Politicians, business leaders, climate scientists, interest groups and journalists from across the world have been meeting in Dubai at the COP28 climate summit (the 28th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)). The meeting comes at a time when various climate tipping points are being reached or approached – some bad, but some good. Understanding these tipping points and their implications for society and policy requires understanding not only the science, but also the various economic incentives affecting individuals, businesses, politicians and societies.
A recent report (see first reference in articles section below) identified various climate tipping points. These are when global temperatures rise to a point where various domino effects occur. These are adverse changes to the environment that gather pace and have major effects on ecosystems and the ability to grow food and support populations. These, in turn, will have large effects on economies, migration and political stability.
According to the report, five tipping points are imminent with the current degree of global warming (1.2oC). These are:
- Melting of the Greenland ice sheet;
- Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet;
- Death of warm-water coral reefs;
- Collapse of the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation, which helps to drive the warm current that benefits Western Europe;
- Widespread rapid thawing of permafrost, where tundra without snow cover rapidly absorbs heat and releases methane (a much more powerful source of global warming than CO2).
With global warming of 1.5oC, three more tipping points are likely: the destruction of seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps and the southern part of the boreal forests that cover much of northern Eurasia. As the temperature warms further, other tipping points can interact in ways that drive one another, resulting in tipping ‘cascades’.
But the report also strikes an optimistic note, arguing that positive tipping points are also possible, which will help to slow global warming in the near future and possibly reverse it further in the future.
The most obvious one is in renewable energy. Renewable power generation in many countries is now cheaper than generation from fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2022, over 80% of new electricity generation was from solar and wind. And as it becomes cheaper, so this will drive investment in new renewable plants, including in small-scale production suitable for use in developing countries in parts not connected to a grid. In the vehicle sector, improved battery technology, the growth in charging infrastructure and cheaper renewable sources of electricity are creating a tipping point in EV take-up.
Positive tipping points can take place as a result of changing attitudes, such as moving away from a meat-intensive diet, avoiding food waste, greater use of recycling and a growth in second-hand markets.
But these positive tipping points are so far not strong enough or quick enough. Part of the problem is with economic incentives in market systems and part is with political systems.
Economic decisions around the world of both individuals and firms are made largely within a market environment. But the market fails to take into account the full climate costs and benefits of such decisions. There are various reasons why.
Externalities. Both the production and consumption of many goods, especially energy and transport, but also much of agriculture and manufacturing, involve the production of CO2. But the costs of the resulting global warming are not born directly by the producer or consumer. Instead they are external costs born by society worldwide – with some countries and individuals bearing a higher cost than others. The result is an overproduction or consumption of such goods from the point of view of the world.
The environment as a common resource. The air, the seas and many other parts of the environment are not privately owned. They are a global ‘commons’. As such, it is extremely difficult to exclude non-payers from consuming the benefits they provide. Because of this property of ‘non-excludability’, it is often possible to consume the benefits of the environment at a zero price. If the price of any good or service to the user is zero, there is no incentive to economise on its use. In the case of the atmosphere as a ‘dump’ for greenhouse gases, this results in its overuse. Many parts of the environment, however, including the atmosphere, are scarce: there is rivalry in their use. As people increase their use of the atmosphere as a dump for carbon, so the resulting global warming adversely affects the lives of others. This is an example of the tragedy of the commons – where a free resource (such as common land) is overused.
Inter-generational problems. The effect of the growth in carbon emissions is long term, whereas the benefits are immediate. Thus consumers and firms are frequently prepared to continue with various practices, such as driving, flying and using fossil fuels for production, and leave future generations to worry about their environmental consequences. The problem, then, is a reflection of the importance that people attach to the present relative to the future.
Ignorance. People may be contributing to global warming without realising it. They may be unaware of which of the goods they buy involve the release of carbon in their production or how much carbon they release when consumed.
Governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, face incentives not to reduce carbon emissions – or to minimise their reduction, especially if they are oil producing countries. Reducing carbon involves short-term costs to consumers and this can make them unpopular. It could cost them the next election or, in the case of dictatorships, make them vulnerable to overthrow. What is more, the oil, coal and gas industries have a vested interest in continuing the use of fossil fuels. Such industries wield considerable political power.
