Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Can the EU Lead the Fight Against Climate Change?
Number #1


Number #1


Adam Tooze , Enrico Letta , Laurence Tubiana , Jason Bordoff , Alex N. Halliday

21x29,7cm - 153 pages Issue #1, September 2021

China’s Ecological Power: Analysis, Critiques, and Perspectives

Adam Tooze — In light of the important compromises reached last December on Europe’s new goal to reduce carbon gas emissions by 55% by 2030, I would first like to ask Enrico and Laurence how they view the development of Europe’s climate policy since the inauguration of the Green Deal. 

Enrico Letta — Last spring was a crucial moment. We were at a crossroads and had to define priorities. We chose to save the economy and jobs which could have left climate change and the environment in the background. The choice made by the European Commission and European Council between May and July, and the decision taken by the European Council on the 21st of July, was I think the right one. They decided to combine the two priorities in the Green New Deal which was seen as the best reaction to the recession. I think that was the crossroad. 

The agreement last week [ndlr. in December 2020] was important, but somewhat to be expected. The main difficulty was reaching an agreement with Hungary and Poland, both heavily dependent on coal-based energy. The big decision was of course to set 55% as the key emission objective. The main point is now to start implementing the agreement because it’s enormous. An essential step towards that was inventing the Corona bonds and the taxation on July 21st. These tools will be the heart of the Green New Deal. This is something completely new, it is new money which will be spent on green development. So, I am optimistic. I think that 2020 was a very risky year for the Green New Deal and that we overcame multiple obstacles.

Adam Tooze — Laurence, as one of the parents inspiring the 2015 Paris agreement, how do you see Europe’s position five years from now?

Laurence Tubiana — Building on what Enrico said, we have to remind ourselves of what kind of a community Europe is. The European election two years ago demonstrated that young voters want Europe to be greener and want to believe in the European project. The Green Deal is therefore a crucial political issue. It’s not just a series of directives that will be developed over the next six months. Building upon the Green Deal is a necessity if we are to maintain a semblance of European unity. That has shown in our response to the crisis, through the issuing of green bonds which alter the way the budget will be developed. The second important element is that at least 30% of the recovery or transition Fund, which is a massive financial fund of 1,700 billion euros, must be spent on climate action. For the first time we are seeing climate being recognized across the different sectors. It is being taken into account in industrial policy, state aid, competition policy, agriculture (albeit still minimally) transport, housing and we are beginning to acknowledge the extent of the effort necessary to close European coal power plants and mines.

The 55% mark was a minimum if Europe was to properly take a stance against climate change. We know that the Parliament in particular, including the Conservative Party, has asked for more than that. Something between 60 and 70% of European citizens want Europe to take more intense climate action. Fulfilling the Paris Agreement was also necessary for international soft power. There is a constituency for climate action, both at a business level, at local authority levels, at the citizens’ level, which is entirely different from five years ago. As Enrico said, the Council was important, but mostly because it came because of a huge movement in European societies. We’ll certainly see climate action taking new directions as it’s at the core of contemporary political issues. 

Adam Tooze — In some sense, is it Europe’s answer to the specter of populism? As director of the EI a couple of years back, it was difficult to run a panel without people wanting to debate the issue of populism. Italy was one of the polities in Europe that was seen by centrists and people committed to the EU project, as in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of populism. Would it be reasonable to say as a paraphrase, Laurence, that you see it not simply as a repressive or dismissive response, but in fact, as a positive and creative response?

Laurence Tubiana — I do think so. The mobilization of the people going to vote for the European election revealed they were not only against the far-right but for something. In the face of the polarization of European societies, be it due to identity politics or the threat from the far right, we want the ecological transition in Europe to be a factor of unity. We have developed very interesting studies on the fragmentation of European societies across the main countries in Europe, including Italy, Poland, etc. The issues that unite people the most have little to do with political institutions and are quite liberal. The ecological transition may be our unifying factor. There is an anti-climate group, but it’s relatively small. I think that as politicians begin to understand this Commission, they’ll want to address European citizens directly through consultations, because they feel this is a question for which one can find a large constituency. 

