The politics of climate change

Are we on track to reduce emissions? No, we are not. We need a policy change. But to enact a policy change we need pressure from society. The recent rise of political parties centered around green and sustainable ideas might give a new impetus for concrete action. The youth must keep pressuring to ensure that promises will turn into concrete actions.

The journey started with the 2015 Paris Agreement. The international community became increasingly more serious about climate change only six years ago with the Paris agreement, which acted as a compass for climate action. The Paris agreement is the first ever universal and legally binding climate agreement, adopted by 196 parties in December 2015. The agreement aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Following this agreement, countries have submitted national climate action plans whose collective outcome is assessed every five years. The first evaluation convention, expected to take place in 2020, was postponed to this year due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The real impulse has however come from the youth-led movements. Governments have been slow in putting together plans and even more in making them happen. It took some years and youth-led movements to raise global awareness about the urgency of the problem. Millions of people now regularly march to demand climate action, led by Greta Thunberg, the now world-famous leader of the Fridays for Future campaign. They are putting pressure on governments to take the action that they have not been able or willing to push for in the initial years following the Agreement.

The private sector is responding with several greening initiatives. Private action has included, for instance, the reduction of emission pledged by around a thousand big companies which have annual carbon footprints larger than the emissions of France, the commitment to net zero emissions by around 400 cities, and the recognition that funding fossil fuels are a bad investment by financial companies.

Of late, the COVID-19 crisis has brought an important impulse in the EU legislation. The recovery plan decided by the European Commission in 2020 puts climate change front and centre. About 30% of the 759 billion euro EU-wide stimulus plan is expected to be spent in green investment.

Where do we stand with emissions? Still too far away from the target. A massive chasm is between where we will be in terms of greenhouse gases and where we need to be. According to the Emissions Gap Report 2020 of the United Nations, greenhouse gas emissions have kept growing at 1.3% per year on average. Chart 1 shows very clearly the limited or absent progress by the 6 largest worldwide polluters. The reduction in 2020 related to COVID-19 is negligible from a long-term perspective.

Chart 1 – Absolute greenhouse gas emissions (left) and per capita emissions (right)
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                                    Source: Emissions Gap Report 2020

Furthermore, stimulus measures carried out by governments do not correspond to pre-COVID ambitions for carbon neutrality. The Production Gap Report 2020 produced by the United Nations Environmental Programme shows that in 2020 governments committed $233 billion to activities that support fossil fuel production and consumption, contrasting the $146 billion for renewable energy and other low-emission alternatives.

Chart 2 – Public money commitments to fossil fuels, and clean and other energy, in recovery packages
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                       Source: Production Gap Report 2020

Too many contradictions in government policies. Governments’ word-deed misalignment remains pervasive. For instance, in August 2020 Germany introduced an act to reduce and end coal-powered energy by 2038, the “Coal Phase-out” Act. The law is a milestone in the journey towards a greener economy: it bans the starting of new coal-fired plans. However, there is an exception for plants that received a license to operate before January 28, 2020. This was made to allow the Datteln IV plant to start operating. The act also designates the open-pit Garzweiler II coal plant as “essential for energy purposes”, meaning that it will be allowed to operate until 2038. The act may jeopardize the achievement of the Paris Agreement commitments as it extends coal technology’s lifetime.

Change in individual lifestyles is needed, but risks being used to deflect the real causes of the problem. There is often an oversimplification of issues related to climate change, in other words framing the environmental crisis as stemming from individual lifestyle choices. Individual actions such as being vegan, reducing travelling, reducing the use of plastics, etc., are important, but they cannot stop climate change on their own given that the problem needs a change of the system as well as a different behaviour from the entire society. Pennsylvania University professor Michael Mann said that focusing on personal behavior might even give the illusion of substantial progress. However, this risks lowering support for more far-reaching and beneficial policies, such as the introduction taxes on fossil fuels, calling it a “particularly devious deflection strategy”. He argues that fossil fuel companies have followed the example of other industries deflecting blame, comparing it to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” used by gun advocates in the context of the gun control debate.

The recent rise of political parties centered around green themes gives hope. The rise of the Green Party in Europe is a testimony that climate change has taken centre stage in political debate. This phenomenon is clear in Germany and the UK, and will probably be followed by other countries.

However, youth-fueled activist groups must keep up the pressure. This is necessary as governments’ aspirational plans must be translated into concrete action without further delay, which requires constant monitoring.

Written by:

Sofia Motto (ESF–S6IT)

Edited by:

Silvia Andreoletti (ESF-S6IT)