Even if governments want the world to reduce carbon emissions, they would rather that the cost of doing so is born less by their own country and more by other countries. This creates a prisoner’s dilemma, where the optimum may be for a large global reduction in carbon emissions, but the optimum is not achieved because countries individually are only prepared to reduce a little, expecting other countries to reduce more. Getting a deal that is deemed ‘fair’ by all countries is very difficult. An example is where developing countries, may feel that it is fair that the bulk of any cuts, if not all of them, should be made by developed countries, while developed countries feel that fixed percentage cuts should be made by all countries.
If the goal is to tackle climate change, then the means is to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (or at the least to stop its increase – the net zero target). There are two possibilities here. The first is to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. The second is to use carbon capture and storage or carbon sequestration (e.g. through increased forestation).
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, the key is reducing the consumption of carbon-producing activities and products that involve emissions in their production. This can be achieved through taxes on such products and/or subsidies on green alternatives (see the blog ‘Are carbon taxes a solution to the climate emergency?‘). Alternatively carbon-intensive consumption can be banned or phased out by law. For example, the purchase of new petrol or diesel cars cold be banned beyond a certain date. Or some combination of taxation and regulation can be used, such as in a cap-and-trade system – for example, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (see the blog ‘Carbon pricing in the UK‘). Then there is government investment in zero carbon technologies and infrastructure (e.g. electrifying railways). In practice, a range of policy instruments are needed (see the blog ‘Tackling climate change: “Everything, everywhere, all at once”‘).
With carbon capture, again, solutions can involve a mixture of market mechanisms and regulation. Market mechanisms include subsidies for using carbon capture systems or for afforestation. Regulation includes policies such as requiring filters to be installed on chimneys or banning the felling of forests for grazing land.
The main issue with such policies is persuading governments to adopt them. As we saw above, governments may be unwilling to bear the short-term costs to consumers and the resulting loss in popularity. Winning the next election or simple political survival may be their number-one priority.
The COP28 summit concluded with a draft agreement which called for the:
transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.
This was the first COP summit that called on all nations to transition away from fossil fuels for energy generation. It was thus hailed as the biggest step forward on tackling climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement. However, there was no explicit commitment to phase out or even ‘phase down’ fossil fuels. Many scientists, climate interest groups and even governments had called for such a commitment. What is more, there was no agreement to transition away from fossil fuels for transport, agriculture or the production of plastics.
If the agreement is to be anything more than words, the commitment must now be translated into specific policy actions by governments. This is where the real test will come. It’s easy to make commitments; it’s much harder to put them into practice with policy measures that are bound to impose costs on various groups of people. What is more, there are powerful lobbies, such as the oil, coal and steel industries, which want to slow any transition away from fossil fuels – and many governments of oil producing countries which gain substantial revenues from oil production.
One test will come in two years’ time at the COP30 summit in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil. At that summit, countries must present new nationally determined commitments that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases and are fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit. This will require specific targets to be announced and the measures required to achieve them. Also, it is hoped that by then there will be an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and not just to ‘transition away’ from them.
Reasons for hope
Despite the unwillingness of many countries, especially the oil and coal producing countries, to phase out fossil fuels, there are reasons for hope that global warming may be halted and eventually even reversed. Damage will have been done and some tipping points may have been reached, but further tipping points may be averted.
The first reason is technological advance. Research, development and investment in zero carbon technologies is advancing rapidly. As we have seen, power generation from wind and solar is now cheaper than from fossil fuels. And this cost difference is likely to grow as technology advances further. This positive tipping point is becoming more rapid. Other technological advances in transport and industry will further the shift towards renewables and other advances will economise on the use of power.
The second is changing attitudes. With the environment being increasingly included in educational syllabuses around the world and with greater stress on the problems of climate change in the media, with frequent items in the news and with programmes such as the three series of Planet Earth, people are becoming more aware of the implications of climate change and how their actions contribute towards the problem. People are likely to put increasing pressure on businesses and governments to take action. Growing awareness of the environmental impact of their actions is also affecting people’s choices. The negative externalities are thus being reduced and may even become positive ones.