Enrico Letta — I agree with Laurence. Looking back at the political environment during the 2019 European elections, we were at the heart of the Trump- Brexit period. Some narrative was saying that after Brexit, after Trump, it was time for Europe to change. The expectation was for the populists to achieve a strong success in the election. In reality, the electoral result was characterized by two main points. The first one was the unexpectedly high turnout. We reached 50.5% as opposed to only 41% in 2014. That was the first time since the first election in 1979 that we had an increase in the turnout, and that, by close to 10%. The second point was the poor score of the populists. They achieved very good results in Italy and in France, but Europe is made up of 27 countries. At the European level, they are very marginal. The fact that the Commission has a big support from these young participations rallying behind the green flag is essential. Now we must work at applying what we have decided, and Europe must lead the way in tackling global climate change. For that we need the European Union to be united and working as it did in 2015 in Paris.

Adam Tooze — Fascinating, I was tempted to make a play on words in saying it’s not so much Europe leading on climate as climate leading Europe, or at least enabling a particular group of politicians to lead Europe in the direction they want to go. Alex, Jason, and I are all stuck over on this side of the Atlantic where the political events all around us cannot but preoccupy us. I’m not going to resist the temptation to ask Jason how he reads our election here in terms of the climate issue. Was it a way for the Democrats to lead America back to center ground? Or is that perhaps too optimistic a reading of this last election?

Jason Bordoff — Well, I think here in the US we have a divided electorate on this issue. But I think it is notable how central a role climate change played in this election. If you look at President-elect Biden’s agenda on his transition website, you’ll see a button in the upper right-hand corner called priorities. He only names four priorities, o which one is climate change. I think that’s significant of how climate change will be elevated as a priority. Furthermore, if you read through what’s on the website about climate change, you’ll notice climate change is centrally related to the other priorities on that drop-down menu, which are recovery, economic recovery, dealing with the pandemic and racial justice. This demonstrates that the democrats are going to be thinking about how climate action can be taken in ways that also contribute to our economic recovery. At a time when government interest rates are particularly low and borrowing rates are negative in real terms, now’s the time to make investments that not only get the economy back on its feet, but pay dividends in the long run, particularly regarding challenges such acclimate change. A last point I thought was notable, and I’m sure intentional, was that President-elect Biden’s climate envoy was announced not as part of his environmental team but as part of his national security team. Having someone of Secretary Kerry’s stature and experience elevating the role of climate change in US foreign policy through climate diplomacies-entering Paris and having an ambitious approach to next year’s Glasgow conference, I think is extremely notable. 

Although much depends on whether the Senate stays in Republican hands, there are many reasons to be optimistic. There are also areas where a bipartisan agreement can be reached, and I hope some stimulus dollars, which are going to be needed in the transition towards clean energy, will be deployed. There is support across the aisle on energy, R&D, and innovation. There are also many tools available tithe administration with its existing regulatory authority, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency regulations on emissions from power plants, cars and trucks that can be used to help set an ambitious target for 2030. Finally, all the tools related to foreign policy, where the executive branch is dominant are not to be overlooked. I was part of a group of experts who worked under President Obama to put together something called Climate 21. it was an effort to lay – out agency by agency – how to think about organizing federal departments to prioritize climate, including in foreign policy. I think that’s an area where we’re going to see a stronger effort. This may seem obvious for the EPA or for the Department of Energy, but even the agencies that may not in the past have thought of climate as central to their role, are going to think harder and more creatively about how to make the climate a key part of their objectives. Whether we’re thinking about housing and urban development, the Treasury Department and debt relief, multilateral finance or even tax policy, I feel that the climate issue will penetrate all the spheres of the federal government. 

Adam Tooze — Yes, I highly recommend the Climate 21 website if you’re interested in how the machinery of American government works, because it’s literally a blueprint as to how to parachute teams of people into complex American governmental departments and have them have an impact. It’s an extraordinary document if you’re at all curious about how not the West Wing of fantasy but the West Wing of actual practice works. Alex, you took a risk by moving from the UK to the United States into this maelstrom here, from a country which has emerged as a pioneer of the de-carbonization of electric power generation, to a country where the politics are so fraught. How do you read that triangle at this moment, from the vantage point of somebody who has an interest in trying to engineer an intellectual synthesis around these problems at this moment?

Alex Halliday — I think it’s fair to say that the UK has been a very strong leader in the past in terms of understanding climate change and acting on it. Before anybody else, they had legal framework to bind parliament to action on climate. The question is whether they will maintain that momentum of leadership. Boris Johnson’s talks a good deal about how he wants to pursue a green agenda for the UK, and there’s bipartisan support for that. However, the UK is facing some serious economic issues, dealing with a pandemic, and facing Brexit. How that will play out for them isn’t particularly clear. However, do think the Glasgow card is an opportunity for the UK to help maintain its momentum in terms of providing some level of global leadership in this area. 

