Speech by Ambassador Emerson at Leipzig University

The Ambassador at Leipzig University

Act on Climate: More Than Just a Hashtag
Leipzig, February 3, 2016
Ambassador John B. Emerson

Thank you, Professor Schücking, it’s a pleasure to be back in Leipzig.  This is my seventh visit to this great city.  My wife could not join me today – but she has been to Leipzig even more often.  She loves showing this wonderful city to visiting friends from the States.  There is a buzz in this city, which I think has a lot to do with the history of reunification, and the role that Leipzigers played before –and after – the “Wende.”

It is a particular pleasure to be back at this University.  A little over two years ago, I opened what we call an American Space here at the Albertina Library.  That opening ceremony symbolized the close collaboration that we have had with the university library and the American Studies department since we re-opened our Consulate here in 1992.

Professor Schneider, Professor Garrett, I would like to thank you and your colleagues, past and present, for your openness, your commitment, and your enthusiasm.

In particular, thank you for introducing us to the new generations of students that have grown up without the threat of a Cold War or the restrictions of a divided country and continent.

That is not to say, of course, that we do not face serious challenges today.

Here in Europe, the question of free and open borders has taken on new significance as a consequence of the greatest movement of refugees through Europe since the second World War.

There are many issues we confront today that were not even on the radar screen when I opened the American Space here in December 2103: the Russian incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea; the brutality of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, North Africa, and Europe itself; the metastasizing of terrorism into the West in the form of returning foreign fighters; the threat of Ebola and the need to rebuild the public health infrastructure of West Africa; and now a new potential health threat – the Zika virus; the impact of the Greek debt crisis on the Eurozone and beyond; and of course, the refugee crisis.

These are all complex issues but I would like to highlight the remarkable example that Germany is setting to the world with respect to the Syrian refugee situation.  In its commitment to provide immediate assistance to refugees and to work toward a long-term solution, Germany has proved that it is living the values on which the transatlantic community was forged.

The example is an important one.  The people of Germany have stepped up not only to provide security to almost a million people, but also to provide hope to the innocent children, women, and men affected by the ongoing conflict in Syria; and to help those who are determined to work hard, to give back, to rebuild their lives and to become a part of the fabric of the country in which they have found asylum.

Now integration is a complex process, as we certainly know in the United States.  Immigration is our oldest tradition.  The U.S. has been shaped by the energy created when people from different cultures, regions, races and faiths come together to build better lives for themselves and their children.  That is not to say, however, that life in America is easy for new immigrants or for the offspring of immigrants who are American citizens.

And I know the challenges that Germany faces with respect to integration are enormous at this moment in time.  I have visited multiple refugee centers, and I personally have been impressed by the generosity that so many German citizens have shown to those coming to this country.  But it is also obvious that there are some people who do not share this sense of compassion.  Over the past few days alone, four refugee shelters have been set on fire in Saxony.  This is deplorable, and I admire all those who come out and stand up against this type of violence.  In the words of Leipzig’s Oberbürgermeister, Burkhard Jung: enough is enough, “genug ist genug.”  This is something we all can do, and must do.

On a broader level, Germany and the United States continue to work with the international community to reach a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria, and we have taken the lead in providing funds to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria as well as the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Over the past several months, we have seen that diplomacy can pay off.  We have made progress on issues that have seemed intractable for years, and in some cases decades.  Barriers that have long divided nations have begun to break down.  Historic agreements have been reached or are under way. The P5+1 agreement with Iran that will prevent that nation from developing nuclear weapons is a case in point.

On every one of these issues I have mentioned, the German-American partnership has been front and center; and Germany has embraced a major leadership role – including on the issue that we will be focusing on this morning: climate change.

The environmental movement has been a significant part of the social and political development of the U.S. and Germany over the past four decades.  In the United States, the environmental movement of the 1970s grew out of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.  People, especially young people, students like yourselves, came together and brought environmentalism to the forefront of politics and made it a “cutting edge issue.”  I remember the very first “Earth Day,” as well as the movements that led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and emission controls for automobiles, among other groundbreaking pieces of legislation.

Here in Germany, think of the development of the Green Party and its long-term impact on the perceptions of policy makers and the general public regarding the environment.

In the former GDR, however, the government preferred to concentrate on industrial growth, scrimping on key infrastructure investments such as water-treatment and air-pollution abatement facilities.  In protest, a number of environmental groups formed in the early 1980s, but it was the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986 that triggered a real expansion of green activism on the former East.  Groups became well organized, and started networking on both a domestic and international level.  In many ways, environmental activists became the core of the opposition movement that ultimately brought down that wall.

After reunification, massive efforts were put into cleaning up the region’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands.  Today, eastern Germany and Saxony’s Cool Silicon cluster form the foundation of the Germany’s renewable energy transformation.

None of this progress was achieved easily or automatically – in either of our countries.

