***This blog was originally published on Carbon Brief on the 17th April, 2014.***
The UN’s climate reports provide an objective summary of existing scientific research, with no remit for saying who should do what. Yet responding to climate change is a political process.
The final part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report – outlining ‘mitigation’ or prevention of climate change – is likely to be the most politically sensitive and contentious of the three current reports.
The IPCC’s report informs the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was formed in 1992, under which hundreds of governments agreed to act on climate change.
22 years later, time is running out: the latest report argues that if a two degrees Celsius temperature increase is to be avoided – the level beyond which climate change is expected to become much more severe – significant changes must be made in the next 15 years.
The only thing that will achieve this goal is a successful political process.
What are the international politics of climate change?
One of the greatest points of contention between UNFCCC signatories will be who should pay most to limit climate change.
In 1992, UNFCCC signatories accepted the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. This statement signalled the belief that a global response is needed, but that the richest states must bear the brunt of reducing greenhouse gases.
A lot has changed since then. For many in the West, there was a sea change in responsibility when China overtook the US as the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, and other poorer states began to develop rapidly.
Yet for developing states, with many citizens still in poverty – and very low per capita greenhouse gas emissions – economic development must remain the number one priority.
The need for ‘equity’ of economic growth and emissions production between developed and developing countries has become a hallmark of current international negotiations – and a stumbling block. India has increasingly used the term to demonstrate why it should be able to continue to develop without restraint, as the West has done since the industrial revolution.
In 2015, Paris will host a UNFCCC conference that is considered crucial in determining whether an effective global agreement on climate change can be made. To do so, an answer to the equity challenge will have to be found. Climate change has become an ethical dilemma.
Individual states can make and have made impressive efforts outside the UNFCCC process. Germany, for example, has transformed its energy makeup through concerted investment in renewables, which have the contrasting impacts of both increasing domestic energy pricesbut also creating jobs through the export of new products. Yet a fear of diminishing domestic competitiveness often hinders such ambition in many states.
What are the domestic barriers to ambition?
Climate scepticism has increased over recent years, as the general public struggles to understand why some continue to question the existence of climate change despite years of ever more certain scientific publications. Some scholars suggest this scepticism is further fuelled by campaigning and media coverage that play on uncertainty in climate science without giving equal space to the areas where certainty is increasingly solid.
At the local level, renewables such as wind turbines have been decried in the media and elsewhere as ugly, leading the current UK government to express a preference for offshore turbines or even removing those already installed on land. NIMBYism is a crucial barrier to the renewable revolution called for by the IPCC report. Yet, while opponents have been successful in sowing dissent, broadly, people support the need for renewable technologies.
Renewables can also be costly in the short-term, meaning that investments take several years before paying dividends. In order to avoid this problem, ambitious subsidy schemes such as the feed-in tariffs in Germany are likely to be necessary to meet the demand called for by the IPCC.
Finally, there are unintended consequences to face due to the complexity of energy politics. Fracking provides an interesting example.
As the gas produced from fracking is less damaging to the climate than coal, some estimates argue that the USA has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions over recent years. Yet the increase in fracking has pushed down coal prices, leading other states to use more coal, thus pushing up global emissions. In a globalised economy, energy decisions require coordination across continents, not just states.
This requirement emphasises the role played by the UN in shaping climate policy, and why global agreements continue to be favoured as a means of responding to this transboundary issue.
What is the response to the IPCC’s report?
So far, there has been a show of support for the broad principles of the report. By underlining the existing scientific consensus, the IPCC enables activists and policymakers to emphasise the importance of responding to climate change.
Ed Davey, the UK Secretary of State for Energy, used the release of the report as an opportunity to galvanise his calls for greater ambition towards climate change. Meanwhile, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called climate action a moral imperative – even suggesting the need to boycott the biggest emitters.
Such suggestions in turn place pressure on companies who wish to be seen to be green. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group and the Chief Executive of Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change have all called for the long-term planning to cut emissions as a response to the report.
The scientific consensus underpinning climate change is stronger than ever before. The technological advances needed for a climate-friendlier are improving every year. The only barrier to the mitigation of climate change now is political.
Reports such as those of the IPCC therefore play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the policymaking process.