As the global economic crisis continues to cause turmoil, concern is growing that it will force governments to shelve efforts to adopt new controls on emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to respond to global warming and climate change. Last week Canadian voters returned the Conservative government to power in an election viewed in part as a rejection of the Liberal Party’s plan for a nationwide carbon tax. At the same time, resistance is growing to the plan the European Union (EU) adopted last year to reduce emissions of GHGs by 20% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.
At a meeting of EU heads of state in Brussels on October 15 & 16, several leaders questioned whether the 20/20 goal could be achieved in light of the current financial crisis. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi led the resistance with support from the leaders of Bulgaria, Latvia, and Poland, a country heavily dependent on coal. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who chaired the summit meeting, argued that it was crucial to maintain a consensus in favor of the 20/20 plan in order not to undermine negotiations with a new U.S. president on a global regime for controlling GHG emissions. Leaders of poorer Eastern European countries argued that some concessions should be made to accommodate them because it would be more difficult for them to meet the 20/20 goals given their greater dependence on fossil fuels. The leaders agreed to allow any of the 27 EU member countries to veto the final plan and they declined to set a December 2008 deadline for finalizing it. Stephen Castle, European Nations, Fearing Downturn, Seek to Revise Agreement on Emissions Cuts, New York Times, October 17, 2008, p. A6.
To be sure, there were other reasons for the Liberal Party’s defeat in the Canadian elections rather than simply voter opposition to a nationwide carbon tax. One report noted that Liberal Party leader Stéphan Dion’s less than stellar command of English could have been a factor. To make the carbon tax more appealing the Liberals had promised offsetting reductions in income taxes.
Every time the economy slows, arguments for relaxing environmental regulations seem more appealing to some, as illustrated by President George H.W. Bush’s actions during the 1992 presidential campaign. After having fought for the far-reaching 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments he imposed a regulatory moratorium that made it difficult to implement them and blamed the spotted owl for some of the economic troubles. No one enjoys an economic downturn and the current global financial crisis has been truly frightening at times because it appears to be of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression. But one also should remember that a slowdown in economic activity reduces emissions, including emissions of greenhouse gases, that will make it much easier to achieve any reduction goal, which is why Russia’s Kyoto commitment to reduce emissions over 1990 levels has been so easy to achieve. Stay tuned to see how these arguments play out when COP-14 is held in Poznan, Poland from December 1-12.