Nearly one year ago, the world agreed that climate change poses an urgent threat to society, that global cooperation is imperative to address it, and that every country must decrease greenhouse gas emissions. After years of frustrated attempts, leadership on both sides of the Atlantic was instrumental in reaching this historic agreement. While the individual efforts of Germany and the United States were instrumental in reaching a successful outcome, along with skillful and indefatigable French diplomacy, it was the sum of their efforts and the collective power of their leadership that achieved what was previously elusive. While a giant step forward, Paris is just the beginning. Paris was the statement of purpose, the foundation and framework, the blueprint that while necessary, is in and of itself insufficient. Beyond simply making promises, in the coming years countries must live up to the commitments they made. This will likely require painful reforms, years of transition, and even economic restructuring, along with the adoption of innovative policy models, sustainable investment frameworks, and disruptive technology. To state the obvious, the challenge is far too great for any one country to tackle alone. Developing and disseminating the tools and policies for the energy transition and motivating countries to use them will require global leadership—leadership which should and indeed must come from the United States and Germany.
Germany has perhaps the only energy policy in the world so well known that the word itself, Energiewende, has taken on a life of its own, joining the ranks of Kindergarten, Zeitgeist, and Schadenfreude. While the policy is not perfect, its celebrity is perhaps its biggest strength. The Energiewende stands for a mix of aspiration and implementation and provides proof that an advanced economy with strong industry can also be climate friendly. It also offers a bit of a moral compass, showing not only that climate change mitigation is possible, but also responsible.
The U.S. demonstrates quite different, but equally useful lessons through its (thus far) bottom up, state-driven approach—namely, that experimentation and innovation can produce great progress. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined in recent years thanks to technology (and federal support for R&D) that enabled natural gas development and power sector fuel switching. Where Germany provides a roadmap, the U.S. experience is characterized by flexibility and state entrepreneurship, resulting in successes like the California emissions trading program, the second largest in the world. The U.S. case shows that overarching top-down policy is not the only way to approach a problem, a useful lesson for many countries.
That is not to say that both countries do not have shortcomings. Rather, in tackling the same problem with different approaches they have something to share with one another, and with the world. The two countries have a wealth of policy experience to exchange and innovative technologies to disseminate, backed up by the economic heft and diplomatic strength to assist and persuade other countries to address an issue which will affect all countries, regardless of economic status, regime type, or level of development.
However, just days after the formal adoption of the Paris Agreement, its future is already in jeopardy. Just one day after being elected President, Donald Trump and his Republic allies in Congress announced that that rapid reversal of President Obama’s climate policy is a top priority. Such an outcome would be detrimental for U.S. progress and disastrous for international commitment to a shared goal. Paris lacks formal enforcement mechanisms, and implementation instead rests on goodwill, public opinion, and the willingness of nations to comply. Countries will require encouragement and occasional diplomatic pressure to meet their commitments—a task that would be infinitely more difficult if the U.S. withdrew both its support and its substantial diplomatic leverage. American inaction would destroy chances of meeting the global targets agreed to in Paris, while a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, or even worse from the 1992 Framework Convention, would send a dangerous signal to the rest of world.
For Germany, keeping the world’s second-largest emitter from going off this climate cliff is critical. Amid this uncertainty, U.S.-German climate cooperation is even more crucial, and much rests on this strategic partnership. Germany is perhaps the only country with the diplomatic clout and climate credentials to try to influence the U.S. position. As the U.S. potentially moves into a post-Obama era where climate change is relegated from national security threat to hoax, Germany must hold the U.S. government accountable while continuing to encourage and foster progress. In the meantime, it is imperative that the two countries continue to exchange on the working level, to ensure regulators, technology developers, and policymakers learn from one another and enable innovation.
Ultimately, strategic partnerships are distinct from special relationships. Strategic partners have different strengths and failings. They offer criticism where they see shortcoming and guidance where they have learned from experience. They push one another where opinions and approaches diverge. They point out flaws, prod one another to action, and hold each other’s feet to the fire. They work together to take on challenges too immense to be tackled alone. The U.S. and Germany are, and should continue to be, strategic partners, and hold one another accountable to the promises made at Paris. Most importantly, they should provide the combined global leadership required to inspire and enable all countries tackle a problem we can no longer afford to ignore.