COP22 and contradictions between commitments and actions

November 14, 2016

Posted by: Frances Lawson

Following the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on 4th November, the 22nd meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change commenced in Marrakech. As if to illustrate poignantly the challenge to be met if the paper commitments are to actually prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change, two articles were published last week which reflect the extent to which the continued reality on the ground stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric and pledges at international climate change events.

The first article in The Guardian reports that Greece is on course to receive 1.75 billion euros in free carbon allowances from the EU carbon-trading scheme in order to support the construction and operation of two huge coal-fired power stations. The allowances would be provided under derogation ‘10C’ of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which was designed to help poorer countries move towards a sustainable energy future. Frequently, however, it ends up being used as a tool to garner the support of heavily coal-dependent east European EU member states for the EU’s energy and climate change policies and commitments. Greece, wedded to producing energy through a substance called ‘lignite’, seems unable to embrace a clean energy future in practice, setting itself at odds both with its climate change pledges at international level, and with those of the EU as a whole. Should the free carbon allowances be approved by the European Parliament, wheels will be set in motion which inevitably will undermine the attainment of a reduction in carbon emissions of “at least 40%” relative to 1990 levels by 2030 that the EU has committed itself to as part of the Paris Agreement.

The second article, also in The Guardian, exposes plans for renewable energy to lose priority access to the European energy grid as part of changes to “make Europe’s energy generators more flexible and cost-competitive”, a move which will inevitably reduce further investment in renewables in Europe which have already been hit by a reduction in subsidies and financial support in many states.

Lest we think this trend is a classic example of what is wrong with the EU, in truth, there is barely a party to the UNFCCC that isn’t undermining its legal climate change commitments with its policies and action on the ground. The UK has done a brilliant job of this through the reductions in feed-in tariffs, and most recently, with the Government’s enthusiastic pursuit of fracking as the answer to the country’s energy future in spite of its high carbon footprint. China and India talk the talk, but walk in the opposite direction by continuing to construct fossil fuel power stations which tie them into a high-carbon future for several decades. Others continue large-scale deforestation in spite of the vital role of forests as carbon sinks.

The dramatic gulf between words and actions is the result of two things: firstly, an unabated tendency to put “economics” and “financial prosperity” at the top of the action agenda; secondly, a continuing disconnect between policy spheres, a tendency to treat climate change as primarily an “environmental” policy dealt with by one branch of government, while much that relates to climate change is dealt with by a very different set of officials in departments devoted to economics, business, energy and industrial policy. The need to “mainstream” climate change across government is not new; many governments talk of doing just that but are comprehensively failing to operate in this way. In a world in which industrial and economic policy- and decision-makers are not thinking about and integrating climate change commitments into all of their work, we simply are doomed to generate a level of global warming far above the “well below 2 degrees” target, regardless of what happens at COP22. So far, this “commitment – action” gulf is receiving all-too-little attention.

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