Experts answer 3 burning questions on climate action

The House is on fire, but we need more than the fire brigade

Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security. The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having very real consequences on people’s lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow.’

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres is not pussyfooting around the climate problems facing the world today, and more so tomorrow. In his statement announcing the Climate Action Summit of September 23th, he is not only clear about the problems, but also bullish about the prospects: ‘There is a growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies… Business is on our side. Accelerated climate solutions can strengthen our economies and create jobs, while bringing cleaner air, preserving natural habitats and biodiversity, and protecting our environment.’

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is member (and former vice-chair) of the IPCC, and professor at UCLouvain in Belgium.

Andrew Higham was advisor to Christiana Figueres (when she was the head of UNFCCC, the UN Climate Conference) and is now CEO of Mission 2020, a global initiative aiming to deepen and increase global climate ambitions

Richard Black is director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in the UK

Andrew Light is Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Climate Program of the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC
We wanted to know, ahead of the Summit, whether Guterres’ optimism is shared by crucial experts worldwide.

Every new report, not just from IFCCC, shows that the climate crisis is accelerating and deepening. At the same time we see authoritarian populist leaders across the world rejecting that science, while they seem to be defending the interests of the fossil economy instead of the people. What can/should be done to convince political and business leaders of the necessity to start working hard on climate action now, rather than pushing the can to the next generation?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: Scientists must do a better job in communicating the urgency of acting, and the many options available. Citizens must tell policymakers they will not be re-elected if they don’t act much more. Consumers must stop buying products from business leaders who don’t care. Young people need to continue looking all adults into their eyes to ask them what they are doing to safeguard their future.

Andrew Higham: The news from national governments is indeed often disappointing. Many of the biggest economies, most responsible for climate change and best able to respond to it, continue to hold on to the interests of their old, dominant fossil fuel industries like coal mining and combustion engines. Even while the economics shifted to favour clean energy and industry, and despite the health and benefit of their citizens, politicians in these countries are unable to lead the way. We can see this in the countries that won’t be making speeches in New York — Australia, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Saudi Arabia.

The biggest economies continue to hold on to the interests of their old, dominant fossil fuel industries

But, crucially, there is good, strong, encouraging news out there too — from cities, regions and businesses. What you’ll see at the summit is evidence that while governments are tiptoeing, these actors see the benefits of acting on climate change and they’re speeding ahead. A group of companies with more than $1 trillion in market capitalisation is committing to net zero emissions, and major investors are preparing to do the same. Two Indian states committed this month to stop building coal-fired power stations and fill their new power demand with renewables. The problem is that governments need to tap into and support this potential, to make it reality. They need to set net-zero emissions goals for 2050, tax rather than subsidise fossil fuels, and provide the technical, financial and regulatory support for low-carbon investments.

Andrew Light: I’m not certain how widespread climate skepticism is among populist leaders, but there are certainly some noteworthy examples of this phenomenon. I think that some of the most convincing arguments in general that different political and business leaders should look at are the security risks presented by unchecked climate change as well as the economic opportunity for acting on climate change. These would seem to be consistent with their expressed priorities.

In the United States, we’ve had over a decade of official U.S. government reports and testimony from senior defense and intelligence officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations confirming that climate change is an increasingly critical national security threat. This message was made very clear in the last Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. National Intelligence Community released by then National Intelligence Director Coats on January 29, 2019, stating, “Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution” (p. 23).

Climate change is an increasingly critical national security threat

Many other countries’ defense and intelligence communities have come to similar or identical conclusions. Climate change should factor in any country’s security and defense interests. With respect to economic opportunity, I think the message is also clear. According to a study from the International Finance Corporation – a member of the World Bank Group – just the commitments for greenhouse gas mitigation under Paris from 21 of the largest emerging economies has created a $23 trillion investment opportunity, primarily in clean energy markets. The countries that step up to support those markets will not only form stronger economic and security ties with those parties but will also grow their own economies as well.

Richard Black: Many of them are already convinced. Next week we will see some governments, some local authorities and some companies and investors making new commitments. However… the problem is the sum total of all the action put together is not enough to cut emissions as quickly as science says is needed. I think that one of the keys is to show, with solid evidence, that it is possible to decarbonise while remaining prosperous. Many developed countries have in fact done this – for example, the UK has cut emissions by more than 40% since 1990 while posting 70% economic growth – but there are not enough examples yet, and very little progress made in sectors such as heavy industry. But that’s the key. Most leaders know the scientific rationale for swift emission-cutting, but it’s the economic feasibility that many still don’t quite accept.

Increasingly, there are voices calling for a fundamental system change, rather than relying on technocratic innovation or green growth. Can, in your opinion, climate change be countered succesfully while also maintaining neoliberal capitalism as the economic logic structuring the world?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: With the adoption of the Agenda 2030 and the 17 SDGs, all countries of the world have called for a transformation of the way we live, work, produce, eat, travel, or consume on this planet. The IPCC in its Special Report on 1.5°C Warming calls for unprecedented “systems transitions”. The new Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR 2019) also pleads for a “systemic approach”, and calls for “urgently transitioning away from patterns of economic growth, production, and consumption that perpetuate deprivations, generate inequalities, deplete the global environmental commons and threaten irreversible damage.” The status quo is clearly not acceptable.