- Global Tipping Points
University of Exeter, Global Systems Institute, Timothy M. Lenton et al. (6/12/23)
- Report: Pivotal moment for humanity as tipping point threats and opportunities accelerate
- Earth is closing in on catastrophic climate ‘tipping points’, over 200 scientists warn
Independent, Vishwam Sankaran (6/12/23)
- Earth on verge of five catastrophic climate tipping points, scientists warn
The Guardian, Ajit Niranjan (6/12/23)
- Cop28: King Charles warns of ‘vast, frightening experiment’ on natural world
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey, Nina Lakhani, Aletha Adu, Damian Carrington, Patrick Greenfield and Oliver Milman (1/12/23)
- UK likely to miss Paris climate targets by wide margin, analysis shows
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (5/12/23)
- Water and the High Price of Bad Economics
Project Syndicate, Mariana Mazzucato , Partha Dasgupta, Nicholas Stern, and Johan Rockström (1/12/23)
- Fossil fuels: Can humanity really kick its addiction?
BBC News, Justin Rowlatt (10/12/23)
- Five climate change solutions under the spotlight at COP28
BBC News, Mark Poynting (6/12/23)
- COP28: Five reasons for optimism on climate
BBC News, Matt McGrath (8/12/23)
- COP28 Agreement Signals “Beginning of the End” of the Fossil Fuel Era
UN Climate Press Release (13/12/23)
- COP28 climate summit ends with deal to transition away from fossil fuels
CNBC, Ruxandra Iordache and Sam Meredith (13/12/23)
- Cop28 landmark deal agreed to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels
The Guardian, Adam Morton, Fiona Harvey and Patrick Greenfield (13/12/23)
- COP28 draft agreement drops phaseout of fossil fuels
Financial Times, Attracta Mooney, Aime Williams and Alice Hancock (13/12/23)
- Examining COP28’s potential impact on climate change
BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/23)
- Cop28 failed to halt fossil fuels’ deadly expansion plans – so what now?
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (14/12/23)
- The momentum of the solar energy transition
Nature Communications, Femke Nijsse, Jean-Francois Mercure, Nadia Ameli, Francesca Larosa, Sumit Kothari, Jamie Rickman, Pim Vercoulen and Hector Pollitt (17/10/23)
- COP28: Bill Gates on climate optimism, wealth and the human condition
BBC News on YouTube, Bill Gates (2/12/23)
- From the Paris agreement to COP28, how oil and gas giants try to influence the global climate agenda
The Conversation, Alain Naef (8/12/23)
- COP28: Phasedown or Phaseout, Fossil Fuels Must be Addressed to Meet 1.5C Goal
Forbes, Felicia Jackson (5/12/23)
- Use a diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in production on the level of output and how this differs from the optimum level.
- Use another diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in consumption on the level of consumption and how this differs from the optimum level.
- What was agreed at COP28?
- What incentives were included in the agreement to ensure countries stick to the agreement? Were they likely to be sufficient?
- What can governments do to encourage positive environmental tipping points?
- How may carbon taxes be used to tackle global warming? Are they an efficient policy instrument?
- What can be done to change people’s attitudes towards their own carbon emissions?
The global average temperature for July 2023 was the highest ever recorded and July 3rd was the world’s hottest day on record. We’ve seen scenes of wildfires raging across much of southern Europe, people suffering searing temperatures in south-west USA, southern India and western China, flash floods in South Korea, Japan and eastern USA. These are all directly related to global warming, which is causing weather systems to become more extreme. And as the planet continues to warm, so these problems will intensify.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, in a press conference on 27 July warned that:
Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable. The heat is unbearable. And the level of fossil-fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy. No more excuses. No more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.
The environmental, human, social and economic impact of global warming is huge, but concentrated on just part of the world’s population. For many, a more variable climate is at worst an inconvenience – at least in the short term. But it is the short term that politicians are most concerned about when seeking to win the next election.
