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Mon. August 15, 2022
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Metaphors in EU Climate Change Policy: Defining a New Approach
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By Alysia Garmulewicz Carleton University


The EU has consistently led the world in climate change policy over the past 15 years. Its mark can be seen in the current configuration of the Kyoto Protocol, in domestic and international emissions trading legislation, and in the engagement with the developing world through dialogue for a post-2012 international climate change regime (Michaelowa 2004). The amount and complexity of climate change policy is intensifying as the world grapples changing course towards a low carbon future. Given its powers of influence, the conceptual foundations of EU climate change policy must be sound and worthy of replication. This begs the question: Is the EU policy approach an appropriate model for the world? What is needed to make it more successful internally and internationally?

Limits-based and market-based policy paradigms are the two dominant approaches to current EU and international climate change action. These have also been described as “command-and-control and neoliberal approaches” (Bailey, 2007, p. 431), “risk prevention and…free-market environmentalism” (Damro & Méndez, 2003, p. 72), and “the politics of limits and the politics of possibility” (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007, p. 120-2). As such, these two paradigms are often seen to be in direct opposition. The limit-based policy paradigm focuses on setting fixed limits to the environmental impact deemed acceptable to society. The market-based policy paradigm focuses on maximizing market efficiency regardless of absolute environmental outcomes.

While reflecting finite natural capacities, the limits-based policy paradigm assumes that “economic growth [is] inconsistent with the idea of ecological limits” (Hunold & Dryzek, 2005, p. 79), setting up an inherent metaphorical antagonism. Thus, the metaphor of a finite Earth – reinforced by the Apollo 17 photograph of Earth from space – not only helped define an environmental discourse of limits, but also conflicted directly with industry’s view of uninhibited economic expansion. A second metaphor imbedded in the limits-based policy paradigm is the widespread notion of the environment as separate from humans. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was immensely influential in sparking the environmental movement, her writing evoking a world where the birds would cease to sing if humans continued their unjust violation of nature. This discourse was founded on the idea of pollution and of humans being a polluting force. As Nordhaus & Shellenberger (2007, p.24) explain, “the meaning of the world pollution depends on the concept of nature as pure, harmonious, and separate from humans…human development is an encroachment on nature.” Our polluting influence therefore needs to be limited through policy. These two metaphors of finite ecological limits conflicting with economic growth and nature as separate from human’s polluting influence promote the overall view that humans are necessarily bad for the Earth. As McDonough and Braungart (2005, p.30) critique, such an assumption leads only to striving to be “less bad…to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonourable, destructible systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the ‘be less bad’ approach: a failure of imagination.” Accordingly, this limits-based preoccupation with the constraint of human influence leads to climate change being framed as a barrier to which societal development must be sacrificed, a view hardly conducive to unleashing humanity’s full imaginative potential for change.

For the market-based policy paradigm the primary goal is not respecting limits but maximizing market efficiency, an aim that also contains important inherent assumptions. Firstly, although efficiency is often thought of as being innately positive, one would have to “question the general goal of efficiency for a system that is largely destructive” (McDonough & Braungart 2005, p. 40); that is, if society (which industry serves) is not designed to work within natural limits, increasing its efficiency only prolongs its destructive impact. It should be noted that gains in efficiency can play a significant positive environmental role, especially in the developing world where poverty contributes to poor technological capacity and corresponding environmental quality. However, if the developing and newly industrialized world is going to succeed in bypassing the environmentally destructive path of developed nations, it is important for efficiency to be employed as a tool within a larger economic system redesigned to be ecologically effective. A focus on efficiency alone does not motivate the creation of this larger systemic shift. Secondly, placing the goal of economic efficiency above the workings of the larger system can lead to the metaphoric assumption of the superiority of the economic sphere over the social and environmental. This runs counter to the metaphor of sustainability that sees the economy working within society, and society working within the limits of the natural world (Webster 2004). When the economic sphere is seen as divorced from working within social and natural boundaries, any reminder or imposition of societal or environmental limits can conceptually be viewed as being in direct opposition to economic goals of expansion, instead of the natural corrective workings needed to keep the whole system in balance.

