Durban just the start of fight for EU climate chief

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 13, 2011 12:58 PM
Durban just the start of fight for EU climate chief

By Barbara Lewis

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European climate chief Connie Hedegaard, who salvaged Durban talks on global warming, has a next-to-impossible task ahead of striving to shame the world's biggest polluters into real action and to tackle the EU's own environmental shortcomings.

The determination of Hedegaard and her team staved off collapse during extended negotiations in South Africa at the weekend for an updated Kyoto Protocol to bring in all carbon emitters.

The devil is now in the detail, or more precisely the lack of it.

Within the EU, Hedegaard must push for other environmental laws with the help of her fellow Danes. Denmark takes over the rotating EU presidency from the start of next year and has said green energy will be a priority.

On the wider stage too, the EU must keep up the pressure.

"Someone needs to stand up for this framework that moves companies and countries to greater action. That's what the EU did, and that's what the EU must continue to do," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for U.S. environmental advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund.

Petsonk has attended the climate treaty talks since the 1990s. She acknowledged the EU's skill in mobilizing a coalition of small island nations and least developed countries.

That cajoled the three biggest emitters, China, the United States and India, to agree at a later date to be part of an international regime of cuts.

Nick Mabey, chief executive officer of pro-environment organization E3G, said Durban had kept alive the possibility of limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, a cap scientists say would save the planet from the most devastating effects of climate change.

"Durban is not a final victory, but it is a real opportunity," he said.

The biggest emitters only agreed on the Durban deal after winning extremely vague wording on the "legal force" of planned carbon cuts.

Green politicians, who also attended the talks, said Hedegaard's task now is to isolate the United States to make sure it does not wriggle out of binding targets.

"She (Hedegaard) has to invest majorly in contacts with Brazil, China and India and try to get more ambition from their side and really isolate the U.S.," Green member of the European Parliament Bas Eickhout said.

The EU's ties with the United States have been strained by an EU law requiring all airlines landing or taking off in Europe to pay to offset their carbon emissions under the EU's emissions trading scheme.

The U.S. Congress, where environmental legislation has become a battleground between Democrats and Republicans, has introduced draft tit-for-tat legislation to block the EU law.


Another nagging issue is that the European Union is divided within itself.

Part of the skill demonstrated by Hedegaard and her fellow EU negotiators was to avoid those disputes disrupting the Durban team and to defer issues it was impossible to solve during highly complex debate involving nearly 200 nations.

Before the talks, EU officials had said the problem of a surplus of Kyoto permits to pollute, known as Assigned Amount Allowances (AAUs), had to be sorted out before Durban.

In Durban, Hedegaard said it would have to be decided over the coming months.

The problem is that Poland, current holder of the EU presidency, has a big surplus of the AAUs. It accrued them because of its weak economy in a recession and wants to hold on to them, because it can sell them on international markets.

Denmark has the view that "environmental integrity" is possible only if none of the permits makes its way into a second Kyoto commitment period.

The task is to thrash out a compromise to avoid so-called carbon leakage, whereby nations can snap up cheap permits and avoid any overall reduction in emissions.

Green politicians and environmental groups say one of the best ways to prop up carbon markets, which have plumbed record lows, would be that the EU increase its own targets on carbon emissions from a 20 percent cut by 2020 to a 30 percent drop.

Denmark has already said that will be very difficult, keen as it is to achieve it.

Hedegaard and her fellow Danes also have to manage potentially damaging divisions over an EU plan to label oil sands as more polluting than other fuel sources as it strives to maintain progress in reducing its own emissions.

Here its most public fight is with Canada, home to the world's third-largest oil deposits, many of which are made up of oil sands.

Canada, which has long given up trying to meet its targets to cut reductions under the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, has announced its withdrawal from the pact and has been lobbying hard against the European Commission's fuel labeling proposal.

In this it has won backing within the EU from Britain, home to oil majors active in Canada, as well as eastern European nations including Poland and Estonia, which has deposits of oil shale.

Hedegaard says she will not back down, and Durban proved her tenacity so far.

(Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore, editing by Jane Baird)