It is time for a new approach to tackling climate change
The longest UN climate summit on record finished in Madrid on Sunday. While a compromise deal was agreed, the talks nearly collapsed, underlining that a new way of tackling global warming is needed.
Under the compromise agreement, all countries will submit new climate pledges by the time of the next summit, which is due to be held in November next year in Glasgow, Scotland. However, there were big divisions at the summit. A number of countries, including Australia, the US, Russia, India, China, Canada and Brazil, were criticized by some — including the Alliance of Small Island States, which represents 44 nations — for thwarting the level of ambition needed, in terms of reducing emissions, to achieve the Paris Treaty’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Research published during the discussions showed that global carbon emissions have risen by 4 percent since the Paris targets were agreed in 2015, and that reductions of more than 7 percent a year are needed in the coming decade to stand any chance of hitting the 1.5 C target, which is the limit scientists say is necessary to prevent dangerous, or so-called runaway, climate change.
The lack of progress in Madrid leaves the UK government, as cohost of next year’s summit, with a massive task to lay the groundwork for success.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the “point of no return (on global warming) is no longer over the horizon.” The Glasgow event, which will take place days after next year’s US presidential election, will therefore seek a step-change to strengthen commitments on emissions and turbo-charge the implementation of the Paris accords.
The outcome of the Spanish summit underlines, for a second year after the Polish event in 2018, that the post-2015 international consensus around tackling this issue is under attack by multiple key governments. This threatens to slow the pace of efforts to decarbonize, and it is therefore clear that a different, less “top-down” approach is now needed to tackle global warming.
With a growing number of governments, including the US, Russia, Brazil and Australia, blocking progress, the Madrid event will hopefully prove to be a line in the sand. It is crystal clear that if the necessary action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is to be undertaken, critics such as Donald Trump, and their views on global warming, need to be faced down.
As the US itself shows, the key to tackling climate change after Paris is increasingly a bottom-up approach. Even within his own country Trump is losing the argument, as the private sector and many state and city governments rapidly push for decarbonization.
Take the examples of former California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who are leading an America’s Pledge group. This has a membership of more than 3,000 US cities, states and businesses that are attempting to deliver a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025, with the intention of fulfilling the 2015 Paris pledge made by the Obama administration.
What this highlights is the need for broader empowerment of subnational organizations around the world that can help lead on this issue. While the Paris deal is not perfect, one of its key benefits is that it can cater to the flexible, bottom-up approach that is needed here, whereby not only national governments step forward, but also other regional and local players in the public and private sectors.
Madrid underlines yet again the need to accelerate a grassroots approach that allows for more organizations and individuals to play leading roles in the fight.
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. By contrast, Paris created a global architecture for tackling global warming, while fully recognizing that a collective effort right across the economy and society is needed, not only from national governments. Moreover, it also points to the fact that diverse, often decentralized, policies will be required by different types of economies to meet climate commitments, rather than a “one-size-fits all” approach.
That this approach makes good sense is reflected in the diversity of climate measures that countries have started to take 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 accounted for 93 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
The study identified more than 800 climate-change laws and policies in place around the world, compared with only 54 in 1997. About 50 countries, including the 28 EU members 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 for 2020, and 22 have targets beyond then. Moreover, 86 countries have specific targets for renewable energy, energy demand, transportation or land-use, land-use change and forestry. About 80 percent of countries have targets for renewables. This underlines that the best way to tackle climate change is for nations to meet their target commitments in innovative and effective ways that build momentum.
Take overall, Madrid underlines yet again the need to accelerate a grassroots approach that allows for more organizations and individuals to play leading roles in the fight. If countries leverage the flexibility of the Paris framework, the agreement can still deliver on its ambition and become a key foundation stone for future global sustainable development in the 2020s.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.