Post-Durban: For a Sino-European axis


By Eloi Laurent

The European Union absolutely must stay the course at the Durban conference and afterwards, not only by reaffirming its climate goals but even more by consolidating these through the improved control of its carbon linkages (see the OFCE note in French: The European Union in Durban: Hold the course), that is to say, the overall impact of its economic growth. This requires moving – on its own if necessary  – from a target for 2020 of a 20% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions to a target of 30% of its emissions, which is more in synch with the goal that it has endorsed of limiting global warming to 2°C compared to the pre-industrial era.

The possibility of transitioning the global economy towards a low-carbon economy depends on Europe’s determination. As the largest market in the world, the EU possesses great power over the environmental policies of the world’s other countries: the more ambitious it is in terms of the climate, the more its influence and leadership will spur the ambitions of other countries too.

But the pursuit of the de-carbonization of the European economy requires the reform and coherent articulation of EU and national economic policy tools.

For France, this means achieving its climate targets (the division of its emissions by four by 2050, called the “factor 4” approach) by introducing a price signal to contain emissions from diffuse greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. from housing and transport) that are not included in the European carbon market. To be clear, it will be necessary to introduce a carbon tax that spells out how it will be integrated into the French tax system. A recent study by the OFCE shows that this may well generate a dual dividend, both social and environmental. The Perthuis report is quite clear on this point: with the support of a price signal, the French climate transition will generate jobs. This transition should not, however, neglect issues of social justice, starting with the urgent problem of fuel poverty.

The European Union must also speed up the reform of its carbon markets, whose price signal is now almost inoperative (a tonne of CO2 has fallen to 7 euros). These markets could be significantly affected by the outcome of the Durban conference, as was the case after the summit in Copenhagen. Various options exist, such as to establish a Europe-wide central carbon bank.

Finally, the introduction of a carbon tariff at the borders of the European Union could restore coherence to the region’s climate policy by addressing the problem of carbon leakage and imported emissions and by providing a source of funding for the Green Fund, whose architecture might be the only genuine accomplishment of Durban.

There are, ultimately, three fundamental reasons why the EU needs to confirm and reinforce its climate goals at Durban and especially “post-Durban”:


  1. The first concerns the human security of Europeans: the EU needs to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases because, as is shown by a recent report by the IPCC, these are at the origin of the proliferation of extreme weather events on our planet, and this will be even more the case in the future. The European Union has experienced nearly 350 of these events during the Noughties alone, almost four times more than in the 1980s. The heat wave of summer 2003, alone, cost the lives of 70,000 Europeans.
  2. The second reason relates to the economic prosperity of Europeans. The EU needs to strengthen its comparative environmental advantage and free itself as soon as possible from the fossil fuel trap. Europe’s dependence on carbon has only increased over the past two decades. The rate of energy dependence of the EU member countries rose by an average of about 10 percentage points over the last fifteen years, to 53% in 2007, including 82% for oil and 60% for natural gas, which between them account for 60% of all energy consumed in the EU. Conversely, the short-term economic cost (not including the longer-term benefits) of switching from a 20% target for the reduction of emissions to a 30% reduction by 2020 is minimal, on the order of about 0.6% of the EU’s GDP per year (estimated by the European Commission).
  3. The third reason, and perhaps the most fundamental, concerns the need today for the political cohesion of the European Union. What is necessary now is nothing less than rebuilding the European Union, which has been devastated economically and politically by the global crisis. The prospect of the coordinated economic depression currently being proposed to European citizens by their governments will signal the breakup of the euro zone but also in turn, it can be feared, a halt to the construction of Europe and even its unraveling. The ecological transition may indeed “save the climate”, but it can also save Europe by giving it a future once again.

The best hope for what is already being called “post-Durban” may well lie in the establishment of a Sino-European axis on the climate: China is becoming aware that its impact on climate change is matched only by the impact of climate change on it (the world’s largest emitter, it will in turn be the first victim of its emissions). As a result of the desertion by the US, Europe can confirm its role as global leader on the climate.

Europe’s leaders sometimes seem annoyed to be alone among the developed countries to assume this responsibility, and they are tired of suffering the criticisms reserved for the one who wields the baton, even though the EU is the only region in the world to have met its Kyoto commitment, the only one to have set itself interim targets on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the only one capable of meeting these goals. This European annoyance is misplaced: given the disasters that science is warning us of, the fight against climate change could be Europe’s greatest contribution to the future of humanity. Holding the course on the climate is a compelling duty. It also just happens to be in Europe’s interest.