2020 is the first year of delivery for the EU’s climate ambitions. The European Commission has set itself a goal to tackle climate change with unprecedented urgency and ambition through its European Green Deal plan, at the heart of which is the objective to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. Yet as the EU produces only about 9% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, it is absolutely vital that these ambitions have a strong external element to them as well. The transition must thus be built upon realistic targets and pragmatic diplomatic approach to credibly project the EU’s normative power.

The Green Deal and the Commission’s political guidelines set a target for the EU to become a global leader on climate action at the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in 2020 and to lead international negotiations between major emitters by 2021. To this end, the EU must have what it takes to successfully follow its own green transition pathway to build credibility for its cause, while understanding that what works in Europe cannot necessarily be exported elsewhere lock, stock and barrel. There are political, social, and economic bridges to be crossed.

Furthermore, although formal multilateral negotiations are of course one route to global climate action, the EU must be able to foster much more than that to get its message across. The EU needs to look towards formal and informal public-private climate cooperation to share best practice and promote innovative technologies between major global emitters. Considering the emerging climate policy debate in the US, supporting a strong transatlantic partnership would sharpen the focus of global climate cooperation and establish foundations that can be used to launch similar cooperation models elsewhere.

 

The US is waking up on climate action

 

The past year has seen a number of climate policy initiatives rise from the Capitol. Just last month, the House Energy & Commerce Committee released its CLEAN Future Act, which aims to set a climate neutrality by 2050 target for the US and borrows ideas such as the just transition and federal climate bank from the Green Deal. It follows earlier Democratic legislative openings such as the Green New Deal, 100% Clean Economy Act of 2019 and the Climate Action Now Act.

Across the aisle, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has put forward a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” and the GOP representatives in the House are considering their options to issue permanent tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration, as well as the development of direct air capture of CO2. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has in particular reacted to the polling that 64% of Americans see climate change as either a crisis or a serious problem and that a majority would like to see the country act on it right now.

It is obvious that such initiatives are highly unlikely to pass in the bitterly divided American political system, but they nonetheless indicate that there is both a real appetite to discuss climate action as well as realisation among politicians that climate change is becoming a real issue among voters. In fact, half of Americans would like to see their country lead on international efforts to tackle climate change, while an additional one third would like the US to act if other nations do the same.

 

Transatlantic cooperation must be built on multiple levels

 

The current distrust and tariff-based tit-for-tat in transatlantic relations make formal US-EU partnership on anything seem rather unlikely, of course. Despite the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on 4 November 2020, however, Europeans have a number of alternative avenues from state and cities to NGOs and businesses to form alliances. The joint initiatives could take a variety of forms but should engage the core tenets of the Green Deal – namely sustainability, affordability, and energy security – at the heart of the cooperation.

On the governance level, a platform for transatlantic climate dialogue could be established to conduct bilateral discussions in a non-formalised setting. To achieve this, example could be drawn from the bilateral US-Germany Transatlantic Energy Dialogue and Transatlantic Climate Bridge to establish a forum for the sharing of ideas between US and EU policymakers and stakeholders. More could also be done to promote the EU’s existing Energy Allies platform for transatlantic local level cooperation on energy transition between cities. Considering that cities are responsible for 75% of global CO2 emissions, it is particularly important to share best practice on clean urban transport and energy efficiency of buildings.

As an example of existing transatlantic climate cooperation, Minnesota has looked up to the German energiewende for its own climate transition. The exchange of knowledge and policy has included both state-level and local-level cooperation to drive the clean energy transition in the northern US state. Yet, much like Germany is on the course to miss its 2020 emission reduction target, so has Minnesota already missed its 2015 goal. It is crucial that Minnesota avoids the mistakes of Germany, which currently possesses both the highest fossil fuel and renewable energy subsidies in Europe as well as the highest electricity prices on the continent. Therefore, a wider range of best practice should be on offer to ensure the most efficient green transition in states looking to follow the European example.

Beyond the public sector, a joint transatlantic approach should also be envisaged for innovative private sector projects to particularly develop breakthrough technologies in line with the Green Deal ambitions and further support emerging climate coalitions across the Atlantic. A competitive and cost-effective transition initiated by local government and private sectors may even prompt the larger political forces to move once a business case and scaling-up possibilities can be demonstrated. The clean transition does not have to be a mere top-down exercise.

 

Stronger transatlantic cooperation is needed to achieve steeper global emission reductions by 2030 and 2050

 

Credible cooperation initiatives between the world’s largest consumer markets on climate change would help to support climate efforts also globally. This is particularly important as the EU and the US combined still emit just under a quarter of the global greenhouse gases annually. In comparison, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, is alone responsible for almost 30% – although the numbers do not account for how much of that is due to manufacturing consumption goods for the EU and the US markets under the brand names of Western companies.

Support for a clean energy transition in China is much needed. Indicative of the country’s problems is its issues with wind power expansion, which remain hampered by a lack of grid connections, constraints in grid management  as well as suboptimal turbine model selection and hub height – of which the latter two in particular could be aided with technological know-how and experience from the transatlantic partners. Since both the EU and California already run separate partnership programmes with China, a joint approach in clean energy technology could better focus the support and bring much needed results and avoid doubling the work.

A common vision would also help responding to the emerging challenge of Africa’s rapidly growing need for clean energy. The continent’s population is expected to grow by over 500 million by 2040, which – together with growing living standards – will considerably increase its energy consumption. Initiatives such as the Climate Finance Partnership are one piece of the puzzle, but effective sharing of expertise and experience by US and EU stakeholders with local partners would direct sustainability investment more effectively towards energy efficiency measures and all available solutions to achieve system decarbonisation in the long-term. The EU should thus aim to foster exchanges and facilitate this in the future.

Simply put, the EU must take bolder steps in its external relations to ensure that 2019 remains the peak in global emissions. And as the Green Deal materialises, the EU should look first across the Atlantic to find global allies for its ambitious sustainable growth plan.

Policy Advisor at Aula Europe

Otto is a Brussels-based policy advisor specialising in energy policy and EU institutional questions. He is a contributor to The Ulkopolist, a leading Finnish foreign policy publication, and has previously worked at the European Parliament and the UK House of Commons.

Otto holds an MSc in EU Politics from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA(Hons.) in International Relations from the University of Kent in Canterbury.

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