Will the EU Beat the US to a Green New Deal?

by Jennifer Grosman Fernández

February 19, 2020

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, presents the European Green Deal to the European Council

Carbon emissions from the world’s 20 biggest economies continue to rise. This is in spite of rising sea levels, raging fires, and flash floods around the world. No country has committed to a plan that will reduce emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

In response, progressive politicians and climate activists in the United States have mobilized for an ambitious Green New Deal to tackle both climate change and economic inequality, echoing the urgency and determination of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In its current form, the Green New Deal is just a congressional resolution. But the deal has garnered significant public attention; established the personality and legislative boldness of Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey; demonstrated the influence of the activist Sunrise Movement; and significantly influenced the climate proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates. However, despite successfully shifting the conversation on potential climate goals, national climate policy has stalled under the Trump Administration, and the future of U.S. global leadership depends on an uncertain election outcome nine months from now.

So, where does that leave us? Considering long-standing European leadership on climate change, both the international community and U.S. domestic actors have turned to the European Union to provide the momentum to create a resilient, low carbon world. Adopting the same theme as progressives in the United States, the EU has branded its most recent policy initiative as the “European Green Deal.”

Was this designed to attract U.S. attention? The European Green Deal is a remarkable plan to transform Europe into the first “carbon-neutral” continent by 2050. The plan promises a radical transformation of the trading bloc’s economy over the next thirty years by targeting emission reductions, industrial innovation, and environmental restoration. The EU would fully decarbonize while creating green jobs in new low-carbon industries.

Framed as “Europe’s man on the moon moment,” the Green Deal consists of 50 policy measures to reduce emissions, including a proposed legally-binding target of reducing EU emissions to net-zero within 30 years. The plan also includes a carbon border tax to prevent companies from relocating outside the EU to avoid climate legislation, a €100 billion just transition fund to help spread the burden and help coal-reliant regions, and a policy prohibiting any free trade agreement with a country that is not a signatory to the Paris climate agreement; notably, only the United States falls into this category.

What’s new here since the Paris agreement? EU member states make up the world’s largest economic bloc, and rank third behind China and the United States in carbon emissions. Under the 2015 Paris agreement, the EU pledged to reduce emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, but set no definite goal for 2050. The Green Deal raises the 2030 target to a 50 percent reduction, and sets the 2050 target at 100 percent. It’s a drastic increase in climate change ambition from the bloc. But it may not be enough to keep to the 1.5 degrees target laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stave off the very worst effects of climate change.

The European Union has proved to a skeptical global political and business community that a plan for sustainability and a drive for economic growth can go hand in hand. Between 1990 and 2018, the EU’s CO2 emissions fell by 23 percent, but its economy grew by 61 percent. Pushing that argument, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has framed the European Green Deal as “a strategy for growth that gives more back than it takes away.”

The result of years of complex negotiations between member states, the Green Deal is “designed to leave no one behind,” with massive investments in transportation, agriculture, and industrial innovation. While mandating climate strategies boosts Europe’s role on the global stage, the Commission must be wary in light of Brexit of giving a further cause for complaint to dissatisfied members.

Global climate politics have stalled recently and the Green Deal faces similar uncertainty. President von der Leyen announced the deal during the UN COP25 in December 2019 in Madrid, as the conference (outside the new Gender Action Plan) was collapsing due to a lack of progress. Fraught negotiations left unresolved issues over carbon market and transparency rules while the EU and the Climate Ambition Alliance were not able to raise the ambition of reduction and timeline targets.

Seen as a bright spot in climate action, global observers have largely welcomed the European Green Deal. But some conservative politicians and business leaders warn of possible adverse economic consequences as companies may move operations elsewhere without the regulations imposed by the deal. More pointed criticism came from youth climate activists who have spearheaded massive protests demanding a faster and more drastic evolution.

The deal faces a significant hurdle in March when the European Parliament votes on a climate law which will establish a binding target to become carbon neutral by 2050. There have been recent signs that the deal will be weakened in the coming months. Despite strong opposition from green parties that the projects would lock Europe into decades of reliance on fossil fuels, an overwhelming majority of European Parliament members passed a package of 32 gas infrastructure projects, claiming that natural gas is a necessary transition fuel, and a means to lessen energy dependence on Russia.

Faltering climate progress from the United States, China, Australia, Japan and other actors has reinforced the centrality of the European Union to take on the mantle of global leadership. However, the year ahead will be a rocky one. By leveraging European green innovation and using EU authority, the EU can affect much-needed change at home and inspire action abroad. The question remains if the political will is equal to the challenge.

Jennifer Grosman Fernández is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program, and focuses her studies on the intersection between climate change policy and gender equality. She currently serves on the board of the School of Foreign Service Energy Club.

If you liked this article, you may enjoy this recent episode of The Europe Desk podcast, featuring an interview with the co-leader of the German Green Party, Robert Habeck:

A blog from Georgetown University European Horizons

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