The most exciting thing of all is this opportunity for America to reenter the Global Agenda, as a leader in climate change, policy, and strategy. Without knowing what Biden is thinking, given the geopolitical landscape, forming, rebuilding ties with Europe right now might seem a very sensible thing to do, given that lot of traditional ties with NATO and other multilateral organizations have been somewhat damaged or frayed over the last few years. In addition to the necessary rebuilding of diplomacy, it strikes me that working with Europe would achieve phenomenal advantages in terms of being able to provide leadership for the rest of the world. 

However, when it comes down to what the Green Deal implies, what real solutions to climate change are to be found, we may think about renewables, about electric vehicles, carbon taxes at the borders, or trying to bring in negative emissions planting trees. But, if you do the sums, what’s really needed to achieve that 1.5°C is massive. The impact must be achieved extremely fast, changing the industry, changing the energy sector, etc. We will have to deal with disenfranchised communities who are suddenly going to be left behind, in the coal industry for example. That is enough to totally upset a democratic organization. It’s easy to say we’re going to put a trillion dollars into this. But maybe that’s money you’ve been using for farming in the past, and that you’re now using for the energy transition. Although we’re achieving a lot politically, I’m worried about whether we really figured out how we’re going to make this work practically.

Adam Tooze — We’ve witnessed recent upsurges of popular discontent, obliquely related to a carbon tax. In France namely, one of the climate leaders in Europe, the hosts of the 2015 conference, we had the Gilet Jaunes protests, where attempting to raise the price of fuel ran into a storm of public opposition. To me this relates to the more general question of what it is that we mean by leadership, for democracies. I understand your point Laurence, that there is a constituency in Europe, which is young and dynamic and promising, and you can see why politics will swarm around that. But as Alex is reminding us, there are also those groups who feel disenfranchised, and for whom the blessings of a carbon tax and the gradual movement away from cheap diesel fuel are far from obvious. Perhaps Laurence, you can give us your take on the Gilet Jaunes and the specifically European problem of leadership there. 

Laurence Tubiana — Of course, that had a huge impact and it hasn’t been totally absorbed by French society. The origin of the movement was a petition claiming the carbon tax wasn’t fair because it had a regressive impact on modest income households who couldn’t find an alternative to fuel. The price of energy for modest households is relatively much higher than for a well-off person, who doesn’t care about a one cent, or five cents increase in the price of gas. At the same time, many Gilets Jaunes have said they were not against ecological policies, but against unfairness and injustice. To decrease emissions by something like five or 7% a year, which is what is needed, by 2030, is an immense transformation of the economy in every way. The question of social justice is essential not only for acceptability, a term I don’t like much, but because of citizen involvement in the decision. Because of the yellow vests, Macron finally accepted the suggestion some of them made to have a discussion on climate policies that would really put social justice at the forefront The subjects proved to be very ambitious, whether it be regarding the quality of transport, building policies, renovation, etc. But they always demanded social justice and fairness to go with it. That’s why they wanted flights to be taxed rather than cars for example. They wanted the price of housing renovation to be compensated for low-income households. Climate policy cannot be a unilateral, top-down strategy. Carbon pricing it’s useful, but as the impact assessment of the Commission has demonstrated, simply extending the carbon market will have huge regressive impact on lower income households. We would rather the citizens be active for this climate policy to develop. This would imply change in the way our democracy’s function. If you don’t give citizens a voice, a capacity to decide at a local level and even a national level, this transformation will not take place. There will always be a lobby’s incumbent to say that it cannot be done now, which is exactly what is happening in many countries now, including in France. Having the citizens be actors in the transformation, is a condition without which such a deep transformation can’t occur.

