Europe's Cold Sweat Over Kyoto

The erratic weather of recent years in Europe, from devastating floods to lengthy heat waves, has convinced many on the Continent that human-induced climate change is no mere theory.

Then why are so many European Union leaders getting cold feet about doing something about global warming?

Because despite the change in weather patterns and Europe's green rhetoric, the EU faces a reality check on March 31, the day each member nation must submit a plan for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

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The projected costs, as well as the likely loss of economic competitiveness with the United States, has the EU wondering if it can virtually go it alone in implementing the Kyoto Protocols on climate change. The protocol has yet to take effect as a binding treaty since the US and Russia won't sign on, and China and India were given a pass for now.

In Germany, the EU's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the government has been in a crisis over details of its plan. Last week at an EU summit, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder asked the body to slow down implementation but was rebuffed by France. All he won was a request for a cost-benefit study on "environmental and competitiveness considerations" in meeting Kyoto's strict targets.

No EU government had submitted a plan by last week, although seven of the 15 have drafts. Many governments are as troubled as Germany's, with the result that the European Commission sent out a warning that failure to submit a plan on time could result in legal action and fines.

The required plans are only for setting up an official trading system that would allow companies to buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases, starting in 2005. Each government would be given emission allowances which could be traded in a market system. A company could either meet a target or else purchase a "credit" from cleaner companies and keep on polluting.

The scheme is designed to meet the EU's promise of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels by 8 percent of 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

But Europe's auto and electric industries recently warned of a slowdown in growth if they are forced to invest in clean energy technologies. The warnings come as the EU has acknowledged that it's falling further behind in its plan to match the US in productivity, employment, and growth.

Those kinds of warnings about slow growth are what compelled the US Senate, and President Bush, to reject Kyoto. If Europe now backpedals, the global effort to influence climate change will be driven mainly by the market, as car buyers and the auto industry choose to become less polluting. And Europe will lose its claim to global leadership in pushing Kyoto.

It could just be that government inducements, such as tax credits, may be preferable over tough regulation on greenhouse gases. But then, would that pace of change be fast enough to slow down climate change? The science is not clear yet on whether the temperature trend could be reversed even if the whole world went full bore to reaching Kyoto's targets.

At the least, this EU debate over Kyoto's trade-offs will set a useful precedent for the rest of the world on whether it too can balance economic sacrifice against a collective will to curb human changes to Earth's atmosphere.

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