A new transatlantic relationship is critical to any hope of global realisation of the goals of the Paris agreement.
It takes two to tango—at least according to a popular English proverb. Although less sensual and rhythmic, we probably saw the beginning of a new international climate-policy dance when the US special presidential envoy on climate, John Kerry, met the European Commission executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, on March 9th in Brussels.
Timmermans was looking forward to ‘work hand in hand’ with his ‘good friend’ Kerry ‘to make a success of Glasgow’—venue for the postponed COP26 climate summit in November—and ‘to convince other major players in the world to do the right thing’. The presidential envoy in turn emphasised that the United States had ‘no better partners than our friends here in Europe’ and that it was important to co-operate, as no one country could resolve the climate crisis on its own.
Could these have been the initial moves setting the scene for a new global climate choreography—after four years of a punk ‘America first’, climate-change-denial pogo on the world stage?
First signs suggest this is indeed the case: not only has the mood music changed, but the whole performance. After his inauguration as president, Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign pledge to rejoin the Paris agreement of 2015 on his first day in office. He gathered world leaders for an online climate summit in April and announced more ambitious targets for the US.
While these pledges still need to be turned into law, the European Union is already a step ahead. In December 2019, it unveiled its European Green Deal—a reform agenda for the continent, to make it more sustainable and climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest. The climate-neutrality objective will be turned into law this summer, together with an upgrade of the EU’s climate ambition for 2030.
Will this animation translate to a global dual leadership, reaching for a more adequate response to the onrushing climate catastrophe? There is a fair chance that the couple’s rekindled devotion can indeed lead to the build-up of a new global coalition of higher ambition.
For this to happen, however, the two blocs need to assume their role-model responsibilities. Much like an ensemble’s lead dancers, they will have to demonstrate how this can be done—the world needs to see that it is possible to decouple destructive emissions from economic and social wellbeing. The pair need to turn their pledges swiftly into law, underpin them with instruments and convince others to develop credible net-zero plans for the middle of the century and 2030 climate targets in line with those pledges.
On that, they still have work to do, as Biden’s April summit showed: hopes for the establishment of a ‘club of 50’ have unfortunately not been fulfilled. Only the EU, the US and the United Kingdom have committed to new climate targets for 2030 of CO2 reductions beyond 50 per cent. China, Russia, Brazil, Japan and Canada have been falling short of expectations. So far in the global ballroom, this is more a lethargic foxtrot than a passionate tango.
This could change, though, with the formation of an international ‘climate club’, as proposed by the German vice-chancellor and social-democrat candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Such an association of countries would set common standards and policies to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, with a levy on CO2-intensive products entering from outside the club from countries with less ambitious climate polices.
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The aim would be to ensure that a high level of climate protection did not become a disadvantage for any of these countries’ economies on the global market. The US and the EU as the world’s two biggest economic blocs could be the initiators of this club, with the gravitational pull to attract further states to join.
Due to their historical responsibility for accumulated emissions and their economic capacities, developed countries committed in the Paris agreement to mobilise $100 billion annually by 2025 for climate action in developing countries—a target they are however not meeting. The US and the EU and its member states should step up their efforts to mobilise international climate finance for developing countries and build an international roadmap, outlining each developed country’s fair share of the overall financial pledge and mechanisms to ensure individual pledges are turned into deeds.
While the renewed transatlantic axis could be the nucleus for wider international climate co-operation, the partnership could also positively affect the two entities’ own polices—just as it is easier to improve one’s dance steps with a partner. Indeed, with the return of the US to the global climate stage under Biden, the EU will have a new partner to be compared against. We might even see rivalry for the best climate policy—in a quick-step to net zero—emerge.
Paying closer attention to one another’s policies brings moreover the opportunity for mutual learning and inspiration. Biden is reinventing American economic policy. He has launched a huge stimulus package. He seeks to invest billions in green infrastructure, raise top-income taxes and strengthen the power of trade unions. Neoliberal capitalism must make space for an economic policy where the state and society have a say. Europe should dare more of this ‘Bidenomics’.
Compared with Biden’s $2 trillion plan to overhaul and upgrade the country’s infrastructure, the EU’s €750 billion recovery fund looks rather modest. Yet it is a welcome step in the right direction as, for the first time in history, member states will jointly borrow on the markets to invest in projects to overcome the pandemic-induced crisis, with clear environmental strings attached. This is something to build upon and expand in the future.
It is good to see the continent has not fallen into the austerity trap again, as after the financial crisis. But Europe’s conservative fiscal hawks can’t wait to get back to the ‘debt brakes’ and fiscal consolidation which would put effective climate action into a straitjacket.
Europeans can also learn from Biden’s positive vision of climate-change policies. Too often, climate protection is portrayed as a threat to industry and jobs. Biden’s narrative is different: ‘When people talk about climate, I think jobs.’ In line with this, the European Green Deal has huge potential to bring about positive environmental and social change.
Short of the science
If all this sounds too good to be true, remember: the music hasn’t started yet. Despite all the progress, the new EU and US climate targets remain short of what the science indicates is needed for the two blocs to be in line with their commitments under the Paris agreement. In any event, the Democrats have a thin majority in the US Senate and face determined Republican filibusters, while climate-policy hesitant conservatives, free-marketeers and nationalists remain strong in the EU institutions—so actual implementation of those new climate pledges is not yet granted. Civil society and progressives on both sides of the Atlantic, without whom we wouldn’t have got to where we are today, will need to remain vocal to keep the pressure high.
The renewed US-EU co-operation offers a real opportunity to shake up the world community for more climate action, to inspire one another and to start a ‘race to the top’. The first months of the Biden administration have given the impression that when it comes to climate policies, the US and the EU can tango.
The first big test of this duo will come in November in Glasgow. There we shall see if others can be drawn on to the dance floor and commit to new policies aligned with their Paris obligations.
This is part of a series on the transatlantic relationship, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung