From Paris to Parliaments: Is There a Climate for Action?

malcolmMalcolm Fairbrother
University of Bristol

The Paris Agreement reached at the COP21 late last year was a big success. In the words of the United Kingdom’s Special Representative for Climate Change, December 2015 was when humanity really decided that climate change was “a problem we agreed to do something about.”

But the news is not all good. If you add up all the commitments the governments of the world have made, we are nowhere near keeping global warming under 2˚C—the notional target beyond which things could get really bad. There remains a huge divide between the aspirations voiced (and to some extent even codified) in Paris, and the realities of what’s happening in parliaments and congresses around the world. Most countries are doing puzzlingly little on climate.

This lack of action is even more perplexing in light of an emerging expert consensus about global climate policy. This consensus struck me at a panel discussion I attended recently in the UK Parliament.* The speakers—a politician; a scientist; an economist; a financial advisor; and an activist—were all more or less in agreement about the following:

(1) Paris was a big deal. There are certainly all kinds of things to be worried and dissatisfied about, and it would have been better to have had an agreement like this 20 years ago. But it really does put us in a much better place than we were before.

(2) Above all, Paris did two crucial things. First, it established a mechanism for making countries accountable to each other, and for making governments more accountable domestically. Second, it provided firms and investors with a clear steer: the world economy is going to decarbonise in this century. The private sector will appreciate the implications: some power stations will have to be decommissioned early; governments will sooner or later have to introduce policies favourable to renewables and unfavourable to fossil fuels; “climate risk” is going to be a huge issue for the financial services sector.

(3) The private sector is not the problem. In a lot of ways, big companies are ahead of the game, and many are looking to governments to get with the programme and establish sensible, long-term targets and regulations. I found it striking that even an activist from Friends of the Earth and the former leader of the UK Green Party seemed to feel this way.

(4) Cutting carbon isn’t bad for the economy. Again, it would not be surprising for a couple of the panellists to say this. But for all five to agree was impressive. They made the point in different ways. The scientist for example talked about employment growth in the clean energy sector, while the activist noted that greenhouse gas emissions have come way down in the UK in the last 25 years even as total economic activity has grown.

(5) Both of the UK’s major political parties–i.e., the right-of-centre Conservative Party included–have been positive forces shaping the global climate regime, and UK governments led by both parties have advised other countries on how to get their emissions down. This message too was striking to me.

All of the above just confirmed what I see as an emerging expert consensus that decarbonising is completely doable, and the reasons we’re not doing it fast enough are political—not technical or economic, or rooted in any inherent properties of capitalism or growth. Given that consensus, at this point (in some contrast perhaps to 10 or 20 years ago) the private sector isn’t much of a problem politically. And, in some ways, the seeming affinity between the political right and hostility to climate policy is actually rather weak (the case of the U.S. notwithstanding).

So why then are so many governments not just doing very little, but actually going backwards on climate policy?

To answer that question, it is important to understand what progress would look like. The most basic policy recommendation of mainstream environmental economics is putting a price on pollution—to encourage efficiencies and make polluters take the full costs of their activities into account in their decision-making. But governments still make very little use of environmental taxes. As a share of GDP, revenues from such taxes have been declining in Europe in recent years, while the U.S. has few such taxes at all. A large share of Americans’ entire environmental footprint comes from gasoline consumption, but in real terms gasoline tax rates have been generally falling for years if not decades.

The scarce use of measures to make polluters pay for their pollution flies in the face of the successes that such measures have generally had around the world—from the C$30/tonne carbon tax in British Columbia to America’s SO2 cap-and-trade scheme to Ireland’s plastic bag levy.

Why then are these measures so little used? Setting aside U.S. Republicans, there are few serious political forces around the world that doubt the basic science of climate change. But it seems to me that climate change is just not a priority in many countries, and it tends to slip down the political agenda.

That is partly because, I suspect, many people—even those who believe in climate science—vastly overestimate the economic costs of addressing climate change. One of the most influential estimates of the costs—that of Nicholas Stern—put it at 2% of GDP. This is not a trivial amount, but it suggests that climate change is far from being the socio-economic game-changer some make it out to be. , and will not require any “profound lifestyle changes.” Actually, if we could just get past the politics, solving climate change could be, as Paul Krugman puts it, cheap.

1 Sir David King, speaking at the event in the UK Parliament.

* The panellists were Caroline Lucas (MP, former leader of the Green Party); Sir David King (formerly the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, and now Special Representative for Climate Change); Prof Michael Jacobs (various think tank and academic affiliations); Kirsty Hamilton (various finance affiliations); and Simon Bullock (Friends of the Earth). The event was a seminar of the All Party Climate Change Group (APPCCG) and Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG).

This is an adaptation of an earlier blog posting:

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