Germans Should Not Expect the U.S. to Follow Their Climate Path

June 2021

In order to achieve the 1.5 degree target, climate protection measures of the next three to five years will be crucial. The new U.S. administration has also recognized the seriousness of the situation and is acting accordingly. However, it will not take the same approach as the Europeans.

Interview with Samantha Gross

USA Klima John Kerry
Foto: Reuters / Adobe Stock

Henry Alt-Haaker: Samantha, you are at the end of your fellowship and have talked to different decision makers and experts in Germany and Europe. What are you taking home? What was your biggest revelation?

Samantha Gross: The thing that I learned the most about is how folks in Germany and Europe in general are thinking about and approaching climate. The political differences with the U.S. population are really big, even more so than I suspected, which goes for technologies, too.

There's a large divergence between ambition and reality. I see the activists, in particular, wanting to go further and further. And frankly, the science supports them in many ways: morally, ethically. But the politics, the reality, and the difficulty of actually making the changes sometimes gets lost on them. I'm really concerned about that. Because I deeply respect the youth activists and those who are pushing really hard, and I think the morality is on their side.

And here, the April ruling of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court is really important: ambitious climate protection is enshrined in German law now. I will be very closely watching what happens in Germany over the next couple of years, but this next year is going to be particularly important because in order to get to the really ambitious goals that are in place now, you're going to need to act fast. Germany is really becoming where the rubber hits the road on this issue.

Do you think that the activists are overambitious and hence are not going to find realistic goals? The traditional thinking is that overall daring advocacy in societies needs to push the executive in the right direction. Social movements may not get exactly what they articulate as goals, but they move politics closer than if there wasn't their push. The constitutional court ruling, perhaps, is one of those results that wouldn't have happened without said activism.

I generally agree. I'm very much in favor of the activist wing pulling things along. The thing that makes this particularly interesting in Germany is that activists won the court case. And whether or not the original climate law, calling for the 55 percent CO2 reduction by 2030, was or was not ambitious enough from a moral point of view, it was very ambitious from a practical point of view. And now Germany is obligated to get to 65 percent, which I will certainly be watching with great interest.

It's really tricky because it's an election year. You're not going to get much done between now and the election because there are other fish to fry and then there's a new government coming in. And so that's going to be lost time. Germany is going to very, very quickly need to get mechanisms in place to make that change happen because a 65 percent reduction by 2030 is a lot. It's a lot even for Germany. At those levels of reduction, you're going beyond the easy measures. You're getting into those that are deeper and more systemic and will require a lot of investment. And you need them fast. I'm having trouble with this in my own head: the difference between the morality of it and the practicality of it. How can we get as close to the morality as we practically can?

Talking about court cases, what's your assessment of the Shell decision in the Netherlands, which is, to a certain extent, more operational? De facto it ordered a company to price externalities in, that so far have not been internalized. This might effectively damage or destroy their entire business model, wouldn’t it?

It's an interesting ruling because, on the one hand, if we're all going to net zero, clearly Shell has to go to net zero as well. The ruling means that it must go faster than it would have otherwise. But particularly the European major oil companies, not just Shell, but Equinor, Total, Repsol, are becoming more forward thinking: “OK, how are we getting to net zero by mid-century?”

But because at least a chunk of their business is in oil and transportation fuels, some of those oil-based uses are among the more difficult ones to decarbonize – such as aviation, shipping, heavier trucking transport – and are thus likely to come later. And so this ruling may speed up their decarbonization. But the idea that they need to decarbonize by mid-century is something that the European companies, in particular, are abundantly aware of and moving towards. The court ruling said: “You're not going fast enough”.

I remember during one of our first conversations a year ago, you said: “The most pragmatic solution would be to electrify everything. And then get electricity as carbon neutral as possible.”

Yes, so far as it goes.  You can’t electrify everything. But that simple formula goes a long way.

And is the use of hydrogen, green or blue, a possible intermediate step for that?

Hydrogen is a good solution for energy uses that can’t be electrified. For example, when you talk to people in the German steel industry, they are very focused on using hydrogen, which is a great technology. It's still in the demonstration phase but it's not quite commercial yet. But it's a functional technology that can get the job done.