Jason Bordoff — We’ve done a lot of work at the center of global energy policy on carbon tax design. The question of whether a carbon tax is progressive or regressive depends entirely on what you do with the revenue. So, it’s hard to distinguish the policy instrument from the use of the revenue in terms of its regressivity. I think the broader point, echoing what Alex said, is to think much harder about the political economy barriers to more ambitious climate action. And a big piece of that is going to be who the losers are, not from what we’ve seen so far, which is a modest carbon price, or even a decline in coal in some, you know, OECD countries, but from large-scale transformation of the global energy sector. If you imagine what happens to the global energy system, if we get on track, with well below 2°C, where we’re nowhere close to being today, what does that look like? And as you know, if we run the existing fleet of global coal plants to the end of their normal economic life, we blow through the Paris climate goals. You’re talking about retiring existing infrastructure early that has wide scale economic impacts, and not just in the US where 50 or 60,000 people work in the coal industry or in Europe, but in a country like India, where half a million people work as coal miners and another million, I think work for Indian railways, the largest civilian employer, with coal providing nearly half of the firm’s freight revenue and subsidizing the cost of passenger rail. It’s enormously disruptive as a matter of economic policy. I think all of us need to think harder and work and work economic development and economic policies to detail what a more rigorous set of solutions is like. I’m afraid if we don’t take that seriously enough, those political barriers will make it harder to move ambitiously on climate.

Alex Halliday — I think that’s a massively important part. But at the same time, we need to move fast. We’ve got targets to set deadlines, but the motion has been relatively slow in terms of getting companies and governments to change what they’re doing. It’s been impressive seeing the European Green Deal lay out, on an almost monthly basis, what is to be done, what the next bit of the plan is. It’s impressive to see this global leadership emerging. And at the same time, the question is, when are we going to see the major energy companies really engaging with us? They have begun engaging against climate change but the question that many people have is, to what extent is that engagement lip service? Or to what extent are they really going to change? How are you going to deal with Saudi Aramco, these super overproducers, hydrocarbon producers? And then of course the big numbers in terms of coal, America, India, Turkey a fair bit, but especially China. 

China talks about getting rid of coal and power stations, and not building as many, because of pollution and the effect it’s having on their atmosphere—But they’re quite happy building them for a Belt and Road initiative in other countries. It’s got to be taken to a much more serious level, really getting people to understand the grave urgency of what’s happening. We are heading not just towards worsening the climate, but into uncharted waters in terms of understanding how the climate will respond. Based on previous times in the geological record, when we know climate CO2 was this high, it really looks grim. We must face up to the fact that we could be moving into this relatively quicker than it’s ever happened in natural times in the past, imposing huge shocks on our ability to deal with nature. We all know how good we are at preparing for huge shocks. I think we need to really take, a serious sense of how we’ve dealt with Covid and how unprepared we were, despite all the things that were said in the past about getting ready for a pandemic. Think about that in the context of what’s going to happen with climate change, which is going to be far worse and for far longer. There won’t’ be a vaccine or anything like that. We’re moving to a point where the climate system is going to be in certain respects irretrievable as we accelerate forward.

Adam Tooze — You mentioned China. China is responsible for as much CO2 emissions right now as the United States and Europe put together, in fact more than that. It has finally made a major announcement on its climate trajectory. Is this not a fundamental issue for Europe also for the United States going forward? Italy has at various points, adopted a line towards China that was rather different from that of other European States. Indeed, I believe that Italy is a signed-up member of One Belt, One Road Enrico, how do you see Europe’s relations with China going forward on this front.

Enrico Letta — I see one tool, one framework, one opportunity next year, because next year Italy will lead the G20 and the G20 is the only place where China and the US are there at the same table. The G20 isn’t like the UN general assembly, it is a small table and it’s a very important place and institution. In last year’s context of crisis, in2020, the role of G20 was somewhat minimized. I think next year’s G20 can be important. First, there’s a new US administration and the 2 G’s, the G20 and the G7, had a lot of problems with Trump d, -Trump of course not being was not a big fan of those kinds of meetings. So, I think the G20 can play an important role next year. It is not by chance that the Italian presidency will put planet, people, and prosperity as the three key words of the program. At the same time, it’s the year of the Glasgow meeting and Italy will co-chair with the UK. I see that as an opportunity for Europe to engage with China and to keep discussing these issues with them. Of course, it depends on many other technologically issues, security issues, and so on and so forth. t also depends on Biden’s agenda on China. Frankly speaking, it’s not easy to understand whether Biden’s agenda will be in continuity, with Trump’s agenda on China or not, however I feel the G20 is the first opportunity to see if multilateralism will resume with the new US administration. 

