Is it too late to stop climate change?

Klaus Dingwerth, professor of political science and Philipp Thaler, assistant professor of energy governance at the University of St. Gallen, write for Environment Journal about whether it is too late to stop the climate crisis. 

The next ten years are of central importance for our attempt to fight the global climate crisis.

If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, global average temperatures could be 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels as early as 2030. To remain below this level in the long term, we would need to halve global greenhouse gas emissions in this decade.

The signs for such a turnaround are poor.

We have a good understanding of climate change, its mechanisms and its consequences for four decades. Nevertheless, since the 1992 Earth Summit global CO2 emissions have increased by more than 60%.

The change in global power associated with the rise of China is hampering intergovernmental cooperation. And the COVID pandemic not only ties up our attention but also considerable political and economic resources.

Yet three trends—new social pressure, contributions of diverse actors and increasing transparency—provide some hope.

First, there is the pressure of the streets. It has increased significantly compared to previous years, and the protests of the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement have achieved a lot.

They have made the alarming findings of climate science accessible to broad sections of society.

As a result, climate facts are no longer only available to experts. Furthermore, the simple demand of Greta Thunberg and her fellow campaigners that political action should be based on this knowledge has gained traction.

Finally, the climate activists have succeeded in making the year 2030 the new reference point for the climate debate.

This deadline emphasises the urgency of their cause and made parents and grandparents understand that they will no longer be able to shirk their responsibilities. The fact that many of them have joined the protests gives the climate movement a boost.

Second, global climate protection is not just a matter for nation-states.

Regions, cities and companies have long contributed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The ‘contributions of the many’ sometimes go far beyond what their governments force them to do.

What is new is that these initiatives are becoming increasingly connected and shape climate policy. City networks for ambitious local climate targets, such as the Global Covenant of Mayors, have been joined by municipalities covering over a billion inhabitants.

Elsewhere, companies commit to purchasing 100% renewable energy or to disclose and reduce their carbon footprint.

Initiatives of this kind are having an impact because the voluntary contributions of their members pay into the accounts of the countries in which they are based.

The governments of these states can then promise more for climate protection in international negotiations, and this increases the overall ambition. But non-governmental climate networks also contribute where nation-states refuse to assume their leadership role.

For example, after US President Trump’s announcement to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, 24 American states formed the US Climate Alliance.

Independent of the president’s policy, they committed themselves to the Paris climate goals.

Representing 55% of the US population and 57% of the US gross domestic product, they have the weight to implement a large part of the US promises even without Washington’s participation.

Finally, energy and climate targets need to be implemented. Here, digitisation ensures that ever more data is available, collected, published and evaluated by authorities, non-governmental organisations and independent institutions.

Where this information is freely accessible, it creates the transparency necessary for independent policy evaluation. Do measures that have been introduced meet the purported aims?

Which state subsidies continue to support fossil fuels, obsolete technologies or unsustainable processes? Information to answer these kind of questions enables societies to identify shortcomings and contradictions, to name them and to demand accountability from decision-makers in government and business.

Admittedly, the triad of social pressure, the contributions of the many and increasing transparency provide three glimpses of hope.

Yet, their continued force is challenged by the global pandemic as well as the economic crisis. For practical reasons, the pressure on the streets cannot be sustained in times of a pandemic.

It will need to mobilised again after the crisis and because the pandemic may last, activists will need to find forms of networked protest that work beyond the asphalt.

Similarly, we do not know whether regions, cities and companies will continue to make voluntary climate pledges in times of economic recession.

But states can help them do so if they orient their economic recovery programmes towards long-term goals. And finally, information and transparency will only further accountability if societies acquire the necessary skills in making the most of the data that is available.

If we are lucky, the digital learning that the pandemic is forcing on many of us could prove useful here. Even more important, however, seems to be another lesson of which we are currently becoming aware: Good crisis preparedness pays off.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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