Tackling climate change requires action to reduce carbon emissions now, even though the effects take many years. But one person’s emissions make only a minuscule contribution to global warming. So why not be selfish and carry on driving, flying off on holiday, using a gas boiler and eating large amounts of red meat? This is what many people want to do and governments know it. Many people do not like green policies as they involve sacrifice. Examples include higher fuel prices and restrictions on what you can do. So, despite the visions of fires, floods and destruction, governments are wary about raising fuel taxes, airport duties and charges to use old high-emission cars in cities; wary about raising taxes generally to provide subsidies for sustainable power generation; wary about banning new oil and gas fields that would reduce reliance on imported fuel.
Because the external costs of carbon emissions are so high and global, government action is required to change behaviour. Education can help and scenes of devastation from around the world may change the hearts and minds or some people. Also, the prospect of profits from cleaner and more fuel-efficient technology can help to spur innovation and investment. But to meet net zero targets still requires policies that are unpopular with many people who might be inconvenienced or have to pay higher petrol, energy and food prices, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed by inflation.
Part of the problem is a distributional one. The people most affected by the cost-of-living crisis and higher interest rates are those on lower incomes and with higher debts. Politicians know that it will be hard to win the votes of such people if they are faced with higher green taxes. As elections approach, politicians are likely to backtrack on many environmental commitments to appeal to such people.
This is beginning to happen in the UK, with the government declaring that it is on the side of the motorist. Indeed, Rishi Sunak has just announced that the government will authorise more than 100 new licenses for new oil and gas wells in the North Sea. This is despite the United Nations, various other international bodies, climate scientists and charities calling for a halt to all licensing and funding of new oil and gas development from new and existing fields. The government argues that increased North Sea production would reduce the reliance on imported oil.
- July 2023 the Hottest Ever Month on Record, Likely Warmest in ‘Tens of Thousands of Years’
The Wire, Aathira Perinchery (28/7/23)
- Climate threat ‘existential’ says Biden, as world faces hottest July
BBC News, Heather Sharp and Emma Owen (27/7/23)
- UN chief says Earth in ‘era of global boiling’, calls for radical action
- Why it’s time to prepare for the worst on climate change
Financial Times, Robert Pindyck (6/7/23)
- The planet heats, the world economy cools – the real global recession is ecological
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/7/23)
- Climate change will reshape global supply chains — it can reduce welfare on Earth by 20%: Ivan Rudick
The Economic Times (India), Srijana Mitra Das (30/6/23)
- Rishi Sunak defends granting new North Sea oil and gas licences
BBC News (31/7/23)
- The oil industry has succumbed to a dangerous new climate denialism
The Conversation, Adi Imsirovic (31/7/23)
- Dismay as Rishi Sunak vows to ‘max out’ UK fossil fuel reserves
The Guardian, Severin Carrell, Peter Walker and Helena Horton (31/7/23)
- What are the Conservatives’ green policies – and what could be scrapped
Sky News, Jennifer Scott (31/7/23)
- Rishi Sunak signals he is ready to soften UK green policies
Financial Times, George Parker and Lucy Fisher (24/7/23)
- Green campaigners fear UK policy backlash after ULEZ keeps Uxbridge Tory
Politico, Charlie Cooper and Bethany Dawson (23/7/23)
- Climate policy and economic inequality
VoxEU, Diego Känzig (25/6/23)
- The untapped potential of education in the battle against climate change
VoxEU, Noam Angrist, Kevin Winseck, Harry Anthony Patrinos and Joshua Graff Zivin (14/7/23)
- In what sense is the environment a ‘public good’? How is the concept of externalities relevant in analysing the private decisions made about the use of a public good?
- How may game theory be used to help understand the difficulties in reaching international agreement about climate change policies?
- What is meant by ‘net zero’? Is carbon capture and storage an acceptable alternative to cutting carbon emissions?
- In what ways could policies to tackle climate change be designed to reduce income inequality rather than increase it?
- What are the arguments for and against banning (a) petrol and diesel cars; (b) gas boilers; (c) fossil-fuel power stations? How much notice should be given if such bans are to be introduced?
