Many innovations — and a lack of strategies

By Peter Niggli 14 December 2015

A sugar factory emits smoke in United Kingdom. Substantial decarbonization of industrial processes and transport needs to happen to achieve the target of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. Photo by: Andrew Stawarz / CC BY-ND

To achieve the target of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, countries and blocs of nations like the European Union should pursue three strategic thrusts. First, complete decarbonization of electricity generation as well as of the heating and cooling of buildings. Secondly, a substantial decarbonisation of industrial processes and transport. And lastly a greening of agriculture, forestry and landscape management. This third thrust not only reduces emissions, but also helps adaptation to climate change.

There are a plethora of innovations and new technologies that support these three thrusts. Many of them are now widely used, most often in electricity generation. In 2013 investments in renewable energies exceeded that in coal, oil or gas-fired plants. According to Bloomberg, in 2014 emerging economies for the first time, surpassed the members of the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development in the installed capacity for renewable energy.

In other industries, progress is much more modest, in spite of various Clean-Tech programs. The reduction of emissions by the Western world has been due to the massive relocation of heavy industries from OECD countries to emerging markets, especially to China. The transportation sector lags far behind — improvements in energy efficiency of engines is far from compensating the rapid growth of motorized transport.

And finally, in agriculture the advances in modern organic and biological farming are negated by expansion of chemical intensive and mechanized agriculture by large companies and agribusiness corporations. This process is subsidised and incentivised by the state.

After 20 years of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change we would have expected more. Concrete actions are now not only urgent, but also more demanding than in 1994, when the conference entered into force.

Five points will be of particular importance:

1. Industrial and emerging economies must devise strategies on how to decarbonise their economies and how to transform to climate-friendly agriculture until 2050. These strategies need to define time-bound milestones and intermediate steps. Such strategies have so far been rare and have often been created only for limited sectoral objectives.

2. Decarbonization road maps would make people aware that technological innovations are not sufficient to achieve the objectives. It also needs social, systemic innovations. For example, in regards to transport or in agriculture. If countries have to decarbonize a transportation system which is based on individual traffic, it requires the massive expansion of public transport as well as a settlement plan which brings housing and jobs spatially closer again, instead of tearing them apart.

3. Mitigation of climate change that limits global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, which is a level at which the risks can still be managed, requires a high degree of cooperation and mobilization of all forces, historically only achieved by states in times of war. This is the scale of action and cooperation our research and national policies must promote for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Without public coordination and funding it cannot be achieved, and only with it private sector innovation can be fostered. Public policies and investments are essential for the scale of action that is needed.

4. At present, developed countries intend to create incentives that foster innovations and climate-friendly investments by the private sector by gradually increasing the price of fossil fuels. In practice, however, this has failed in many countries due to resistance from the private sector, or such policies have been watered down so much that the intended effect did not occur, for instance in the EU.

Several voices therefore, encourage that governments try other mechanisms. For example, a combination of successively more stringent emission limits and public funding for research and climate-friendly investments — meaning cap and invest instead of cap and trade. Or decarbonisation goals for industries that are oligopolistic in structure — for example steel or car production, just as it was done for the Montreal Protocol which successfully curbed the depletion of the ozone layer. Politically, however, such alternative mechanisms are likely to encounter considerable resistance.

5. When the global climate policy discussions started, there were two understandings of global justice. First, the recognition that the industrialized countries must make special efforts in terms of climate protection, for historical reasons and because of their technological and financial capacities. And second, that these countries must help the poorer developing countries in their efforts towards mitigation and adaptation to climate change, by finance and by generous technology transfer. This should have been in addition to development aid.

That is what is written in the UNFCCC, but it remained purely theoretical. Today, as all countries, including the poor ones, make commitments for climate change targets in the Treaty of Paris, the industrialized countries no longer come forward to finally move from policy to practice. Many developing countries can base the expansion of their energy supply and industrial production on new climate-friendly technologies, can transform their agriculture and forestry as well as their management of soil and water resources. However to do so they need support. Developed countries have promised $100 billion dollars per year from 2020 onwards, but have so far provided only small amounts that are mostly at the expense of official development assistance.

As I write this text, industrialized countries still reject a clear financial commitment in the Treaty of Paris. Development practitioners and development organizations need not only advocate for such a commitment but also for its useful financing. The best would be a source-related burden on fossil fuels in the industrialised countries: thereby the $100 billion would lead to a double climate effect — triggering mitigation in industrialized countries and supporting adaptation and mitigation in poor countries.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

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Peter Niggli

From 1998-2015, Peter Niggli was director of Alliance Sud, the leading development policy lobby organization in Switzerland and has since become a member of the Board of Directors of HELVETAS.

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