Call for more action

OUR PLANET 9.6 - Climate and Action

Call for more action


calls for determined action to tackle climate change
and outlines what Europe is doing


As early as 1990, after the adoption of the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the European Union (EU) committed itself to stabilize its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the 1990 level by the year 2000. This was seen as a first step and we are on track to reach that target. The decision was based on the precautionary principle and took account of scientific knowledge which indicated the severe risk of irreversible climate change.

Why were the Europeans ready for this first step? We had learned from the painful experience of acidification, dying forests, the pollution of our lakes, coastal zones and rivers. The effects of environmental pollution were visible and recognizable to people who saw that preventing damage was better than trying to rectify it. There was also increasing recognition that our consumption patterns could eventually affect our planet as a whole. So Europeans accepted that the North had to take the first step in reversing emission trends.

Time has passed since 1990 but there has not been enough action. While the United Nations Convention on Climate Change provides the framework on which a global climate protection regime can be built, industrialized countries failed to commit themselves in it to binding targets. Instead they simply promised to aim for stabilization by the year 2000. It seems that most will fail even to get close to that goal.

Meanwhile, in its Second Assessment Report, the IPCC reiterated its general findings of 1990 and concluded that the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on the global climate. For me this means that we are now beyond the stage of precautionary measures. Taking into consideration the inertia of global systems we are now faced with rectifying damage. This is why the EU and its Member States wanted to have strong, legally binding commitments by industrialized countries in the Kyoto Protocol which would start to reverse longer-term emission trends.

Based on analysis by the European Commission, the EU came to the conclusion that a 15 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions was technically and economically feasible if other industrialized countries undertook comparable efforts. We believe that in order to achieve a sustainable reversal of emission trends, the emphasis needs to be on domestic action. Therefore we attached great importance to common and coordinated policies and measures throughout the industrialized world. In our view this would facilitate the achievement of the common task, would reduce distortions of competition and be an incentive for technological change.

Moving forward

Our industrialized partners would not agree to a target close to our proposal. But they agreed to legally binding commitments which in itself is a major achievement. Moreover, those commitments represent a big step forward even if some countries were less ambitious than others. That is why Europeans want to have the Kyoto Protocol signed, ratified and implemented as soon as possible.

The European Commission is determined to play its full part in helping Europe to put the necessary policies and measures in place. In June 1998 it adopted a Communication which sets out the framework for a strategy to achieve the commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. On the basis of more detailed information from the Member States, we will flesh out that strategy to identify environmentally effective and cost-effective options for the EU.

In addition to proposing legislation for EU measures, the Commission will ensure a coherent approach to the use of the three flexible mechanisms which have implications for our internal market. We will monitor pro-actively the progress of individual Member States in meeting their own targets and in contributing to the achievement of the EU target. We will propose corrective action where necessary.

Since 1990 we have put several proposals on the table which can contribute to combating climate change and I hope that now that the EU and all the Member States have signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Council and the Parliament will speed up action on those proposals that remain outstanding. I am delighted that at their June Summit in Cardiff, Europe's leaders recognized the need to do more to integrate the environmental dimension in other policies and highlighted climate change and the energy, transport and agriculture sectors as first priorities for action.

In the energy area, the Commission has called for a commitment to double the share of renewables in the EU's energy balance to 12 per cent by 2010 and for measures to give electricity from renewables fair access to the grid in a liberalized market. We have highlighted the scope for further energy efficiency measures in the building sector, and for higher product standards. We have also made proposals to promote the use of combined heat and power.

In the transport sector, the EU has recently come to an agreement with car manufacturers on more fuel-efficient passenger cars and has issued a Communication setting out a strategy for reducing CO2 emissions from transport, which would at least halve their growth by 2008-2012. The Commission has also tabled specific proposals, for example to further open up the rail market since we believe it is vital to shift freight off the roads.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a key policy of the EU. There are a number of possibilities for action under the CAP which are relevant to climate change, notably in the field of rural development such as appropriate afforestation measures and promoting renewable energy crops. Further priority measures include better storage and treatment of animal manure to reduce methane emissions, and decreasing the use of fertilizers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

In industry, most energy intensive sectors have already improved energy efficiency significantly and are conscious of the need to do more. Sectors such as aluminium, cement, steel, chemicals and motor vehicles are active in promoting technological improvements to reduce emissions. However, tackling the three so-called industrial gases requires analysis of the options and commitments by industry.

tree stumps

Cross-cutting initiatives

There are a number of cross-sectoral policies that are particularly appropriate for action at the EU level. I am very keen for the Council to adopt our proposal for restructuring the EU framework for the taxation of energy products, which enlarges the scope of the EU minimum rate system beyond mineral oils to cover all energy products. The EU directive on the landfill of waste aims to reduce the biodegradable component of municipal waste thereby reducing methane emissions.

A number of provisions of the Kyoto Protocol are rather sketchy and, in particular, the flexible mechanisms need further elaboration in order to become operational. Our aim is to ensure that the environmental objectives of the Convention and the Protocol are respected in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Emissions trading, joint implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism complement each other and should be developed in a consistent way. Moreover, in our view, progress should be made simultaneously on all three.

A lot of work relevant to joint implementation was carried out before Kyoto and we need to capitalize on that. There has been feverish activity over the last year to clarify issues related to emissions trading and I hope that we will make considerable further progress in Buenos Aires. We will only do so if all countries contribute to the debate. In Europe's view only those who are able to monitor emissions accurately should trade. Moreover, we need a strict compliance regime in order to make sure that the flexible mechanisms are employed in a way which is both economically and environmentally sound.

The Clean Development Mechanism is, in my view, the most difficult to design, yet it has not received the attention it requires. It has huge potential to contribute both to a limitation of longer-term global emission trends and to sustainable development by providing an incentive for the transfer and application of environmentally sound technology. But it also has the potential to weaken the commitments of industrialized countries to reverse their emission trends. Agreement on key principles for the Clean Development Mechanism, and a common understanding of additionality and project eligibility should be one of the main goals of the Fourth Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires. This can only be achieved through an open and constructive dialogue amongst all partners.

There is a lot on the Buenos Aires agenda and we must tackle it with skill and determination to give ourselves and our children a secure, sustainable future. They should not suffer the horrors of drought, forest fire and flood which we have seen over the last 12 months.

Ritt Bjerregaard is the European Commissioner responsible for the Environment and Nuclear Safety.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Kenneth F. Hine: Green beds and greenbacks (Tourism) 1999
Lucien Chabason: Crowded shores (Tourism) 1999
Osama A. El-Kholy: Cleaner, timely and all-embracing (UNEP 25) 1997
Emma Bonino: Fishing forever (Food) 1996

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