We need new thinking to fight climate change

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We need new thinking to fight climate change

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa and UN special envoy for the 2019 climate summit Luis Alfonso de Alba attend a meeting with representatives of various NGO organizations before the final session of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, December 14, 2018. (Reuters)

The 2018 UN climate change summit, which is continuing well past its scheduled close this weekend in Katowice, Poland, has underlined the fact that the international consensus on tackling this issue is under attack again by key governments. This threatens to slow the pace of efforts to decarbonize, and it is clear that a different approach is now needed to global warming.

With a growing number of governments, including the US, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, raising concerns about the 2015 Paris agreement, the Polish event will hopefully prove to be a line in the sand. It is crystal clear that if the necessary action on global warming is to be undertaken to mitigate its worst effects, skeptics such as Donald Trump need to be faced down and their views about global warming challenged.

Trump and others have lambasted the Paris agreement, arguing that it is a grand hoax and an unwelcome distraction, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence about the risks posed by climate change. Yet even if it were to turn out that the vast majority of scientists in the world are, remarkably, wrong about global warming, what the Paris deal will help to achieve is a gradual move toward cleaner energies, making the world a less polluted and more sustainable place to live. On the other hand, the consequences of failing to act now, as climate skeptics seem to advocate, would be the growing likelihood of devastating environmental damage to the planet.

As the US itself has shown, the key to tackling climate change after Paris is increasingly becoming a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” approach. Even within his own country Trump is losing the argument, with the US private sector and many state and city governments pushing for decarbonization. Indeed, during 2017, Trump’s first year in office, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the US dropped by 2.7 percent. 

Former California Governor Jerry Brown and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are leading an “America’s Pledge” climate-action group, in which more than 3,000 US cities, states and businesses are attempting to deliver a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025 under the Paris agreement. America’s Pledge says it is within striking distance of fulfilling this commitment, which was made by the Obama administration.

This underlines the need for broader empowerment of subnational organizations across the world who can help lead the fight against climate change. While the Paris deal is not perfect, one of its key benefits is that it can cater for the flexible, “bottom-up” approach that is needed, whereby not only national governments but also regional and local players in the public and private sectors can move forward with this agenda.

The Poland summit has shown the need to accelerate a grassroots-driven approach that allows more organizations and individuals to play leading roles in the fight against climate change.

Andrew Hammond

While the wisdom of this might appear obvious, Paris represented a breakthrough from the more rigid “top-down” approach of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which imposed global, uniform standards. In contrast, Paris created a global architecture for tackling global warming but fully recognized that a collective effort right across the economy and society is needed, not only by national governments. Moreover, it pointed to the fact that diverse, often decentralized policies will be required in different types of economies to meet climate commitments, rather than a “one-size-fits all” solution.

That this approach makes good sense is reflected in the diversity of climate measures that countries have started to implement in response to global warming. This has been illustrated in reports by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, including one in 2015 that focused on 98 countries plus the EU, which together account for 93 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

This study revealed that more than 800 climate-change laws and policies were in place around the world, compared with 54 in 1997. About 50 countries, including the 28 members of the EU as a bloc, have economy-wide targets to reduce emissions. Together, they account for more than 75 percent of global emissions.

In addition, about 40 states have economy-wide targets in place up to 2020, and 22 have set targets beyond then. Moreover, 86 countries have specific targets for renewable energy, energy demand, transport or land-use, land-use change and forestry, while about 80 percent of countries have renewable targets. 

This underlines the fact that the best way to tackle climate change is for nations to meet their target commitments in innovative and effective ways that build on this momentum. Take the example of Morocco, a leader in renewables in the Middle East and Africa; nearly 30 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources and it aims to increase this to 50 percent by 2030.

A key part of the drive here is harnessing the ways in which renewables could push forward a remarkable new industrial revolution, becoming a key source of economic growth and sustainable development. In Morocco, the drive toward renewables relies not only on big infrastructure projects such as solar and wind-power plants, but also local, small-scale initiatives to encourage key eco-friendly projects, including agricultural, that allow more organizations and individuals across society to play a role in tackling climate change.

The Poland summit has shown the need to accelerate a grassroots-driven approach that allows more organizations and individuals to play leading roles in the fight against climate change. If countries can now leverage the flexibility of the Paris framework, it can deliver on this ambition and become a key foundation stone of future sustainable development for billions around the world in the 2020s and beyond.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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