Adam Tooze — Laurence, if you were in the room and you had command of the agenda, what is it that the Europeans should discuss with the Chinese? What do you think should be the key agenda points for that conversation?

Laurence Tubiana — As you know, The US-China discussion was very tense in the preparation of the summit, the EU-China has been postponed time and time again. There are many issues to be discussed: investment, the trade issue, the issue of technology, human rights, and climate. That’s why Europe standing up, saying it will go through with the Green Deal, no matter what others may want, to the point that it may use a trade instrument to be able to deploy the Green Deal fully, is essential. Merkel and Michel in have been preparing s, the different scenarios that they could ask China to accept with the hope that climate may at least offer some ground for consensus. And that is why Merkel moved the target for r carbon neutrality forward to 2016. Of course, this discussion with China was well prepared, China has people that are working on the subject. But I do think that for Xi it was damage control certainly. The problems the Chinese are facing now (and I’ve been going to China every year since 2000) are trade measures and the border tax that are just a nightmare. So, they’ve seen this coming, which is why they are now so excited about the carbon market, both internally and internationally.

I think another element which I think explains the poor result of BRI in terms of international soft power is the debt issue, which is increasing. China’s position has been ambiguous. In September, China promised to be carbon-neutral by 2060, which was our first demand. But now I see a sort of gray zone where China hasn’t come up with anything new on the 12th of December summit for the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement. They could have come and announced the new climate plan. None of their suggestions were strong or even clear. It was just business as usual, mostly. Now the EU must ask what the second step before Glasgow is, and that’s where the discussion between EU and US is so crucial. If Europe and the US decide on an economic trend that converges on the climate element it could have a major, and rapid impact. Such an agreement could change the course of the global economy, as it would have an enormous impact on the two biggest markets. A path that could lead us to pushing China to modify its policies could, the path taking us from the US through Brussels to China the Biden agenda could thus be quite different in a sense than that of the Obama administration, as Obama was not actually interested in European development, and had its eyes turned mostly to Asia. So that’s the pivot point that I don’t know if Joe Biden will embrace. It could give us enormous leverage in China, but if we fail to do that, I’m sure China will continue to delay any action.

Adam Tooze — That’s fascinating. Jason, as an American, what’s your read on the direction Biden team’s travel direction?

Jason Bordoff — I’m unsure. As you say, the US and China combined account for half of global emissions. So diplomatic dialogue and the elevation of climate ambition is essential in that relationship. You explained in Foreign Policy, why the 2060 announcement was important. Everyone is looking for indications that things in the 14 five-year plans in 2030 targets will be meaningfully different and give some confidence that long-term targets are real. There’ll be some return to trade norms and maybe that will help increase trade in energy and clean energy products. We’re going to need a lot more of that, but this is a very difficult and contentious relationship, and that’s going to remain true under President-elect Biden. Also, numerous issues such cyber security, intellectual property theft, unfair subsidies, political repression, and human rights clearly complicate the US-China relationship. As Laurence said, there’s an important element of soft power, in Belt and Road. President Biden used very strong language throughout the course of the campaign about BRI and, and explicitly extended phrases like holding China accountable for its investment in coal projects like Belt and Road outside of China. Although we don’t exactly know how one would do that, I think one tool the U S has now in 2018 is the creation of the Development Finance Corporation, a more powerful version of its predecessor. You can’t beat something with nothing. If you want to complain about some of the geopolitical or environmental impacts of Belt and Road, there need to be efforts with multilateral finance to go into rapidly growing South Asian or other emerging market countries and say: we can put a package on the table that works economically, that makes sense from a financial standpoint, and is cleaner, is lower carbon. That’s an important area where the US and Europe can work together with multilateral finance institutions t. I do think we’ve also seen some indications of what that would look like. Our incoming national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs recently about incremental change, shifting towards an industrial policy targeting strategically important sectors, clean energy certainly being one of them, and making sure that the US is competing economically with China at the same time. 

Adam Tooze — That’s an interesting dialectic between cooperation and conflict. Do you prefer a sort of competition of systems, which has the net effect of achieving the kind of crash decarbonization that Alex is rightly insisting we need? Or should we think of this as part of a project of building cooperative, global relationships, rebuilding multilateralism? 

