EU Needs to Go Global for a Green Europe

The European Union has found a new raison d’être after nearly two decades of chronic crisis: a green Europe. 

It is both a clear growth strategy and a path to a political union for the bloc, and it is a normative vision for the future. However, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this week demonstrated, the EU, which accounts for only about 8% of global emissions, is only a small part of the global picture. Furthermore, a green Europe can only be realized if it is also a global one. 

The EU is currently well ahead of the green curve. The European Green Deal, namely it’s Fit for 55 packages, is now the only viable approach for achieving carbon neutrality. While China and the United States, to name two of the world’s largest emitters, have made lofty goals, they are far behind on the necessary laws, regulations, and finances to get there. 

Nonetheless, the EU’s climate leadership is hardly causing for celebration. A green Europe can only present a realistic path if it achieves internal net-zero carbon neutrality while also contributing to the same objective externally, through foreign policy and its leadership position in global climate and energy regulation – a component for which it is woefully unprepared. 

If the EU decarbonizes without bringing the rest of the world along, its global competitiveness would suffer, its industrial base will be weakened, and the transition’s potentially regressive socio-economic repercussions will be worsened. Inadvertently, the bloc could contribute to the separation of global supply chains between green and brown economies, resulting in increased costs for everyone. 

Only by bringing the rest of the world along with it will the EU be able to successfully decouple emissions and prosperity in Europe. And to do so, it must overcome significant geopolitical obstacles. 

China now has a distinct advantage in green technologies, particularly solar and storage. Given the increasingly dispersed and decentralized nature of renewables, Europe is also pushing ahead with the creation of green capacities, which aligns with the goal of European strategic autonomy. As a result, although old fossil fuel interdependencies may progressively dwindle, other interdependencies may grow. 

Without China, a decarbonized Europe would be excessively expensive and very certainly unattainable. Even if Europe were to develop and foster green industrial capacities on a large scale, it would take time for them to become competitive and fill the supply gap if China was barred from doing so. As relations between the West and China deteriorate, difficult concerns arise that the EU — as well as the United States — must confront. 

For example, in the past, the discussion over cooperation with authoritarian governments has frequently pitted interests against ideals, raising arguments such as: Should values such as human rights supersede the pursuit of strategic or economic interests? As the energy transition progresses, two sets of values will eventually clash, posing questions like whether climate leadership should come at the expense of human rights. Or, to put it another way, whether the EU should satisfy its renewable energy commitments if the only option to do so is to purchase them from Xinjiang. 

To square this circle, better transatlantic relations will be required. However, the glass is only half full here as well. The EU and the US have turned a new page under President Joe Biden, raising the green agenda to a top priority for stronger transatlantic cooperation. And on some areas, such as the global methane promise proposed at COP26 this week, this has turned into collaborative leadership. 

However, the transatlantic divide persists in other domains. Carbon pricing, as well as differing opinions on green taxonomy, stand out in this regard. The United States is unlikely to adopt the EU’s requirements very soon, given the EU has already begun setting them in the hopes of leading the world in climate spending. Transatlantic convergence on carbon pricing is all the more difficult, but vital, given the EU’s planned carbon border adjustment mechanism, which is a critical external step if the European Emissions Trading System is to grow as it should within. 

Finally, green and global Europe is one that both honors and ensures others honor their climate financing commitments. The EU’s institutions and member countries presently lead the world in climate finance, and it will be largely due to the EU’s efforts that the $100 billion worldwide benchmark is rapidly approaching. However, the devil is in the details once again. 

It will be difficult to put 30 % of Europe’s budget set aside for climate in its neighboring regions into action, especially since the majority of it has been routed to specific geographies rather than following thematic goals. Nonetheless, doing so will be critical if the green transition is to accelerate outside the EU’s boundaries. 

The new narrative in Europe is and should be one of green unity. There is no dispute about that. However, in order to achieve its new goals, the company’s concentration cannot be solely internal. Europe’s climate strategy must also be a global one if it is to have any hope of development or success.