Is the Union’s reaction to Bush just hot air?

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Series Details Vol 7, No.16, 19.4.01, p16
Publication Date 19/04/2001
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Date: 19/04/01

By Gareth Harding

PRESIDENT George W Bush's decision to rip up the Kyoto protocol is unquestionably bad news for the environment but probably the best thing that could have happened to the European Union's nascent foreign policy and its ambition to be a global leader on green issues.

There is nothing that unites a group so much as a common enemy and in the Texan oilman now occupying the White House, EU leaders have stumbled upon the sort of textbook baddie normally found in comic strips.

Using the type of blunt language normally reserved for rogue regimes, European Commission President Romano Prodi said: "If one wants to be a world leader, one must know how to look after the entire earth and not only American industry."

Environment chief Margot Wallström was also furious. Returning empty-handed to Brussels after a series of meetings in Washington, the Swede said that "Kyoto has become a sort of dirty word in the US administration" and warned that the country would not be able take part in international emissions trading schemes unless it changed its tack.

Although the US, which emits a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, is crucial to the success of Kyoto, EU leaders insisted that the treaty was not dead. To prevent any other waverers falling into the American camp, Wallström and Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson set off on a whistle-stop tour of Russia, Iran, China and Japan last week and rallied traditional sceptics such as Australia and Canada to the cause.

Even without the US there is a fair chance that the EU can muster up enough support to get the treaty ratified by its target date of 2002. But it then faces the equally daunting task of making sure that it is able to meet the ambitious goals it has signed up to.

At Kyoto, EU leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 8% below 1990 levels by 2012.

In the mid 1990s it looked like the 15-member bloc was on course to meet this figure thanks to the 'dash for gas' in the UK and the closing down of coal-fired power stations in eastern Germany. Since then, however, emissions have risen dramatically.

"The majority of member states are far away from their target paths towards Kyoto," states a recent Commission paper, which predicts that without further measures, EU emissions could jump by up to 8% by 2012. Wallström's solution is for member states to switch to renewable energies, sustainable transport systems and punitive taxes on polluters.

The problem is that the EU does not have the right to force countries to make any of these changes. And so the gulf between the EU's rhetoric on climate change and the reality on the ground gets wider.

Continued carbon dioxide cuts in the UK and Germany give some reason for hope, but green campaigners say that until member states stop subsidising polluting industries and start slapping taxes on polluting activities, Europe's outrage at Bush's two-fingered salute might be little more than hot air.

Article forms part of a survey on the environment.

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