The trick is that you'll need a lot of investment. You're completely remaking those steel plants. One of the things that people from the industry emphasize to me is that the product is the same, but that both the capital costs and the operating costs will be higher. And so they’ll need support going forward as long as there is higher carbon steel in the market. Because it's not just: “OK, we’ll pay your investment costs and then you can go forward”. The operational expenditure is higher, too, not just the capital expenditure.

Here in the U.S., you may see a mix: you might see some carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the steel industry, for example. You could do that with fewer modifications to existing plants. I don't think you'll see that in Germany because the CCS technology is just not accepted. But in other places, perhaps here in the U.S., you may see that happen. I think Germany wants to go straight to hydrogen, perhaps through a transition phase that might be from blue hydrogen to green hydrogen.

What are low-hanging fruits? What would you recommend decision-makers in Germany, in Europe to do first?

Well, that goes back to my simple formula of electrify everything and decarbonizing the electricity sector. You have to do those together but you can do them in parallel and make progress as you go. So electrifying home heating, using heat pumps, electrifying light transportation. Battery-powered consumer cars are a great technology. That's a no-brainer.

Even big buses in many cities have been electrified now…

Yes, exactly. Most of the buses I rode in Germany were electric. Any use, not just light vehicles, but any use where the vehicle goes on relatively short trips and goes back to a home base at night or at the end of a shift is easier to electrify. So buses, trash trucks, urban delivery vans, all of those are pretty amenable to electrification. All that's low, medium-hanging fruit – those are things that we have the technology for now. They'll get cheaper as we go and we just need investment. And then continuing to decarbonize the electricity sector, more wind and more solar, particularly in Germany. Geothermal where it works, and a little further out, but important, is more grid-scale storage of power. Batteries are good for saving solar energy from the afternoon to use during evening peak demand, but they're not good for seasonal storage. So that's the low-hanging fruit and then the fruit that's going to take a little longer to pick is that longer-scale storage.

Let's move to the U.S.: the new government, with John Kerry as the designate “climate czar”. What do you think is the strategic role of energy and climate policy for U.S. foreign and domestic policy in the next four years?

The Biden administration is really focused on that. The concern about climate is very genuine. President Biden has put excellent people in place across the government and in places where you're not used to seeing that, such as the treasury department, which has some people who are tremendously concerned about climate and doing a great job. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen has good staff working for her. It's really a whole-of-government approach. And that gives us a base from which to work and to encourage greater ambition abroad.

It's very disingenuous to say to other countries, “you should be doing more” if we are not minding the store at home. We have issues with Congress, clearly. I read a good survey the other day that said that 65 percent of Americans think that climate is an emergency. The problem is that the other 35 percent are the Republican base. I think that the climate attitudes of the Republican Party don't represent the U.S. They perhaps represent that minority in their base, but that's a loud, important part of U.S. politics. And so the Biden administration is really focused on things it can do either without Congress, or things that it can get Congress to go along with.

Let me ask you a questions as an American think tanker that just returned from a fellowship in Berlin, being better placed to translate between those two countries: In Germany, we have elections in September and, it is likely that the Greens, in some form or fashion, will play a more active role in the executive. How would you advise them on dealing with the Biden administration? What is the biggest difference between a German, a European and an American understanding of climate policy?

What I would tell the incoming government, whomever that may be, is that the Biden administration is not behind on their thinking on climate. They get it and they’re working within the restrictions that they have. But the general U.S. body politic is quite a few years behind where Europe is. And so, you're in this position where you're dealing with a very forward-looking government, a government that understands, cares and is doing everything that it can. But it is faced with a political situation and a public that is in a very different place than Europe. Therefore, you will see different policies come out of that. But the goal is the same.

In a way, this reminds me of the discussion that we have with NATO’s two-percent goal. Here of course the discussion is always inverse: Germans explain to Americans: “We have this resistant public” and American increasing friendly pressure. With climate this seems to be the other way around.

You know, that might be an interesting thing to talk about, and say, look, we are not dealing with the same body politic as you. We're in different places. But that doesn't mean that we can't work together, we're doing that in NATO. We need to do it on climate, too.

My only concern, and I've said this to everybody who will listen, is that I don't want us to get crosswise, particularly on trade policy. There were some rumblings just this morning about a couple of Republican congressmen and women who are interested in a carbon border adjustment mechanism for the US. Fascinating.