Despite these problematic underlying conceptions, the market-based policy paradigm does view human agency positively. Instead of a necessary curtailing of economic ambition implied by limits, the market-based paradigm can promote the growth of new green markets, framing climate change mitigation as an opportunity for human creativity. Adoption of either limits or market-based policy in these current conceptions necessarily reinforces their inherent metaphors and corresponding frames of climate change mitigation. As the following illustrates, simply adopting either paradigm or combining the two without regard for their metaphorical basis can lead to the undermining of the full potential for societal change.

The impact of the inherent metaphors in limits and market based policy paradigms can be explored through the EU’s employment of both approaches to climate change action. The EU has embraced the limits-based policy paradigm through its strong support of the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions targets, adopting a 20% reduction by 2020 in addition to its Kyoto target of an 8% reduction below 1990 levels by 2012 (European Commission, 2007). Meeting these targets is partly meant to be accomplished through the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS). Linked to the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the ETS presents a hybrid limit and market-based approach, its “cap and trade” system combining clear limits on emissions with market incentives for innovation and investment in clean energy alternatives. Paradoxically, during the 1997 Kyoto negotiations the EU opposed United States efforts to include emissions trading as part of the Protocol, arguing instead for strict limits-based domestic policy efforts. But by 1998 EU policy experts became increasingly supportive of emissions trading as a legitimate market-driven method for achieving emissions reductions. Ironically, it would be the US dropping out of international negotiations that allowed the EU to go back on its former position and frame itself as a policy innovator in emissions trading (Cass, 2005). This change of position demonstrates the very real dilemma between adhering to a limits or market-based policy paradigm. Though ETS has succeeded in directing billions of Euros in clean technology investment to developing countries through the Kyoto CDM, due to the comparative cost-effective nature of investing in the developing world incentives are not provided for domestic investment in clean technology alternatives (Nordhaus & Shellenberger 2007, p. 120). Given the urgency of reducing emissions in the developed world, this market-driven outcome is not sufficient.

Further limitations of the EU ETS in the phase-one (2005-2007) and phase-two (2008-2012) trial periods highlight the continued tension between the combined limits and market-based policy paradigms. Phase-one period emissions permits were over-allocated, surpassing historical emissions reported during 1998–2002 by 3%, creating an excess supply in the emissions market and a drop in allowance prices and trading. This failure has been blamed on the lack of national government and European Commission oversight on industry ‘business as usual’ emission forecasts from which appropriate allocations are derived. National governments also inflated their emission forecasts to counter the Kyoto policy positions of other countries in the international community (Grubb et al., 2005). Additionally, to quiet industry fears of large increases in cost (Bailey, 2007), 95% of allowances were issued free of charge, a number only reduced to 90% in the phase-two period (Official Journal of the European Communities, 2003). Negotiations for phase-two have similarly been plagued by problems. Taking a tougher stance, the European Commission has repeatedly rejected most National Allocation Plans due to member states requesting more market allowances than there are real emissions to account for. As a result, many countries have taken retaliatory legal action (Bailey, 2007).

Characterized by this pattern of reluctance and antagonism, the EU ETS presents a situation where environmental limits-based goals are being compromised due to market-based pressure, and market efficiency is being compromised by discrepancies in reported limits-based allowances. The resulting issues highlight a core divergence between believing in limits imposed on industry through the allocation and cost of emissions permits, and industries and national governments wanting to meet requirements in the easiest way possible while continuing to pursue their own market and sovereign interests. While the Commission has tried to restore momentum to the EU ETS with its post 2012 agenda (European Commission, 2006), the fundamental polarity between limit and market-based metaphors remains inherently central, creating an uneasy alliance at best and a recipe for continued tension.