Andrew Higham: The dominant economic paradigm still treats the Earth as a boundless system. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have been taken beyond the range that can enable human civilisation to continue, and in Paris we all agreed to embark together on redressing this global mistake. The economic paradigm itself has therefore become a major threat to all people on Earth, and most urgently to the most vulnerable.

The overwhelming evidence is that action on climate change will make people’s lives better

There is a massive amount of progress that can be achieved in the next decade through technological and behavioural change – we know that we can half emissions with existing technologies, and what stands in the way is not the economics but the politics of change. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is that action on climate change will make people’s lives better – it is not a burden to be suffered, it alleviates the burden of harmful economics. However, it is impossible to imagine a net- zero world that manages global concentrations of greenhouse gases at levels that are much lower than they are today for millennia to come, through an economics that views the planet as infinitely exploitable. What theory of economics will emerge to describe this exciting new form of ecologically compatible economic development is yet unknown.

Andrew Light: Yes, I think that climate change can be countered using capitalist instituions. At the very least, we should hope that it is possible to decouple economic growth from growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Very few political leaders around the world will be elected on a platform of slowing economic growth, especially in emerging developing countries, or stay in office very long if they do not continue to grow. Until quite recently it looked like the world was sustaining economic growth, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector. While that progress has stalled, it may only be temporary while non-fossil electricity options continue to get cheaper and expand. The key will be creating the same patters in other fossil-intesive sectors like transportation, buildings, and heavy industry.

Richard Black: While maintaining capitalism – yes, absolutely. And that is fortunate because capitalism is generally a much more popular system than the alternatives. In areas such as solar energy we see how competition between private companies has brought startling reductions in cost, which in turn makes deployment more feasible. So: we need capitalism. The ‘neoliberal’ bit is harder to answer. There is no doubt that in some areas, regulation is a more effective way to cut emissions than market mechanisms. So, a philosophy that eschews regulation as a matter of principle is not helpful.

Climate change is the global challenge of the era, but to tackle it, some of the old North-South divides are very much present. Looking at the global plans and proposed mechanisms from the perspective of your country, what would you say is a fair sharing of responsabilities? Is the West doing it’s fair share? China? Oil producing countries? How much can/should we differentiate while working to save our common habitat and future?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: I am convinced that the climate challenge will not be addressed properly if the agreed principle of “Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” is not fully respected.

Andrew Higham: The Paris Agreement moved beyond the paralysis of the North-South divide, creating a system whereby every country steps in to do as much as it possibly can, continuously adding ambition and based on a ratchet every 5 years. This ‘all together’ approach depends on international cooperation, recognising that rich countries have most responsibility to act and to help poor countries to develop while reducing emissions.

The agreement recognises that through international cooperation, many of the biggest developing countries are also the biggest emerging economies most able to put a quick end to fossil fuels and drive development based on clean, sustainable fuels, technology and infrastructure. The developed world has a heavy responsibility to act quickly and sharply, and to support the most vulnerable and poorest countries already suffering from the effects of climate change. But the developed world can no longer avert the worst impacts on its own.

The Paris Agreement’s system calls on everyone to pitch in, to keep track of their progress, and keep ramping up their contributions, and that’s what needs to happen. The IPCC’s special report on 1.5°C degrees made clear we need to move quickly along the Paris roadmap in order to halve global emissions between now and 2030, and again by 2040, and again to net-zero by 2050.

The true test of the Paris system will be how willing countries are to regularly increase their ambition at five year intervals

Andrew Light: I think the system of burden sharing created by the Paris Agreement works, which was a bold step away from the old entrenched bifurcation between the duties of developed and developing countries as two large undifferentiated categories. Everyone differentiates themselves under Paris, and sets their own targets, with the presumption that those countries with greater capacity to rapidly change should do so. The true test of the Paris system though will be how willing countries are to regularly increase their ambition at five year intervals. Next year in 2020 will be the first test, with the requirement under the Paris Agreement that those parties with a 2030 target – which is nearly the entire world – indicate whether they will stick to their initial commitment under Paris or increase their ambition.

Richard Black: This is a very complex question. Even deciding what we mean by ‘fair’ isn’t simple. And, there is no evidence that in 2019, a model of economic development that depends on fossil fuels will enrich a developing economy faster than the alternative. So: it is clear that some Western nations are taking a lead (Sweden, UK, Finland, for example) and others are not (Australia, the US, Germany). There are also some developing countries that are moving quickly and some that are not. If one had to single out one group of countries that are moral laggards it would have to be the Gulf states. Their per-capita wealth is huge, they have got rich on oil and gas; yet they insist on being treated as ‘developing nations’ inside the UN climate negotiations and put hardly a cent towards international funding.

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