The financial crisis is no excuse for backtracking on climate change, au contraire

With a global recession looming, international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions may be in jeopardy, as concerns are voiced in the US, Canada and Europe about the wisdom of adopting measures that would impose an additional cost burden on already fragile economies. Such thinking is misguided, and it is dangerous. A recession may in fact ease the introduction of carbon emissions trading schemes.

At the recent EU summit in Brussels there was widespread reluctance to meet pledges all EU governments made last year to cut CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020. Eight Eastern European countries – including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — released a joint statement urging the EU to balance the wish for cleaner air against “the need for sustainable economic growth” at a time of “serious economic and financial uncertainties.” Italy threw its weight behind these countries, threatening to veto the proposed EU plans.

Likewise in the US, top power industry executives seized the opportunity to lobby for delaying carbon emissions legislation, at the recent New York Utility Conference. More dramatically in Canada, the Liberals were dealt an electoral defeat on Wednesday largely on the basis of their strong advocacy in favour of a carbon tax (see story here).

All this backtracking is akin to forfeiting the forest for the tree. Financial crises are short-term phenomena, global warming on the other hand is with us for the long haul, and the window of opportunity for addressing it is fast narrowing. The prospect of economic recession does not in any way reduce the magnitude or the urgency of the climate problem, nor does it provide any compelling reason for delaying action. Or as EU President Barroso put it:

“Saving the planet is not an after-dinner drink, a digestif that you take or leave. Climate change does not disappear because of the financial crisis.

Moreover, as David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development argues, smart carbon regulation will be easiest, not hardest, to introduce during a recession, since a slowing economy emits less, and smart cap-and-trade regulation can “lock in” this head start on emissions reduction at almost no cost during the recession. His proposal for the US is to:

• Immediately pass a cap-and-trade bill that sets the initial total limit at the pre-recession emissions level, and schedule a progressive decline in the overall limit that will achieve the needed long-run goal.
• Establish an annual auction for 100% of the emissions permits.
• Set aside a healthy share of the auction proceeds to provide a compensating rebate for every American

In this way the consumer is shielded from cost increases, and the power provider incentivised to develop less carbon-intensive energy options for the future.

It is amply clear that big emitting developing countries such as China and India will not make significant commitments to curb their greenhouse gas emissions unless the US and EU lead by example. With only about a year to go before the new global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol is due to be reached in Copenhagen conference, the US and EU have no room to falter. More than ever, political courage and leadership is needed to ensure global efforts to address climate change are not jeopardized.

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Leo Horn

About Leo Horn

Leo currently serves as Director for International Cooperation at the World Resources Institute (WRI). Prior to that he had worked in UNDP, the World Bank and DfID. He worked for six years in China where, from 2006-2009 he led a pioneering cross-governmental partnership between the UK and China on sustainable development, initiated by Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Wen Jiabao, and involving 17 government ministries/agencies. In parallel, he co-founded the China Carbon Forum and led it to become a thriving professional association serving as the key interface between the business community and senior Chinese government decision-makers on climate policy reform issues. Leo writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.