Why the U.S. lags behind Europe on climate change goals 'by 10 or 15 years'

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BARCELONA — On Wednesday, the Biden administration unveiled a bold new blueprint showing how solar energy, which currently provides 2.3 percent of electricity in the U.S., could be ramped up to kick in 45 percent of electrical needs by 2050.

In Europe, however, the announcement — while lauded as a move in the right direction — was viewed as less than earthshaking. Across the 27-country European Union, solar already generates 13 percent of electricity — and massive projects from Spain to Germany to Denmark are soon going online. In fact, the U.S. finds itself playing catch-up with the EU in the race to meet the goal of carbon neutrality laid out in the Paris climate accord.

Wind power plant in north-west Germany near the city of Emden. (plus49/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
A wind-power plant near the city of Emden, Germany. (plus49/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

In the U.S., for instance, all sources of renewable energy generate just 20 percent of the country’s electricity. In Europe, they already supply nearly 40 percent. And while greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have risen 2 percent from 1990, according to the EPA, Europe has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent over that same period, and is well on its way to slashing them 55 percent by 2030.

Given American technological prowess, why is the EU racing ahead of the U.S. in switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies and in reducing emissions, leading the world in its goal of being 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2050? According to European energy experts, it boils down to three factors: attitudes about climate change, consistent long-term commitment and Greta Thunberg.

“To be blunt, the debate Americans are having on the federal energy policy reminds me of the debate we were having in the EU in 2007,” said Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Jacques Delors Energy Centre in Paris. “The U.S. is lagging behind the EU by 10 or 15 years.”

In contrast to the U.S., where science is increasingly questioned and petroleum companies such as ExxonMobil have run disinformation campaigns for decades, the idea that human activity is behind climate change isn’t controversial to most Europeans.

“No serious European politician contests climate change as a human-made problem,” Johan Lilliestam, who heads the Energy Transition Dynamics group at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, told Yahoo News. “In the U.S., for whatever reason, it's an opinion — 'What's your opinion on climate change?’” To him it’s the same as asking, “What's your opinion on gravity?”

ExxonMobil Corp. and Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (Sabic) Gulf Coast Growth Ventures petrochemical complex under construction in Gregory, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
An ExxonMobil and Saudi Basic Industries Corp. petrochemical complex under construction in Gregory, Texas, in July. (Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That ambivalence about climate change, he said, has been reflected in energy policy, as the U.S. did not emphasize changing to non-carbon-emitting power sources in recent decades. "The energy transition in Europe has been about 'How do we replace nuclear and fossil fuels with renewables?' In the U.S., there's been a huge transition as well — but it hasn't been 'How do we get out of fossil fuels to renewables' but 'How do we get into shale gas?'”

While the North American boom of shale-derived natural gas did offset the use of coal, and reduced emissions compared with those from coal-fired plants, “it has not put the U.S. on a trajectory towards a zero-carbon electricity future, and it probably turns out to be counterproductive in the long run,” Lilliestam said. “The good news is that the United States is capable of this type of really large-scale transitions — and the shale gas revolution is an example of that. It shows that the U.S. is financially and technologically capable of doing these types of things on this magnitude."

Lifestyle attitudes play a huge role as well — from transportation, now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S., to electricity usage, with electric utilities now the second-biggest contributor. While nearly 9 out of 10 Americans own a car, only about 60 percent of Europeans own one — and in Europe, where gasoline is about twice as expensive, they drive them about half as many miles as Americans each year. In the U.S., where electricity is on average half the price it is in the EU, households use about 30 kilowatt-hours per day; European households use about a third of that.

Unwavering commitment to reducing greenhouse gases has been another characteristic of the EU experience. Pellerin-Carlin said that European leaders’ concern over climate change is now ingrained — going back more than three decades. U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he noted, even flagged it in a 1989 speech before the United Nations, saying, “The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all, and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.”

