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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 59a - Thursday, 4 December 2008
A Transatlantic Perspective on Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Issues
By Sirini Withana, Policy Analyst, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), London/Brussels
Full Article

The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) are two of the world’s largest and most influential economies, and collectively contribute well over a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Over the past decade, their efforts to tackle climate change have diverged significantly. At the international level, the EU has played a key role in efforts to secure the entry into force and implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an instrument rejected by the Bush administration in 2001. As a new administration is preparing to take office in Washington in January 2009, political attention is now focused on the multilateral negotiations for a post-2012 global climate change regime within the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Observers are hopeful that the political change in the US will give new momentum to these global talks.

Regardless of what happens at the international level, considerable domestic efforts are needed to stabilise the atmospheric concentration of GHG emissions at a level that ecosystems and human societies can handle. Policy makers in both the EU and US are attempting to develop efficient and effective domestic policy responses to reduce GHG emissions and promote sustainable energy systems. In March 2007, EU leaders adopted a series of targets that include: reducing the EU’s GHG emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 relative to 1990 levels (or 30 per cent if other industrialised countries join a post-Kyoto agreement); increasing the share of renewable energy in the EU’s overall primary energy supply by 20 per cent by 2020; and increasing the share of renewable energy in transport fuels by 10 per cent by 2020. In January 2008, the European Commission presented a package of proposals that converts these high-level commitments into concrete actions by member states, including measures to extend and strengthen the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS); national reduction targets for GHG emissions not covered by the ETS; national targets for the uptake of renewable energy; and new rules on carbon capture and storage.

In the US, climate change and energy policy is evolving quickly and developments in this field are likely to accelerate under the new administration. Since 2007, the US Congress has been debating bills to establish a nation-wide cap and trade system for GHG emissions and is considering complementary policies, including those promoting cleaner transport fuels, energy technologies, and incentives for renewable energy. Federal action however continues to lag behind progress at the regional, state and local levels, where measures to reduce GHG emissions and offer meaningful support for renewable energy have already been introduced. US President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers have signalled they will be more amenable to an international climate change agreement and more progressive in their approach to climate change and energy issues, which could result in further policy measures in the future.  

Policy proposals being considered in the EU and US try to address the common challenges of reducing GHG emissions and promoting sustainable (and secure) energy systems. However, there is often a failure to properly understand what the other party is doing, and to exchange information, learning and experiences across the Atlantic. In this context, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) carried out a joint project to facilitate debate and the exchange of experiences between members of EU and US civil society representatives on the most salient issues on the political agenda. The ‘Transatlantic Platform for Action on the Global Environment’ (T-PAGE), which began in 2006 with the support of the European Commission, addressed two environmental issues relevant to both Europe and the US. The first dialogue, on Climate Change and Energy, examined EU and US public policies on climate change and sustainable energy systems, with a view to identifying similarities and differences in opinion and approaches, and key issues for political debate. A second dialogue examined the protection of marine biodiversity, in particular through the establishment and management of marine protected areas.

The T-PAGE dialogue on Climate Change and Energy brought together representatives of environmental NGOs, academia and other interested civil society organisations from the US and EU. The main conclusions of this dialogue were recently published in a report entitled ‘Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policies in Europe and the United States,’ which includes the series of research papers produced during the course of the project. The papers include summaries of European and US policies on climate change and energy; an analysis of the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS); a summary of the current state of US policy on cap and trade; a summary of policy approaches to promoting biofuels on both sides of the Atlantic; and an analysis of EU and US public perceptions of the environment and climate change.

The T-PAGE Climate Change and Energy dialogue culminated in a major conference in Washington, DC, US, in April 2008. At this conference, participants reached a broad consensus on two key issues. Firstly, it was agreed that GHG emissions from the transport sector should be addressed as a priority through an integrated approach to transport policy that aims to: reduce demand for travel; encourage travel by more sustainable modes; accelerate the transition to vehicles not powered by fossil fuels; increase the efficiency of fossil fuel powered vehicles; and reduce the carbon intensity of fuels. It was recognised that a broad mix of complementary and comprehensive policy measures, addressing both the supply and demand side of transport, will be needed to achieve these objectives.

The second topic discussed at the conference was the issue of biofuels, which participants emphasised should be approached through multiple perspectives including climate change, efficiency, resource availability and scarcity, food security and sustainability. While it was recognised that reducing the carbon intensity of fuels is in principle desirable, the present rush to biofuels was considered to be based on insufficient impact assessments and risks taking over too much land for the production of suboptimal fuel crops. Participants recommended that further investment in first generation biofuels in Europe and the US be put on hold until broader transport strategies have been established and there is increased certainty regarding the optimum level of biomass that can be developed without damaging essential food production and conservation goals.

In the context of ongoing international deliberations at the UN level, both the EU and US are struggling to address common domestic challenges. There is significant potential to learn from each other’s experiences in addressing climate change and sustainable energy issues and thus avoid reinventing the wheel and replicating past mistakes. By increasing understanding and awareness of public policies on both sides of the Atlantic, and sharing experiences and best practice, policy makers will be able to develop more effective and efficient domestic policy responses to address these common challenges.

For further information on the T-PAGE project and its related publications, please visit our website.
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