As the new year begins, it may seem hard not to be pessimistic about the global battle to manage the huge risks of climate change, a defining challenge of this century.
The most recent UN climate change summit in Doha made only modest progress. In addition to confirming a second commitment phase of the Kyoto protocol, now based mostly on action by the EU only, it set work programmes ahead of the 2015 summit at which a global deal will be attempted for a post-2020 framework with a unified legal structure.
Doha made crystal clear that the pace of international action is not consistent with the scale and urgency of the challenge the world faces. Evidence mounts that our planet is heating up, and prospects of us preventing dangerous climate change, which all countries have agreed should be avoided by limiting warming to no more than 2C, seem to be receding by the day. Indeed, current projections may imply possible warming of 4C or more to temperatures that probably have not been seen on Earth for tens of millions of years, with consequences that could be catastrophic.
Given this backdrop, it is not hard to see why there is so much pessimism. However, far from this being the hopeless situation some assert, we believe that we may be reaching a point when the tide could decisively turn.
Why the reason for retaining optimism amid so much apparent gloom? If one takes a step back and examines what is happening at national and provincial levels, a wholly different picture is emerging.
In contrast to the pace of international negotiations, domestic laws to address climate change are being passed at an increasing rate. In the past year alone, as described in a new report published on January 14 by Globe International and the Grantham Research Institute, 32 of 33 surveyed countries have introduced or are progressing significant climate or related legislation and regulation.
This is nothing less than a “game-changing” development, taking place across all major continents. Cumulatively, it represents a crucial and vastly under-appreciated change.
For example, China passed its first sub-national legislation last year in order to control greenhouse gases in Shenzhen and is developing a national climate change law. Moreover, Mexico passed a ground-breaking General Law on Climate Change, legislating for a quantified emissions reduction target of 30 per cent below “business as usual” by 2020.
Meanwhile, South Korea passed legislation to begin a nationwide emissions trading scheme by 2015; Bangladesh passed the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority Act; and Kenya approved its climate change national action plan and its parliament is debating the climate change authority bill. Other important advances have been made by Ethiopia and South Africa and embodied in their medium-term planning frameworks.
One key finding of the report is that developing countries, which will provide the motor of global economic growth in coming decades, are leading this drive. Many, including China, are concluding it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by embracing low-carbon growth and development, and to better prepare for the impact of climate change.
They see that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels. Reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness. Improving resilience to the impacts of climate change also makes sound economic sense.
Many governments and companies have recognised that a green race has started, and they are determined to compete. They also recognise that, over time, those that produce in “dirty” ways will be increasingly likely to face “border adjustment mechanisms” which take account of the subsidy associated with their taking advantage of any unpriced pollution.
While progress has generally been slower among the richer nations, some are showing leadership, such as the UK through its 2008 Climate Change Act. In the US, existing environmental regulations are being used to tackle climate change, and states are moving more quickly, such as California, where trading started this month in its new carbon market.
It follows, therefore, that advancing domestic legislation on climate change, and experiencing the co-benefits of reducing emissions, is a crucial building block to help create the political conditions to enable a comprehensive, global climate agreement to be reached. Domestic laws give clear signals about direction of policy, increasing confidence and reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector which can drive low-carbon economic growth.
With negotiations on a post-2020 global deal scheduled to conclude in 2015, it is very unlikely that an agreement, with the necessary ambition, will be reached unless more of these domestic frameworks are in place in key countries. Sound domestic actions enhance the prospects of international action, and better international prospects enhance domestic actions.
The clear implication is that more emphasis should be placed on bilateral and regional activities to encourage the advance of domestic legislation between now and 2015. That means greater engagement, primarily, between legislators and parliaments, a constituency that has long received too little attention within the environment and sustainable development agenda.
Taken overall, despite the recent slow pace of the international response to climate change, we are therefore encouraged by the domestic action being taken, particularly by developing countries. To be sure, this is just a beginning and much remains to be done. But there are grounds for real optimism if momentum for action to tackle climate change at the national level continues to build ahead of a strong international agreement in 2015.
Lord Stern of Brentford is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and I.G. Patel Professor of Economics and Government at London School of Economics and Political Science, and was formerly chief economist at the World Bank. This article was co-written with Lord Deben (John Gummer), who is president of the Global Legislators’ Organisation (Globe International), a former UK secretary of state for the environment and chairman of the UK’s statutory committee on climate change.