I'm really curious to see how this plays out because during the Trump administration, Republican policies on trade flipped. They had always been the party of free trade, but Trump was very protectionist. And all of a sudden, the Republicans are protectionist. And I think they may see this as a way of punching China and being protectionist. Maybe we'll get some good things through some unusual mechanisms and strange bedfellows. But the main thing is to not get crosswise on trade policy with the carbon border adjustment mechanism and to focus on cooperating on things like technology, on carbon finance for lesser developed countries. Those are things where we have everything in common and we would do very well to work together.

You mentioned the Republican Party several times. We saw that wearing a mask during the pandemic became partisan all of a sudden. And now climate change seems to be on a similar track. Is there a way to overcome this? Given that the US has a very diverse and strong think tank landscape, are conservative think tanks trying to change that?

There is a bit of that. Biden certainly wants to be bipartisan. The current environment is making that hard. The Trump years were incredibly hard on bipartisanship. Those years were really more focused on us versus them than they were on a lot of concrete policy goals. The country became – I mean, it was polarized to begin with – but it became more polarized, because that was almost a governing strategy for President Trump. It will take time to undo that. Biden's doing what he can. You see him focusing a lot on investments, on infrastructure. The U.S. needs better infrastructure to be competitive. These are bipartisan, meaty kinds of issues.

Prior to the Trump years, there were some, particularly young Republicans who were moderate, who cared about climate. Carlos Curbelo from Florida comes to mind as someone in that vein, but he lost his seat to a Democrat. Those people, during the Trump years, were pushed out of the Republican Party. I hope this is an aberration, and we get back to the point where both parties are interested in solving problems. I think things that can't go on, won't. So it's just a matter of when and how that gets better, but I think the Biden administration has the right idea and there are certainly moderate Republicans, they've just gotten outshouted over the last four years or so.

My impression is that there's a spectrum between people who say 1.5 degrees is the entrance ticket to any reasonable discussion on climate change and you must subscribe to it. Others seem to say, it's unrealistic, so why do we still talk about it? Let's pick some more realistic goals instead and stop being fixated on this number! What’s your position about the realistic possibility to achieve 1.5 degrees?

I think it is very, very difficult to achieve. This goes back to the statement I made in the beginning, about the moral imperative versus the practical imperative. I understand that 1.5 degrees is the moral imperative and we should keep talking about it because of that. But the pathway to get there gets narrower and narrower. The International Energy Agency recently came out with a new study of global net zero by 2050, which is really a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway. And their opinion, so it's not just mine, is that there is a pathway, but that it's quite narrow. And so the next two, three, five years are really crucial. We can't kick the can forward anymore. We can't wait. We can't dither. We really need to get on it to make 1.5 degrees possible. Because it is possible! But that door is closing more and more.

What do you think is going to happen to that door in Glasgow in November at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference?

That's the multi-billion-dollar, one-or-two degrees question! That's what we're all looking towards. But it's not just Glasgow. I think you go to a COP and you talk. What really matters is what those leaders do when they go home and put policies in place. Even the nationally determined contributions that are every country's contribution to the Paris agreement, they are one thing. But then you have to go home and have to make policies around them so that you actually deliver them.

I'm optimistic that Glasgow will go well. I think there's a lot of people pushing for good things in the right direction – the EU, the US, are going in the right direction.

Let’s not end this conversation without talking about another big elephant in the room, when we talk about global policy coordination to counter climate change: China. Do you think that they are going in the right direction?

China is so mixed. You can find both positives and negatives, if you look hard enough. On the positive side, it’s making greater investments in renewable energy than any other economy. And what it has done to lower the cost of renewables, particularly solar, for everybody – we owe China a debt of gratitude. The flipside of that is that they're still using a lot of coal domestically and they're still building coal plants abroad and at home, too.

So it's a mixed picture. We can't be building new coal plants right now. And so whether or not China will cooperate is the biggest question in international climate right now. Everybody in the U.S. is asking it because the U.S. relationship with China has deteriorated. How serious will China be, not just in its pledge, but then in going home and implementing it? It has its own difficulties: slowing economic growth, aging demographics. So, we hope that China comes in, that it’s serious.

Samantha, thank you so much – both for your inspiration and thought provocation during your fellowship and your time for this conversation. We hope to see you in Berlin again soon.

Samantha Gross rund grau 30p


Samantha Gross is Director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at Brookings Institutions and Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

Henry Alt-Haaker rund grau 30p


Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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