Tag Archives: climate policy

What if Negative Emissions Fail at Scale?

By Alice Larkin (University of Manchester, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)

It is recognised in the climate science community that literature and research informing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and relevant policymakers is heavily weighted towards Integrated Assessment Modelling (IAM) work. This prioritises emission-cutting solutions that can be more easily characterised and quantified over those that are challenging to evaluate precisely, such as how society may respond to a major policy shift.

Yet putting options into the ‘too difficult to quantify’ box, is a huge mistake, as my co-authors and I argue in a recent paper published in Climate Policy. Coupled with our desire to precisely quantify, and communicate, numbers, it is important to recognise that there appears to be an optimistic bias that assumes future technologies will solve present-day social and environmental problems.

Perhaps in most wealthy people’s minds, this would be the ideal – no need to disrupt ‘normalised’ lifestyles that include frequent flying, high levels of material consumption, an ability to have what we want, when we want. It is then easy to see why Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) fit neatly into the climate mitigation discourse. They could lead to net negative emissions in future, avoiding a need to invest political capital in more unpalatable areas such as lifestyle change, and reducing consumption.

But what if NETs fail at scale – what then? Our article argues that they are being so heavily relied upon to inform policymakers, that we are losing sight of alternatives. Furthermore, delaying meaningful debate on the demand-side of the equation is at odds with what the climate science is telling us. There is a finite carbon budget for avoiding 2°C, so the sooner emissions are cut, new habits and behaviours established, and infrastructures to support low-carbon lifestyles put in place, the lower the risk of devastating climate change impacts.

It is not uncommon for humans to be optimistic about what technology can deliver and by when. Carbon capture and storage – even without biomass– is a good example. And with most modelling work being done by those of us in privileged positions in terms of wealth, it is unsurprising that lifestyle change is low down our priority list.

My problem with this optimistic techno-centric approach is that we (wealthy people in high emitting countries calling the shots on climate change) are not only choosing climate change futures on behalf of ourselves, but we are making choices on behalf of others. Whilst we may well be able to adapt to early climate impacts by making marginal adjustments to our everyday living, by installing more air conditioning, moving away from low-lying coastlines, paying insurance companies to repair our homes after floods etc., that isn’t a luxury that most people in the world will have.

Furthermore, with globalised social media, those who will be most impacted by climate change are able to observe us continue as is, while they struggle to adapt, fund and cope with changes in their climates. Global social media lifts the lid on inequalities we are not prepared to address, as this paper highlights.

If big emitting countries, and the big emitters within those countries, are prepared to put in place stringent polices aiming to significantly reduce absolute fossil fuel consumption, even for a few years while establishing low-carbon infrastructure, there would be a much better chance of achieving the 2°C goal. While many industrialising nations will be trying to transition their own energy systems away from fossil fuels, and may well put more industrialised countries to shame in terms of the pace of change, they will still need space for economic growth, and therefore a near-term rise in emissions, to improve standards of well-being.

A meaningful, deep and an equally large body of work focusing on how to build systemic change around energy demand and material consumption is urgently needed. As long as IAMs dominate climate literature, a more balanced perspective of opportunities on the demand side will be overlooked, and time is running out.

Air travel is an example that brings this clearly into view. As academics, we are not prepared to look at the evidence that air travel is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise, with constraints on demand needed here more than anywhere (see also my paper All Adrift: Aviation, shipping and climate change policy, also published in Climate Policy). Yet I doubt the number of flights attributable to climate change research activity is declining. The reality of taking a carbon budget perspective, is that one flight taken by me this year, removes a chunk of the budget available for someone in a developing country to heat or cool their home. We are all part of the system – my behaviour here changes the climate impacts others experience elsewhere.

I have a background in climate science, and climate modelling, and I’m certainly not against modelling contributions, but it is essential that we are not blinded by precise quantification to the extent that we overlook the full possibility space. This is particularly important when basing decisions on models that combine the laws of physics with the ‘understandings’ (and certainly not laws) of economics. Not everything can be quantified in a way that is appropriate and useful for policymakers. Other ways of looking at the world are essential and need to contribute to the debate. If we don’t start to make a concerted effort to do that soon, we may well have missed our chance to demonstrate real intelligence in tackling climate change.

About the Author

 

Alice Larkin is Head of the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering and a Professor of Climate Science and Energy Policy in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester.

 

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Fairness in the Eyes of Parties to the Paris Agreement. What Explains Divergences?