- What is meant by ‘nudge theory’? In what ways could people be nudged into making greener decisions?
- What are the arguments for and against granting new licences for North Sea oil and gas drilling? Explain where you feel the balance of the arguments lies.
The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published its most comprehensive report so far. It finds that ‘human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming’. This has led to widespread and rapid changes in climate and biodiversity and to more extreme weather patterns, such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. What is more, the distribution of these effects is uneven, with communities who have contributed the least to current climate change being disproportionately affected.
At the 2015 COP21 climate change conference in Paris (see also), it was agreed to adopt policies to limit the increase in global temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to make an effort to limit it to 1.5°C. Global temperatures have already risen 1.1°C above 1850–1900 levels and are set to reach 1.5°C in the early 2030s. Every increment of global warming will intensify ‘multiple and concurrent hazards’.
Deep, rapid and sustained reductions in emissions would slow down the rise in global temperatures, but even with such reductions, temperatures will still exceed 1.5°C in the next few years and, even under the best-case scenario, would not fall below 1.5°C again until the end of the 21st century. Under more pessimistic scenarios, global temperatures could rise to 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century under an intermediate greenhouse gas emissions scenario and to 4.4°C under a very high emissions scenario. Anything above 2°C would be likely to have catastrophic effects. The longer countries wait to take action, the greater the rise in global temperatures and hence the greater the damage and the more costly it will be to rectify it.
‘For any given future warming level… projected long-term impacts are up to multiple times higher than currently observed (high confidence). Risks and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change escalate with every increment of global warming (very high confidence). Climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, creating compound and cascading risks that are more complex and difficult to manage (high confidence).’ (Paragraph B2)
But the report is not all ‘doom and gloom’. It is possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C or only a little over by making rapid, deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors and reaching net zero emissions in the early 2050s. Science and technology have the answers – answers that are now much cheaper and more available than back in 2015 when the 1.5°C target was agreed. But what it does require is doing ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’. And that requires political will and the right economic incentives.
The politics and economics of achieving net zero
In terms of the politics, there is general global agreement by governments about the likely effects of climate change. And most governments agree that action needs to be taken. However, there are three key political problems.
The first is that the costs of action will be borne now, while the benefits of action will accrue over a much longer period of time. This links to the second problem – the mismatch between the lives of governments and the long-term effects of climate change. If governments put off doing anything now and merely promise that something will be done in the future, they will not have to take unpopular actions, such as raising taxes on energy, private transport and certain goods or banning various activities. Future governments will have to sort things out, by when, although the problems will be greater, the existing politicians will no longer be in power.
The third problem concerns the distribution of the costs and benefits of action. The major emitters of carbon are the rich countries, while the major sufferers are poor people in countries subject to drought, flooding and rising sea levels. Not surprisingly, who should cut down on emissions and pay for the mitigation necessary in many of the poorer countries is a difficult political issue, which is why it’s much easier to say what needs to be achieved overall than precisely what measures should be taken by which countries.
These problems reflect the fact that many, if not most, of the environmental costs of production and consumption are external costs – costs borne, not by the direct producer or consumer, but by other people at other places and/or in the future.
Nevertheless, the relative costs of moving to greener production and consumption are falling. The costs of renewable energy, including solar power, onshore and offshore wind and hydroelectric power are falling relative to that generated from fossil fuels. At the same time, the take up of electric cars is likely to continue rising as battery technology improves. This does, of course, require an increase in charging infrastructure. Domestic heat pump technology is improving and home insulation methods are becoming more efficient.
Persuading consumers and firms to take account of environmental externalities could in part be achieved by education. It makes it much easier for politicians to take appropriate action now if their populations are on board. There has been increasing awareness over the years of the environmental impact of people’s actions. People have become more willing to take responsibility for the world that future generations will inherit. This is helped both by education in schools and colleges and by frequent items in the media.
But incentives also have a major part to play. To internalise environmental externalities, external costs could be taxed and external benefits subsidised.