And so getting the nations of the world to agree on a course of action and move forward is a big challenge, and its accomplishment is of monumental significance.   This past December, 196 parties came together in Paris to say with one loud voice: We need to act on climate.  It wasn’t just a hashtag.  The COP21 agreement set forth an ambitious vision for a global approach to the challenge of climate change.  It successfully navigated a range of difficult issues, by building in both flexibility for the signatory countries to take into account their national circumstances and capabilities, and a robust, common system of transparency.  The Paris agreement is ambitious, durable, and universally applicable.

COP21 symbolizes the moment in history when the global community finally took action to save our planet.  It is a major turning point. But we also have a long way to go.

One of the concerns going into Paris was that some developing countries would push for a minimalist outcome to the Agreement, in particular with respect to arrangements for reducing future emissions.  There were also concerns that some emerging countries would insist on continued division between the obligations of developed and developing countries.  The attitude of many in the developing world is that the leading economies enjoyed their growth and prosperity without regard to reducing carbon emissions, so why should they have to constrain their own growth by investing in more expensive forms of energy generation?  This, I am told, was also the rationale in the GDR.

COP21 in Paris, however, replaced this past division of the world with a new regime for a universal approach to climate change.  China and the U.S. broke the old north-south divide in their 2014 joint announcement of the intended targets of both countries.  For the first time, China committed to cap carbon emissions; and at the same time, President Obama unveiled a plan for deeper U.S. emissions reductions through 2025.  The world’s two largest economies, energy consumers, and carbon emitters reached across traditional divides to demonstrate their commitment to reducing the emissions warming our planet.  This unlocked the negotiations.

Developed countries will continue to play the leading role in providing and mobilizing climate finance, in order to steadily increase energy investments over the coming years – investments that will accelerate reductions in the cost of renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions.

What surprises some people, however, is that in many emerging markets, clean energy is not only possible – it is actually the safest, most secure, and, yes, even the cheapest way to power a community.  One recent study found that clean energy is growing twice as fast in many developing nations as in richer nations.

It may seem difficult to rationalize investing in clean energy when economies are strained; especially when sources like coal and oil appear cheaper and closer at hand, at least in the short term.  But the fact is, over the long term, carbon-intensive energy is one of the costliest investments any government could possibly make, especially when you take into account the price of agriculture and environmental degradation; the cost of hospital bills for asthma and emphysema patients; and the expense of  rebuilding after devastating storms and flooding.  In just the last two years, the United States has spent nearly $160 billion in the wake of extreme weather events.

This is why, in the United States, we have stopped any public funding of certain kinds of carbon-based and coal-based power plants, as documented in our new Clean Power Plan, which was issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last August.  That Plan creates the first-ever national U.S. carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.

It is encouraging to see that same sense of commitment in a global context.  A year ago, India’s Prime Minister Modi called on all world leaders to initiate a ‘moon shot’ on clean energy technology.  And on the first day of the COP meetings, India, alongside the United States, Germany, and 17 other countries, launched the Mission Innovation coalition, an ambitious public-private clean energy research development program.  The 20 participating countries that are collectively responsible for more than 80 percent of renewable energy R&D, pledged to double their budgets in this area over the next five years.  For the United States, this involves increasing R&D investment by more than $5 billion per year.

Government leaders were joined in Paris by a group of 28 billionaire investors, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – all committed to a private-public investment on joint clean energy R&D.  Their new Breakthrough Energy Coalition will provide support for early stage technologies, helping entrepreneurs and inventors to get their ideas off the ground at a time when other investors might be put off by the high risk factor involved.

These initiatives are not part of the Agreement; they were conceived and created to complement the Agreement; but they send an important message to the marketplace.  And they underline the importance of using every available opportunity to create partnerships – both domestically and globally – to reduce emissions and increase resilience.

Consider the progress that has been made in green technology over the last decade – and just imagine the possibilities ten or twenty years down the road.  In the 1990s, the emerging Internet economy drew the investment of over one trillion dollars for a projected one billion users.  The energy economy that we’re looking at today already involves multiple trillions of dollars and an estimated four to five billions users, projected to grow to nine billion users over the next 30 years.  The global energy market of the future is poised to be the largest market the world has ever known.  If we continue to make smart choices, businesses and workers around the world stand to gain enormously.  Clean energy is not only the solution to climate change; it also represents an enormous economic opportunity.

It won’t be governments, however, that actually find that new technology.  It will be the power of business unleashed when 186 nations say, as they did in Paris, with one loud voice: We need to move in this direction.  And so,  the private sector has a critical role to play, not only in the design of products and services, but also through corporate citizenship.  The sustainable paths that companies forge today will drive us closer and faster toward a low-carbon global economy tomorrow.

The Paris agreement has already and will continue to leverage ambitious climate action, not only by participating countries, and enterprising businesses, investors and entrepreneurs, but also by sub-national governments and an enlightened global public.  As part of these global efforts, Americans have demonstrated their dedication to climate action through a wide variety of commitments.

