Politics in a warming world
The issue of climate change has declined in political salience in recent years. Six years ago the government’s chief scientist, Sir David King, said it was the most severe political problem, “more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.
To some extent, this decline is due to the cross-party consensus on how the issue should be tackled. This consensus survived the Climategate controversy. It also ensured the passage, in 2008, of the Climate Change Act, with its ground-breaking combination of a binding long-term emission reduction target (80% by 2050) and five-yearly carbon budgets, all overseen by an independent expert Committee on Climate Change. The 2009 Low Carbon Transition Plan was designed to deliver the cuts emissions necessary to achieve the interim target of 34% by 2020.
In the European Union – where most national climate change policy is now set – the UK is something of a leader, pushing other states to do more to reduce emissions. At last year’s Copenhagen summit, the EU said that it would move to a 30% cut (compared to 1990 levels) if other industrialized countries took comparable steps. They did not. In theory, the EU’s offer is still on the table, but the prospects of any other large polluter – principally the USA – taking up the challenge at the next big meeting in Cancun in Decemeber looks very bleak indeed.
The UK’s position – together with France, Germany and Denmark – is that the EU should move to a 30% reduction target right now. There are three reasons why. First, while falling short of the 40% urged by many scientists to increase the chances of keeping warming under 2 degrees, a 30% target would help to reduce the risk of dangerous levels of climate change. Secondly, it would help to kick start the long process of decarbonising the European economy. At present carbon prices are far too low to have any significant incentivizing effect. In fact, the main driver of renewable energy deployment at the moment is old fashioned regulation, not the much vaunted ‘carbon market’. Thirdly, in recent years emissions from the EU have dropped due mainly to the recession, such that the EU is already half way to meeting its existing 20% target. Nonetheless, effective lobbying by carbon intensive industry and the unwillingness of political leaders to dampen short-term economic growth put paid to the ambitions of those who see climate policy as an opportunity to spark a new low-carbon industrial revolution.
Failure to increase the target now means that future reductions will have to be all the steeper, and all the more expensive. The International Energy Agency estimates that globally, each year of delay adds an extra €336 bn to the clean investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector. Maintaining the target at 20% keeps the carbon price determined by the EU’s ‘flagship’ emissions trading scheme at a level well below that needed to convince investors to invest serious money in low-carbon innovations.
Such ‘non-decisions’ mean that consciously or not, EU political leaders are choosing a future in which the world has to adapt to temperature increases significantly in excess of 2°C – the long term target the EU is, at least officially, still committed to. They are pushing the whole of the EU into a warmer world. This in turn implies that policy making on ‘adaptation’ to the impacts of climate change will need to be geared up considerably in coming years. Until now, adaptation policies have not developed nearly as fast or as far as those relating to mitigation (i.e. emission reductions). Adaptation policies will be needed to protect against the impacts, both within European borders and beyond. These impacts could prove to be very costly. The UK government already has a good record when it comes to thinking and planning for adaptation. UK Foresight is currently engaged in a study of how far climate change is likely to increase the flow of migrants from impacted regions to the EU. Given the existing sensitivities around migration, it will be interesting to see what kind of political reaction it receives.
The politics around adaptation policy at EU level are certainly very intriguing. No doubt some of those countries actively resisting the 30% target will be calling for financial support to deal with the kinds of extreme events – floods, drought, storm damage etc – that are predicted to become more common during this century. While ‘burden sharing’ in relation to mitigation has been an issue of political contention in Brussels over the last 20 years (but some success), sharing the costs of adaptation is something altogether different, particularly given the ongoing struggle to manage the impacts of that other self-inflicted problem – the international debt crisis. So too will reforming the kinds of policies and practices that increase Europe’s vulnerability to climate impacts, such as water-intensive agriculture and inappropriate infrastructure development.
The danger is that without synoptic, long term decision-making, Europe may end up with a muddled compromise of both ineffective mitigation and inadequate adaptation. In short, the worst of all worlds.
Professor Andrew Jordan and Dr Tim Rayner work at the RAE 5** School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Andrew is a Professor in Environmental Politics and Tim is a Senior Research Associate at the school. Their new book is called Climate Change Policy in the European Union.
Recent Posts on Notebook
- Dementia Awareness Week: Should we keep an open mind to spiritual solutions?
- Hearing loss: An invisible impairment and a preventable disability
- Barking Blondes: When to vaccinate
- Enslaved to maize: Why we need to re-think Malawi's agricultural future
- The real ghetto superstar: Why Floyd Mayweather is no Muhammad Ali
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter