This blog was very silent last week because I was in Washington DC participating in a fascinating two-day climate and energy conference organised by the Transatlantic Platform for Action on the Global Environment (T-PAGE). This dialogue forum was created to facilitate debate among members of EU and US civil society on climate and energy policies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The conference focused in a first-day expert workshop on the question how to reduce emissions from the transport sector and on the controversial US and EU biofuels policies. On the second day, a public event highlighted the lessons drawn from the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) and US Congress plans for a similar cap-and-trade system and looked at public perceptions in the US and the EU about the global warming challenge.

Overall, the European participants painted a less rosy picture than EU institutions want to make believe. Not only was there the growing disappointment with the global effects of biofuels policies (one of the EU’s own environmental institutions now pleads for suspending the 10% target), but the evaluation of Europe’s climate flagship, the emissions trading scheme or ETS, was also rather bleak. It is obvious that up to now the ETS has not lived up to its expectations. Very few real technological investments as a result of pricing CO2 have taken place and the only ones who seem to have won from ETS are the financial traders (who therefore write very positive reports about ETS). It is doubtful whether the Commission’s new proposals will turn things around. Not only has the energy-intensive industry hijacked the debate with its “carbon leakage” panic but even the better parts of the Commission’s ETS review drew heavy fire at the conference. “When Europe’s power producers (who have made big windfall profits in the first phase of ETS) applaud the auctioning proposals of the new Commission package, you have to smell a rat” was the justified and smart observation of an ex-Commission official.

The US participants (mainly from environmental groups, academics and one representative of the Californian lawmakers) were quite optimistic that the wind in the US is changing and that a future administration will endorse stricter global warming targets. One of the doubts raised was whether this will happen fast enough so as to influence the outcome of the Copenhagen climate top of 2009. I also have my own personal doubts in case of a surprise win of John McCain in November. Will the US senator, when President, be able to turn his climate-sceptical party around or will he water down his own positions?

US as well as EU particpants agreed that we need to move to more sustainable transport modes but there was a lot of confusion in the debate on what would be the right approach (some went for CNG, others underlined the need for a breakthrough in electrification technologies, others again highlighted the need for serious transport demand reduction).

On biofuels, the general feeling was that it is time to “take the foot of the accelerator” and “rethink” our biofuels policies in view of rising food prices as well as negative effects on land use and the direct and indirect repercussions for the environment and global warming.

That said, the conference confirmed to me once more that our exclusive focus on climate change makes us lose sight of the bigger sustainability challenge. Climate change is just one symptom of a bigger system crisis with lots of other dimensions (peak oil, gas and coal, high commodity prices, water shortages, biodiversity loss, population growth). Policymakers’ overemphasis on one dimension of this sustainability crisis might lead to effects which aggravate the other crises (see the link between biofuels, population and high oil prices on the one hand and the new hunger issue on the other). If policymakers do not connect the dots and see climate change as part of this huge overarching sustainability challenge, chances are that we will just sink deeper and deeper into the mud as exemplified by the flight into coal and tar sands as a result of the growing energy crunch. It is time to develop a transatlantic and global agenda on sustainability and create the governance structures needed for this system transformation.