The United States is back when it comes to fighting climate change—at least, that’s the message that Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is carrying to the rest of the world. His first stop? The United States’ transatlantic allies—the European Union (EU), Britain, and France. Checking in with friends across the Atlantic Ocean makes sense, as they have made significant progress on the climate agenda while the United States under the Trump administration absented itself. With the United States once again interested in climate action, fertile ground exists for collaboration. Nonetheless, the geopolitical landscape has changed since John Kerry engaged in shuttle climate diplomacy as secretary of state for President Barack Obama. In the Obama years, the United States succeeded in driving global climate policy, culminating in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. However, the election of Donald Trump as president made plain the United States’ vulnerability to seismic shifts when it comes to climate action.
Looming over any climate discussions is a question of trust: after the past four years, can Europe count on the United States to deliver on climate?
Many Europeans are skeptical that the Biden administration can overcome the polarization in US politics. After all, President Trump easily kicked aside most US climate policy achieved by his predecessor, denied climate science, and withdrew from vital alliances leaving allies to pick up the pieces. In early 2017, then-President Trump announced that the United States would exit the historic Paris Agreement. In November 2020, one day before Trump lost his bid for reelection, that withdrawal became effective. Just two months later, on his first day in office, newly-elected President Joe Biden announced America’s return to the Paris accord, as well as a sweep of other climate measures. What will stop the Biden administration’s efforts from suffering a similar fate as Obama’s if election winds shift again in 2024?
During the Trump years, the European Union forged ahead, honing its green credentials. The bloc embraced its own European Green Deal, and in 2020—as member states grappled with coronavirus-related economic upheaval—the EU recognized the opportunity to devise a pandemic recovery plan that catalyzed a green transformation. The European Commission made fighting climate change central to the EU’s economic recovery, allocating a minimum of thirty percent from both its short-term recovery instrument, NextGenerationEU, and its long-term budget over the next seven years to advancing climate objectives—the largest budget allocation dedicated to addressing climate change in the largest EU budget ever. The EU has also heightened its ambition to reduce carbon emissions by fifty-five percent by 2030 and has projected complete carbon-neutrality by 2050. With these aims, Europe would become the first carbon-neutral continent. Meanwhile, the United States’ pandemic stimulus packages so far have failed to include meaningful climate provisions.
Kerry’s recent shuttle diplomacy aims to assuage the fears that the United States is too fickle to remain a leader. The first step towards rebuilding trust on these issues is for the United States to announce an ambitious agenda for lowering carbon emissions domestically at Biden’s Leaders’ Climate Summit set for April of this year. An aggressive plan to decarbonize the energy sector, as well as the American economy more broadly, will speak volumes.
Another way to reassure the EU as to US intentions is to accept their offer to forge an ambitious transatlantic agenda focused on going green. The agenda reached a major milestone with a recent US-EU joint statement affirming a shared commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. To further this end, EU-US cooperation could focus on addressing a troublesome challenge in natural gas production—the need to detect and seal leaks of methane, a potent global warming agent.
The agenda could also support creation of a global regulatory framework for sustainable finance. The demand for green and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments has surged during the pandemic with offerings soaring to a record $732 billion in 2020. Coinciding with these sales, accusations of “greenwashing”—putting a green veneer on investments that in fact are not environmentally friendly—have also grown. Standardization would clarify for investors what counts as a green investment, thus helping to drive investments that credibly contribute to sustainability.
The transatlantic green trade agenda should involve joint investment in renewable energy, grid-scale energy storage, and clean hydrogen, in addition to carbon capture and sequestration, to drive an international green transition. One major area requiring increased cooperation is the EU’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), a core component of the European Green Deal. The EU views CBAM as an effective tool for lowering emissions while preventing “carbon leakage,” where businesses relocate production from a country with stringent policies to a country with lesser emissions standards, leading to an increase in overall emissions. The European Commission intends to present its proposal for the carbon border tax within a broader framework of climate legislation in June. Both the United States and China have expressed concerns that this move could foster protectionism if the EU moves ahead to unilaterally implement a carbon border tax. A joint EU-US position reached prior to the formal proposal in June would be a strategy for diffusing conflict before it arises, as Kerry made clear in his first diplomatic trip overseas in March 2021.
Another important early win for a strengthened transatlantic partnership is a renewed commitment to multilateralism. One way to demonstrate that commitment is engagement in multilateral efforts aimed at debt relief for poorer countries. With revenues down and borrowing up due to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic, impoverished countries may lack access to funds to address worsening climate impacts. As they struggle to recover economically, states may therefore face a temptation to continue to invest in traditionally carbon-intensive industries rather than in a green transition. In addition to debt restructuring, the EU and United States should work with allies in the G20, a group of twenty of the world’s largest economies, to implement debt-for-climate swaps that alleviate crushing debt burdens in exchange for improved environmental practices.
Several international institutions exist through which transatlantic allies could work with partners to advance climate objectives. A promising start would be reinvigorating the US-EU Energy Council as a forum to examine potential areas for increased cooperation on clean technology innovation, mutually beneficial clean energy and trade policies, and development of carbon capture and storage. For its part, the United States should reconvene the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), the international body established to help facilitate increased political leadership and action on climate. The MEF could work in tandem with the April climate summit that the United States intends to host to prompt greater ambition in the world’s largest emitters in advance of COP26. At the same time, the United States should demonstrate its intent to follow through on its responsibilities to the Green Climate Fund, the financing mechanism that supports developing countries in addressing climate change.
Accelerating domestic action on climate, establishing green trade policies, and recommitting to multilateralism would help assuage concerns that the United States will keep ricocheting back and forth with each successive election. So too would early agreement on identifiable steps forward with its transatlantic partners. That the United States may struggle to deliver is no secret. Despite Biden’s focus on climate, the United States’ ability to build durable climate policy remains at the mercy of a deeply divided Congress. In four years, or even two, the political pendulum could once again swing, redistributing party composition at the federal level, and with it reshaping the environmental policy landscape. Until the United States can demonstrate its sustained ability to deliver, the volatility of US politics will hang over everything accomplished by presidential rather than congressional action. Nevertheless, as Kerry has made plain, there is no time to waste when it comes to the climate crisis.
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Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff.
Madeline Babin is a research associate, climate change policy, at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Image Credit: Adam Schultz, Flickr