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Driving hurts climate

Martin Kuebler, Brussels
July 1, 2013

Environmentalists are concerned the EU has gotten distracted by energy costs and the economy, and lost sight of climate targets. But one group has a simple idea that could help target vehicle emissions at the source.

Rue Belliard, Brussels. Copyright: DW/M. Martin Kuebler
Image: DW/M. Kuebler

Standing on a Brussels street corner during afternoon rush hour, faced with five lanes of bumper-to-bumper red taillights, revving engines and echoing car horns, it comes as no surprise that a recent traffic survey by data firm INRIX found that Brussels suffers from the worst traffic congestion of any city in Europe or the United States.

Surrounded by gridlock and exhaust fumes, the European Commission last Monday (24.06.2013) introduced a draft law to lower the allowable carbon dioxide emission limits on new cars. From 2020 onwards, CO2 emissions from new vehicles would have to drop from 130 grams to 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven.

But the decision was met with some resistance, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel citing the need for a strong industrial base in yielding to Germany's powerful car lobby and intervening ahead of a European Council vote on Thursday to drop the plan from the agenda.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, continue to seek binding emission limits - a difficult sell in these tough economic times. In order to address one major source of emissions, a group in Canada has come up with an idea that tries to communicate directly with automobile drivers.

Friends of the Earth Europe demonstrates at an EU Energy Summit in Brussels. Copyright: Friends of the Earth Europe
Friends of the Earth Europe has called for clear emission reduction targetsImage: Friends of the Earth Europe

Binding targets needed

European environmental groups were discouraged by last week's news. "It's not the time to be talking about climate action when you've got so many lobbyists out there saying that we just cannot afford it due to the economic crisis," said Brook Riley, a climate and energy campaigner at the Brussels-based Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE).

FOEE has called for binding EU targets to cut the emission of greenhouse gases and more than 3.7 billion tons of CO2 that Europeans pump into the atmosphere every year - which most scientists agree are fueling climate change. But some EU leaders remain reluctant, saying Europe's current energy and environmental policies are hurting competitiveness, jobs and growth.

Isaac Valero, the European Commission's climate change spokesperson, said EU leaders made it clear at an energy summit in May that it is "crucial" to further diversify Europe's energy supply.

"In Europe we are spending around 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) on imported energy [per day]. We need to produce the energy here at home Europe wants to move forward," he said.

Energy prices, competitiveness remain priorities

Valero pointed out that at the May summit, EU leaders also initiated discussion on the bloc's 2030 climate and energy targets, "in order to give predictability to investors."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels June 28, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman
Merkel blocked a move to cut vehicle carbon emissions last ThursdayImage: Reuters

"Energy prices and competitiveness should be our priority, but this is perfectly compatible with green growth and a climate agenda," he said.

Riley, though, thinks the EU needs to be doing much more to end its overreliance on polluting fossil fuels. "If you look at the gap between what the EU is doing and what climate scientists are saying should be done on climate change, then there's a real cause for alarm," he said. But getting that message across under the current economic situation is difficult, he added: "We're swimming against the stream."

In order to successfully tackle climate change, Riley says there needs to be a "wider movement" that reaches out to more people and doesn't rely solely on government legislation. "We need to recreate some kind of real sense of urgency and commitment to climate action."

'Connecting the dots' on climate change

Across the Atlantic in Toronto, Canada, a new environmental group is hoping to do just that. Our Horizon is a small nonprofit with a simple idea: warning labels for gas pump nozzles, similar to those on tobacco products since 2000. Lawyer Rob Shirkey, who launched the organization earlier this year, hopes that by giving consumers information about the effects of fossil fuel usage as they fill their cars, they will "connect the dots" to "the consequences of climate change."

Possible gas pump warning label. Copyright: Our Horizon
Our Horizon hopes warning labels like this one will get people to rethink driving habitsImage: Our Horizon

"The thing about climate change is that it's a problem of no feedback, so there's a delay between cause and effect," Shirkey told DW. "What this does, it brings those faraway consequences into the here and now."

Images featured on the mock-up labels are direct: a drought-stricken landscape, at-risk species, and a vibrant coral reef contrasted with a dead ocean floor, to name a few. Modeled after the now-familiar warnings on cigarette packaging, the images are accompanied by a simple warning in red and white text on a black background, with each message tailored to the photo.

Shirkey is counting on grassroots support to spread the word of his low-cost idea and lobby local politicians to employ the signs. "This is a law that any one of 4,000 municipalities across Canada can pass," said Shirkey. And once the labels are introduced in one community, he hopes the idea will spread throughout Canada and even attract international attention.

Rob Shirkey, Executive Director of Our Horizon. Copyright: Our Horizon
Shirkey has been presenting his idea at schools, universities and other institutions across CanadaImage: Our Horizon

Spreading support

The initiative has already come within one vote of passing in a small community in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Shirkey is getting students involved, building local support at schools and universities.

The goal is to present the idea to the City of Toronto before the end of the year. "City councilors will actually have to face the young people whose future will be shaped by their decisions," said Shirkey.

FOEE's Riley believes the idea could also find success in Europe. "This widens the debate" by bringing a human element into the equation, he said. Bringing in public pressure "on what's to win and what's to lose is going to help. It's going to change things," he said.

"Not everyone is going to like this idea - but we need to be shaken out of our sense of complacency, because climate change is a serious threat," Shirkey concluded.

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