The effect of a carbon tax on production
The use of taxes to reduce activities with negative environmental externalities is illustrated in the diagram (click here for a PowerPoint). It takes the case of carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in a large country. To keep the analysis simple, it is assumed that all electricity in the country is generated from coal-fired power stations and that there are many such power stations, making the market perfectly competitive.
It is assumed that all the benefits from electricity production accrue solely to the consumers of electricity (i.e. there are no external benefits from consumption). Marginal private and marginal social benefits of the production of electricity are thus the same (MPB = MSB). The curve slopes downwards because, with a downward-sloping demand for electricity, higher output results in a lower marginal benefit (diminishing marginal utility).
Competitive market forces, with producers and consumers responding only to private costs and benefits, will result in a market equilibrium at point a in the diagram: i.e. where demand equals supply. The market equilibrium price is P0 while the market equilibrium quantity is Q0. However the presence of external costs in production means that MSC > MPC. In other words, MEC = b – a.
The socially optimal output would be Q* where P = MSB = MSC, achieved at the socially optimal price of P*. This is illustrated at point d and clearly shows how external costs of production in a perfectly competitive market result in overproduction: i.e. Q0 > Q*. From society’s point of view, too much electricity is being produced and consumed.
If a carbon tax of d – c is imposed on the electricity producers, it will now be in producers’ interests to produce at Q*, where their new private marginal costs (including tax) equals their marginal private benefit.
But this brings us back to the politics of measures to reduce emissions. People do not like paying higher taxes. In his latest Budget, the UK Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, decided not to raise fuel duties by the 12p that had been previously planned, despite fuel prices having recently fallen. Meanwhile, charging prices for electric cars have risen.
Other economic measures
A simpler method for dealing with environmental externalities is ban certain activities that omit CO2. For example, in the UK there will be a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030 (with the exception of some low-emission hybrids until 2035). In the EU there will be a similar ban from 2035. Clearly, such measures are only suitable when there are non-emitting alternatives.
Another alternative is a cap-and-trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme. It involves setting quotas for emissions and allowing firms which manage to cut emissions to sell their surplus permits to less efficient firms. This puts a price pressure on firms to be more efficient. But the quotas (the ‘cap’) must be sufficiently tight if emissions are going to be cut to desired levels. Nevertheless, it is an efficient way of cutting emissions as it gives a competitive advantage to low-emission producers.
If the problem of global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C, or only very little above, multiple solutions will need to be found and there must be a combination of political will, economic incentives and the mobilisation of scientific and technical know-how. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, stated in launching the new report:
This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once.
- Climate damage is worsening faster than expected, but there’s still reason for optimism – 4 essential reads on the IPCC report
The Conversation, Stacy Morford at al (20/3/23)
- UN climate scientists are running out of ways to warn us
Vox, Rebecca Leber and Umair Irfan (20/3/23)
- Expert reaction to the AR6 synthesis report, as published by the IPCC
Science Media Centre (20/3/23)
- ‘The climate time-bomb is ticking’: The world is running out of time to avoid catastrophe, new UN report warns
CNN, Laura Paddison (20/3/23)
- UN climate report: Scientists release ‘survival guide’ to avert climate disaster
BBC News, Matt McGrath and Georgina Rannard (20/3/23)
- Five things we’ve learned from UN climate report
BBC News, Matt McGrath (20/3/23)
- Climate change: Can we really take CO2 back out the air?
BBC Future, Jocelyn Timperley (21/3/23)
- Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (20/3/23)
- From climate change ‘certainty’ to rapid decline: a timeline of IPCC reports
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (20/3/23)
- Humanity at the climate crossroads: highway to hell or a livable future?
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (20/3/23)
- IPCC report: Here’s how we can defuse the ‘ticking time bomb’ of climate change
Euronews, Rosie Frost (21/3/23)
- Now or never: One of the biggest climate reports ever shows time is running out
NBC News, Evan Bush and Denise Chow (20/3/23)
- Why might countries not do ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’ to avert climate change?
- What might an optimist conclude from the ICC report?
- To what extent is climate change an economic problem?
