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Super Tuesday for the EU

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Tomorrow’s been dubbed Super Tuesday for EU climate policy, with the EU Parliament set to vote on proposals that follow up the climate change legislation proposed at the start of the year.

But what was once touted as a cutting-edge vision has turned into a tough sell. By the end of last week, Polish leaders announced they’d added a sixth country, Greece, to the coalition they’ve been building against parts of the plan – creating a large enough minority to block a decision.

Their beef is with auctioning of emissions permits under a revamped European carbon-trading system, scheduled to start in 2013. The financial turmoil that’s muddied the political path in the US is also having an effect here, sharpening countries’ concerns about their high-emissions industries – whose lobbyists have protested all along that the cost of buying permits will push them out of Europe. “This crisis changes priorities,” said German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last week. “One cannot rule out that interest in protecting the climate will change.”

So various cushions are on offer. Companies may be allowed to buy half their permits from carbon-offset projects in the developing world, which makes them cheaper; and there’s a leaked list of industries that could get their emissions rights spooned out for free, though such get-out clauses weren’t supposed to be inked until after the UN attempts a global climate change deal in Copenhagen in December 2009.

These solutions don’t work for Poland. Its problem is reportedly not manufacturers that have to compete with Chinese and Indian counterparts, but its electricity industry, overwhelmingly based on Polish coal. As The Economist explains thoroughly and sympathetically, making coal too expensive – which is the whole point of the policy – will push Poland toward natural gas supplied by the increasingly scary Russia.


Since the power sector doesn’t have to compete internationally, the free emissions permits it’s gotten under current EU policy have been widely viewed as windfall profits that need to stop in 2013. Poland and other states in similar boats want to delay that date.

The Economist has details on what the rest of Europe could offer to allay this energy-independence problem. These or something similar had better keep progress from stalling completely. We don’t need any more ammunition for the interminable argument where rich countries say they can’t sign up to a global climate treaty without promises from developing countries, who say they won’t move without leadership from the wealthy world. And if the host of this year’s biggest UN climate meeting – starting in less than two months in Poznan, Poland – kills this year’s biggest effort toward developed-world carbon cuts, it’s not going to boost morale.

Anna Barnett

Photo: At a coal mine in Silesia, Poland / Wikipedia user Ludek

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