Climate Action at the Crossroads: Winning the Battle of Wills

Contractors work on installing Europe's largest array of floating solar panels. Walton-on-Thames, United Kingdom, June 21, 2016. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

World leaders, scientists, academics, and millions of others welcomed last year’s Paris Agreement on fighting climate change. The fact that 179 states have already signed the agreement is significant and there is now a concerted effort to obtain the necessary ratification by 55 parties, representing at least 55% of global carbon emissions. There is, however, no escaping the fact that achieving the goals set out in Paris will require politicians and the private sector to drastically transform the global economy, particularly the carbon-intensive energy sector.

Compounding this is an imperative to manage the transformation of the complex interdependencies established between fossil fuels and economic development, as well as peace and security, since the Industrial Revolution. Without proper vigilance, negative economic, social, and other outcomes of abandoning fossil fuels will empower those who favor the status quo. The ability to summon the political will to achieve the Paris agenda ultimately depends on remaining focused on the end goal: not only a stable climate, but also new and more effective global pathways to peace and prosperity.

A Necessary Revolution

As Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs explains, governments have “never before attempted to remake a core sector of the world economy on a global scale with such an aggressive timeline,” as under the terms of the Paris Agreement. Yet many countries are yet to fully absorb the task at hand and continue to invest in discovering and developing new fossil fuel reserves. This is despite the fact that using just one third of existing carbon-emitting resources will be enough for the global temperature rise to exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

The 1.5C figure is one of two major targets arising from Paris; the second is achieving zero net emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at some point between 2050 and 2100. While this seems to provide a lot of time and leeway for interpretation, the options are much more limited if the two goals are combined. To have an acceptable chance of staying below 1.5C, countries need to begin phasing out carbon emissions well before the middle of the century, achieve net zero emissions from all greenhouse gases no later than 2070, and move toward negative emissions thereafter.

The consequences of not achieving these targets are now well-established and include intense and sustained bleaching of coral reefs worldwide, the destruction of approximately two-thirds of plant and animal habitats, and a reduction in yields of important food crops. More people will be exposed to flooding and drought, and some—inhabitants of small island nations like Tuvalu and other coastal communities, for example—will be forced to migrate after a few feet of sea-level increase. It is a certainty that these adverse effects will arrive if the 1.5C mark is missed, and they will continue to increase with the temperature.

While the need to avoid this scenario seems beyond debate, vested economic interests can be expected to frustrate progress. Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has already warned that governments are off track to achieve the Paris goals, just a matter of months after the agreement. No doubt contributing to this are claims from many fossil fuel proponents that continued development of coal, petroleum, and other resources is the only means of lifting millions more people out of poverty in areas such as Africa and Asia.

In reality, economic arguments against the necessary carbon-free revolution make increasingly less sense when politics are taken out of the equation. The IEA, once again, has reported that annual global carbon emissions remained at about 32.1 billion metric tonnes from 2013 to 2015, while the global economy grew about 3% in the same time. Those arguments are further tested by the huge subsidies still paid to fossil fuel development in many areas and the massive but often uncounted costs of what economists refer to as “negative externalities,” including climate change mitigation efforts, as well as the price of rehabilitating—or failing to rehabilitate—depleted resource extraction sites.

The notion of an uncoupling of rising economic growth from carbon must therefore be developed and widely promoted. Also agreed last year, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the ideal avenue for doing so. A specific goal focused on sustainable energy development and another on climate change constitute a strong policy framework to guide international and national action towards the overhaul needed. If the SDGs are implemented together with the pledges made in Paris, financial investments should increasingly move toward the renewable energy sector.

Even if the battle for public acceptance around uncoupling economic growth from carbon can be won, another looms in the area of peace and security, where the recent oil price collapse has revealed the dangers of what a broader transition to a carbon-free world might look like. Oil-dependent Venezuela, for example, is currently facing economic collapse. Saudi Arabia has also seen vastly diminished revenues and a rise in associated social tensions. It ran a budget deficit of $98 billion in 2015, forcing curbs on its populist spending and subsidization programs. Riyadh’s response has been to unveil an ambitious plan to end its economic dependence on petroleum within the next decade.

The United Arab Emirates is one country at the forefront of moving away from fossil fuels and appears to be managing the political and social risks, while reaping the economic benefits. On June 27 this year, the UAE announced plans for an 800-megawatt solar plant in Dubai, with a quoted electricity cost of 2.99 cents a kilowatt hour—a metric that current coal-fired plants can’t come close to matching. The continued drop in solar energy costs provides another sign that the 100% renewable energy vision is possible.

As with sustainable development, the flipside of potential risks to peace and security is the diminishment and eventual dissolution of links between fossil fuels and conflict and instability. For one, the so-called “resource curse,” which is often observed to imbue countries rich in natural resources with poor governance—as well as a more belligerent foreign policy—may be broken. Here, more localized networks of energy generation may be an asset: as well as less corruptible by foreign interests, their renewable nature could enhance self-sufficiency and preclude resource competition. This would build on the fact that mitigating climate change’s effects could in and of itself remove a “threat multiplier” for conflict, as has been increasingly recognized by the United States military, and academic investigations of crises such as the one in Syria.

Peace and Prosperity After Paris

Despite the persistence of skepticism around the possibility of meeting the Paris goals, the impact of climate change if carbon emissions are not limited is widely known. Because widespread ecosystem collapse will have a devastating effect on human development, and likely also peace and security, an energy revolution must proceed regardless of risks during the transition period. The achievement of the SDGs, meanwhile, will only be possible if the process is planned and implemented jointly with the Paris objectives.

The political battle ahead will not be an easy one, and even minor disruptions associated with the changes to come will be open to exploitation. Ensuring progress will therefore require considerable and near constant vigilance from the public and private sectors, international institutions, academics, and policymakers. Letting go of fossil fuels might be difficult in the short term, but is vital in the long term. If managed well, it could not only solve the problem of climate change, but ensure a peaceful world with abundant economic opportunity for all.

James Bowen is Editor of the Global Observatory, Jimena Leiva Roesch is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute, and Wael Hmaidan is Director of the Climate Action Network.