For example, a bipartisan group of over 100 mayors such as Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, who was recently here in Leipzig to discuss sustainability initiatives in his town, have signed onto the Compact of Mayors pledge, which establishes a common platform to capture the impact of cities’ collective actions through standardized measurement of emissions and climate risk, and consistent, public reporting of their efforts.

Over 300 colleges and universities, representing over 4 million students, have demonstrated their commitment to climate action by joining the American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge.

Individual states, including Professor Garret’s and my home state of California, as well as Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York, have signed onto the Under-2 MOU, which commits signatories to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80-95% below 1990 levels, to share technology and scientific research, to expand zero-emission vehicles, to improve air quality by reducing short-lived climate pollutants, and to assess projected impacts of climate change on communities.

Of course, states and cities will never fully displace nations in the global fight against climate change, but in many cases, they are the laboratories for policy innovations which are then adopted at the federal and even international level.  Moreover, their regulatory changes impact industry and manufacturing.  Automobile emission standards in California, the largest auto market in the United States, drive the entire industry to change, resulting in lower emitting cars throughout America.  Hopefully, other nations will implement this approach through their state and local governments.

Regional, national or even cross-national exchanges and markets are also an increasingly important element of future strategies to meet climate goals.  The provincial government of Quebec in Canada was one of the first to impose a price on carbon.  It is a founding member, together with California, of the largest carbon market in North America.  Through this green growth market mechanism, governments help companies, municipalities and citizens make the transition towards a low-carbon world.

Consider this: Fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000 – and 2015 was the warmest year of all.  In recent years, what we used to think of as extreme weather has become the new normal.  No nation – large or small, wealthy or poor – is immune to what this means: submerged countries; abandoned cities; fields that no longer grow; political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.

The refugee situation we’re facing today will pale in comparison to the mass migrations that intense droughts, sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change are likely to bring about.  In other words, we have to integrate climate considerations into every aspect of our foreign policy – from development and humanitarian aid to peace-building and diplomacy.

And so, although I have focused this afternoon on a number of economic and market issues in support of a strong climate control strategy, climate change is, without a doubt, also a major strategic, national securityissue and notwithstanding the success of COP21, the politics of climate change remain challenging.

Here in Germany, the reaction to the outcome of the Paris Agreement was enthusiastic and optimistic.  Domestically, however, the challenge of reducing Germany’s dependence on coal, while still supporting Germany’s energy-intensive manufacturing base, represents both a technical and a political challenge.  For instance, according to a recent study, 49 out of 52 coal-fired power plants in Germany would fail to meet current US mercury standards.  In addition, like the United States, Germany is a country where people love their cars.  To meet Germany’s emissions targets, rising emissions from the transportation sector must also be addressed.  Fortunately, with the exception of some industries, Germany’s ambitious climate targets enjoy widespread political support, helping to motivate the German government to make what may be difficult political decisions.  As future scientists, and future leaders, it will be up to you to continue making the case and educating the public about the questions and the options involved.

In the United States, there are other political issues.  COP 21 is being called a “hybrid legal agreement” whereby the binding aspects are procedural aspects already covered under the existing obligations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and therefore do not require congressional approval.  To withdraw American commitment to the Paris Agreement, a new Administration would have to go through formal efforts to withdraw the U.S. from the framework convention, of which it has been a party since 1992.  And while there are climate deniers in Congress, even some running for President, this would be a very unlikely and difficult course of action for a new Administration to undertake.

But as President Obama said last month in his final State of the Union address, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it: they will have to debate our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.

Since the President took office, the United States has taken historic steps to sharply reduce its emissions.  The legal authority of the EPA to issue guidelines that have put us on track to meet ambitious emission reduction goals was established under the Clean Air Act.  That authority has been repeatedly recognized and upheld in U.S. Courts.  To undo these rules, one would have to go through a rigorous process – setting source-level, source-category-wide standards that can be met through a variety of technologies and measures.

For example, the final regulations for the Clean Power Plan were based on more than two years of unprecedented outreach and public engagement, hundreds of meetings with stakeholders, and 4.3 million comments received on the draft regulations.  States and utility companies are now in the process of developing their plans to comply with the guidelines.  These decisions require long-term infrastructure investments.  In other words, the impact of the plan is already in motion.

In President Obama’s first inaugural address, he committed the United States to the task of combating climate change and protecting this planet for future generations.

The President is convinced that this moment can be a turning point for the world.  The world has both the will and the ability to take on the challenge of climate change.  It won’t be easy. Progress won’t always come quickly.  My generation will only see some of the benefits of building a clean energy economy.  But what matters is that today we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for your generation.  The Paris Agreement establishes a long term, durable global framework to set the world on a course to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and leave the planet a better place for your children and grandchildren.

And finally, as President Obama pointed out in his State of the Union address, one of the big questions that countries around the world have to answer is how do we make technology work for us, and not against us – especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change. It is up to all of us to help answer this question.