- On a diagram similar to the one above, show how a subsidy could be used to internalise positive externalities.
- How might countries reduce the consumption of fossil fuels in the most efficient way? Are they likely to want to do this? Explain.
- Is a ‘cap-and-trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
The Climate Change Pact agreed by leaders at the end of COP26 in Glasgow went further than many pessimists had forecast, but not far enough to meet the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Pact states that:
limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.
So how far would the commitments made in Glasgow restrict global warming and what actions need to be put in place to meet these commitments?
Short-term commitments and long-term goals
According to Climate Action Tracker, the short-term commitments to action that countries set out would cause global warming of 2.4°C by the end of the century, the effects of which would be calamitous in terms of rising sea levels and extreme weather.
However, long-term commitments to goals, as opposed to specific actions, if turned into specific actions to meet the goals would restrict warming to around 1.8°C by the end of the century. These long-term goals include reaching net zero emissions by certain dates. For the majority of the 136 countries agreeing to reach net zero, the date they set was 2050, but for some developing countries, it was later. China, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, for example, set a date of 2060 and India of 2070. Some countries set an earlier target and others, such as Benin, Bhutan, Cambodia, Guyana, Liberia and Madagascar, claimed they had already reached zero net emissions.
Despite these target dates, Climate Action Tracker argues that only 6 per cent of countries pledging net zero have robust policies in place to meet the targets. The problem is that actions are required by firms and individuals. They must cut their direct emissions and reduce the consumption of products whose production involved emissions.
Governments can incentivise individuals and firms through emissions and product taxes, through carbon pricing, through cap-and-trade schemes, through subsidies on green investment, production and consumption, through legal limits on emissions, through trying to change behaviour by education campaigns, and so on. In each case, the extent to which individuals and firms will respond is hard to predict. People may want to reduce global warming and yet be reluctant to change their own behaviour, seeing themselves as too insignificant to make any difference and blaming big business, governments or rich individuals. It is important, therefore, for governments to get incentive mechanisms right to achieve the stated targets.
Let us turn to some specific targets specified in the Climate Change Pact.
Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
Paragraph 20 of the Climate Change Pact
Calls upon Parties to accelerate … efforts towards the … phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.
Production subsidies include tax breaks or direct payments that reduce the cost of producing coal, oil or gas. Consumption subsidies cut fuel prices for the end user, such as by fixing the price at the petrol pump below the market rate. They are often justified as a way of making energy cheaper for poorer people. In fact, they provide a bigger benefit to wealthier people, who are larger users of energy. A more efficient way of helping the poor would be through benefits or general tax relief. Removing consumption subsidies in 32 countries alone would, according to International Institute for Sustainable Development, cut greenhouse gas emission by an average of 6 per cent by 2025.
The chart shows the 15 countries providing the largest amount of support to fossil fuel industries in 2020 (in 2021 prices). The bars are in billions of dollars and the percentage of GDP is also given for each country. Subsidies include both production and consumption subsidies. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In addition to the direct subsidies shown in the chart, there are the indirect costs of subsidies, including pollution, environmental destruction and the impact on the climate. According to the IMF, these amounted to $5.4 trillion in 2020.
But getting countries to agree on a path to cutting subsidies, when conditions vary enormously from one country to another, proved very difficult.
The first draft of the conference agreement called for countries to ‘to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels’. But, after objections from major coal producing countries, such as China, India and Australia, this was weakened to calling on countries to accelerate the shift to clean energy systems ‘by scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. (‘Unabated’ coal power refers to power generation with no carbon capture.) Changing ‘phasing-out’ to ‘the phasedown’ caused consternation among many delegates who saw this as a substantial weakening of the drive to end the use of coal.
Another problem is in defining ‘inefficient’ subsidies. Countries are likely to define them in a way that suits them.
The key question was the extent to which countries would actually adopt such measures and what the details would be. Would they be strong enough? This remained to be seen.
As an article in the journal, Nature, points out:
There are three main barriers to removing production subsidies … First, fossil-fuel companies are powerful political groups. Second, there are legitimate concerns about job losses in communities that have few alternative employment options. And third, people often worry that rising energy prices might depress economic growth or trigger inflation.
