“Achieving a just transition is one of the hardest parts of climate policy”

California is banning gas cars, carbon free meals are en vogue and the Biden Plan is aiming to build a sustainable infrastructure: The U.S. is back on the climate stage. Samantha Gross, current fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains what this means for a divided country and how cooperating with the European Union supports a just transition.

Sabine Fischer | June 2021
Protesters holding a CLIMATE JUSTICE banner
Shutterstock/Jessica Girvan

Top restaurants in New York have started to serve “net zero meals” and banned beef from their menu. The state of California is banning gas cars in 2035. Do such strategies reflect the current mindset of people in the U.S.?  

Samantha Gross: A lot of people in the United States are genuinely concerned about climate. I read a survey recently that said about 65 percent of Americans view climate change as a crisis and that’s a significant portion of people that care. That creates the market for those zero carbon meals and low carbon vehicles. However, strategies like these are tricky. Whereas moving to electric vehicles is really important for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, net zero meals have more of a symbolic value. We need more systemic changes to reform our agriculture sector and reduce its emissions. 

[DE Copy] Samantha Gross

About the Person

Samantha Gross is a scientist and Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, focused on the intersection of energy, environment and policy, including climate policy and international cooperation, energy geopolitics and global energy markets. Prior to this she held various positions, e.g. as Director of Integrated Research at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and Director of the Office of International Climate and Clean Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The U.S. is back on the climate stage, ramping up its full diplomatic force after pulling out of the Paris Agreement under President Trump – yet the U.S. is still a politically divided country. How important is climate action at home?

It is absolutely crucial both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to give the U.S. some credibility to increase the ambition of climate action abroad. However the country is very polarized right now. If 65 percent of Americans think that climate is a crisis that leaves another 35 percent who aren’t in that category – and the majority of those are part of the Republican peers. That means one of the major two parties isn’t on board with significant climate actions which makes getting things done politically challenging. That’s especially true for getting significant legislation through Congress. Therefore the Biden administration is working really hard to do what it can do within its own powers. It’s a difficult pathway but I think we can do it. It’s a shame that our country is so polarized but enough Americans care that I hope to see our politics shift over time. 

Do you think the commitment will hold this time?

The most important way to make sure that President Biden’s climate policies continue after his term is for them to become knitted into the fabric of the economy. For example, as businesses make lower carbon investments the path becomes clearer and more set. The more we get done now, the more likely those actions are to continue and to stick over time.

Santha Gross panel
Samantha Gross

Samantha Gross discussing energy challenges at the "Energy 202" panel organized by the Washington Post

Europe has the Green Deal, the U.S. has the Biden Plan: What differences and similarities do you see?

The United States and the European Union have the same overall goal which is to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, an important difference in the way they’re achieving it is that Europe is focused on carbon pricing whereas in the U.S. we don’t have the votes to get a carbon pricing system through Congress. Instead we are focused on sector specific policies. When it comes to cooperating, these differences can be challenging. One example is in trade: Europe is moving towards applying a carbon border adjustment mechanism to carbon intensive goods that are imported – that means the EU would charge its carbon price on goods coming to the border if they don’t face a similar price abroad. American goods however aren’t going to face a carbon price any time soon but they might be facing other types of carbon reduction programs. So we need to find ways to recognize each other’s programs and understand that despite our differences we are moving towards the same goals.

The U.S. and the EU need to understand that they are moving towards the same goal

"Just transition“, a socially just design of the path to a climate-neutral society, is central to both the Biden administration and the European Commission. How just can a transition be given the need for speed and the scope of fundamental change?

It’s true, we’re in a hurry. We’ve let some time slip and we’ve now reached a point where we need to act fast to achieve our goal in limiting the global average temperature rise. Just transition is one of the hardest parts. Workers and communities that depend on fossil fuel production will need redevelopment, and there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. The transition must also include providing modern energy services to the hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t have them right now. Any sort of low-carbon economy that doesn’t make their lives better isn’t really a solution at all. That’s something we need to keep in mind: We can’t make those who are already less well off worse off as we deal with this problem. 

Currently only 2% of global philanthropy is allocated to climate-related issues. How can foundations make a noteworthy contribution in favour of a just transition in the fight against climate change?

Foundations have a number of ways to make a noteworthy contribution: For example they can do projects that demonstrate on a smaller level what just transition looks like. They can focus on a specific area to try different things and get an idea of what works. They could also focus on the politics and on educating people – educated people make good decisions. These are areas where the amounts of money foundations have could do a lot of good.