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Paris takes lead in climate change efforts, passing Berlin

French President Emmanuel Macron with his wife Brigitte Trogneux
Fighting climate change isn’t a walk in ze park, Emmanuel darling. Source: Picture Alliance

Two of Europe’s leading climate change scientists have said the baton of hope for political action has passed from Berlin to Paris, with Emmanuel Macron now a more likely climate savior than Angela Merkel, and France a better climate model than Germany.

On the key question of carbon taxation, the business community may be further ahead than either, they say.

Johan Rockström, an earth scientist, and Ottmar Edenhofer, an economist, have recently been appointed to lead the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The institute was founded 25 years ago and is now one of the world’s leading environmental think tanks. The new leadership team brings together natural and social sciences, and aims to focus on the economic and social effects of climate change.

Speaking to Handelsblatt, the two remained upbeat, but the urgency of their message was unmistakable. Climate change is accelerating: “Most people think about global warming as a gradual, predictable process,” said Mr. Rockström, “but we are already seeing abrupt and partially irreversible changes.” Not one single industrialized country is on course to achieve the Paris agreement’s modest goal of a two-degree average increase in world temperatures, he added.

“People think of global warming as gradual and predictable, but we are already seeing abrupt and irreversible changes.”

Johan Rockström, co-head, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

For hope, they look not to Germany but to France, where president Emmanuel Macron is pushing for an effective pricing mechanism for carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. Edenhofer said it would send a “very positive signal” if other major European countries took up his call.

The two scientists praised Germany’s commitment to energy reform, calling it a flawed but indispensable model for other countries. However, they fear tensions in the new grand coalition could paralyze energy reform. Although the coalition has expressed support for the Paris Treaty goals, politicians remain divided on how and when to shut down coal-fired power stations.

For the two scientists, fossil fuel consumption is the principal enemy, and only coherent market mechanisms can wean the economy off its carbon addiction. Now, they want to see support for carbon pricing from companies. Many German businesses are making it quite clear that they support a carbon tax. French firms think the same, Mr. Edenhofer said.

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Two Cassandras are better than one: Mr. Edenhofer (l) and Mr. Rockström. Source: PIK

Firms are pushing ahead and so far, 700 international businesses already have internal accounting procedures to calculate their activities in terms of carbon costs. Car manufacturers are speaking out in favor of carbon pricing, said Mr. Edenhöfer, and discussing change at the highest level.

But the problem in business is the insistence that carbon pricing must be launched worldwide. This is not realistic; waiting for global unanimity would mean nothing would ever be done, said Mr. Rockström. He can imagine making progress at G20 level, or an alliance of European nations led by France and Germany and prepared to reform carbon emissions trading and impose a carbon tax.

Top of the scientists’ list is a minimum price for carbon emissions, or “carbon price floor.” Environmentalists argue that the current price for carbon emissions is too low to impact behavior, and must be raised. An oversupply of permits in the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) is thought to have pushed down the price of carbon emissions.

“Many German and French businesses are making it quite clear they support a carbon tax.”

Ottmar Edenhofer, co-head, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Mr. Edenhofer said the minimum price should be €20 per metric ton of carbon emissions, around $25. At a conference for EU government officials held on Monday in Brussels, French environment minister Brune Poirson called for a price floor of between €25 and €30 per ton.

The price for inaction on climate change is growing by the day, the scientists underlined. The IMF recently estimated that the cost for countries most directly affected, mostly the poorest areas of the globe, already goes beyond the total cost of the global financial crisis.

Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change. Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics. To contact the authors: stratmann@handelsblatt.com, kersting@handelsblatt.com

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