Tuesday

23rd Oct 2018

Investigation

US in denial on EU climate forum

The US department of energy is now appearing to disavow the existence of an EU-US cooperation group on climate change, set up during the previous administration of Barack Obama.

And newly-revealed documents, seen by EUobserver, show obstacles hindering other transatlantic ties on energy and climate issues under Obama's successor, Donald Trump.

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  • Anti-Trump protester in Brussels, in May 2017. Trump has repeatedly called climate change a hoax (Photo: Miguel Discart)

Meanwhile, the EU is attempting ways to talk about issues relevant to climate change with Washington - but without specifically mentioning climate.

Jonathan Pershing, a former US climate envoy, was present at the first-ever 'EU-US Energy Council Climate Change Working Group', which took place on 22 September 2016.

That was 47 days before the US elected Donald Trump, who made numerous climate-sceptic remarks before becoming president.

Since then, the working group has disappeared into obscurity.

"I have not heard that it was [abolished]. I have not heard that it has met," Pershing, told EUobserver in a phone interview.

The climate group was established by the two sides according to a joint statement on 4 May 2016, with the aim to "increase and improve transatlantic cooperation bilaterally, as well as within multilateral and global settings, with a view to catalyzing and accelerating international efforts for the attainment of climate-related goals".

It was introduced in addition to three pre-existing working groups under the umbrella of the EU-US Energy Council – an Obama-era transatlantic format which held formal ministerial summits annually until Trump took over the White House.

However, the website of the US department of energy now mentions only the three previously established groups - as if the climate change group never existed.

"The US-EU Energy Council is supported by three working groups: Energy Technology Working Group, Energy Policy Working Group, and Energy Security Working Group," it said.

The department did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.

The non-mention of the climate change working group stands in contrast to the importance of the group in EU internal documents, made public after an access to documents request by EUobserver.

"It was a successful meeting, with strong US participation, demonstrating their interest and commitment to pursuing cooperation with the EU on climate change," said a summary of the first meeting, which took place in New York at a time when Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was still leading in most polls.

The EU paper said that both sides agreed to a second meeting in Washington DC before the end of 2016, but there is no evidence that this took place.

"I don't know if we ever formally convened a full [second] meeting," said Pershing. "I just don't remember."

Pershing left his post as climate envoy in January 2017, a week before the Obama-Trump handover took place in the White House.

"I could not have stayed. I was a political appointee by the Obama administration," said Pershing, who is now programme director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Trump has taken a radically different approach to climate change – announcing a year ago this month that the US would leave from the Paris climate treaty.

And following Pershing's departure, the post of climate envoy in the US has been abolished.

"It is really unclear to me who you would speak to if you want to have a formal meeting," said Pershing.

Pershing noted that the climate change working group was valuable to have, but at the same time not the only route.

"It's one of many channels," he added.

Keeping channels open?

Another of those channels is the EU-US Energy Council working group on energy technology.

But that working group has also not met for a protracted period – as is revealed by a paper written for deputy director-general Patrick Child at the Research and Innovation department of the commission.

It was a document meant to prepare Child for an upcoming meeting of the energy technology working group, and it explained why no meeting had been held since 16 October 2015.

"On the one hand, persistent differences between the US Congress and the White House that re-surfaced during the federal budget negotiations have prevented the US from confirming its energy-research priorities, including vis-a-vis the EU," said the paper.

"On the other hand, the EU side itself has found it difficult to articulate what it expects from its energy-research collaboration with the US, this despite considering the US a strategic partner and a principal ally in 'Mission Innovation'," it added - referring to a global initiative on clean energy.

The paper also noted that some senior positions at the US department of energy were still vacant.

"These uncertainties alone are a major reason for holding today's meeting, to keep existing institutional links and communication channels open and functioning," it said.

Let's reschedule

However, on 1 December 2017, the US department of energy sent the commission an email saying that the meeting needed to be rescheduled.

The disclosed emails between the US and EU nonetheless showed an American willingness to meet, and discuss issues like climate-friendly wind power.

That is perhaps how the EU can discuss climate change with a president with little interest in or even hostility towards climate action – to frame it as the energy transition.

"It is clear the Trump administration has no interest in talking about climate. But they have a huge interest in talking about energy," said Pershing.

Meanwhile, the overarching format of an EU-US summit on energy has not yet met under Trump.

When established under Obama in 2009, it was agreed that the US foreign and energy secretaries would meet annually with the EU commissioners responsible for foreign relations, energy and climate.

The last one was held two years ago, on 4 May 2016.

EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini last year tried to set up a summit with then secretary of state Rex Tillerson – but he has since been replaced by Mike Pompeo.

Last year, on 28 March 2017, commission vice-president for energy union Maros Sefcovic and climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete wrote to the US secretary of energy Rick Perry.

"We believe it has really proven its practical benefit for both sides and we very much hope to see you in Brussels for a meeting of the EU-US Energy Council in the near future," they wrote.

According to the commission, Perry wrote back on 10 May 2017, but the US has not yet given permission for the letter to be made public.

One of the EU's internal document said the council should meet "as soon as possible", since that would "give new vigour also to its working groups".

But thirteen months later, such a meeting has yet to be scheduled.

"Both the EU and US continue to attach importance to the EU-US Energy Council," said a spokesman for the EU commission in a written comment on Monday (4 June).

"Discussions are ongoing to find a date for the next meeting," he added.

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