Vote for Continuity Before Copenhagen

The European Parliament’s convincing vote for Jose Manuel Barroso’s second term as European Commission president puts him in a stronger position than any candidate since Jacques Delors in the 1980s. To have secured the votes of the European Conservatives and their allies and an estimated 25 Socialists in addition to his centre right supporters in a secret ballot was a considerable achievement, at 382 delivering 13 more votes than an absolute majority.

Cometh the hour cometh the man. Barroso is no Delors, but can deliver the continuity which will be needed in a highly unpredictable period, where I see that the latest threat is from the Czech constitutional court which could delay Lisbon ratification for another six months even if the Irish vote “yes” on October 2.

Whatever the result of the referendum, Europe must get its act together for the Copenhagen conference on climate change, much as it did more than 20 years ago when the Vienna Convention on the ozone layer and the Montreal Protocol were negotiated.

I mention this because just 80 days before the opening of the Copenhagen conference the United Nations designated September 16 2009 as Ozone Day. The UN sees action on the ozone layer as a curtain raiser for Copenhagen, a model for what can be achieved through concerted international action in the face of a major environmental challenge.

It’s 24 years since the Vienna Convention for protecting the ozone layer was signed and 22 years since the Montreal Protocol, which set the timetables for phasing out of the man-made chemicals responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer. It is proving a remarkable success, although the task is by no means complete. A UN note gives more detail.

What does surprise me is the contribution that the ozone-depleting chemicals, and particularly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were making to global warming. CFCs have now been virtually phased out (January 1 2010 is the phase-out deadline of CFCs for the poorest countries) and scientists argue that this co-ordinated action has given the world up to 12 years of extra breathing space for arresting the process of climate change. They reckon its impact to be five or six times the impact of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

The late 1980s were years when environment policy came of age. The Vienna Convention was first based on a scientific thesis of ozone depletion caused by man-made chemicals, and only proven as fact in 1988 when US spy planes confirmed the existence of a vast hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic caused by man-made chemicals.  It will be many decades before the ozone layer is fully restored, but things are no longer getting worse and should progressively improve.

Of course tackling climate change is a vastly more complex challenge than reversing ozone layer depletion. Every country and every industry is involved, as is the whole human population, but there are some fundamental principles which have been established through the Vienna process which are relevant to Copenhagen:

  • A template was negotiated to assist developing countries through a combination of financial assistance and phasing to allow further time for adaptation, plus special help for the countries of central and eastern Europe.
  • The last twenty years have demonstrated industry’s remarkable capacity to adapt and innovate once faced with obligatory targets. Firms which at first resisted the proposed Montreal measures, arguing that there were no alternatives, have developed new products and new technologies – a process which must continue.
  • The international community found the political courage and the mutual trust to accept the scientific consensus and build a global policy in the face of inertia and downright opposition.

The European Community (as it then was) was a major driver in formulating an international agreement and seeing it through to completion. It’s a good precedent for the European Union to follow.