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Sharp divisions remain between the European Union and other major economies over climate protection, as spats over aviation and Canada's tar sands are showing, writes Stephen Gardner.

In the heady days before the 2009 United Nations Copenhagen climate conference, the European Union committed itself to a 20 percent greenhouse gas emissions cut by 2020, compared to 1990. This was a carrot dangled in front of other rich countries: if they followed the EU lead, the EU would boost its target to 30 percent.

Unfortunately in Copenhagen it all went wrong. No deal was done, the EU was left with a binding target, and much of the rest of the world decided to carry on polluting.

The climate divide between the EU and other economies has now surfaced again. The EU's 20 percent target has triggered other laws to cut emissions, provoking sometimes fierce opposition.

First, the EU wrote international airlines into its emissions trading system (ETS). China, the United States and many others have complained and threatened retaliation.

Second, EU legislation requiring the greenhouse-gas intensity of vehicle fuel to be reduced has provoked a war of words with Canada. In order to have a baseline against which to measure emissions intensity, it has been necessary to rate fuels. The European Commission has proposed to rate fuel derived from Canada's controversial tar sands as 22.3 percent dirtier than fuel from "conventional" crude. This creates a barrier to the use of tar sands oil in the EU, because it will make the achievement of the fuel emissions intensity reductions harder.

The spat is unlikely to affect companies because there will be no impact on fuel prices while other fuels are available. Likewise, the inclusion of airlines in the ETS will have little impact on passengers, with the estimated costs being a few euros per ticket, even for long-distance flights. But the international disagreements over the measures could be a sign of things to come.

Fundamentally, there remain deep global divisions over what to do about climate change. The ETS and tar sands are seen as symbolic. Peter Liese, a German member of the European Parliament, says US Republicans in particular have opposed the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS because they want to send a signal that "there will not be an ETS in the US".

It is so far unclear if the EU will continue to stand firm. On aviation in the ETS, the European Commission, backed by all 27 EU governments, has said it will not compromise. But on the tar sands rating, a decision has been deferred, and will probably not be taken until late 2012.

Darek Urbaniak of Friends of the Earth Europe says the arguments put climate issues "in the public spotlight," and make it harder for the EU to back down. He adds that tar sands might be "easier to win" for the EU, because Canada, which withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2011, is seen as less threatening than China is over the ETS. Industry, meanwhile, seems to dither. Peter Vertessy of industry federation BusinessEurope says the organisation's position on EU climate measures and potential resulting trade conflicts is "still subject to internal discussions".

But further international arguments lay ahead. The European Commission is considering including international shipping in the ETS, for example. The arguments also set the scene for continuing negotiations on a global deal to tackle climate change. Nearly three years on from Copenhagen, the divisions that caused its failure have not gone away.

A version of this article was published in Ethical Corporation magazine.

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