“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
After four years of US inaction on climate, the Biden administration came to COP26 with full force. Thirteen Cabinet-level officials travelled to Glasgow to declare that “America is back” and make dozens of new climate commitments. Unfortunately, after four years of diplomatic abuse under President Donald Trump, our closest allies were probably wondering if they could ever trust the US again — on climate or anything else. Fortunately, there are steps that the Biden administration can take to rebuild that trust and accelerate progress moving towards our shared climate goals.
COP26 came at a precarious moment for the transatlantic alliance. President Joe Biden was eviscerated in London and other NATO country capitals for his rapid and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Similarly, Biden’s failure to alert the French of a nuclear submarine deal with the Australians led to howls from the Élysée Palace. Yet, despite these obvious missteps and the media storm they created, the US and Europe’s transatlantic relationship is expanding and deepening.
For too long, defense has been the predominant lens through which we understand our alliance with Europe. Now, we must widen the aperture. The climate crisis promises more extreme heat and more frequent and dangerous storms on both sides of the Atlantic. Food insecurity and mass migration caused by a warming planet will only further undermine our collective peace and security, and make it all the more critical for the US and its European partners to work together.
Of course, the US must collaborate with other countries around the world, especially the developing countries that will bear the brunt of climate impacts. However, the transatlantic alliance has a unique role to play. After all, the US and Europe bear a disproportionate responsibility for the climate crisis. The UK was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and the US is historically the world’s biggest emitter. Together, the US and EU are responsible for nearly 70% of excess greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the US and Europe can lead the race to net-zero by making climate action the central pillar of the transatlantic alliance.
The US and Europe can lead the race to net-zero by making climate action the central pillar of the transatlantic alliance.
Fortunately, most sensible politicians recognize this necessary shift in focus. At COP26, there was clear momentum and political will to move climate to the center of the transatlantic alliance. Although they didn’t generate the attention they deserved, the joint announcements from Europe and the US were novel and substantial. To name a few, the US, UK and European Investment Bank pledged to stop public financing for most overseas oil and gas projects by next year; the US, UK and EU promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030; and over 100 countries joined Biden and EU President Von der Leyen’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce emissions from this potent greenhouse gases by 30% by 2030.
LOOKING PAST COP26
These pledges must not be mistaken for concrete action, but they do demonstrate political will to tackle the climate crisis, as well as a recognition that the transatlantic alliance must rise to the challenge together. Now, Europe and the US must look past COP26 and deepen our partnership in new ways to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
First, we must speed up the development of critical clean energy technologies. The International Energy Agency forecasts that roughly half of the emissions reductions to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 must come from technologies that are not ready for market. Meanwhile, the US and EU are the two largest economies in the world; we have been driving international markets and setting standards on trade for generations. By working together, we can accelerate market forces in the sectors that are hardest to decarbonize. To that end, Biden and EU President Ursula von der Leyen launched the First Movers Coalition with more than 25 founding members from sectors like steel, trucking, and aviation that comprise 30% of global emissions. These leading American and European companies have committed to purchase and use near zero-emission steel, heavy-duty trucks, shipping fuel, as well as electric and hydrogen aviation propulsion by 2030.
Second, we can better coordinate climate-related standards of supply chains. One recent announcement will provide significant momentum for achieving this objective. In advance of the COP26, the EU and US ended their long-running dispute over steel and aluminum tariffs that the Trump administration had haphazardly slapped on imports coming from Europe. The EU and US will replace these tariffs with “the world’s first carbon-based sectoral arrangement,” which, when finalized, will place restrictions on imports that do not use environmentally safe methods. This is effectively a common external green tariff, which could transform the global steel sector. Collaboration like this will not only drive innovation in the future, but it will raise international standards for some of the most carbon-intensive technologies and provide cleaner alternatives to China’s Belt and Road investments.
Finally, to ensure that our action meets our ambition, we must make as much progress as possible when like-minded leaders are at the helm and protect ourselves from changing political winds. Even the best-laid climate plans will meet fierce resistance and setbacks that risk hobbling the necessary and inevitable transition to clean energy. We’ve begun to see seeds of resistance in Europe’s current energy crisis and the Yellow Vest movement, a French protest movement that resisted a rise in gasoline taxes. We must deepen the partnership between US and Europe at every level of government and society to shore up cooperation on climate and ensure the benefits of the clean energy transition are distributed equitably. Cities and businesses can learn from their counterparts across the Atlantic about how to reduce their emissions while creating good-paying clean energy jobs.
For generations, Europe and the US have tackled the world’s biggest security problems. It’s time for the transatlantic alliance to turn its full attention to the climate crisis. By building on the commitments made in Glasgow, our economies and governments can lead the world in developing innovative climate solutions, raising supply chain standards, and demonstrating how the clean energy transition can benefit the health and well-being of all our citizens.
Andrew Overton is a national security and climate change communicator. He is currently a Director at Finsbury Glover Hering and previously served as the spokesperson at the British Embassy in Washington.