Can Europe Provide Leadership in Copenhagen?

It’s maybe hard to think of global warming as we shiver in the coldest European winter for two decades, but there are just nine months to go before COP15,  the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen, which may well determine whether or not the world can respond to a threat to our planet which scientists are convinced will lead to catastrophic change unless we act fast.  So can Europe provide the leadership in Copenhagen?

The European Parliament last week issued the findings of its Temporary Committee on Climate Change.  MEPs are convinced that climate change is more rapid and more serious in its adverse effects than previously thought and set out a checklist of measures which they believe must be implemented, much along the lines of the Commission’s proposals.

Competition is hotting up for global leadership of the issue. The transformation in US policy was expounded in a recent speech by President Obama where he outlined the programme of his administration – and his conviction that the US should be the leader of   “a truly global coalition”. Europe, while rejoicing over the US conversion, would no doubt prefer joint leadership.

No issue could be more global than climate change and here lies the biggest challenge for the EU, the US and the rest of the developed world: how to secure the commitment of China, India and other advanced developing countries to transform their own energy policies at a time when the stability of their societies depends so heavily on unimpeded economic growth. There is no hope of getting these countries on board if the developed world does not move first, yet there is no guarantee that they will be willing to participate. A failure to engage them while their economies are expanding will render all the efforts of the old economies of little value.

Balancing the emissions from dozens of new coal-fired power stations in China alone will require quite a combination of cash subsidy coupled with political and economic conviction.

Hence the Commission’s latest communication, which puts great emphasis on the need for “an effective financial architecture” which would include payment of €90billion a year for developing countries by 2020.

Europe is proud of its political leadership up until now in the delivery of climate change policies, but perhaps the real challenge will be to industrial leadership. I wonder if the commitments which are being made by the new US administration to support new clean technologies will be the contemporary equivalent of the Star Wars project of a former US president. It is no accident that the huge infusion of research and development funding to the US defence industry helped to build a level of capability which has left everyone else as spectators.

Could the same thing happen with the new technologies to confront climate change? It seems quite likely, which means that Europe must build on its own research programmes. Its motor industry, aerospace, renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency models are all potential winners in world markets, but may face competing programmes of support from across the Atlantic and indeed from the rapidly evolving economies of South East Asia.