Quick Wins for the Biden Administration on Climate Cooperation with the EU

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Collaboration with Europe on climate change mitigation would be an easy and quick win for the incoming administration as it seeks to put transatlantic relations back on sound footing.

Collaboration with Europe on climate change mitigation would be an easy and quick win for the incoming administration as it seeks to put transatlantic relations back on sound footing. President-elect Joe Biden has promised the United States will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency, and the European Commission has proposed establishing “a comprehensive transatlantic green agenda” on climate change as part of “a new EU-US agenda for global change.” While some aspects of the U.S.-EU relationship will take long to sort out following the stresses of recent years and several will likely remain contentious, there is clear harmony between Brussels and the incoming Biden administration on addressing the climate challenge.

Biden has said that the U.S. must lead the world on climate change and promised to convene a summit of the world’s major carbon emitters early in his presidency. He has chosen former secretary of state John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry will sit on the National Security Council, the first time that this body will include an official dedicated to climate change. Biden has also raised climate change in most of his initial discussions with foreign leaders calling to congratulate him, in particular with his future European counterparts.

At the same time, Europe sees itself as the global leader on climate change while some doubt the consistency of U.S. policy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in November that “Europe will be at the forefront of brokering ambitious (climate) commitments, the U.S. is also well placed to support us.” The EU, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, China, and others have made commitments on reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 or 2060. Can the United States make a similar commitment with a closely divided Congress? Will the Biden administration have any credibility if it cannot make such a pledge? Might the United States withdraw from the Paris Agreement again if a Republican returns to the White House in 2025?

Beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement, there are a couple simple ways in which the incoming Biden administration can show its seriousness and rebuild the United States’ credibility to reengage constructively on climate. Europe is the place to start.

The first involves methane emissions. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and is responsible for perhaps a quarter of the world’s warming to date. Last October, the EU adopted a strategy to reduce methane emissions, including from fossil-fuel production and from transmission and distribution systems, within Europe and internationally. Its intention is to set an example and use its market power to persuade other countries to adopt measures to curb methane emissions in their energy supply chains—steps that could have an important impact on global warming. Countries that export natural gas to the EU—either by pipeline (mainly Russia, Norway, and Algeria) or as liquefied natural gas (Qatar, the United States, and several others)—could see their access to EU markets negatively impacted if their gas is seen as too emissions-intensive.

The Biden administration could quickly announce its intention to cooperate with the EU on methane and join the international observatory the latter will create to collect, verify, and monitor methane emissions data at the global level. Combined with undoing the rollbacks on U.S. methane regulations that the Trump administration enacted, the Biden administration combining forces with the EU would further pressure other countries to curb these emissions and help ensure that U.S. liquefied natural gas will continue to find a market in Europe.

The Biden administration could also pledge to work with the EU on the latter’s strategy to develop a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). In essence, this mechanism would place a carbon price on imports of certain goods from outside the EU to encourage countries to raise their climate ambition and reduce the risks of companies transferring production to places with less stringent emission rules (carbon leakage). This is a controversial idea, would be complicated to implement, and could run afoul of global trade rules. But, whether or not the United States would want to adopt a similar mechanism, collaboration with the EU to shape its CBAM could help ensure that it does not damage U.S. exports to Europe. Properly designed, an EU CBAM could also serve as a deterrent to efforts by a future administration to roll back environmental safeguards, lest more lax standards result in increased duties on U.S. exports to Europe.

Its methane strategy and CBAM are key components of the EU’s Green New Deal. By engaging the EU on these issues, the Biden administration would show its commitment to climate mitigation while helping to restore U.S. leadership and rebuild the United States image. The United States and the EU working together would create a strong incentive for others to join their efforts and a sound basis for a transatlantic green agenda.