The European Union says climate change is "one of the greatest environmental, social and economic threats facing the planet." But can Europe sustain its commitment to fighting climate change in the face of skyrocketing energy costs and its growing dependency on Russia for natural gas?
The EU launched the world's first cap-and-trade system in 2005. Under this scheme, allowances for carbon emissions (caps) are assigned to the worst industrial polluters -- electricity, oil, building materials and paper. A company exceeding its carbon limit can buy additional allowances from companies that have credits (unused allowances) on a special carbon exchange.
In practice, the system isn't working as intended because basic carbon allowances were set too high and given out free of charge. So early this year the EU adopted a Plan B. Aimed at deeper carbon cuts, it sets a tougher EU-wide cap on overall emissions and progressively replaces free allowances with ones that must be purchased through an annual auction.
But now many Europeans are having second thoughts.
They face a dizzying rise in oil and natural gas prices, and they worry about Russia's ability to cut off the natural gas it sells to Europe. Italy recently announced plans to return to coal-fired power in the next five years, and countries like Germany and Poland will be tempted to follow suit. Unfortunately, the abundant coal in both countries is mostly low grade and highly polluting.
So will Europe stay the course on climate change? Can it? It can, but only if the United States becomes an active partner in the "war" on global warming.
The climate-change summit set for December 2009 in Copenhagen presents a made-to-order opportunity for America to do the right thing and to repair its battered reputation in the world.
Ten members of the European Parliament's Climate Change Committee recently visited Washington with a message for U.S. leaders: "(We) expect the next U.S. administration to make climate change a priority -- and to begin drafting the relevant domestic legislation -- from day one." The European legislators urged President Bush's successor "to do everything in his or her power to overcome every domestic obstacle standing in the way of an international agreement in Copenhagen."
The U.S. can learn from Europe. Europe's carbon footprint is much smaller than America's, despite the fact that Europe is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, that the EU has a larger population -- 500 million vs. 300 million -- and that the EU's single economy is a mirror image of our own. What is Europe's secret?
Energy efficiency and conservation have long been a way of life in most of Europe. Cheap gasoline, for example, is something Europeans have never known because of high taxes at the pump. Regular gasoline now costs $8 to $9 a gallon in most EU countries. Fly over Europe's cities at night and the contrast with ours is striking -- the landscape below is shrouded in relative darkness.
In 2007, The Economist magazine notes, "the signal was clear: Europe will start saving the planet now, even if the selfish Americans (not to mention the Chinese and Indians) are not ready." But at the EU summit in March, leaders of nations with major-league business lobbies -- including Germany, France, Italy and Austria -- called for measures to protect European heavy industries in case the Copenhagen climate summit fails to produce a deal.
Without strong U.S. backing in coming years, Europe cannot succeed in "saving the planet." The United States and the EU are the world's two biggest markets; together they account for roughly half the world's total annual output. As partners in a global cleanup, they would have enormous leverage.
Whoever moves into the White House in January has a historic opportunity. The upcoming election is not only about the war in Iraq or the economy. It's also about protecting the planet.
Europe can't do it alone. Let's listen to what our presidential candidates are saying this time around as if the future of the world hinges on the outcome. It just might.
Tom Magstadt, author of "Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues," lectures on the European Union at the University of Kansas. He wrote this comment for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.