“At the heart of difficulty lies opportunity,” Albert Einstein once noted. This, says EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström, is the attitude we must adopt in combating climate change. Here she outlines the EU’s approach and what it means for people at all levels. –

Hardly a week goes by without a disaster that foreshadows climate change. The potentially devastating effects of climate change propel us to act – to translate our political commitment into concrete measures – to tackle its causes.

For action to be effective, it must be taken at all levels – at global, European Union, national, regional and local level, as well as by individual citizens. This is a responsibility that we share in equal measure.

The EU has always promoted a multilateral approach as the only viable way to find a global solution to what is a global problem. The ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the EU and the member states on May 31, 2002 was a significant milestone not only in European climate change policy, but also in demonstrating European commitment to the global effort to combat climate change.

So far, in spite of non-ratification by some nations – including the US and Australia – more than 90 countries, representing about two-thirds of the world’s population, have endorsed this multilateral approach.

The Kyoto Protocol will come into force in the coming months, once Russia ratifies it as it has indicated it will. President George W Bush’s decision to reject this framework is very regrettable and the EU continues to urge the US, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, to rejoin the framework and take decisive domestic action to combat climate change.

The EU is taking action in close association with the business community and other stakeholders. The main platform for EU policy initiatives has been the European Climate Change Programme (ECCP).

Since it was created in 2000 to complement member states’ efforts, this programme has provided an inclusive stakeholder forum for experts from the member states, companies and NGOs to discuss issues, identify solutions and advise the European Commission (EC) on the potential for and costs of carbon dioxide emission reduction measures.

The ECCP has identified a range of cost-effective measures that have become an integral part of our climate change strategy. A key message to emerge from these discussions is that the EU can achieve its Kyoto target of 8% reduction in emissions by implementing measures that cost less than ¤20 per tonne of CO2 equivalent.

The first phase of the ECCP produced a package of measures to be implemented in 2002 and 2003. The EC has already proposed many of them – a proposal for a an EU emissions trading scheme, a strategy to increase the use of bio-fuels in road transport, and measures to promote greater energy efficiency in public buildings and co-generation.

The proposed European emissions trading scheme is a good example of the emphasis that we are putting on developing a climate policy that is cost-effective for business.

It’s all about working with the market and benefiting from the flexibility and cost-reduction possibilities that the market offers. It is designed to encourage companies to cut emissions wherever it is cheapest to do so.

At the same time, by limiting the number of emission permits that are granted, it enables a target for protecting the environment to be fixed. For it to work, the number of permits must be limited, the market must be as large as possible and it must include potential sellers and buyers. There must also be a strong regulatory framework to ensure compliance.

The scheme will cover about 4,000 to 5,000 large installations in the energy, iron and steel, mineral, glass and paper industries. These should account for 46% of total CO2 emissions in the EU in 2010.

The EC has proposed that emissions trading within the EU should start by 2005 in order to allow “learning by doing” in the three years before the Kyoto commitment period imposes legal emission reduction obligations on the EU and member states. We hope that by first adopting this system within the EU we will gain a head start when it comes to participating in the international emissions trading system required under the Kyoto Protocol.

Emissions trading is just one of a number of policy initiatives identified by the ECCP. Other measures in the pipeline include legislation on minimum energy efficiency standards for end-use equipment, the containment of fluorinated gases, the linking of the Kyoto Protocol’s Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism with emissions trading and charging for road infrastructure use. The emission reduction potential of other measures relating to agriculture and forest sinks is also being assessed.

EU policies cannot alone address the serious problems posed by climate change. Member states, local authorities and individual citizens must all take action. The success of policies at EU level depends on actions at all other levels.

For example, the EC has negotiated an agreement with European, Japanese and Korean automobile manufacturers that will cut average CO2 emissions from new cars by 25% by 2008/09 compared with 1995 levels. However, if car ownership and car journeys continue to increase, this may prove inadequate. Making the necessary reductions in emissions also means changing our behaviour as consumers in order to stimulate economic growth while polluting less.

Definite progress is being made. Under the UN Climate Convention, the EU succeeded in stabilizing its emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Indeed, emissions decreased in 2000 by 3.5% compared with 1990. CO2 emissions from the 15 EU member states were 0.5% lower in 2000 than in 1990.

But we cannot rest on these laurels. Looking to the future, we have a daunting task ahead of us. Scientists say that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by the end of the century. From today’s perspective that seems an impossible target. But, as Einstein once said: “At the heart of difficulty lies opportunity.” I believe this rings true for climate change.

We need to explore new energy options. Take wind energy, for example. It has already created more than 30,000 jobs in the EU, and provides over 17,000MW capacity, enough to power 10 million homes. Over the past five years it has been the world’s fastest-developing energy source, growing at around 30% annually.

The EU generates 60% of the world’s wind energy capacity and a recent study estimated that by 2010 the renewable energy sector could create 530,000 jobs in Europe, even taking into account job losses in the conventional energy sector.

We need to look to new technologies and instruments for reducing emissions, such as the Clean Development Mechanism and the Joint Implementation initiative, will create new job opportunities in the EU and open up new markets elsewhere. These instruments are not only profitable for businesses but also complement capacity building and technology transfer measures aimed at helping developing countries to reduce their emissions in the longer term.

We cannot afford to do nothing. The costs of inaction are great. The flooding in Europe over the summer last year illustrates the kind of events, and the near-term costs that will become more frequent as climate change happens. And the consequence of doing nothing now would mean even greater and more costly efforts in the future to put things right.

From what the scientists tell us, the risks of inaction would mostly be borne by those poorer and younger than ourselves. Less developed countries, where the poor are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and future generations – our children and grandchildren – will pay a heavy price if we decide to sit on our hands.

So we will persevere in taking action to meet the global challenge of climate change. We will continue to work with all levels of government and all sectors of civil society. We will continue to lobby those who have not yet signed up to Kyoto.

By harnessing the energy and commitment of the business sector, the NGO community and citizens alike, the EU will continue to play a pivotal role in fighting climate change and in mitigating the threat that it poses to sustainable development.

We have no other option if we are to combat effectively the scourge of climate change, protect the environment and improve quality of life for all the people who inhabit this planet.

Margot Wallström
Margot Wallström is EU commissioner for the environment. She previously had a career in politics, both in the Swedish parliament and in the government.