Saturday, September 3, 2016


The BBC reports today that both the US and China - together responsible for 40% of the world's carbon emissions - have now ratified the Paris global climate agreement.  Members of China's National People's Congress Standing Committee adopted "the proposal to review and ratify the Paris Agreement" on Saturday morning at the end of a week-long session.

The US has long been regarded as in thrall to the fossil fuel industry lobbyists, and Trump and the Republican party platform aim to “forbid” the regulation of carbon pollution and “reject” global efforts to tackle climate change. Trump wants to “scrap” environmental regulations and “cancel” the Paris Agreement.[1] And Republicans may well mount further legal challenges to ratification. However this climate denial is now clearly at odds with public opinion in the swing states that will decide the outcome of the election. In Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, at least 75 percent of surveyed adults support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Over 60 percent of respondents in those same states said that global warming will harm future generations. The marked increased incidence of “once in 500 years” events has also played its part. The New York Times noted the Baton Rouge flood was the eighth once-in-500-year event to occur since May 2015.  To quote a landmark  report of the 214 National Climate Assessment: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”  All this suggests that, despite some of the wilder aspects of the Presidential campaign, a major reversal of US policy, while still a risk, is a less likely outcome.

So what might we conclude from these momentous events?

First, it is increasingly improbable that other countries enjoying or aspiring to global significance or standing will be able to hold back from ratification. The agreement comes into force legally after it is ratified by at least 55 countries, which must also account for 55% of global carbon emissions. With the US and China alone accounting for 40%, and the third largest economy in the world, that of the EU, having been a prime mover in demanding action on climate, the Paris ratification conditions will, one assumes, be met easily and soon.  However the US and Chinese announcements will also put pressure on G20 nations to move faster with ratification and, inter alia, with pledges to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels. In UK domestic politics it no longer credible to argue that UK emissions reduction will have no effect “because the biggest emitters are doing nothing”.

Second, this may be an event that finally marks the end of an era of damaging and irrelevant debate and denial over the fundamental validity of the underpinning science. The science has been very clear for a long time that persistence with high levels of CO2 and other GHG emissions is an unacceptable risk to the future of humanity. But we are now seeing, perhaps, the collapse of continuing political resistance to these inconvenient realities. That is not to say that further understanding of our climate systems may not throw up some further nasty surprises, or more positively hitherto undetected effects that go some way to mitigating the worst outcomes. But the basic features of the climate risks we are running are now an established, and essential, part of any serious policy debate. And the upward statistical trend lines on global temperature are starting to look remarkably stable. Despite a weakening el Nino, July 2016 set a new record for the highest global temperatures on record.

Third, the challenge of actually meeting the ambitions of Paris remain huge, both in the context of individual national economies and in terms of reaching binding international agreements. At some point we can expect a resumption of debates about historic responsibilities, collective or national, and more hard bargaining over who is going to meet the costs either of mitigation or of adaptation to a warming world.

Finally, and turning to some of the specific issues for the UK, it seems unlikely that that the UK’s commitment to emissions reductions will be reduced by its prospective exit from the EU.  There will be some interesting questions to address, including how the UK motor industry seeks to influence patterns of regulation and technology choice for a low carbon road transport sector in the EU. There will also be the question of continuing membership of the emissions trading scheme, and indeed the future of that scheme within the remaining EU. But some of the more important impacts may well be felt through changes in the tone of domestic economic policy within the UK. The abandonment of austerity targets is likely to change the political and economic climate for infrastructure development, with more willingness to engage in lower cost of capital public borrowing to support investment, and policies that are more friendly towards the UK’s industrial heartlands and the “left behind” voters and regions who swung the vote towards Leave. Exactly how all this will play out remains uncertain, but there is no doubt that energy policy is now being framed against some very different policy priorities, both economically and politically.

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