November 2018

By Étienne Bodard and Étienne Soula

In the face of new findings regarding the challenge of climate change, exciting new initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic are finding greater and greater expression.

On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report documenting the consequences of global warming for life on Earth. Its conclusions are bleak. The Paris Agreement pledged to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC report explains that reaching two degrees Celsius would expose hundreds of millions of people to dangerous climate-related risks by 2050 and would likely wipe out 99% of coral reefs. As is, we have already reached one degree Celsius and our current trajectory appears to have us headed for a warming of around three degrees Celsius.

By way of comparison, 4-7 degrees Celsius is what separates temperatures today from those of the last ice age.

According to the IPCC, the only way to avoid a climate shift of cataclysmic proportions is “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” However, when it comes to a transatlantic response along these lines, the reality is complicated. In the European Union, ambitious efforts promoted by Brussels to transition toward a low-carbon economy are hampered by diverging national interests. Whereas in the United States, the White House has vocally expressed its skepticism regarding climate science and is actively undoing existing environmental regulations.

In his most recent State of the Union speech, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, used the words “climate change” no less than three times. The conclusions of the October 2018 European Council meeting explicitly referred to the IPCC report. By 2030, the member states must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared with 1990, reach a 27% increase in overall energy efficiency, and have 27% of their total energy consumption come from renewable energy. Following a recent agreement between member states and EU institutions, a vote in European Parliament on November 13 should increase this proportion of renewable energy to 32%.

But this ostensible ambition does not mean that all EU member states share the same level of commitment in the fight against climate change. Industry-reliant Germany and several Central European countries energetically, if unsuccessfully, lobbied against the European Parliament’s push for a 40% reduction in car emissions by 2030. At the second One Planet Summit, organized in New York in September of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron told the representatives of 150 countries that, “We are not here just to speak, but to be accountable.” Yet, the surprise resignation of Macron’s popular Environment Minister and the French government’s slowing down of the planned phasing-out of nuclear energy in favor of renewables have damaged Macron’s credibility on environmental issues. At the European level, the fact that French and German energy mixes are structured differently is causing divergences within the Franco-German engine on how to best tackle climate change. The fact that the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be hosted by Poland—a member state still overwhelmingly reliant on coal plants—highlights the ambivalence behind the EU’s ambitious climate agenda.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the White House has been anything but ambivalent on climate change. President Trump has pledged to exit the Paris Agreement as early as possible. He has rolled back environmental regulations, taken an axe to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and appointed Scott Pruitt (who has since resigned in July 2018)—who argued that climate change might actually be good for the planet—to the agency’s helm. Trump himself has been vocal in his attacks against climate science, famously denouncing it as a hoax “created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His latest prominent statement on the issue accused climate scientists of having a “political agenda.”

While some are hoping that the Trump administration will not be able to rescind many of the environmental policies enacted during the Obama era, the current White House appears clearly uninterested in supporting efforts required to avoid the grim future predicted by the IPCC. Moreover, the White House's approach seems to be finding others following suit. The winner of Brazil’s recent presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, declared during the campaign that he intends to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate accord. While he has since rescinded those words, Mr. Bolsonaro remains committed to further opening the Amazon to mining interests. Such a measure is seen as having the potential to irreversibly damage the forest’s ecosystem and contribute to the release of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Not only is the current White House undoing the climate policies undertaken by the Obama administration, its approach is seeing countries take similar stances.

Yet, despite all these divisions and misgivings, local officials and, increasingly, private sector stakeholders from both sides of the Atlantic are actively working—often cooperatively—to rise to the challenge of climate change.

For example, the Atlantic Council recently highlighted the proactive efforts of several U.S. states where many governors are not following the White House’s lead on climate policy but instead are actively working with European partners to find new ways to confront the challenges. California is perhaps the most prominent actor in the field, hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018. The summit stood out from comparable initiatives due to the number and diversity of the stakeholders in attendance. The gathering brought together foreign government officials, U.S. state and regional leaders, and U.S. mayors as well as private sector CEOs, investors, and civil society representatives from both sides of the Atlantic. The attendees unveiled a range of new commitments across five specific challenge areas: healthy energy systems, inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities, land and ocean stewardship, and transformative investments. They issued a call to action asking for “strong national policies”, “net-zero mid-century emissions plans”, and “climate action at the local and regional level."

The Power Past Coal Alliance is another initiative aimed at facilitating a transition to clean energy. It brings together 28 national governments (including 14 EU member states), 19 sub-national governments (including seven U.S. states), and 28 private sector businesses. Such coalitions are already having a tangible and noticeable impact. For example, speaking as the Chair of C40 Cities, a group of large cities actively combating climate change, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announced at the San Francisco summit that the network’s members were no longer increasing their greenhouse gas emissions.

With each of these initiatives and in the absence of high-level political cooperation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the corporate sector is well-positioned to stake a greater and greater role in fostering transatlantic cooperation on climate change. Not only will the transition to a low-carbon economy reduce the extent and severity of global warming, but also moving to a greener economy is expected to result in trillions of dollars of economic benefit over the next decade, generating millions of new jobs. Initiatives such as Science Based Targets—a collaboration between the UN Global Compact, several NGOs, and nearly 500 companies committed to taking concrete steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—are bound to proliferate as more and more businesses realize the gains they stand to make by joining the fight against climate change.

All told, keeping global warming below the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold will require a global, sustained, and whole-of-society effort. China, where emissions levels are now higher than the EU’s and U.S.’s put together, has seen its largest surge in emissions since 2011. In this context, it is crucial that developed economies pave the way for other developing giants such as India. With the Trump administration’s skepticism of climate science and the EU’s efforts mired by internal obstacles, there are now significant opportunities for a range of sub-state and non-state actors from both sides of the Atlantic to double down and deliver on their pledges.

The lack of tangible engagement by public authorities is, perhaps ironically, serving as a clarion call to action for nongovernmental stakeholders—most notably global companies and investors—to rise up to the challenge and reap considerable economic benefits from a transition to a low-carbon economy and to ensure that our planet remains habitable for future generations.