By Håkon Sælen (CICERO) and Vegard Tørstad (EUI, Florence) 

The question of how to differentiate efforts fairly has always been central and controversial in UN climate negotiations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement include different formulations and compromises relating to the distribution of efforts between parties.

In a new study published in Climate Policy, we show how disagreement over fairness principles prevailed in the discussions leading up to the Paris Agreement, and suggest an explanation for why the parties have been unable to reach consensus on the question of fairness.

Broadly, three different understandings of how mitigation burdens should be distributed fairly have been frequently invoked in debates in the climate negotiations:

  1. The principle of Responsibility demands that climate change should be solved by those who have caused it. In other words: the polluters must pay.
  2. The Capability principle emphasises that all those who have the capacity to mitigate climate change have an imperative to do so.
  3. The Rights (needs) principle suggests that an actor is either entitled by right to emit a given amount of greenhouse gases, or that it needs to be exempted from undertaking provisions.

There has been considerable disagreement among parties in the negotiations on how to interpret and weight these principles in discussions of burden sharing. In our research, we were interested in two questions:

  1. Which parties support each of the three fairness principles?
  2. What explains variation in fairness conceptions across countries?

To answer the first question, we used content analysis to count the frequency with which the principles appear in parties’ negotiation documents over a three-year period in the negotiations leading up to Paris. We found that fairness conceptions among key actors in the negotiations are polarised. On one extreme of the fairness spectrum are Australia, Canada, the United States, and Russia, who all refer to Capability in more than 75% of their fairness references. On the other are Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and certain Latin American countries, who devote the majority of their references to Responsibility.

This polarization of fairness conceptions is bad news for the climate negotiations, because agreements that are based on a common notion of fairness are largely thought to be more effective and durable than those that are not. It is analytically interesting, therefore, to understand what explains these large differences in parties’ fairness conceptions.

The literature often suggests that fairness conceptions in negotiations are determined by parties’ self-interest. However, our regression analysis of more than 160 parties in the climate negotiations showed that several factors often regarded as important to parties’ interests – such as historical emissions and capacity to pay – are not the primary determinants of fairness conceptions in these negotiations. Instead, whether a country is listed in ‘Annex I’ of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–—that is, whether it is classified as a ‘developed’ country—is the single strongest predictor.

While the dominance of this variable may seem somewhat surprising, it is nevertheless compatible with an interest-based perspective. The binary Annex-division between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries was the basis for differentiating obligations under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Only ‘developed’ were assigned individual obligations to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Therefore, countries classified as ‘developing’–—such as China and India–—benefit from the Annex scheme’s continuation, while ‘developed’ countries–—such as Australia, Russia and the United States–—from its removal.

In this light, it is notable that the Paris Agreement omits any reference to Annex I of the UNFCCC, using instead less clearly defined terms such as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ or ‘other’ countries. The lack of strict differentiation in the Paris Agreement suggests, firstly, that the Agreement is more favourable than previous agreements towards ‘developed’ countries, such as the United States, and less so towards rising economies such as China and India, which were previously classified as ‘developing’. It is therefore paradoxical that the United States is the only country that has decided to pull out, citing the unfairness of the Agreement as a reason.

Secondly, the lack of reference to the Annex is significant because it affects the fundamental tension over effort-sharing in the negotiations. By removing the Annexes, the dominant variable in explaining past divergences in fairness conceptions has been rendered less relevant. This development may improve parties’ chances for reaching compromise and agreement. However, ongoing negotiations on implementation of the Agreement have already encountered ‘roadblocks’ that partially derive from how the Agreement resolved the issue of differentiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. It therefore appears that negotiators will have to continue to deal with this issue, even though it may take on a new dynamic now that the Annex I division has less force. In doing so, our paper suggests that looking for pragmatic solutions tailored to each substantive agenda point will be more fruitful than discussions at the level of fairness principles aiming for one overarching solution.

The question of fairness in effort-sharing will continue to be relevant also in the future cycle established by the agreement. Parties are obliged to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years and are requested to justify their own contribution as ‘fair and ambitious’ – a process sometimes termed ‘self-differentiation’. What is more, a ‘global stocktake’ will assess collective progress every five years, ‘in light of equity’, and shall inform future NDCs. To achieve meaningful self-differentiation, the stocktake (as well as informal assessments by civil society) might be linked to parties’ own fairness conceptions as presented in their negotiation documents, such as NDCs and submissions. For this purpose, stakeholders may find overviews of fairness conceptions – like presented in our new paper – of use.

About the Authors

 

Håkon Sælen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO).

 

 

Vegard Tørstad is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute (EUI)