Actions meant to fight climate change have always been hard to implement on the national policy level within the United States. The Obama administration tried to pass a comprehensive legislative package on climate change, which failed this summer due to strong opposition by the Republicans and some more conservative Democrats.
Taking into account the recent midterm election results, the prospects for any climate change legislation have become even worse. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made clear that politics trumps progress by saying that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Accordingly, compromises that would help Obama to pass any legislation are unlikely to be made.
Furthermore, according to Think Progress, about half of the newly elected Republicans doubt the existence of manmade climate change and about 86 percent oppose strong climate policy that would cost money. Moreover, due to the Byrd-Hagel resolution, any international treaty on climate change like the Kyoto Protocol has to be passed by Congress, resulting in a situation where President Obama and thus the US delegation would not be able to agree to any progressive proposal in Cancun at the end of November.
Bearing in mind the current situation, there are few options left for any action on the national level. First and foremost, programs need to be implemented that seek to enhance efficiency. One such example is the recently unveiled "Retrofit for Recovery“ program, which helps contractors who engage in retrofitting, provides low-cost financing and ensures quality work through a new set of standards.
Moreover, renewable energy has to be promoted, which could be done by using existing funds from the Economic Stimulus program. Finally, fossil fuel subsidies should be cut significantly. With regard to all three options, the EU has experience and should provide best-case studies to help the Obama administration gain the needed public and political support.
EU Should Support Regional US Action
Still, the debate in the US is more likely to focus in the coming months on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) right to introduce limits on carbon dioxide emissions as well as on judicial cases dealing with climate change related policies and actions. Instead of addressing the national level, the EU should shift its focus to decisive actors on the regional level.
To this end, it is worth noting that while the overall result in the midterm elections favored the Republicans, the success of Jerry Brown (D-CA) in California is a positive sign. Brown wants to follow the path of former Governor Schwarzenegger who passed the Global Warming Solutions Act that seeks to reduce CO2 emissions to 990 levels by 2020, with a further 20 percent reduction until 2050. Moreover Californian voters sent a strong pro-clean-energy message with their 60 percent vote against Proposition 23 that would have basically stalled the Act.
In general, progressive environmental policy has been driven forward at state level in the US. They have for example created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is the first mandatory and market-based effort in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is composed of ten Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States that have capped and will reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector 10 percent by 2018 based on 2005 levels.
Other initiatives such as the Western Climate Initiative seek to reduce CO2 emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 by implementing a cap and trade system in 2012 that is meant to cover 90 percent of CO2 output.
In addition to the states, seven cities in the US are part of the "C40 Initiative" and have already implemented a variety of creative new projects that made it onto the initiatives "Best-Practice" list. The C40 initiative aims to reduce carbon levels in participating cities by 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050.
Accordingly, the EU should cooperate with these regional climate initiatives and look into the possibility of linking the emission trading schemes together. Providing assistance both in terms of setting up and fostering the systems by sharing experiences is key. Supporting the regional schemes would not only help the environment but the economy as well, as imbalances would be outweighed. From a long-term perspective, these schemes could be the basis for a US-wide scheme.
Positive EU Initiatives Already in Place
In contrast to the US, politicians across the political spectrum in the EU consider manmade climate change to be a fact and thus, the debate is shaped more by the question of how much climate action or inaction costs.
A variety of EU directives aiming towards energy efficiency improvements, decarbonization and the promotion of renewable energy are in place across the EU. Moreover, many states within the EU such as Germany, Denmark and Spain have aggressive targets for renewable energies, comprehensive national climate change action plans and a variety of subsidies in place to foster action on climate change.
Europe shows that a step-by-step decarbonization of the economy can become a modernization strategy rather than a market disadvantage. As a mechanism to curb emissions, the European Carbon Trading Scheme (ECTS) auctions off emission certificates to the industry with the goal of reducing emissions in 2020 by 30 percent, based on 1990 levels.
However, even if one EU country would like to curb its emissions further, it has only few options at hand that are not covered by the ECTS. While the EU has a variety of policies, both for the housing and transport sector in place that seek to enhance efficiency, both sectors would not be able to implement these actions in the needed timeframe.
Retrofitting buildings is time-intensive with high upfront costs while the shift in the transport sector to other energy sources apart from oil requires decades, due to a lack of market-ready technology. The remaining option that can be applied quickly and cost-effectively can be found in the energy sector.
Climate Policy is Energy Policy
Taking the situation both in the US and the EU into account, it makes sense to focus on the promotion of renewable energy. In line with this, the World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Global Renewable Energy Report by the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century, show that in 2008 and 2009, both the US and Europe added more new renewable energy than new fossil fuel capacity.
To this end, the reasoning for the promotion of renewable energies from a political strategy point of view should not solely be based on emissions reductions but should focus on the economic and strategic benefits.
Increased energy independence is, for example, one of the major reasons for China to invest heavily in renewable energy. Moreover, the green industry sector outpaced many traditional sectors and created new jobs, not in California, but also in Germany. These arguments should be used in the political debate to gain support.
Taking the above-mentioned points into consideration, the answer to the initial question is two-fold. First of all, European actors should change their perspective and follow a two-angle strategy. Aside from keeping up the pressure on the Congress not to fall further behind in terms of action on climate change, progressive states such as California should be supported.
Moreover, in both entities, the US and the EU, actors should focus on fostering cooperation in the field of renewable energy technology. A growing share of renewable energy will demand a new and intelligent grid to be able to cope with the fluctuations caused by the mix of electricity.
Furthermore, electricity storage technology will be the key to a future powered by renewable energy. Facilitating research cooperation, funding joint programs and providing entrepreneurs with easy access to loans is essential. To this end, the EU-US Energy Council has taken steps in the right direction. It is important to sustain these efforts and broaden the program to include knowledge from research institutions and entrepreneurs.
With regard to international negotiations, the EU has to take the lead and use its role to put not only moral but as well economic pressure on the US. Using trade policies could help pushing the American Congress to act on climate change. In a more global context, putting regional efforts into perspective along with strong renewable energy development programs might help to convince other important stakeholders within the negotiations to move forward despite the US’s inability to sign a progressive treaty.
Philip Strothmann studies Environmental Management at the Free University of Berlin.
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