Opinion

The Coming Clash Between Climate and Trade

The new leaders of the European Union, who have relentlessly championed open markets, will, ironically, likely trigger a conflict between climate preservation and free trade. But this clash is unavoidable, and how Europe and the world manage it will help to determine the fate of globalisation, if not that of the climate.

By: Date: August 1, 2019 Topic: Energy & Climate

The incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has laid out a highly ambitious climate agenda. In her first 100 days in office, she intends to propose a European Green Deal, as well as legislation that would commit the European Union to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Her immediate priority will be to step up efforts to reduce the EU’s greenhouse-gas emissions, with the aggressive new goal of halving them (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. The issue now is how to make this huge transition politically and economically sustainable.

Von der Leyen’s program reflects growing concern over climate change among European citizens. Even before the continent’s recent heat wave, protests by high-school students and the surge in support for Green parties in the European Parliament election had been a wake-up call for politicians. Many now regard climate action not only as a responsibility to future generations, but also as a duty to today’s youth. And political parties fear that dithering could lose them support among huge numbers of voters under 40.

In truth, however, the EU (including the United Kingdom) is a minor contributor to climate change these days. Member states’ combined share of global CO2 emissions has declined from 99% two centuries ago to less than 10% today (in annual, not cumulative terms). And this figure could fall to 5% by 2030 if the EU meets von der Leyen’s emissions target by that date.

While the EU will undertake the painful task of cutting its annual emissions by 1.5 billion tons, in 2030 the rest of the world will likely have increased them by 8.5 billion tons. Average global temperatures will therefore continue to rise, possibly by 3°C or more by 2100. Whatever Europe does will not save the planet.

How Europe deals with this frontrunner’s curse will be critical. The von der Leyen plan will inevitably cost jobs, curtail wealth, reduce incomes, and restrict economic opportunities, at least initially. Without an EU strategy for turning the moral imperative of climate action into a trump card, it won’t be tenable. A backlash will come, with ugly political consequences.

So what strategy might Europe adopt? One option is to bet on leading by example. By building an environmentally friendly development model, Europe and other climate pioneers would establish a path for others to take. And non-binding international agreements such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement would help to monitor progress, thereby pushing laggard governments to act.

But because climate preservation is a classic public good, climate coalitions are inherently unstable – and larger ones create even more incentive for members to defect and free-ride on others’ efforts. Leadership by example is thus unlikely to suffice.

Alternatively, Europe could build on its first-mover advantage to develop a competitive edge in new green technologies, products, and services. As Philippe Aghion and colleagues have argued, innovation can help tap the potential of such technologies and start changing the direction of economic development.

There are encouraging signs: the cost of solar panels has fallen faster than anticipated, and renewables are now more competitive than had been expected even ten years ago. Unfortunately, however, Europe has failed to convert climate action into industrial leadership. Most solar panels and electric batteries are produced in China, and the United States is its only serious competitor.

Europe’s remaining card is the size of its market, which still accounts for some 25% of world consumption. Because no global firm can afford to ignore it, the EU is a major regulatory power in areas such as consumer safety and privacy. Moreover, European standards often gain wider currency, because manufacturers and service providers that have adapted to demanding EU requirements tend to adhere to them in other markets, too.

The EU’s bet is that the combination of its own strong commitment to decarbonisation and the much softer, but global, Paris climate agreement will lead firms to redirect research and investment toward green technologies. Even if other countries do not set ambitious targets, the argument goes, enough investment may be redirected to make green development more affordable for all countries.

Yet current progress in this regard is clearly insufficient to curb global emissions and keep the global increase in temperature this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as the Paris agreement stipulates. For example, global coal-powered capacity is still growing,because China and India are building plants faster than the US and Europe are dismantling them.

Europe is therefore short of tools that could make its transition to carbon neutrality economically and politically sustainable. In her address to the European Parliament, von der Leyen dropped a bomb: she promised to introduce a border tax aimed at preventing “carbon leakage,” or the relocation of carbon-intensive production to countries outside the EU.

Such a tax will win applause from environmentalists, who (often wrongly) believe that trade is bad for the world’s climate. More important, the measure would both correct competitive distortions and deter those tempted to abstain from taking part in the global climate coalition. As long as there is no binding climate agreement, a carbon border tax makes economic sense.