The more recent EU commitments to domestic clean energy investment exemplify a larger shift to a market-based policy paradigm. The common European energy policy communicated by the European Commission in 2007 includes a requirement of 20% renewable energy in the energy mix and 10% of transportation fuel to be biofuels by 2020 as well as an increase of at least 50% in annual investment spending on low-carbon technologies over the next seven years (European Commission, 2007). The European Commission articulated the hope that the plan will be a catalyst for “a new industrial revolution” that will “transform Europe into a highly energy-efficient and low-CO2 energy economy” by mid-century (EurActiv, 2007). With this plan, the EU is advancing a policy paradigm infused with the conceptual metaphor of the positive force of human ingenuity. It remains to be seen if this market-based approach is prevented from achieving a true “industrial revolution” by the limiting metaphors of the unquestioned positive nature of economic efficiency and the primacy of a disconnected economic sphere.

Based on this analysis there is a need to be conscious of the underlying conceptual metaphors inherent in an adopted policy paradigm as they influence the frame within which actions are taken. Limits clearly have instrumental value in reflecting the boundaries of a finite Earth, but carry conceptual metaphors of the central conflict between the environment and industry, separate human and natural spheres, and humans as fundamentally bad for the Earth. The market-based policy paradigm succeeds in framing climate change as an opportunity for societal development but falls short of effecting systemic change with the assumption of economic primacy and the narrow-minded goal of isolated efficiency. Combining paradigms based on contradictory imbedded metaphors can also be debilitating. As Ireland (2007, p. iv) notes, “Simply grafting a program onto a system founded on contradictory metaphors may not be as effective as intended as the metaphors seep into the system.” If policies intended to frame climate change as a societal opportunity are founded on conceptual metaphors of negative limits, such efforts can be undermined. This is exemplified by the ETS’s uneasy alliance of limit and market-based conceptual metaphors causing internal conflicts as limit-based proponents seek to limit human impact while market-based proponents aim to unleash human influence through the medium of the market. The issue of metaphorical incompatibility remains.

With the power to influence how the limit and market-based paradigms are pursued in the international arena, the EU has the opportunity and imperative to adopt climate change policy that provides a positive and effective world model. To harmonize the metaphors of the limit and market-based policy paradigms, the idea of limits must first be reconfigured to support the view of climate change mitigation as a positive opportunity. Instead of conceptualizing human society as a negative and polluting force, limits can frame the boundaries of a finite Earth as an opportunity to develop society in a direction that nourishes instead of degrades the natural world. By connecting to natural systems rather than running counter to them, society can pursue the development of ever more intelligent and appropriate economic design. “The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world” (McDonough & Braungart, 2005, p. 155). By redefining human influence as the champion instead of as the barrier to attaining harmony with natural systems, the limits-based policy paradigm can be re-envisioned to become consistent with the positive view of human agency promoted by the market-based paradigm. The imbedded market-based assumption of economic primacy must also be discarded in favour of a market ethos that works within societal and natural spheres. The market can then be used to guide the design of ecologically restorative economic and social systems.

With a consistent metaphorical foundation, the EU’s limit and market-based policy paradigms can then be better combined. A unifying systemic framework of analysis is able to accomplish this by transcending the dualism of a tradeoff between limit and market-based paradigms (Meadows, 1999) and replacing rigid goals that serve as their own ideological ends with objectives for the overall system. To illustrate, the current goals of achieving a given set of limits and maximizing market efficiency can be redefined so that limits redirect human actions away from perpetuating outdated system structures towards creating nested systems modeling sustainability, and human creativity is channeled through market-based approaches to promote innovation and ecologically-appropriate design. In this way the uneasy alliance of limit and market-based EU climate change policy could become a true mutually reinforcing partnership. Such a framework could aid the resolution of tensions in the phase-two EU ETS as well as expedite the creation of an effective post-2012 international climate change regime. By consciously adopting a systemic view imbedded with harmonized conceptual metaphors, the EU could frame climate change consistently as a societal opportunity in the international arena, catalyzing positive change for a low carbon sustainable future.

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