Despite economic crisis, Europeans not backing away from emissions goals, officials say

Source: Jean Chemnick • E&E • Posted: Friday, December 9, 2011

DURBAN, South Africa — The European Union may be facing a debt crisis of historic proportions, but it is unlikely to erode support for action on climate change, European delegates to the U.N. Climate Change Conference here said this week.

Roeland van de Geer, a Dutch diplomat and head of the E.U. delegation, said that Europeans do not see their substantial public debt worries as a reason to curb their ambition on emissions targets.

“For us, there is not this juxtaposition between growth and the reduction of emissions, because we are not overly dependent on coal,” van de Geer said.

Not only is the European Union likely to retain its current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2020, but its policymakers may vote to boost that standard to 30 percent in the near future, officials said.

And while U.S. policies supporting wind, solar and other renewable energy industries are set to expire in the next few years — or will need to be extended with offsets — Europe’s renewable energy industry is supported by feed-in tariffs that are revenue-neutral and do not expire.

“In Europe, a certain momentum has created itself, including a momentum by the private sector, where companies that are investing in solar energy, in wind energy, are saying we have a serious product, we can make a profit on that product, so for us, the green economy is also a healthy economy,” van de Geer said.

Van de Geer said that despite the crisis, Europeans still consider it vital to make progress on climate change.

“This is the most important decision at stake at the moment,” he said. “It’s even more important — let me be very clear here — than our Europe crisis.”

Jo Leinen, chairman of the European Parliament’s environment committee, told reporters this week that the climate crisis would be more long-lasting and a greater threat to human welfare then the current economic downturn in Europe.

“There is no doubt that the financial crisis will go away,” he said. “The climate crisis is still to come.”

Leinen said that European attention would be as focused on the talks in Durban as on efforts in Brussels to address the crisis plaguing E.U. economies.

Lutz Weischer of the World Resources Institute said that Europeans overwhelmingly support their carbon and renewable policies, which are, after all, not new and have proved to be even less expensive since the economic downturn began.

“The interesting thing is that the economic crisis has actually made achieving the carbon goals cheaper, because economic activity has meant less emissions” and therefore less demand for emissions credits, he said.

“Last year, you could have gone to 30 percent and achieved that at costs that were lower than what your originally 20 percent would cost,” he added. There have been few calls to roll back the emissions target as a result, he said, although the E.U. fossil fuels industry and its supporters have come out against going to 30 percent.

By contrast, the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill that passed the U.S. House in 2009 would have cut the United States’ emissions by 17 percent compared with 2005 by 2020. It died in the Senate.

“Americans have the reputation of being go-getters and ambitious and have a can-do attitude, and then you have the cautious Germans,” said Lutz, who is German.

He added that when it comes to renewable energy policy, those roles are reversed. The German government announced a plan this year to move Germany away from reliance on nuclear energy and toward renewables and efficiency, a road map Lutz said would be doable over several years.

“It’s realistic and, with the right policies and price signals in place, will happen,” he said.

Projects are cheaper in Europe because the feed-in tariffs also guarantee a buyer for energy, making renewable projects a safe bet for investors. This drives down financing costs.

European feed-in tariffs do not expire, and many — like Germany’s — are deficit-neutral because they are paid directly by the consumer to the renewable energy provider. Polls indicate that Europeans are willing to foot the bill.