Can the Old World Lead on Global Warming?

Wednesday was a busy day for the global climate. On one side of the Atlantic Ocean, the European Union unveiled its vision for what the next global climate deal should look like—a deal that is set to be hammered out in much anticipated talks in Copenhagen at the end of December.

On the other, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on climate change which could mark the first small step toward steering the US away from the head-in-the-sand policies pursued by the just-ended administration of George W. Bush. Al Gore, America's global warming Cassandra, was the hearing's star guest. And in his eagerness to urge the Senate to take action, Gore said that he didn't think the EU could play a leadership role when it comes to tackling the problem of climate change.

"I do think it's objectively true that our country is the only country in the world that can really lead the global community," Gore said, refering to global warming. "Some have speculated that some time in the future if the European Union actually unifies to a much higher degree … they might somehow emerge with potential for global leadership. I'm not going to hold my breath."

It is a message that isn't likely to play well in the European Union. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas on Wednesday announced the EU's negotiating position for the upcoming talks on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The EU would like to see a reduction in global emissions of CO2, one of the primary greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, by 30 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2020. The goal is to limit the average global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius.

As part of its plan, the EU proposes the introduction of a carbon cap and trade system of the kind currently in operation in the European Union. All 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would be required to join the emissions certificate market by 2015 and would be required to cut their emissions. Developing countries would join later and would have to "limit the growth of their emissions to 15 to 30 percent below business as usual."

Furthermore, the EU—which has already undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 27-nation bloc by 20 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2020—held out the carrot that, "in the context of a sufficiently ambitious and comprehensive international agreement," the EU would be willing to cut emissions by 30 percent.

Dimas admitted on Wednesday that the EU plan would be expensive; he estimated that by 2020, the price tag would be about €175 billion ($231 billion) per year. Much of that would have to be invested in developing countries, the EU plan points out, leading to the EU proposal that richer countries provide billions of euros in aid to the developing world to help them meet emissions goals. The concept has not yet been approved by the member states.

The EU has long seen itself as a world leader when it comes to battling climate change. Recently, though, the financial crisis and resulting economic downturn has spawned a number of concerns about the cost of European climate measures. Many have criticized Brussels for backing away from its initial enthusiasm.

And the US, which has, in recent years, lagged well behind the global consensus and scientific research when it comes to federal policy to combat climate change, may be shifting direction. The administration of President Barack Obama has indicated its willingness to move away from Bush's resistance to action, though Washington has yet to present a specific negotiating platform for Copenhagen.

Last autumn, Al Gore's name had been floated as a possible "climate czar," but the former vice president elected not to accept the position. He has, however, remained active on the environment, and his film "An Inconvenient Truth" was influential in raising American awareness of the dangers of global warming. The presentation he gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a version of the one showed in the film.

And Gore didn't mince words. Of global warming, Gore said "this is the one challenge that could completely end human civilization and it is rushing at us with such speed and force."