Johannes Urpelainen explores a recent call to arms on climate change and argues we must move beyond unrealistic targets.
In December 2015, the Paris Agreement on climate change brought climate policy back to life at the global level. This treaty is a profound shift in how the international community deals with the threat of global warming. Past efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions focused on setting mandatory targets and timetables for countries, but in Paris negotiators decided to allow every country to choose their own actions. The only form of accountability is a pledge-and-review system, whereby governments collective review national action plans on a regular basis.
Although negotiators agreed on a bottom-up, decentralized strategy in Paris, the debate on decarbonization pathways at the global level continues. The Paris Agreement recognizes limiting global warming to below two degrees Celsius and even notes 1.5 degrees Celsius as an aspirational goal. Governments can do whatever they want, but somehow these individual actions should add up to rapid progress in climate mitigation at the global level.
Most recently, in “Three years to safeguard our climate”, Figueres et al. propose that global emissions must peak and begin to decrease by 2020 for the Paris Agreement to succeed in limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius. This call to arms urges immediate, aggressive climate policies. For example, the authors call for no coal-fired power plants beyond 202 and plans for retiring all existing ones. In their view, drastic policy measures within three years are necessary to avoid severe climate disruption.
Although the 2020 deadline clearly highlights the urgency of climate action, Figueres et al. offer little actionable guidance for climate policy. As the authors themselves note, their six targets “may be idealistic at best, unrealistic at worst.” Consequently, the targets may inspire current climate leaders to ratchet up their plans but are unlikely to expand the high-ambition climate coalition.
Governments that face constraints on their ability to formulate climate policies are unlikely to become global sustainability leaders just because the problem is urgent. As long as the constraints on policy remain in place, governments’ ability to act is limited. A government that fears riots from removing fossil fuel subsidies or losing an election because of a backlash against higher electricity prices is not going to be moved by the urgency of dealing with a complex global threat that threatens to cause major disruption decades into the future.
The Paris Agreement’s genius is found in the recognition that the primary obstacles to ambitious climate policy are institutional and political in nature. This recognition is why Paris Agreement is an important move forward in global climate policy, but it also means that highlighting the urgency of climate action is not enough to increase the treaty signatories’ ambition levels.
In the 21st century, almost all potential for emissions growth is found in emerging economies that have only limited resources and experience with sustainable energy and climate policy. From South Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa, this lack of institutional capacity makes ambitious short-term targets all but irrelevant. Policymakers will not sign on to impossible targets, as the fear of an embarrassing failure discourages commitment and action.
The other major obstacle to ambitious decarbonization is politics. Despite the falling cost of clean energy, ambitious climate policies impose costs on both producers and consumers. These costs provoke political opposition to climate policy, and the opponents of climate policy are unlikely to be moved by the urgency of emission reductions. Expanding the political coalition in favor of ambitious climate policy depends on political deals that make action appealing to powerful interest groups that currently fear losses.
While Figueres et al. are correct in highlighting the momentous challenge of climate mitigation, the time has come to move beyond unrealistic targets and toward pragmatic and actionable climate strategy. Advocates of ambitious climate policy need to next focus on concrete results instead of lofty goals. The critical priority for climate policy is to find pragmatic but effective solutions that reduce emissions over time. These solutions are unlikely to be straightforward, and the obstacles to action are more fundamental than a lack of awareness or political will. Advocates of climate action should acknowledge these obstacles and find ways to overcome them.
Johannes Urpelainen (@jurpelai) is the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Professor of Energy, Resources and Environment in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP) at SAIS.