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The U.S., China and Europe

by Dr. David Criekemans

Writing from a European perspective, the author presents a rather positive view of what “bottom-up” approaches to climate change can bring, citing California as an example.  It remains to be seen what, if any, “vast growth market” can be created.  -Ed.

Copenhagen has failed. The United Nations’ Climate Conference has not achieved its main goals. For the time being, there is no binding agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gasses via a global verification mechanism. There is the intention of countries to limit global warming by 2 degrees Celsius at the most, but it is still unclear how this should be achieved. The negotiations have exposed deep fissures between the developed and developing countries. Yet, there is the intention to establish a global fund which by 2020 should amount to 100 billion dollars annually, to help developing countries in their transition to a greener economy and to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. The text remains very vague on who is to feed the fund. German chancellor Merkel promised to organize an interim summit in Bonn, and in one year the heads of state will reconvene in Mexico. There is thus another second chance to meet history, but for those who followed the negotiations, it is clear that it still remains uncertain whether the states of this world are able to achieve a consensus. Is there not too much attention paid to the top down-approach? Are national governments sufficiently capable to guide the transition towards a decentralised global energy regime? What about the bottom-up approach, and how does it relate to the top-down-method?

It was the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who offered an interesting conceptual contribution at Copenhagen; next to the top-down-method, there should be more attention paid to the bottom-up approach. Individuals, companies, but also local and regional governments play a crucial role in tackling climate change, and in the transformation towards an energy regime based on renewable energy. California voted a law which should reduce the emissions of the state by 2020 by 25%. This will attract unprecedented levels of investments. It will also help create a vast growth market, which will alleviate the economic problems of California.

At the same time an environment is created in which energy efficiency, wind energy, solar energy and other new technologies will be offered the opportunities to develop at full length. Next to the initiatives developed by regions, also networks of local and regional governments should be created which could actively work on such topics as the transfer of the best available technologies. Today, a lot of regions already dispose of their own, unique expertise in areas of energy-efficiency, renewable energy and the limitation of CO2-emissions. Via their own regional foreign policy, they also already have contacts with developing regions in other parts of the world. Through direct interactions they could achieve concrete results in relatively short time periods. The question is whether this will in the end not prove much more effective than a gigantic global fund, which will of course in itself suffer under overhead costs and the dangers of nepotism. In any event, the time is ripe for networks of cities and regional governments to develop additional initiatives. The bottom up-approach will never be able to offer all answers. Nevertheless it should by no means be disregarded since it can generate an important leverage effect. Achievements realised via the bottom-up approach can also potentially generate positive de facto situations which could produce a new political momentum for the top down-approach in the post-Copenhagen era.

The coming energy transition will produce far-reaching consequences, both from an internal-geopolitical and an external-geopolitical point of view.

From an internal-geopolitical perspective, the technological conversion which we will witness in the coming 25 years will be comparable to the industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. An energy transition constitutes one of the most sweeping turnarounds from both an economical and societal point of view, whether it constituted the shift from steam to coal, from coal to oil (and later natural gas), or today towards renewable forms of energy. It questions the economic fabric, it has implications for the societal structure, but also it touches upon the very core of politics. It is not a coincidence that most national states in Europe (and later also in the rest of the world) were established during an energy transition period from steam to coal and later to oil, which demanded huge piles of capital and a central political decision-making. The national state and central power supply & distribution go hand in hand. They need one another. Those areas in the world with an exceptional large energy hunger, such as the United States of America or the People’s Republic of China, will moreover feel the need to invest additionally in their respective militaries. They do this so as to secure their access to oil and natural gas. The fact that this sometimes puts democracy under pressure is “a price which has to be paid”. The imminent energy transition towards more renewable forms will be accompanied by a huge decentralisation of the energy supply. This will also impact upon the res publica, the organisation of political life. Local and regional governments will, if they invest heavily in renewable energy (and thus cleaner) technologies, dispose of more levers vis-à-vis their central counterparts than is the case today. This could potentially also be beneficial for the democratic standard of societies. At the same time, one can detect here also actors wishing to discourage this. The former central energy suppliers do not want to loose their monopoly position, and are willing to use various strategies and instruments so as to frustrate the growth of small renewable energy companies, or they just buy them. Here is a role for all governments at all policy-levels to create an economic landscape which is more diverse, and which guarantees that no one is able to gain an upper hand.

From an external-geopolitical perspective, it is clear after Copenhagen that we are gradually evolving in the direction of a duo-multipolar world order, a world with multiple power centres, but one in which China and the U. S. are drawing the major international-political chalk lines. The negotiations in Copenhagen were exceptionally complex, but eventually the negotiation dynamics between the U. S. and China forced upon the rest of the international community a framework within which negotiators were forced to operate. In energy- and climate-dossiers, this duo-multipolar order could very well prove extremely frustrating in the years to come. Both the United States and China are navigating an utmost conservative course with regard to matters of energy and climate. Washington does so because it is technologically trailing behind in comparison to Europe and Japan on such issues. China fears that too strict international agreements could frustrate its own economic development, which is so dependent upon traditional energy such as coal and imported oil.

Nevertheless, in contrast to China, both the United States and the EU show in practice that a successful combination of a top-down- and bottom-up-approach could be feasible, and desirable in climate and energy dossiers. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration and the new EU-president Van Rompuy will include this combination into their respective policies. Up until now, the efforts of the US government in renewables have been such to allocate a proportion of the money of the stimulus package to ‘energy independence’ (including both nuclear energy and to a lesser degree renewable energy). It is expected that president Obama will come with a new initiative on renewable energy in 2010 or 2011. It will be interesting to see how that initiative will be conceptualized. Perhaps only then will the Obama administration be ready to spend ‘political capital’ on the intertwined issue of the energy transformation and climate mitigation, both at home and in the international arena.End.

Dr. David Criekemans is an Assistant Professor in Belgian and Comparative Foreign Policy at the University of Antwerp, a Senior Researcher in European and Global Relations at the Flemish Centre for International Policy (FCIP) in Antwerp, and a Lecturer in Geopolitics both at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels and at the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies (ICGS) in Geneva.


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