A man runs past a BP (British Petroleum) EV (Electric Vehicle) charge point in London, Britain, January 30, 2021. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
A British Petroleum electric vehicle charge point in London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Recognizing the need to get its energy house in order, the European Union signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent of their 1990 levels; the U.S. also signed, but did not ratify the protocol in Congress and dropped out altogether in 2001 under President George W. Bush. The EU stayed with it, emerging as a leader of the protocol, which in 2015 morphed into the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. also signed in 2016, only to have President Donald Trump announce the very next year that the U.S. would exit it. “Had it not been for the EU,” said Pellerin-Carlin, “the Paris climate agreement would have died with the election of Trump. The U.S. became absent, negative and hostile.”

President Biden’s return to the Paris Agreement, said Lilliestam, is “very important because under Trump there was a sort of a vacuum. Europe carried on with our plans as before, but there was no global leadership. Now there is a different kind of optimism in global climate policy, since the U.S. is back on as a serious collaborative partner on the world stage.”

Europe, on the other hand, has avoided the flip-flops characteristic of American administrations and has been steadfast in its commitments for decades, energy analysts emphasized.

"The EU has been planning since the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s and has clearly been more successful at implementing a climate agenda over the past 20 years,” Thorfinn Stainforth, policy analyst for the Low Carbon and Circular Economy program at the Brussels-based Institute for European Environmental Policy, told Yahoo News. "In the EU, there has been long-term planning and a climate framework in place throughout thick and thin — it hasn't been coming and going every few years with the political winds."

David Merrill Executive Director of the National Global Warming Coalition reads from a paper urging U.S. President George W. Bush to sign the Kyoto Protocol during a protest on the Ellipse behind the White House February 14, 2005 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Activist David Merrill, in front of the White House in 2005, calls on President George W. Bush to sign the Kyoto Protocol. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Stainforth sees the frequent policy reversals in American administrations as troubling. "From the point of view of climate action, it's a big problem because it inevitably hampers action," he said.

And energy experts point to the role of citizen activism on both sides of the Atlantic as being crucial in changing tides.

"Civil society in the U.S. was a bit less active on the climate file until fairly recently," Stainforth said, noting the emergence of groups such as the Sunrise Movement. Even with American environmental groups, climate change was historically not as much of a priority or treated as urgently as in Europe, he added, where "the attention of civil society has been more on ambitious climate action" for decades.

In August 2018, after two of Europe’s hottest summers on record, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, then 15, began skipping her classes and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, with a placard — “School Strike for Climate” — and demanding that legislators take aggressive action against climate change, handing out papers explaining, “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”

It quickly led to an international movement — Fridays for Future — that attracted youth across Europe and the world who have skipped school and partaken in street demonstrations on the last day of the school week. One multicountry protest in September 2019 brought out some 4 million young people — 1.4 million in Germany alone.

“It created a really powerful movement,” said Lilliestam. “The pressure from the street from those Fridays for Future demonstrations has been really influential in creating the new momentum for climate policy.”

Climate activists gather on a
Climate activists at a Fridays for Future protest in Berlin in September 2020. (Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Three months later, in December 2019, Ursula von der Leyen, then the new president of the European Commission, unveiled the European Green Deal, “a new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into ... a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.” Extensions of that have called for the internal combustion engine to be phased out by 2035, and even the EU’s COVID-19 relief packages to member countries stipulated that a large portion of the billions allocated needed to be used for renewable energy projects.

Despite those proposals, energy experts say that no country or economic bloc is doing enough. “The legislation we are currently discussing in the EU is the kind of stuff we should have adopted in the 1980s,” said Pellerin-Carlin. “The kind of stuff that Biden is proposing is the kind of thing that should have been done in the 1960s. So we are all lagging behind. And we've known about climate change for centuries, literally.”

He recommends that U.S. energy policymakers visit Europe — to see what the EU has done right and what it’s done wrong. “Learn from our mistakes,” he added. “We made many of them.”

Yet despite European false steps and American reversals, Pellerin-Carlin hasn’t given up hope. “With Biden back — and with President Xi in China aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060 — we still have a shot at making sure that humankind survives the 21st century,” he said. “And, in the end, that's what this thing is all about.”

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