The other question with the phasing out of subsidies is how and how much would there be ‘targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances’.
Financial support for developing countries
Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and investing in measures to protect people from rising sea levels, floods, droughts, fires, etc. costs money. With many developing countries facing serious financial problems, especially in the light of measures to support their economies and healthcare systems to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, support is needed from the developed world.
In the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, developed countries pledged $100 billion by 2020 to support mitigation of and adaptation to the effects of climate change by developing countries. But the target was not reached. The COP26 Pact urged ‘developed country Parties to fully deliver on the $100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025’. It also emphasised the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges. The proposal was also discussed to set up a trillion dollar per year fund from 2025, but no agreement was reached.
It remains to be seen just how much support will be given.
Then there was the question of compensating developing countries for the loss and damage which has already resulted from climate change. Large historical polluters, such as the USA, the UK and various EU countries, were unwilling to agree to a compensation mechanism, fearing that any recognition of culpability could make them open to lawsuits and demands for financial compensation.
- More than 100 countries at the meeting agreed to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Methane is a more powerful but shorter-living greenhouse gas than carbon. It is responsible for about a third of all human-generated global warming. China, India and Russia, however, did not sign up.
- Again, more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. These countries include Indonesia and Brazil, which has been heavily criticised for allowing large parts of the Amazon rainforest to be cleared for farming, such that the Amazon region in recent years has been a net emitter of carbon from the felling and burning of trees. The pledge has been met with considerable cynicism, however, as it unclear how it will be policed. Much of the deforestation around the world is already illegal but goes ahead anyway.
- A mechanism for trading carbon credits was agreed. This allows countries which plant forests or build wind farms to earn credits. However, it may simply provide a mechanism for rich countries and businesses to keep emitting as usual by buying credits.
- Forty-five countries pledged to invest in green agricultural practices to make farming more sustainable.
- Twenty-two countries signed a declaration to create zero-emission maritime shipping routes.
- The USA and China signed a joint declaration promising to boost co-operation over the next decade on various climate actions, including reducing methane emissions, tackling deforestation and regulating decarbonisation.
Blah, blah, blah or real action?
Many of the decisions merely represent targets. What is essential is for countries clearly to spell out the mechanisms they will use for achieving them. So far there is too little detail. It was agreed, therefore, to reconvene in a year’s time at COP27 in Egypt. Countries will be expected to spell out in detail what actions they are taking to meet their emissions targets and other targets such as ending deforestation and reducing coal-fired generation.
- COP26 ended with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Here’s where it succeeded and failed
CNN, Angela Dewan and Amy Cassidy (14/11/21)
- Good COP, Bad COP: Separating heat from light at the climate summit
Ing, Samuel Abettan, Gerben Hieminga and Coco Zhang (15/11/21)
- COP26: What was agreed at the Glasgow climate conference?
BBC News (15/11/21)
- Five Things You Need to Know About The New Glasgow Climate Pact
The Conversation, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (13/11/21)
- Infographic: What has your country pledged at COP26?
Aljazeera, Hanna Duggal (14/11/21)
- Cop26: world on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C, says key report
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (9/11/21)
- Cop26 took us one step closer to combating the climate crisis
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (15/11/21)
- After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival
The Guardian, George Monbiot (14/11/21)
- Why fossil fuel subsidies are so hard to kill
Nature, Jocelyn Timperley (20/10/21)
- The COP26 blah blah blah detector
Rappler, Elpidio Peria (16/11/21)
- What were the main achievements of COP26?
- What were the main failings of COP26?
- How can people be incentivised to reduce their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions?
- How is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties in achieving global net zero emissions?
- Should developing countries be required to give up coal power?
- If the world is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, should all countries achieve net zero or should some countries achieve net negative emissions to allow others to continue with net positive emissions (albeit at a lower level)?
The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.
In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.
The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.
In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.
These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.
New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.
New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.
Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.
A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.
- What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
- What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
- How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
- Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
- How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
- How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
- What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?