Yet such a tax won’t fly easily. Committed free traders (or what remains of them) will cry foul. Importers will protest. Developing countries and the US (unless it changes course) will portray the measure as protectionist aggression. And an already crumbling global trade system will suffer a new shock.

It is ironic that the new leaders of the EU, which has relentlessly championed open markets, will likely trigger a conflict between climate preservation and free trade. But this clash is unavoidable. How it is managed will determine both the fate of globalisation and that of the climate.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Sep
9
08:30

China-EU investment relations: Exploring competition and industrial policies

This is a closed-door workshop jointly organised by MERICS and Bruegel looking at China-EU investment relations.

Speakers: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Sep
16
08:30

Climate change and the role of central banks

What connections exist between central banks and climate change, and what are the resulting implications?

Speakers: Emanuele Campiglio, Paul Hiebert, Pierre Monnin, Kjell G. Nyborg, Luiz Awazu Pereira da Silva, Mario Quagliariello, Mattia Romani, Paweł Samecki and Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Narodowy Bank Polski, Świętokrzyska 11/21, 00-919 Warsaw
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The Democrats need to have a climate-only TV debate. For Americans and for the rest of us

A series of global summits mean the months between now and November 2020 will be crucial to the future of climate change.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: August 6, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

The impact of the global energy transition on MENA oil and gas producers

Endowed with half of the world's known oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is cornerstone of the global energy architecture. This article argues that – together with the pressing need to create jobs opportunities for a large and youthful population – the possibility of the world moving more aggressively towards a low-carbon future should represent a key argument for the implementation of economic reform programmes.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Date: August 5, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

A reflection on the Mercosur agreement

The EU accepts the deal because it is worried about the catastrophic scenario of a world without the WTO.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 26, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The consequences of Switzerland’s lost equivalence status

Due to a spat between the European Commission and the government of Switzerland over the negotiation of an institutional framework agreement, equity securities that are listed on Swiss exchanges are banned from being traded on stock exchanges in the European Union. This blog post reviews the background of this incident and assesses the consequences for companies listed in Switzerland as well as EU investors investing in Swiss equity securities.

By: Michael Baltensperger Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 25, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The EU needs a bold climate strategy

Scientists report that global temperature increases must be limited to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase and rising temperatures driving up the frequency of extreme weather events, the world needs a greater commitment to climate policy.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 19, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Von der Leyen’s Green Deal isn’t just a plan for the environment

Ursula von der Leyen's proposal of a European Green Deal is ambitious and urgent. Not only does it aim to reduce the continent's emissions, but it also has the potential to grow the EU's economy and transform the bloc's politics.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 18, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The 4th industrial revolution: opportunities and challenges for Europe and China

What is the current status of EU-China relations concerning innovation, and what might their future look like?

Speakers: Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Chen Dongxiao, Patrick Child, Eric Cornuel, Maria Demertzis, Ding Yuan, Luigi Gambardella, Jiang Jianqing, Frank Kirchner, Pascal Lamy, Li Mingjun, Gwenn Sonck, Gerard Van Schaik, Reinhilde Veugelers, Wang Hongjian, Guntram B. Wolff, Xu Bin, Zhang Hongjun and Zhou Snow Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: July 12, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Deep Focus: Energy transition in the next EU institutional cycle

Bruegel fellow Simone Tagliapietra speaks to Sean Gibson in this instalment of 'The Sound of Economics', on the matter of the European energy transition and how the EU should proceed in the new institutional cycle.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 10, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Brief

The European Union energy transition: key priorities for the next five years

The new members of the European Parliament and European Commission who start their mandates in 2019 should put in place major policy elements to unleash the energy transition. It is becoming economically and technically feasible, with most of the necessary technologies now available and technology costs declining. The cost of the transition would be similar to that of maintaining the existing system, if appropriate policies and regulations are put in place.

By: Simone Tagliapietra, Georg Zachmann, Ottmar Edenhofer, Jean-Michel Glachant, Pedro Linares and Andreas Loeschel Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 9, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Faut-il s’endetter pour le climat?

Jean Pisani-Ferry, soutient qu’il ne faut pas s’interdire de financer une partie du coût de la transition écologique par l’endettement.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 2, 2019
Load more posts