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Greening the Transatlantic relationship

Oct 07,2020 - Last updated at Oct 07,2020

BRUSSELS — Before 2020, calls to address climate change had been growing louder and more urgent in Europe. It was a growing political liability for governments to ignore the issue, particularly after a mass movement of young people took to the streets to demand action. In normal times, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic would end this growing momentum. But these are not normal times.

Instead, the European Union recently agreed to a massive economic-policy package with a substantial climate component. Fully 30 per cent of the EU common budget for the next seven years, and a significant part of the bloc’s new 750 billion euros ($890 billion) recovery fund, have been reserved for investments in the green transition. Equally important, the entire budget will abide by a “do no harm” principle, so that all spending remains compatible with the goals outlined in the Paris climate agreement.

Although it is too early to tell precisely how this funding will be allocated, it is clear that July 2020 will be remembered for marking a paradigm shift. Europe has officially put climate health at the centre of all its major political and economic initiatives.

And yet an issue that has now united European governments regardless of their political stripes has remained deeply polarising in the United States, as well as becoming a source of US-EU division. Why?

I still remember the first time I visited the US. It was October 1984, and I was a young member of the Danish Parliament, invited to watch the final weeks of that year’s presidential election, when US President Ronald Reagan won a second term.

It was a fantastic experience. We started off in Boston, where we met with the renowned environmentalist Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, before heading south to San Antonio, Texas. I saw the US in all its diversity. After hearing from some of America’s leading intellectuals in Boston, what I remember from my stop in San Antonio was a young riverboat driver whose brother had died in Vietnam. “He fought for freedom and Texas,” I was told.

While in Texas, I also saw Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I thought of my parents’ generation, for whom the Kennedys personified everything America stands for: Hope, ambition, sound leadership. Without the US, Europe may never have recovered from World War II. As I had noted in my Master’s thesis at the University of Copenhagen, the Marshall Plan was a major factor in Denmark’s decision to join NATO in 1949.

As my party’s spokesperson on defense issues from 1984 to the end of the Cold War, I never doubted that the US was our foremost friend and ally. There were many reasons for this, but chief among them was that we shared the same fundamental values.

For my sons’ generation, the defining issue is climate change, not the Cold War. How sad it is to see Europe and the US so far apart on this critical front. The problem is not just US President Donald Trump. I witnessed American foot-dragging firsthand when I was Denmark’s minister of the environment and then climate and energy, first during George W. Bush’s presidency and again during Barack Obama’s first term, at the 2009 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

But soon thereafter, as the EU’s Commissioner for Climate Action, I saw what a difference US engagement at the global level could make. In 2014, Obama began emphasising climate policies and investments while pursuing bilateral talks with China, and that change of course ultimately paved the way for the Paris agreement. For a short while, Europe and the US found themselves on the same page once again.

Then came Trump, who rejected the science of climate change and announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement in June 2017. US disengagement in the years since has had far-reaching consequences, because it has made it easier for the rest of the world to maintain business as usual. For America’s friends in Europe, it has been tragic to watch the country abandon its leadership role on this crucial issue.

Needless to say, our perspective is now very different from that of the current US government. The vast majority of Europeans want their governments to take responsibility when it comes to climate change, and Europe is now living proof that a green transition can create jobs, growth and wealth. Europe’s biggest industrial power, Germany, already gets half of its electricity from renewables. The United Kingdom’s long dependency on coal is now ancient history, and the country is quickly generating new jobs in clean energy and other green sectors.

Across Europe, auto manufacturers are shifting their production toward light electric vehicles, and numerous other sectors are discovering how innovative low- and zero-carbon technologies can make them more competitive now and in the future. Investors have taken note, especially now that EU rules on carbon transparency and other issues are changing.

European decision-makers have committed to a green recovery from the COVID-19 crisis not out of the goodness of their hearts, but in response to the demands of citizens, businesses, and investors. Europeans understand what it will take to succeed economically in the twenty-first century, and the opportunities for increased competitiveness and prosperity are clearly visible. They recognise that a green transition includes not only energy but also food production, transportation, buildings and individual behaviour and habits.

The question is what will happen if the rest of the world does not follow the same path. According to the current scientific consensus, climate change must be addressed now and at a global scale in order to avert a catastrophe. That means the US must join the fight. Climate action from major cities and states helps, but there can be no substitute for national leadership, spearheaded from the White House.

Imagine if the US, after the presidential election in November, were to rejoin Europe and make climate change a top priority. Not only would pressure on other big polluters to embrace de-carbonisation immediately increase, but America’s friends and allies would gain renewed confidence in US leadership. Around the world, previous generations’ confidence in America has been tragically eroded. But it is not too late for the US to win it back.


Connie Hedegaard served as European commissioner for Climate Action from 2010 to 2014, and as Denmark’s minister for the environment from 2004 to 2007 and minister for Climate and Energy from 2007 to 2009. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.


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