Pascal Lamy: As America turns the page, the EU must sharpen its climate innovation edge

By Pascal Lamy

You can forgive Europeans who wrote off Trump’s America as nothing more than a giant obstacle to build a better world. But this Wednesday morning, Joe Biden moves into the White House and he does so with a majority in both chambers of Congress. This has major ramifications for climate change. It also presents the European Union with an opportunity to elevate the profile of its own global climate leadership – which is exactly where much of the EU’s power to influence the world economy and geopolitics actually lies.

If his campaign platform is any indication, Joe Biden’s inaugural address on the National Mall in Washington will include a mention of how investing in new clean energy technologies creates millions of good blue-collar jobs and signals that in the global fight against climate change, America is back.

During the Trump administration, the European Union emerged as the world’s standard-bearer for climate. What does America’s sudden shift in approach to the central environmental crisis of our time mean for the EU? Are Europe’s own lofty climate ambitions and clean tech industries about to be squeezed by, on one side, an America rediscovering its climate ambitions, and, on the other, a fast-growing Chinese economy that last year showed it, too, wants in on the green transition?

As former director-general of the World Trade Organization, as well as a former European Trade Commissioner, I certainly hope not. I envision a Europe that builds upon the hard-won lead we’ve established in industries like wind turbine manufacturing. I also envision a Europe continuing to work closely and constructively on climate and the environment with traditional (if not entirely reliable) allies like the U.S. as well as with countries like China, which last September pledged to reach climate neutrality by 2060.

Make no mistake: A global race to rapidly retool economies to thrive in a climate-neutral world has begun. This race will be fiercely competitive, and here in Europe we cannot coast by on our early gains, nor can we allow our competitors to nose ahead of us now that we’ve shown the way. According to a recent analysis from the Jacques Delors Institute, in 2019 only a handful of countries outside the EU had committed to reaching climate neutrality by 2050. Now, 12 countries, including China, the U.S. and Japan, have joined the EU in aiming for climate neutrality by 2050 or 2060. Together, this represents nearly 75 percent of the world’s GDP.

There are three things the EU must do, right now, to remain fixed at the center of a global economic and political landscape increasingly focused on the green transition, digitization, and competitiveness.

First, invest more in transformative clean innovations. According to the “Fit for Net-Zero” report by the consulting firm Capgemini Invent, developing and scaling up a range of clean technologies across Europe can help support 12.7 million jobs, cut pollution and create a €13 trillion economic opportunity in the EU by 2050. These innovations include everything from urban mobility apps to floating offshore wind turbines and using insect protein to lower livestock emissions on family farms. This is why, together with a group of likeminded organizations, we have been calling the EU to dramatically increase its own actions to accelerate clean innovation.

Second, ensure the EU’s research and innovation framework lives up to its potential. Too often, the EU approach to R&I policy has been piecemeal and scattered. This constrains our economy and hobbles the very researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs we’re relying on to build our clean economy future. By launching this year five “missions” programs deliver by 2030  on solutions in five specific areas of high relevance for the general public (cancer, clean cities, hydrosphere regeneration, soils and climate adaptation), the European Commission has the opportunity to foster and accelerate its European Green Deal to empower Europe’s innovators to unleash their ingenuity in Europe and the rest of the world.

Finally, we must learn from our mistakes. Europe has been far from the center of the global digital revolution. We do not have a single sizable digital technology company headquartered within our borders. We did too little too late. Let’s not repeat this mistake. The more policymakers increase green public investment and adopt strong regulations in sectors like energy, transport and buildings that touch every part of our lives, the more they can help EU businesses innovate so that the Apple, Google and Baidu of the green transition ends up in Europe, not in Silicon Valley or Shanghai.

As the world watches the rocky transition of power in Washington this week and digests all that it means, perhaps we Europeans would be wise to heed the words of another American president, Barack Obama, who when he gave his second inaugural address eight years ago said: “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.”

Pascal Lamy is coordinating the Jacques Delors think tanks in Paris, Berlin and Brussels, which for the past two years have been part of a coalition working to elevate the profile of climate-related research and innovation in the EU. He was a member of the European Commission (1999-2004) and director-general of the World Trade Organization(2005-20013).