Europe ready to restart transatlantic climate dialogue after Trump ‘parenthesis’

Joe Biden "can bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement the very moment it comes into effect, which would be a very strong signal,” said Pascal Canfin, a French MEP who chairs the European Parliament's influential environment committee. [EPA-EFE/YOAN]

The European Commission and senior EU lawmakers said they stood ready to intensify dialogue with the US on climate change, listing car CO2 limits and green finance among areas where “real transatlantic cooperation” is again possible after the four-year “Trump parenthesis”.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen issued a statement on Saturday evening to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory in the US presidential election, citing climate change among the priority areas for future cooperation.

“The European Commission stands ready to intensify cooperation with the new Administration and the new Congress” on common pressing challenges such as “fighting the COVID-19 pandemic” and “tackling climate change together,” von der Leyen said.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament’s biggest political group, the centre-right EPP, called for restarting the transatlantic relationship, listing climate change and China among the “global challenges that we cannot deal with alone.”

Similar messages were heard from the European Parliament’s other political groups, including the leaders of the socialist and centrist factions.

Among them is Pascal Canfin, the chairman of the Parliament’s powerful environment committee, who said Biden’s victory “is great news for all climate advocates” five years after the signature of the Paris Agreement.

The landmark Paris climate accord enters into force on 1 January 2021, three weeks before Biden’s official inauguration.

“One of Biden’s first decisions will be the return of the US to the Paris Agreement,” Canfin said during an online briefing last week, pointing to Donald Trump’s failed attempt to “kill” the landmark climate accord.

Doing this, the new US president would build momentum behind the international climate agenda, “after the Trump parenthesis” and shortly after China and Japan announced they would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 and 2050 respectively, the French lawmaker said.

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New transatlantic climate agenda

But it is also the content of Biden’s electoral programme which gives Canfin reason to hope for a fresh start in the transatlantic climate agenda.

According to Canfin, Biden’s programme has “very strong convergences and similarities” with the European Green Deal, whose flagship objective is to make Europe the first climate neutral continent in the world by 2050.

“Biden has a goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, with interim targets,” Canfin remarked. “So we are going to be on very parallel objectives”.

“One could quite imagine setting up transatlantic cooperation” on climate policy to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy, he said, adding however that Europe and the US will remain global competitors regardless of who sits in the White House.

“Where we come together completely in Biden’s programme – and in the continuity of what Obama had started to do –  is, for example, on cars,” Canfin said, pointing out that the new US president-elect is “very close” to what the European Commission is proposing on CO2 emission standards for cars.

“The proposed emission thresholds are so low that only electric and hybrid cars will continue to be allowed on the market,” the French MEP pointed out.

Another area where Canfin sees potential for transatlantic convergence is sustainable finance, where Europe and the US have the opportunity to set global standards by establishing “a financial Green Deal” on both sides of the Atlantic.

Biden has spoken of $5 trillion in public and private finance to support the ecological transition in the US over the next decade, an amount which is close to Europe’s assessment of €4 trillion to finance its own transition, Canfin pointed out.

“We therefore have a very comparable analysis of the issues, objectives and tools, which opens the prospect of real transatlantic cooperation on the Green Deal,” Canfin said, adding he will reach out to fellow members of the US Congress to coordinate on key legislative dossiers.

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US dependence on fossil fuels

But despite those areas of convergence, there are also fundamental differences between Europe and the US when it comes to climate and energy policy which will be difficult to ignore.

“An important element to take into account is the dependence of the US economy on fossil fuels. The United States is the leading producer of oil and gas in the world, which makes the energy transition in the US even more complex than ten years ago,” Canfin remarked.

“This is a major topic that awaits Biden after his election.”

Chief among those is shale gas, which provides a major source of revenue for some US states like Texas and Pennsylvania. Biden is well aware of that and he repeated several times during his campaign that the Democratic party was not against shale gas.

“Democrats have never been anti-fracking,” Canfin observed, pointing out that the shale gas revolution did not start under Trump but under Barack Obama.

“So I think there is no revolution to be expected from Biden on this matter”.

But while many states put shale gas at the centre of their economy, others have decided to ban fracking, Canfin remarked, saying the map of pro-fracking states mirrors closely with those that voted for Trump.

“To put it simply, one can say that shale gas is predominant in sparsely populated and Republican states located in the centre of the US, and that it is generally banned in coastal states which are also densely populated and Democrats.”

“So Biden’s electoral dependence on the shale gas economy is much weaker than it is for Trump.”

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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