For a green Europe, go global or go home

Nathalie Tocci is a Pierre Keller visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a board member of ENI and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column.

After almost two decades of protracted crisis, the European Union has found a new raison d’être: a green Europe.

A normative vision for the future, it represents both a clear growth strategy and a route to a political union for the bloc. Yet, as has been made clear at the U.N.’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this week, the EU — responsible for only around 8 percent of global emissions — is but a small part of the global picture. And a green Europe can only be realized if it’s a global one too.  

Today, the EU is clearly ahead of the green curve. The European Green Deal, most notably its Fit for 55 package, is currently the only concrete plan to reach climate neutrality. And while both China and the United States — to name two of the world’s top emitters — may be bold on their pledges, they lag far behind on the necessary laws, regulations and funds to get there.  

Still, the EU’s climate leadership is hardly reason to rejoice. A green Europe can only present a viable path if it both achieves internal net-zero carbon neutrality and contributes to the same goal externally, through foreign policy as well as its leading role in the global governance of climate and energy transition — a dimension for which it is far less prepared.

Were the EU to decarbonize while failing to bring the rest of the world with it, its global competitiveness would suffer, its industrial base would be hollowed out and the potentially regressive socio-economic effects of the transition would be exacerbated. The bloc would also risk inadvertently contributing to the decoupling of global supply chains between green and brown economies, with higher costs for all.  

The EU will only successfully untangle emissions and prosperity in Europe if it moves the rest of the world alongside it. And for that, it must overcome high geopolitical hurdles. 

Today, China has a clear edge in green technologies, notably in solar and storage. Europe is pressing ahead in the development of green capacities as well, and doing so also chimes with the goal of European strategic autonomy, given the more diffuse and decentralized nature of renewables. So while old fossil fuel interdependencies may gradually dilute, there is the risk of other dependencies increasing.  

A decarbonized Europe without China would be prohibitively costly, and probably unfeasible. Even if Europe were to extensively launch and foster green industrial capacities itself, it would take time for these to become competitive and fill the supply gap if China were blocked out. And as relations between the West and China sour, hard questions arise that the EU — and the U.S. — must address.

In the past, for example, the debate on cooperation with authoritarian countries has often pitted interests against values, posing questions like: Should values such as human rights trump the pursuit of strategic or economic interests? Now, as the energy transition unfolds, two sets of values will inevitably begin to compete, raising issues such as whether climate leadership should come at the cost of human rights. Or, more specifically, whether the EU should meet its renewables targets if the only way of doing so is having to buy them from Xinjiang.  

Squaring this circle will undoubtedly require stronger transatlantic relations. But here too, the glass is only half full. Under President Joe Biden, the EU and U.S. have turned over a new page, elevating the green agenda to a prime issue for strengthened transatlantic ties. And on some issues, this has translated to joint leadership, such as the global methane pledge discussed at COP26 this week.  

In other areas, however, the transatlantic gap remains significant. Carbon pricing in particular stands out in this respect, as well as diverging views on green taxonomies. As the EU has already started setting its standards, hoping to lead the way in climate investment, the U.S. is not likely to adopt them any time soon. And when it comes to carbon pricing, transatlantic convergence is all the more tricky, yet necessary, given the EU’s future carbon border adjustment mechanism — a crucial external step if the European Emissions Trading System is to develop as it should internally.  

Finally, a green and global Europe is also one in which it both lives up to its climate finance pledges and ensures others do too. EU institutions and member countries currently lead the world in climate finance, and if the $100 billion global threshold gradually moves within reach, it will largely be thanks to the EU’s efforts in this regard. But, again, the devil is in the detail.

Operationalizing 30 percent of the budget Europe set aside for climate in its surrounding regions, will not be easy — particularly as the lion’s share has been channeled to specific geographies rather than following thematic priorities. Still, doing so will be essential to making the green transition pick up speed beyond the EU’s borders.

Europe’s new narrative is and should be that of a green union. Of that, there is no doubt. However, in following its new ambitions, its focus cannot remain mainly internal. For any chance of growth or success, Europe’s climate agenda must be a global one too.



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