The war on climate change can still be won
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on Monday a hard-hitting report that asserts there may be only a dozen years to prevent the worst impacts of so-called “runaway” global warming. In a clarion wake-up call to the international community, the IPCC made clear that only urgent, unprecedented political and economic action can avert the worsening risks of future drought, extreme heat and floods across the globe.
In these circumstances, pessimism may yet grow about the future of global efforts to combat climate change. Yet, while the scale of the challenge is huge, and growing, actions can still be taken collectively by governments, businesses and individuals that are affordable and feasible to potentially turn this situation around under the flexible 2015 Paris treaty, which has the potential to be ratcheted up.
The challenge, according to the IPCC, is keeping temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which was the target set by the Paris agreement. Yet the IPCC warns that there is now a very high risk that, under current emissions trajectories and national pledges, global warming will exceed that amount, perhaps significantly.
While the difference between a 1.5 degree rise and higher may seem inconsequential to some, the difference is profound, according to the IPCC. For instance, the portion of the global population subject to water stress could be 50 percent lower with overall warming of 1.5 degrees compared to 2 degrees. Equally, sea ice-free summers in the Artic would occur around once every 100 years at the lower target, but perhaps every decade at the higher target, according to the IPCC. Meanwhile, it is forecast that 99 percent of corals could be lost at 2 degrees compared to perhaps 10 percent at 1.5 degrees.
The report, which will be formally delivered to governments at the UN climate conference in Poland in December, clearly warns that the world may currently be on course for disastrous warming of 3 degrees Celsius. However, this pathway can potentially be changed through proactive, concerted global action.
To be sure, there are some encouraging trends here; including the fact that China is currently drawing up a long-term global warming plan. Conversely, the Trump team in the US continues to flout climate science, while Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro could win power this month with his plans for leaving Paris, abolishing his nation’s environment ministry, and potentially allowing much more mining, logging and other business in the Amazon, with significantly greater deforestation.
The report clearly warns that the world may currently be on course for disastrous warming of 3 degrees Celsius
In this context, pro-Paris countries will need to raise their ambitions and ratchet up their emission cuts. The IPCC report sketches out several ways in which changing land use, and technological change, including the utilization of carbon capture materials and clean energy public transport systems, could help achieve the 1.5 degree target.
This underlines that, while Paris was a welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, even more climate leadership is now needed by key emitters, including the EU and China, which account for about a third of global greenhouse emissions (this grows to half when the US is added in). Thus, rather than viewing the agreement as the end of the process, as some did at the time it was brokered in 2015, it should be seen as the beginning of a longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in 2019 and beyond.
The road map for moving forward after this week’s IPCC study is already clear. Firstly, the implementation of the Paris deal will be most credible — and durable beyond the next set of elections — if they are backed up by national legislation where this is possible. Legislation is difficult to roll back. And this is especially so when supported — as in many countries — by well-informed, cross-party lawmakers from across the political spectrum who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation, and hold governments to account so Paris delivers.
While the 2015 pledges made in Paris are not yet enough, the treaty has crucially put in place the domestic legal frameworks that are crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the agreement to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans submitted to the UN.
In the future, the ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. And, despite setbacks in some countries, there are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.
Going forward, Monday’s IPCC report underlines exactly why legislators must be at the center of international processes on climate change. With a narrow window of opportunity still available in the 2020s, lawmakers can now help co-create, and implement, with governments, businesses and other organizations, what could be a cornerstone of sustainable development, with Paris’ implementation at its heart.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.