From a vicious cycle of inaction into a virtuous cycle of action: Transatlantic Cooperation on Climate Change

By Madeline Bronstein, Public Affairs Intern at the U.S. Mission to the European Union

At the end of November, the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will begin in Paris, with a goal of achieving a universal agreement on climate that aims to keep global warming below 2°C. The event is expected to attract nearly 50,000 participants from governments, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, NGOs, and civil society, making it one of the largest ever international conferences on climate change. 

To achieve a historic, ambitious agreement, parties must focus in particular on the mitigation of emissions, adaption to climate changes, financing climate actions in developing countries, and individual country goals. Before talks in Paris begin, countries have been asked to publish their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), presenting their national efforts contributing to the global reduction of climate change. These commitments will be a key part of the negotiations in Paris, and set the stage for collaboration and genuine commitment to reaching an agreement.

COP21 presents an opportunity for the global community to come together on an issue that more and more countries are identifying as critical. The atmosphere surrounding the upcoming Paris conference holds a lot of promise, along with a lot of pressure. COP21 may be the last chance for establishing a collective framework for staying below the 2°C threshold, and many countries are pressed to work towards a more collaborative and substantial outcome than has occurred in the past. The U.S. and the EU can both be expected to play an important role in leading discussions on reducing global emissions, as well as in getting others to join the effort.

On Wednesday, October 14th, the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, hosted an event with the U.S. Mission to the European Union on COP21 and transatlantic involvement in climate change negotiations. “Ambitions and expectations of the EU and the U.S. for COP 21: Getting an agreement out of Paris” featured Jacob Werksman, Principal Adviser to the Directorate General for Climate Action at the European Commission, and Pete Ogden, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. speaking on challenges, expectations, and ambitions on both sides of the Atlantic. Werksman drew on his experience as an international lawyer and negotiator, focusing on the international dimensions of European climate policy. Ogden’s professional history working in the White House, State Department, and now in independent think tanks on climate change and environmental policy, gives him a unique perspective as both an expert and former member of the Obama administration.

Peter Ogden at the European Policy Center in Brussels
Peter Ogden at the European Policy Center in Brussels

During the event, both Werksman and Ogden expressed optimism towards the Paris talks. Countries have shown genuine interest in reaching an agreement and implementing their goals, Ogden explained, “There is a huge amount of political will.” Werksman echoed this, saying that the dedication and embracing of emissions reductions by countries has had a huge impact, and that global politics are aligning to put the international community in a good position for getting an agreement out of COP21.

To the primarily European audience of diplomats, journalists, consultants, and experts, Ogden spoke in detail about the recent history of climate action in the United States, the American political process behind implementing international agreements, and how he sees the U.S.’s role develop going into COP21. The room was filled completely, and the opportunity to hear from a U.S. expert in Europe was not lost on those attending. Audience members asked questions from their various national and professional backgrounds about the American perspective.

The United States has come a long way in domestic climate policy since 2009, Ogden described. Since the beginning of President Obama’s administration, climate change has been a top issue. During the Copenhagen talks, which are generally considered to have had minor impacts on international climate efforts, the U.S. did not have the domestic legal framework to successfully pass an agreement through the legislative body. But even without comprehensive national legislation, individual states still wanted to commit to clean energy independence, and this dedication has only increased and become more widespread. These state-wide efforts were then complimented by federal actions, including President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to drive a 32% emissions reduction by 2030, and increase the share of renewables in the U.S. fuel mix to 28%. The United States has also seen a huge increase in solar power, eleven times the amount in 2008, as well as a boom in natural gas. These factors, Ogden explained, have made the U.S. more prepared than ever to enter COP21 talks with a strong domestic framework for an ambitious agreement.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 8.30.31 PM
President Obama’s speech at Everglades National Park on April 22, 2015

These views are also shared by President Obama. “The steps we’ve taken over the last several years are already making a difference,” the President stated during his 2015 Earth Day remarks in the Everglades, Florida. “We’re using more clean energy than ever before. America is number one in wind power, and last year we generated 20 times more electricity from sunlight than we did in all of 2008 — 20 times. We’ve committed to doubling the pace at which we cut carbon pollution. And this means that there’s new hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to prevent the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late.”

Hearing Ogden speak about the progress the United States has made domestically was interesting not only for the Europeans in the audience, but for myself as an American as well. Growing up in a United States transitioning into becoming comfortable with “going green” means that I have few perspectives from prior to climate change’s emergence as an issue. I can’t speak to U.S. environmental policy practices in 1990, and as such it was difficult for me to internalize just how far the United States has come in its domestic practices. As Ogden described the progress and changes implemented in the U.S. since the early 2000s, it became clear that the small victories I had been reading and hearing about for years in the U.S. had been adding up to show solid commitment to change. The increasing importance of climate change in American politics has been exponential, and I would agree that the United States is more prepared than ever to play an instrumental role in reaching an ambitious agreement.

The optimism expressed by the speakers is perhaps idealistic, but in the face of a historic international conference like COP21, their views do not appear unfounded. As a millennial, climate change emerged as an issue very early in my lifetime, and watching it progress from a controversial accusation to an international economic and security priority has only strengthened the belief, that many in my generation share, that the global community has waited long enough for the perfect moment, and now is the time to make real, ambitious movements towards reducing climate change.

A major argument against climate action has been that no other powers are making any sacrifices, and one country alone cannot solve the issue Ogden added. “This has changed. We’ve left a vicious cycle of inaction and moved into a virtuous cycle of action”.

As more countries make addressing climate change a priority, even more will follow. With just over a month left until talks in Paris begin, this atmosphere of commitment and collaboration could position the international community towards achieving historic and meaningful frameworks for action, putting the world on track to a cleaner, more sustainable global community.

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