Laurence Tubiana — I think it would be the combination of the two—look at the automotive industry, where competition is very fierce. German industry has shifted. The monster Volkswagen has decided that the traditional car engine is obsolete. But at the same time the fact that it’s now or never issue can justify introducing competition into the equation. That’s why I really think that if there is some convergence between US and Europe on swat the decarbonization trajectory should be. It’s a very mixed model. The economic trend will not be linear because we will have crashes and crises in some sectors. I think there will be a by this massive shift of markets. The Chinese component itself is quite unstable, as it’ll have to face a debt. China has at times been a global leader in the discussion on impact of climate change and at other times quite absent. These numerous instabilities are why I believe that a signal from the market, from the companies, from the investors, from the governments, could help lead to an alignment. I think that will be an irresistible signal for China to be serious and to stop postponing the decision, as Jason was saying. When you look at what is on the table of the 14th 5-year plan, it’s not consistent with carbon neutrality by 2060. That’s why it’s so urgent for the signal from the US and the EU to be the same.

Adam Tooze — Alex, do you want to come in on this?

Alex Halliday — I think that was a great answer. Trying to incentivize a shift to climate-friendly solutions is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem So for example getting an electric vehicle right now in New York is pretty much a waste of time. here aren’t any charging places on the streets or any garages. The old-fashioned gasoline car is so much more practical. And so, at some level of government, whether it’s state, city, or national government, they did a huge amount to catalyze this change and now the automotive industry is ready to make it, to pump out new forms of vehicles. Bentley’s doing it. So is Volkswagen. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. The big manufacturers in America say they can move in the same direction. But we’ve got to get the country to provide the infrastructure to really support this leap forward. De-carbonizing buildings is a similar issue. Someone’s got to step in and make it happen at a government level, whether it’s a state, city, or a federal level.

Adam Tooze — Yes, one of the optimistic signs that you can read—it’s under reported, I think, is that the European carbon trading system is beginning to bite right now. The price of over 30 euros a ton is really beginning to hurt the polls. It’s no longer math, it’s really politics. It’s a matter of whether you want to lose money making power or not. And if the European Union has the guts to progressively limit the supply of allowances, we could see prices nearing 70 or 80 euros a ton over the next decade. And at that point, the momentum that Laurence was talking about seriously begins to build. Maybe I can end with this question. Enrico, looking back at today 15 to 20 years from now, do you think this will prove to have been the turning point we need it to be? Because going into the year, I would have said that I felt pessimistic. I would have said, I understand the political economy of climate change and it looks bad. There really isn’t the energy, the force that we need to look at the emissions numbers. It’s just not there. The action isn’t there. 

However, I think I agree with Enrico in saying that this year didn’t turn out the way we expected. As the historian trying to position our moment, it’s my kind of emotional intellectual hedge against disaster to at least tell the story of how this happened. How do you evaluate this moment Enrico?

Enrico Letta — I think I suggest you, as a historian, work on the three main events of2020, the first event being the change in the U S administration. That is crucial. I think the second one is the announcement made by the Chinese leadership. And the third is about Europe. In Europe, the key point is the public opinion shift, which is crucial because, as Laurence said, politics are soon to follow. I think the youth movement was so important because at the same time Europe was facing a dramatic increase of debt which we were asking the present youth to pay back in some decades. I think the present leadership and the present generation in power are thinking that there’s a deal to make with the new generation. And that deal implies an increase of debt. So, more responsibilities for the new generation. Now we must be responsible for the climate because the new generation is asking us to take on this responsibility. Those three simultaneous events explain why I think 2020 is so crucial.

Adam Tooze — That’s fascinating. So, I hate to correct you on the debt, but the debt problem seems to be a mostly American problem. No one else is running an 18% of GDP debt deficit, according to IMF numbers. America’s debt accumulation this year is that of all the advanced economies and China put together. But it is a common problem. 

In other words, we are, as Alex was saying, doing things on a stupendous scale, the question is whether we can make them valuable in the long-term. Jason, when we look back at this year, do you think it will, at least in the American case, be an opening to some fundamental shifts?

Jason Bordoff — There’s certainly a shift happening. The issue of climate change is clearly playing a more important role in the political elections. I see it on campus every day. A sense of urgency among the younger generation. And you see that in the polling on both sides of the aisle. They’re starting from a different place, but for the younger cohort, this is a much higher priority issue than for the older generation.

Adam Tooze — Even amongst self-identified Republicans.

