Climate policy together or not at all

Transatlatic Media Fellowship

The dispute between the supporters of globalisation and the defenders of national sovereignty rages around the world. This also concerns climate policy. 

International relations theorists are in dispute over the future of foreign policy. The supporters of the end of history, as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama, expected that growing globalisation would do away with national states and promote supranational entities leaning towards policy centralisation. They also expected a shift in the decision-making process’ centre of gravity towards multilateral mechanisms.     

To some extent Poland has been a beneficiary of this set-up. All multilateral organisations, despite being usually dominated by the most powerful states, strive to adopt a playing field that establishes equality between all participants. For this reason, Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Samara to defend Polish cold-cut meat against Russian sanctions and the European Commission took Poland’s side during gas negotiations with Russia’s Gazprom. It was thanks to this mechanism that Poland was able to influence the EU debate on energy safety.   

Broken States

But the globalisation of international politics has another facet. The common climate policy at global and EU levels strives to reduce CO2 emissions not only in the area of energy, but also in the field of the economy. This means a painful transformation for Polish industry, which relies heavily on coal-based energy. Because of different starting points and its smaller potential, this will be much more difficult for Poland than, for example, for Germany, which launched its Energiewende in the 1970s. The very same multilateral mechanisms, which resulted in progress in terms of energy safety, force progress in climate policy. From the point of view of combatting climate change, this is a good thing, but it is less so for Poland’s economy, which will have to undergo quick changes.

This issue is also being discussed in the USA. The dispute between globalists and defenders of sovereignty has been translated into the language of old debates on the American political scene – debates between federalists and confederates, which preceded the adoption of the United States Constitution. Progressive states support the change. One example here is California, which enjoys the right geographical conditions to promote the development of low- or zero-emission energy, including renewable energy sources (RES). The state of California has adopted a law which sets out to achieve the 100% mark on producing energy from RES by 2045. The document is still waiting for approval from the state’s governor, Jerry Brown.

So far, the Republicans have worried that this kind of regulation would be costly and would bring energy prices up. Energy storage technology is not yet developed enough to allow California to fully replace fossil fuels with renewable sources. Experts I spoke to who were close to the Obama administration have stressed that Hawaii, often quoted as an example of energy transformation, is an island group, and so investing in RES is much more profitable there due to the state’s isolation. California’s situation is also unique compared to other states. It also affects its neighbours by leading to an uncontrolled export of electrical energy, which disturbs the stability of nearby states. Finally, this wouldn’t be possible if it were not for gas-based production, which stabilises the sunny state’s RES development.

A cross-party initiative, Climate Mayors, which backs mutually combatting global warming, has support in cities across 48 states. It could bring about a sea change, but without cheap energy storage technology, nuclear and gas power plants will still remain guarantors of a safe energy supply. It is much more difficult today to build nuclear power plants within predictable budgets and deadlines, but gas power plants are thriving thanks to the shale gas revolution. “Coal” states, such as West Virginia, stand in opposition here. West Virginian Democrats and Republicans univocally defend the coal industry. And it is their voice that Donald Trump listens to – he has already announced the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which, for the first time in its history, imposed global responsibilities on countries. Without the further participation of signatories it will be impossible to create sanctions that will allow for the effective implementation of the Agreement’s provisions.

In the face of the lack of support from the White House, it’s the American cities backing energy transformation that are at the vanguard of climate policy, regardless of what happens in Washington. “On the local level, it was the cities that adopted sustainable policy targets early because many of their problems, such as the low quality of air, excess litter and not enough forest areas, is painfully experienced on the local level,” says Mark Alan Hughes, the head of Kleinman Centre for Energy Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “After Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, many people were confident cities could continue their support for the agreement without the government. However, there is a limit to this. It’s down to federal policy, like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, to introduce regulations we pledged to adopt in Paris.” 

Temperature rising

The current administration is revising Obama’s climate policy and defending coal. “Conservatives hate government intervention, but international cooperation on climate policy must be led by governments and transnational institutions,” explains Dr Karl Hausker, President Obama’s former advisor and longstanding analyst of US climate policy. “Once we’ve accepted the scientific facts, it will turn out that we need action on the global level.”

According to research conducted by Yale University, global commitments made by nearly 6,000 cities, states, and regions representing 7 percent of the global population and more than 2,000 companies with a combined revenue nearly the size of the U.S. economy will ensure the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5-2.2 million tonnes by 2030.

Although this is a significant change in terms of the USA, it looks pretty meek from a global perspective. It will simply not be sufficient to avoid a 2-degree rise in global temperatures and therefore meet the Paris Agreement objectives, even with reductions in the USA, China, India, Brazil and the EU. Yale researchers have claimed that Trump’s withdrawal of the USA from the Agreement would mean an additional one billion tonnes in CO2 emissions over the next 15 years. When we combine this with plans to revise the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which are a part of the Clean Power Plan, we could even witness a rise in emissions from the coal sector in the USA. Even once the Paris Agreement is fully implemented, the world is set to warm up by 3.3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. What is needed is global leadership to provide new tools and pledges for combatting climate change.    

In consumers we trust

Climate policy must have a global character. The dispute between globalists and supporters of sovereignty in the USA gives interesting rise to discussion in Europe. 

Faced with Germany’s growing export of energy from renewable sources, Poland is experiencing similar problems to those of the states neighboring California and its growing energy production from RES. Unlike in the USA, there are central sanctions, which in a way force Poland into energy transformation. It is the energy-climate policy of the European Union that is much more strict and formalised than the global climate agreement from Paris. The EU policy bears the signature of Poland’s PM and is effective thanks to sanctions. Poland must hold a debate between globalists and supporters of sovereignty on whether it should allow further globalisation of the climate policy or choose an alternative. Poland must also specify what the alternative would entail, seeing as there are only a small number of Poles who would wish to leave the EU. After all, the EU provides Poland with a protective shield against Gazprom. The shield still has holes, but they can be fixed through developing multilateral policies. This means new benefits of community policy can only be achieved through further integration. Having to comply with regulations is the price to pay. Smooth energy transformation in dialogue with the EU could be a rational reaction to all this.  

Debates will continue, but reality might overtake them. A shift in consumer behaviour is a crucial factor. Consumers are increasingly supportive of climate policy because of their concern for the environment and they reflect this in their choices. Mark Alan Hughes, mentioned above, participated in the creation of sustainable urban policy in Philadelphia. It turned out that the local authorities opted for sustainability not because of global trends, but because of the challenges the city was facing. There will be more examples of this as time goes by. Another is the announcement by the largest furniture company in Europe that it would only buy energy from RES. Energy companies have already began to respond to such declarations and are preparing increasingly popular green bundles for their clients containing only zero-emissions energy.  

On the other hand, a well-negotiated climate policy can provide means to address energy poverty, i.e., where there is a lack of access to energy or the supply of energy is an excessive burden on household budgets. This could mean an opportunity for Silesia, which has to replace “black” workplaces with “green”, or more broadly innovative ones. The COP24 climate summit in Katowice will provide the nearest opportunity to discuss these issues. During COP24, Poland will advocate larger funds for energy transformation on the one hand and a more lenient treatment of coal on the other. Who will win the climate debate? Multilateralists or opponents of globalisation?

This text was created as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. Each year, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw sponsors a select number of journalists for an independent, transatlantic trip to research stories relevant to the foundation’s work on climate & energy policy, democracy & human rights and foreign & security policy. Fellowships are selected annually and are open to journalists in any medium. Wojciech Jakóbik is one of the three fellows 2018 . 

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.