Policy Research in Macroeconomics

Paris talks make the climate clock tick loudly but it never stops

Wooden bridges over flooded Paris - Avenue Montaigne, Paris, 1910,  Bibliothèque nationale de France

Wooden bridges over flooded Paris – Avenue Montaigne, Paris, 1910, Bibliothèque nationale de France

With one year to go before the 100 months countdown ends, how has the climate debate changed?

12 months and counting

The climate clock may tick loudly when world leaders turn their gaze in its direction, but it never stops. This series of articles about what’s happening in our warming world, which has seen attention to the issue come and go as the time for meaningful action to avert uncontrollable climate change slips away, now has one year to go.

It was never meant as the kind of countdown to a bomb exploding seen in Bond films. Sometimes it’s been mischievously misrepresented to score points. We’ll still be here in 12 months’ time and, if nothing changes, the only explosion will be a slow motion one of emissions. Drawing safety lines in the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases is all about how much risk you are prepared to tolerate.

Explicit at the outset of the exercise was that, according to the IPCC’s then assessment of the risk of passing a 2C temperature threshold, and while making some conservative assessments of other environmental changes, after 100 months it would no longer be “likely” that the world would stay below that line – meaning a 66–90% chance of doing so.

But, as explored last month, this in itself requires faith in a huge range of models and scenarios which themselves make bold assumptions. Different and, as some argue, more realistic parameters could mean that the world has around half the carbon budget for emissions from energy use between 2020 and 2100 than the amount used as the basis for negotiations in Paris. In this case, the true application of the precautionary principle requires far more radical action than a few techno-fixes, and no chance of tiptoeing into the future without noticeable changes in how we live.

But in spite of the chorus for action in Paris, there remain plenty of voices tenaciously arguing for lightly dusted business as usual.

Industry lobbyists like the World Coal Association (WCA) are all over the climate talks, pushing such emollient lines. Disregarding estimates that 80% of known coal reserves need to be left in the ground the industry sees a big, continuing role for coal globally. To make itself more politically acceptable it promotes what it terms “low-emission coal” technology and is calling for a big increase in public subsidy for the research and development of carbon capture and storage.

Compared to the renewable energy alternatives on offer, in carbon terms talking about “low-emission coal” is a bit like arguing to put an elephant on a diet, you may slim it down, but it will still be an elephant. The WCA’s own statement ahead of Paris talks conceded that a transition to no new unabated burning of fossil fuels could not begin until the late 2020s, much too late to prevent to have any impact on dangerous levels of warming.

Rattled by a fossil fuel divestment movement gathering pace, and the appearance of being on the wrong side of history, lobby groups like the WCA still, of course, have some high-profile friends.

India has plans for the massive expansion of coal use, vigorously defended by its energy minister on the basis of India’s low historical emissions, comparatively low per capita emissions and its imperative of conventional economic development. He called this an issue of “climate justice”, but warming itself is set to be the greatest injustice of all.

India is famous for hardball and sometimes unpredictable negotiating tactics at climate talks, and this line plays well politically in its domestic mainstream. But much of the need for access to electricity in India is by rural populations with little access to the grids fed by coal power. And, while the greater ecological debts of rich countries are real, to promise progress along a pathway that threatens the climate depended on by hundreds of millions of Indian farmers, is not development but indignant self-destruction.

Are there still better ways? A recent report from, Unctad, the UN’s special body on trade and development thinks so. It’s Least Developed Countries Report 2015 is explicit about the need for a new and different approach to development to cut poverty by 2030.

It builds on the previous year’s report which highlighted the potential of micro-renewable energy technologies as a foundation for transforming rural economies and eradicating engrained poverty.

A win-win can emerge in which local communities produce and consume their own energy with flexible, clean technologies over which they have much greater control. This then powers greater local prosperity which feeds of itself in a cycle of raised local production of the food and household things needed for day-to-day quality of life. Incomes then rise alongside supply, demand, and production.

If it sounds so easy you may wonder why it hasn’t been done before? Simply put, big centralised interests and infrastructure projects are typically much better at capturing government financial and policy support. More decentralised approaches may be more effective, but the people in favour and who stand to benefit from them are, like renewable energy technologies themselves, likely to be more dispersed.

If that seems a little technical, movements like Buen Vivir and Transition are delivering countless practical examples of what it looks like to practice economic development differently.

Today, it feels as if there is an unstoppable momentum in the argument for system change in the face of climate change, even as culturally, economically and in terms of our infrastructure we have locked ourselves into an unsustainable model.

But there is another change happening, myriad creative acts now render the climate challenge visible in ways that lay the foundation, at least, for more profound shifts in understanding. Until recently the problem has been written invisibly in the sky with the obscure measure of the concentration of gases. Now, turn one way and it stands in the empty shoes of the banned marchers in Paris, turn another and it follows the red lines of future sea level rise laid out by the concerned.

When a new generation is prepared to write the problem on their own bodies, tattooing themselves with the greenhouse gas concentration from the year of their birth, we see a deeply symbolic historical act which means the challenge can never be invisible again.

This article is cross-posted from The Guardian

Andrew Simms is an author, analyst and campaigner. He co-founded the New Weather Institute, and is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation. Andrew will be blogging for PRIME on environmental / economic issues.

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