A newcomer to Brussels could be forgiven for not knowing that climate change had once been the dominant theme of José Manuel Barroso’s guardianship of the European Commission. What the Commission did yesterday (17 October) in watering down proposals to add environmental criteria to existing legislation on fuel quality and on renewable energy shows that all the pious words about saving the planet that were issued in 2006-07 were just empty rhetoric.
Back in 2006, Barroso said that climate change was “at the top of the European Union’s list of priorities”. If climate change has slipped from the top to somewhere out of sight it is not just because of the all-consuming eurozone crisis and associated economic difficulties. It is also because Barroso’s second Commission has ditched any pretence that it sets any store by science. Pork-barrel politics is what counts.
That the European Union allowed rules on energy production onto the statute book in 2009 without factoring in indirect land-use change is scandalous. It did so in spite of warnings in 2007 from the Commission’s joint research centre, for example, that “indirect land-use change could potentially release enough greenhouse gas to negate the savings from conventional EU biofuel”.
Five years later, what the Commission is at last admitting, as a college of commissioners, is that without sustainability criteria biofuel can cause more climate change than the traditional hydrocarbon fuel that it seeks to replace. So why on earth has the EU put into law – notably the renewable-energy directive and the fuel-quality directive – rules that encourage such climate-harming biofuel? Apparently because it was intent on pursuing the appalling example of the United States in creating a subsidy-dependent energy industry with the twin aim of propping up the farm vote and creating an illusion of energy security.
Now that indirect land-use change is being factored into the equation – blowing the credibility of first-generation biofuel into the overheated oceans – the full horror of what perverse incentives have done becomes visible. Over recent weeks and months, the biofuel industry and the farming industry has swung into action to limit the damage to the ridiculous status quo. National governments have lobbied their European commissioners to argue that the industry has “legitimate expectations” and that investments have been made founded on the existing policy set-up (ie, ignoring land-use change and what the actual effects on CO2 emissions might be).
There is almost nothing legitimate about these expectations. What makes them most illegitimate is the science. The EU has long known about the damaging effects of cultivating some forms of biofuel and knew that the true CO2 effects were being misrepresented.
The tragedy is that now commissioners are arguing, in spite of the scientific evidence, which they do not dispute, that they want to continue with a muddle-headed and misguided policy. It is hard to see how Máire Geoghegan-Quinn reconciles her stance (thinly disguised support for the farm lobby) with her nominal role as commissioner for research and innovation.
Connie Hedegaard, the commissioner for climate action, consoles herself that ILUC effects will now be measured. So now the EU can better measure how wrong its policy is. Some consolation.
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