Jason Bordoff — Yes, that’s true, it is changing. This is a really important year for so many reasons. Another event this year is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in the United States. The first earth day in 1970came after several decades of air pollution, water contamination, and lack of regulation of the industrial sector. People were breathing dirty air, there were signs saying don’t swim in this lake because it’s polluted, you can’t drink the water. It came to a head where one out of every ten Americans across suburban and urban areas, across Republicans and Democrats, came into the streets in April 1970 and said, we just can’t live like this anymore. Somehow, you must fix this problem. So much so that the political pressure built on a Republican president, Richard Nixon leading him create the EPA and the clean air and clean water act. I think we’re moving in that direction with the sense of urgency around climate, but I’m not sure where we’re all the way there yet. I think there’s still some more work to do to understand the urgency and the scale of transformation required. When we talk about the energy transition, I think people often put a chart up showing something like zero to a hundred percent going back to 1850, and then you see these great transitions from wood to coal and coal to oil, oil to gas, increasingly renewable, although still minimal if you look at that same data, not as a percentage of the total, but rather in terms of total energy. BTU’s, that’s what the climate cares about, tons of CO2. We’ve never used less of anything. We’re using more of everything today than we did a hundred years ago. And so, everything we’re talking about is an example of how we could see a clean energy transition, meaning all the new energy demand will be fulfilled with zero carbon energy. We’re still going to need massive amounts of negative emissions given what the models show at this point to meet the below 2°C target, given how long we’ve delayed. We also need to confront the fact that 80% of the global energy mix today is hydrocarbons and that must come down quite a bit, but maybe there’s some role for CCUS. We’re talking a lot about electricity How do you put more renewables on the grid? Electricity is 20% of final energy consumption, about a third of emissions. There’s a lot that we can electrify, but we’re not going to electrify all of it. We need more innovation in a hard to abate sector. More urgency is insufficient, we need to confront what it really means to take that urgency seriously.

Laurence Tubiana — The US picture seems very complicated, but I understand that even the polls show that a majority of US citizens are concerned with the issue. It may not be like the seventies when a million people were in the street, but nonetheless it’s growing. I too was very pessimistic last March. I was afraid the crisis climate would end upon the back burner but the general response, saying we must recover differently, we must recover green, although sometimes it’s just lip service, it can also be a real response. The investment portfolio move against oil and gas companies is not linear. The fact that the share values of the gas companies are going down, is a massive as an indicator. So yes, I would say that it may have been the year of the shift. Again, I have no idea if we can win the battle. I’m not sure if we will, because we are just so late, but I do think that this year is a new shift. That’s why I’m more optimistic today about the resilience and impact of the Paris agreement than I was eight months ago.

Alex Halliday — Although I’ve been negative through most of this discussion, I do feel tremendously excited about European Green Deal. I think it’s fantastic to see a concert on the European scale taking this on seriously as a common challenge. I do think there’s cause for optimism now that America’s going to be turning back to the table. I think another cause for optimism is the fact that people recognize that there are opportunities. There are the young people wanting it, but there are also opportunities for people in the future in terms of new kinds of industries and jobs. Although we really must think hard about those coal communities and what this will mean for them, this transition. Let’s think about it in terms of jobs for those people and new opportunities for them that we can strategically target in certain sectors of our economy such as new technologies. Negative emissions are also massively important, we’re not going to get there without that. That’s going to require large-scale infrastructure, technology where lots of money is of course to be made. It’s also going to require an ability to move CO2 around and bury it underground. For that we’re going to need to work with the oil and gas industry. They’re the only people in the whole world who know how to do this. And so, there’s an opportunity for them to take part in the transition. So, I do think there are ways to think positively about this transition although 

I’m nervous we may be feeling too comfortable about how things are going rather than feeling nervous and scared as we should.

The GREEN Journal presents a condensed and edited version of the conversation on Europe’s role in combating climate change hosted by Adam Tooze last December as part of the ‘Debating the Future of Europe’ cycle, already published on 10 April 2021 by Le Grand Continent. This series of debates, of which the Groupe d’Études Géopolitiques is a partner, is jointly organised by the Parisian centre of Columbia University, its European Institute and its Alliance Programme.
View outlineClose
To cite the article +--

To cite the article


Adam Tooze, Enrico Letta, Laurence Tubiana, Jason Bordoff, Alex N. Halliday, Can the EU Lead the Fight Against Climate Change?, Sep 2021.

Notes and sources +