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The Coming Clash Between Climate and Trade

The new leaders of the European Union, which has relentlessly championed open markets, will, ironically, likely trigger a conflict between climate preservation and free trade. But this clash is unavoidable, and how Europe and the world manage it will help to determine the fate of globalization, if not that of the climate.

PARIS – The incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has laid out a highly ambitious climate agenda. In her first 100 days in office, she intends to propose a European Green Deal, as well as legislation that would commit the European Union to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Her immediate priority will be to step up efforts to reduce the EU’s greenhouse-gas emissions, with the aggressive new goal of halving them (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. The issue now is how to make this huge transition politically and economically sustainable.

Von der Leyen’s program reflects growing concern over climate change among European citizens. Even before the continent’s recent heat wave, protests by high-school students and the surge in support for Green parties in the European Parliament election had been a wake-up call for politicians. Many now regard climate action not only as a responsibility to future generations, but also as a duty to today’s youth. And political parties fear that dithering could lose them support among huge numbers of voters under 40.

In truth, however, the EU (including the United Kingdom) is a minor contributor to climate change these days. Member states’ combined share of global CO2 emissions has declined from 99% two centuries ago to less than 10% today (in annual, not cumulative terms). And this figure could fall to 5% by 2030 if the EU meets von der Leyen’s emissions target by that date.

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