Global leaders are busy rolling out big plans to boost recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic but as with vaccine distribution, the devil is in the detail - in the planning, contracts, infrastructure and personnel, besides informing often wary populations.
So it is with international efforts to transition to a more sustainable economy. The world agrees that fossil fuel use must be cut but can't agree on what to do or when and how to go about it – and how to adjust its financing.
Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, for instance, recently criticised the European Union for the rigidity of its planned green taxonomy to classify industries as good or bad for the planet, which is intended to guide finance towards the most sustainable activities.
Carney argues that binary black and white definitions do not work in the real world, where industries, companies, individuals and governments are all at different stages of transition.
He says the EU should adopt a “50 shades of green” approach that recognises reality, reflecting, for example, that if the EU and other economies are to move away from coal and oil, some countries will have to increase use of gas until renewable energy can take up the slack.
Not everyone agrees. The European Commission is listening to both sides: it could classify gas as a partially sustainable technology, providing it replaces dirtier energy sources and can at least halve emissions per kilowatt of energy produced. The Commission has also launched a consultation on the Gas Directive and Gas Regulation, focusing on how legislation can encourage renewable and low-carbon gases and hydrogen without fragmenting interconnected markets.
Such moves may seem a sensible compromise in a complex world and will certainly please EU member states that rely on gas production to support their economies or to provide heat and light to homes and businesses. The same case could be made for nuclear power, a decision that would please France.
But potentially sensible compromises can be seen as a sell-out and lead to claims of greenwashing. Greta Thunberg was not impressed, accusing the EU of surrendering to lobbyists.
The final details of the taxonomy will be important, and not just for the EU and the financing of its own economic transition. France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire has suggested to US special envoy for climate John Kerry that the US and the EU share a common taxonomy.
As Commission president Ursula von der Leyden and European Investment Bank president Werner Hoyer have pointed out, the EU accounts for less than 10% of global emissions. Even if the EU attains net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it will not be enough to save the planet from rising temperatures.
US president Joe Biden has unveiled his $2trn infrastructure plan, including a $628bn slice dedicated specifically to climate issues, but he too faces criticism. Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute is unhappy with the goal of decarbonising the American economy and cutting fossil fuel subsidies, saying the plan will undermine economic recovery and jeopardise jobs.
A joint approach by the EU and the US may not only be a sensible route to closing down critics, it will also likely be an essential one if real progress is to be made toward building a sustainable economy.