New US climate strategy opens old loopholes with Europe

The Biden administration marked the United States’ return to international climate leadership this week with ambitious plans to halve greenhouse gas emissionss by 2030. But the movement has also resurfaced some old loopholes.

The climate target put the United States broadly on par with the EU, which this week sealed the terms of a European law which commits the bloc to reducing its emissions by at least 55% over the decade, compared to 1990 levels. The US target is based on 2005 emission levels.

Although encouraged in Europe, the return of the American climate masks divergent approaches between the two economic powers on how to win the so-called race to net zero.

“The Americans have a strategy based on the development of new technologies,” French Environment Minister Barbara Pompili said this week. “It’s great to develop hydrogen, like we’re doing, and carbon capture. But I think we have an additional ingredient in France and in Europe. We go further because we also examine our lifestyles.

EU officials are also quick to point out what they see as shortcomings in the US strategy which relies heavily on new green technologies and innovation and private sector investment to drastically cut emissions.

“I am really optimistic. I believe in our ingenuity, ”said US Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry on Thursday after the first day of the US-led climate summit that brought together leaders from 40 countries, including Chinese Xi Jinping and Russian Vladimir Putin, as well as climate commitments from Japan, Canada and South Korea.

Kerry said he expects the United States to exceed its 2030 target thanks to technological advancements yet to be developed in areas such as green hydrogen power, batteries, as well as capture and carbon storage.

“We are the country that went to the moon. We didn’t know how we were going to get there when President Kennedy announced the goal, but we did, ”said the former secretary of state.

Climate activists with Extinction Rebellion protest Joe Biden’s plan to halve U.S. emissions by 2030, which they deem “ far too little, far too late, ” near the White House on Thursday © Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

EU officials admit that the US can mobilize significantly more investment in green technologies compared to the bloc of 27 countries, where spending is still determined nationally.

But US ‘techno-optimism’ contrasts sharply with the EU’s multi-dimensional approach which combines a mix of bloc regulatory power and investments in energy innovations, as well as an advanced carbon pricing system. , to stimulate the changes in consumption necessary to significantly reduce emissions. .

The EU used the Trump years to establish itself as the world’s leading climate superpower. The Brussels climate law enshrines its binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 – which, if reached, would make the EU the first continent in the world to take this step.

In the coming months, Brussels will pass green legislation to make the bloc ‘55% fit’ by 2030. Laws will cover everything from auto emissions targets and building renovations to renewable energies, in the framework of a European Green Deal which is hailed as an industrial policy aimed at reviving the post-pandemic economy.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-chair of the Club of Rome, argues that the EU’s climate strategy is a “systems approach” that tries to encompass almost all sectors of the economy. “The United States has always been driven by the market – and not just by the Biden administration. They are missing a trick by not focusing on moving the economy beyond the use of technological levers. she says.

U.S. political analysts agree that the United States continues to catch up on climate policy, even though officials in the Biden administration insist that large technological gains ensure that not too much ground has been lost in the country. during the Trump years.

“A key difference is that many European countries have adopted climate legislation, which gives them much more authority to design and implement policies in line with their international commitments,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a former senior Obama White House official who helped negotiate the 2014 US. -China climate deal. “The United States does not have this comprehensive legislation and instead has taken a patchwork approach with limited powers.”

“[The Biden Administration] Perhaps the skepticism in the international community that the United States can get back on track in domestic politics may be underestimating. “

One of the main points of departure between the two powers is Europe’s adoption of carbon pricing through its market-driven Emissions Trading System (ETS), which is at the forefront. heart of Europe’s decarbonization plan.

Joe Biden, left, delivers remarks alongside John Kerry at the Virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit in the East Room of the White House © Anna Moneymaker / Pool / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

The ETS was put in place in the 2000s to encourage heavily polluting industries to switch to greener energy by forcing them to buy carbon allowances to offset their emissions. The cap-and-trade system is expected to dramatically expand to include new sectors such as shipping, car manufacturers and buildings, and impose further changes in the business models of European industry. In anticipation, investors pushed the price of carbon to new records this week at over € 40 per tonne.

But such a market-based system has received little support at the federal level in the United States, despite the adoption of a smaller carbon trading system in California and, to a more limited degree, in the United States. northeast such as New York and Maryland.

“If Americans don’t have a carbon pricing system, the only alternative is a carbon tax and that’s political suicide,” said a senior EC official.

To counter US claims that Europe is obsessed with regulation, EU policymakers say ETS has proven to be an effective market-based solution that has prevented over-regulation and setting high standards in areas such as energy efficiency.

“We don’t know why the United States is allergic to it and don’t think they’ve given it much thought,” the official added.

Line graph in € per tonne showing soaring carbon prices in the EU

Tensions between the EU and the US over carbon pricing risk overcoming the most controversial area: the carbon border adjustment tax planned in Brussels, designed to reduce levies on imports from of countries without equivalent carbon pricing mechanisms.

Kerry has resisted European efforts to get the United States to join the program and warned that it should only be used as a “last resort.” The commission’s proposal will be unveiled in June.

Divergent climate philosophies are likely to remain given the fundamentally different political landscapes in the US and the EU. Despite the divisions among the 27 EU member states over energy policy, all agreed to its goal of net zero and the need for decarbonization.

In contrast, environmental policy in the United States risks being caught in the crossfire of deeply polarized partisan politics, with supporting Democrats and resistant Republicans, the Dixson-Declève Club of Rome said.

Jeff Colgan, associate professor in the Climate Solutions Lab at Brown University, said Europe “shouldn’t expect” the United States to follow the mix of policies seen in the UK and the United Kingdom. ‘EU. “The United States has different policies and Biden has to follow the art of the possible to get good climate policies.”

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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