. This week the European Commission produced a different sort of roadmap. Its aspirations are equally bold, namely the effective decarbonisation of the European economy by mid-century.

Here the road is long and straight: the EU can and should reduce its domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2020, 40% by 2030, 60% by 2040, and finally 80% by 2050. This is the scale of contribution seen as necessary by the EU and other developed countries in order to limit global warming to 2° C.

The reduction percentages are big, round numbers, and the benchmark years are far enough away to feel futuristic. Nonetheless, the Roadmap breaks the target down into bite-size digestible targets – and suddenly it feels more attainable. The pathway to the 2050 target would require an annual reduction in emissions (compared to 1990) of 1% in the decade up to 2020, 1.5% up to 2030 and 2% thereafter. This will cost an extra 1.5% of EU GDP per annum than was invested in the low carbon transition pre-crisis, and the outlays are likely to be more than recouped by savings on fossil fuel imports.

The challenge for Brussels is to show member states that this is an attainable pathway, but not a self-evident one. The Roadmap does well to dispel any complacency about GHG reductions of this magnitude occurring of their own accord, on the back of miracle technologies or super fuels. Nor does it play into the hands of those who warn against climate change action plans as a smokescreen for draconian policies impinging on lifestyle freedoms, e.g. the freedom to eat meat and to travel extensively. The Commission is adamant that radical lifestyle changes – while potentially helpful – need not occur.

What would 80% emission cuts look like?

Instead, Brussels paints a detailed and necessarily prosaic picture of what 80% plus GHG emission cuts would look like. The resulting image is of a world where the systems of the present are meticulously adapted with the pick of emerging (but largely existing) technologies. The EU would produce more energy from renewables and progressively cut oil and gas imports, feed the new energy sources into more flexible ‘smart’ grids, remove the slack from emissions trading schemes to force up the virtual carbon price, deploy carbon capture and storage where heavy industries can’t decarbonise, electrify transport where possible and run other vehicles on biofuels, whittle down heat and light inefficiencies in buildings by applying existing technologies, and cut agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions (and to a lesser extent CO2) by applying state-of-the-art precision farming techniques. In short the EU must – in a broader, sustained and more focused manner – do what it is currently doing embryonically and in fits and starts.

In 2008 the EU scored a major victory for its climate credibility when it wrote 20% emission cuts by 2020 into law. The Roadmap shows that the Commission, largely thanks to its indefatigable climate chief Connie Hedegaard, is not resting on its laurels, and is convinced that the EU can and must go further, regardless of what the international community is doing.

The Roadmap is intended to be the starting pistol for a whirlwind of GHG-cutting initiatives. Brussels wants each member state and each sector to draw up its own roadmap for energy efficiency and GHG reductions. Putting sectors in healthy competition with one another could be a fruitful avenue; all sectors of the economy want investment (not least in r&d) to spur their future competitiveness, and they know that they will rise up the pecking order for public funding if they can add a strong sectoral GHG reduction performance (at the 2020 or 2030 benchmarks) to their CVs.

Targets: arbitrary but necessary

But if the roadmap has a weakness, it is the EU’s refusal to lay down the law. The current document merely maps out what scale of emission reductions can be achieved in which sectors and by which year, and relies on the goodwill of member states to rise to the challenge. Here the Commission should not be averse to a touch of dirigisme. Should short-termism prevent member states from grasping the economic/environmental win-win it has put on the table – and a long-term win-win can often be a short term lose-lose for popularity – Brussels should not be afraid to make the roadmap’s projections into binding targets.

Targets are arbitrary, approximate and unscientific, but this is the unavoidable face of any coherent international response to climate change. Emissions trading schemes are based on the allocation of an arbitrarily capped number of emission licenses. The Kyoto emission targets were arbitrary, and so are the EU’s 2020 targets. But these appear to be working: member states had already cut emissions by 16% by 2009. Targets have helped to drag them – kicking and screaming – in the right direction. Big round numbers are necessary, even if they incur the wrath of sneering do-nothings.

When it comes to the scale of change required to fight climate change, governments will need to sponsor particular industries, tax others prohibitively, mobilise huge fluxes of public and private money to particular causes, and send strong price signals. In short the very tenets of a planned economy. With this in mind, it is no surprise that many are tipping China to move to a low carbon economy with unparalleled pace and efficiency, once Beijing decides to definitively pursue that goal. When it comes to energy security, the US also shifts into planned economy mode – how else would America have managed to shift nearly 40% of its domestic maize production into fuel ethanol over the space of a decade? European politicians may be more sensitive to the environmental cause, but their failure to see the other side of the win-win – the economic gains – may mean that the EU stalls while others move ahead.

EU leaders have already signed up to a 30% GHG reduction scenario by 2020 on the condition that other wealthy countries follow suit; in the absence of any such agreement the commitment seems rather virtual. In the meantime the EU should do what makes economic sense domestically: according to the Commission’s modelling exercise, this means decarbonising ASAP. When other countries see the EU importing substantially less of their fossil fuels, and producing new jobs of its own through green investment, the most compelling case will have been made for them to follow suit in moving full throttle towards a low carbon economy.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti