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Getting tough: resolving the double standard before it is too late


By Declan Sean Kenny, winner of the White Rose Brussels Article Competition 2019

There is an undeniable urgency to implement the structural reforms necessary to prevent irreversible damage we are on course to inflict upon the planet. Such a claim has been buttressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warning of the catastrophic effects global warming of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels will have. Nevertheless, reaching this temperature would mark the success of the Paris Climate Agreement’s most demanding goal. This is evidence that we are living in a time when the scientific facts are vastly outpacing our political response. Despite this immediacy, the EU is still failing to be tough enough on polluters, which neutralises its attempts to implement reforms at the community level. This is reflected by the EU’s flagship Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which is undermining an ambitious Urban Agenda.

The ETS is based on the Polluter Pays Principle: those responsible for the pollution ought to be the ones responsible for remedying it. To do so, overall emissions are capped before allowances are sold or donated free of charge to companies, those who need more allowances can buy them from those beneath the threshold. Whilst the ETS may prove unproblematic in principle, in practice, the EU has failed to be tough enough in these critical times. This is evidenced by the concept of carbon leakage: the Commission states that companies will be incentivised to relocate production to countries with lower standards if they are charged for ETS allowances. The proposed solution to this problem is to exempt particular sectors and subsectors from being charged for allowances, thus nullifying the incentive to invest in greener means of production. Despite reducing the number of sectors that qualify for free allowances, the 2018 ‘proposed list’ still contains some of the worst polluters. For example, the list includes the ‘extraction of crude petroleum’ and the ‘manufacture of refined petroleum products’, thereby making it possible for Shell and British Petroleum to qualify for free allowances, despite being collectively responsible for 3.2% of global emissions between 1988 and 2015 according to the Carbon Disclosure Project.

The aim of the ETS was for free allowances to cease to be allocated by 2020. However, the Commission has recently stated that “the system of free allocation will be prolonged for another decade and has been revised to focus on sectors at the highest risk of relocating their production outside of the EU.” Companies defined most at risk are those that have high levels of trade with third-world countries. As a result of this extension, the incentive to invest in greener technology is deferred to the point in time when we would be encroaching on irreversible damage to the environment. What is more, there is always the potential that companies will move to countries with less regulation. It is the role of the EU and its Member States to make a better case for remaining within the Union due to its benefits; such as the Single Market, which ensures smooth trade across stable and democratic countries. At a time when the US is absolving itself of responsibility, most notably by exiting the Paris Climate Agreement, it is vital that the EU leads the charge in being tough on big business. Not only is failing to do so detrimental, but also undermines community-level climate change action throughout the Union.

Such community-level approaches can be found in the EU’s Urban Agenda, which outlines the role urban areas will play in sustainable development (70% of Europe’s citizens live in urban areas). This agenda points to a number of projects that aim to transform cities into becoming energy sustainable whilst simultaneously reducing their emissions. For instance, Remourban, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, has a number of flagship ‘Lighthouse Cities’. One of these cities is Nottingham, UK, where the move towards electric transportation and sustainable district heating is set to reduce CO2 emissions by 5% and 50% respectively. Similar proposals have been developed by the Urban Innovative Actions initiative, one of which aims to make Gothenburg a frontrunner in becoming fossil-free. With the majority of Europeans living in urban areas, these projects not only have an environmentally beneficial output but also provide citizens with the opportunity to hold local policymakers accountable. The expectation for European cities to shift to greener technology is simply not replicated for big business. It is vital, therefore, that the EU resolves this double standard by getting tough on those occluding the implementation of the structural reforms necessary to prevent irreversible damage to our planet.

Image: Declan Kenny addressing the White Rose Brussels event on climate change policy (see News). Declan is studying for a PhD in Political Theory at the School of Politics and International Studies, which he started in October 2018. His central academic interests are global justice and the ethics of climate change, as well as the politics of development.