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After Doha - the big picture

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Publisert 20.08.2013

The likelihood of negotiating a new, ambitious global agreement in less than two years seems slim. So what are the most promising ways forward?

This article was published in the February - May 2013 edition of Mitigation Talks.

Doha climate conference in late autumn 2012 took a number of small steps forward by agreeing on a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and procedures for negotiating a new global agreement by 2015. It has been more than 20 years since global climate policy negotiations were initiated and today we know that it is very challenging to agree on a treaty that is ambitious enough to have a significant impact on globalgreenhouse gas emissions. Such a treaty would need both broad participation and efficient mechanisms for compliance.

The likelihood of negotiating a new, ambitious global agreement in less than two years, and given the present state of affairs, seems slim. However, more than 85 developing and developed countries have made pledges to reduce their emissions. Even if all these pledges are fulfilled — of which some are unclear or include wide ranges — the world is on a steady course for a 3–4 °C warming by 2100, far above the 2 °C warming target that has been adopted by all countries.

In short, the world has adopted an ambitious 2 °C climate target to reduce the risk of dangerous impacts of human-induced global warming, but the gap between this target — better underpinned by scientific knowledge than ever before — and policies and measures to meet this target is larger than ever. In fact, this gap seems to have widened even more over the last decade.

Not yet adapted to ecological boundaries

The big picture shows that humans are dealing with the climate change challenge in a very irrational manner. Studies have shown that we can handle this challenge in technical and economic terms, but we seem unable to handle it well in social and political terms (I could also add in psychological, cultural, and institutional terms). In a sense, our species seem to have insufficient ‘social intelligence’. What is, thus, needed the most today is ‘social engineering’.

So why have we worked ourselves into this corner? In my mind, the core of the problem is that humans have not yet adapted well enough to the ecological boundaries of our planet, in terms of consumptionand growth, pollution, use of resources and landareas, and population growth. The human footprint has detrimental effects on ecosystems, climate, and living conditions of other animal and plant species. Most countries, politicians, firms, and people are short-sighted, and focus mostly on their own interests in a narrow sense, that is, they tend to focus solely on the interests of man and not of other species, and do not have sufficient understanding of the situationin a wider context.

Finding a joint global solutionis complicated by differences in living conditions, welfare, resource bases, energy systems, culture and traditions, beliefs about national costs and benefits of reducing emissions, and of impacts of climate change and the potential to adapt to these changes. The focus is on burden-sharing and costs of mitigation rather than on the welfare gain of climate action compared to inaction. The focus is on avoiding doing more than your neighbour — and thus, reducing the riskof being exploited — or finding excuses for why you should do less than your neighbour, instead of doing the right (ethical) thing for common good. After all, being a good example can inspire your neighbours to do more.

The way forward

Since substantial mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions seem so difficult, we are considering geo-engineering to cool down the Earth, but such measures could lead to large-scale unwanted side effects and unforeseen risks. The common opinion is that economic and consumption growth can and will go on for decades or even a century, even if there are some negative impacts of climate change. But people do not realize that we risk disturbing vital ecological and resource systems that could significantly reduce the earth’s ability to support a large population as well as a high welfare level. In reality, we are undertaking a large experiment with the climate system, where we may be in for many surprises that could cause huge problems in the future, and also irreversible changes.With a sensible global risk management strategy to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, this risk could be substantially reduced.

What are the most promising ways forward for climate policies given the huge scale of the climate change challenge and our seemingly limited ability to respond in a rational manner? Since the problem is so complex, there is no single solution, rather a number of strategies and measures that can contribute to a solution. Negotiations for a new global climate policy agreement should continue, even if the probability of success is low over the next decade. I believe that the following actions will make a difference and turn out to be a way forward:

  • Climate policies should focus more on ethics and responsibilities than on efficiency
  • Climate policies should emphasize effective strategies, policy tools, and measures more than national emission ceilings and specific targets inthe short-and medium-term
  • Support climate policy collaboration between most willing countries; e.g. regional treaties
  • Stimulate and be responsive to all bottom-up and local initiatives to implement greenhouse gas emission reduction measures
  • Establish extensive public support schemes for development of green technologies as well as policy frameworks that stimulate their deployment
  • Enable good, long-term business conditions for all green and sustainable technologies
  • Stimulate international business collaboration on good climate practice, guidelines, and socially responsible behaviour
  • Collaborate with big companies interested in climate-friendly business, and with those that have long-term strategies and sizeable funding possibilities
  • Concerned organizations, share-holders, consumers, citizens, and local politicians can influence investment strategies of firms, institutional investors, funds, and holdingcompanies to take a climate-friendly direction