Climate change presents common threats to the security, economy, and environment of the European Union and United States. At the same time, the transition to a low-carbon economy has the potential to provide a major boost in innovation, investment, and enhanced competitiveness.

EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard discussed the need to address climate and energy security threats and the importance of embracing clean technologies in support of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Hedegaard was joined by Sherri Goodman from the Center for Naval Analysis and Nigel Purvis from Climate Advisers and Resources for the Future. Carnegie’s David Burwell moderated.

Costs and Benefits to Climate Change Policies

Hedegaard addressed climate change from several perspectives: energy efficiency, security, technological innovation, and global competitiveness. Intelligent climate policies carry significant benefits that reach beyond halting climate change. In a resource-constrained world, countries must use their resources more efficiently to remain competitive.

Hedegaard commented that the transition to a low-carbon economy should be seen as an investment and a way of generating growth.

  • Costs: The transition to a low-carbon economy will require an investment of an estimated 270 billion euros annually.
  • Benefits: At the same time, savings on imported fossil fuels, greater energy efficiency, and other byproducts of the transition would cancel out some, if not all, of the cost of implementation. Such savings would amount to between 175 and 320 billion euros annually.
  • Job creation: As Europe began to implement its climate policies, some observers expressed concern that European jobs would be lost. However, Europe saw the opposite—GDP and manufacturing both grew and hundreds of thousands of jobs were created in the renewable energy business. By 2020, Europe alone would create 1.5 million net jobs by addressing issues such as the energy efficiency agenda.

Climate Change and Security

Goodman pointed out that climate change has a significant security dimension, and can act as a threat multiplier and “accelerant of instability” for fragile regions of the world. 

  • Rising food prices: Rising food prices from failed harvests are of increasing concern. Food shortages could have a dramatic effect on future humanitarian crises. The U.S. military, particularly in Africa, has already begun considering how food and water scarcity could affect future military missions. Hedegaard responded that the international community has already seen how rising food prices could have unexpected political and social consequences, pointing out that an increase in food prices was among the issues that spurred the revolution in Tunisia.
  • Health: As the climate changes, infectious diseases are spreading to more temperate regions. This is dangerous in some unstable areas for both the local populations and for U.S. or international troops stationed in these countries. 
  • Rising sea levels: The future geostrategic landscape will be significantly altered as the seas change. A rise in sea levels will affect the ability of the U.S. military to operate in key strategic locations around the world, Goodman said. Furthermore, changes to the Arctic allow greater access to its deposits of energy and mineral resources, with obvious strategic implications.
  • Migration: Climate change also affects migration in such diverse places as North Africa or Bangladesh. There are significant security impacts of climate-linked migration.

Europe’s Climate Initiatives

  • 2008 Europe Climate and Energy Package: While Europe was alone when it set its climate target in 2008 of 20 percent carbon dioxide reductions, 20 percent use of renewables, and 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020, today 89 countries have followed Europe’s lead in setting domestic targets.
  • Cap-and-Trade System: Europe established a cap-and-trade system in 2005. However, other nations—including New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia—are now setting up their own systems. Even China has indicated that it will institute a cap-and-trade system.
  • Toward 2050: On March 8, 2010, the European Commission adopted a road map toward a low-carbon society by 2050. This road map calls for a transition that is achieved in a cost-effective manner, using existing technology. With this roadmap, Hedegaard predicted that Europe should achieve a 60 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2040.

Making a Global Commitment

  • Mitigating Climate Change: Nigel Purvis pointed out that the international community’s promised carbon dioxide reductions, even if achieved, represent only about half of what is needed to avoid the most dangerous risks of climate change. Bridging the gap between the nationally optimal and globally optimal levels of mitigation—and helping countries deliver on existing pledges while also increasing these commitments—is a foreign policy challenge for the United States. 
  • Reconciling Contradictory Policies: The international community, including the United States, must reconcile climate concerns with traditional development assistance. It does not make sense to support both fossil fuel development and climate-friendly development. Purvis cited the World Bank as an example of an institution that is reforming its energy-lending strategy to bring it into line with its climate policies.
  • Thinking Creatively: The United States and the international community must think creatively to find new sources of funding for climate assistance, Purvis added.
  • After Kyoto: With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol set to expire next year, several parties to the agreement—including the United States, Japan, Russia, and Canada—are not prepared to extend the protocol for another five years. Hedegaard noted that it is a key European priority to make sure that the achievements of Kyoto survive, and Europe is open to a second commitment period, provided others agree to commit, as well. Whether or not this agreement materializes, Europe has crafted its energy policies up to 2020 based on Kyoto principles, and they will remain relevant in the near future.