Conceptualizing, Understanding and Addressing the Climate Change Challenge: From Theory to Policy-making

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Energy Security, n, Sustainable Development and Climate Change

By Dr. Filippos Proedrou, Vice President KEDISA
Anthropogenic climate change is underway due to the overt concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Current concentrations have just surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) and, according to the mainstream scientific position, exceeding the limit of 450ppm will mean that the rise of global temperature will surpass the threshold of 2 Calcium degrees, thus leading to sweeping damages to our global ecosystem and, subsequently, to human sustenance.
To start unpacking the issue, we have to think of three main policy-making lines of defense, namely:
a) Climate change combat, meaning reducing emissions on time to freeze them and deter the nightmarish scenario of a rise in the global temperature beyond the 2 degrees threshold
b) Mitigation of climate change, meaning scaling down greenhouse gas emissions and subsequently the pace and impact of climate change, and
c) Adaptation to changing climatic conditions, which boils down to accepting certain climatic changes for fact, mainstreaming them and organizing our societies accordingly (e.g., building up resilience against increased floods and/or water scarcity)

The difference between combat and mitigation is one of time-frame and urgency of action. The analysis that follows sets out policy priorities and tools for both the combat and mitigation of climate change; it is unreservedly stressed out, though, that the faster we implement ground-breaking climate-friendly policies, the more chances we have of facing a better future as humanity. These measures, however, are also fully relevant for a mitigation strategy, albeit they will be unwrapped in a later time-framework and will have a lesser impact on climate change.
Academic and policy-making discussion has focused on carbon metrics, namely how to freeze and reduce overall emissions. This approach, however, has led to end-of-pipe solutions (minimizing the impact of energy consumption), rather than dealing with the problem at source (energy production and its downsizing); more holistic ways to build resilient and sustainable societies have hence been overshadowed by ecological modernization efforts within the dominant global political economy paradigm. At the same time, carbon metrics treat all gases (carbon, methane, nitrogen etc.) as having the same impact, which obscures policy-making priorities and lumps reduction from all sources as equally significant (e.g. stemming from agriculture and the carbon industry).
At the same time, severe anti-climate policies continue to be in place, and remain largely unchallenged. The most prominent example is aviation, an extremely carbon-intensive industry, the subsidization and deficient regulation of which belittles the progress noted in other sectors climate-wise. The most dramatic anti-climate policy is the undertaking of military action. Military conflicts, due to their massive carbon footprint, remain grave setbacks. Their environmental impact, alas, is still to be touched upon by policy-makers at a global level.
A bold climate agenda would focus on the main sources of emission sector by sector and designate far-reaching policies to drastically bring emissions down. Starting with the carbon industry, not only should coal production and use be altogether abandoned, but also unconventional, including shale, energy resources have to remain under the ground, insofar as they represent extreme energy with multiple adverse effects, and energy cannibalism (requiring massive energy and water quantities to produce equivalent amounts of energy). The extensive use of plastic and its enormous carbon footprint also call for wide-ranging policy measures that will minimize its consumption. Industry in general accounts for a significant percentage of carbon emissions, as does the transportation sector. Agriculture and land use, the residential sector and waste management ensue with lower percentages, meriting also attention and concrete policy measures.
In particular, policy-making around the world follows a mix of two approaches: command-and-control policies, and market mechanisms. The former entails regulation and outlawing specific aspects of economic activity, while the latter fully entrusts the markets to resolve the issues by means of granting appropriate market signals, namely sticks and carrots. The tax system and implicit and explicit subsidization schemes, figure here as prominent policy tools.
Vested interests and their strong political role, inertia, and well-grounded fears that a proactive climate policy will jeopardize part of our wealth, amenities, welfare provisions and employment places, are the main obstacles to decisive climate action. None the less, business as usual policy only offers the not-so-convenient alternative of ‘slow death’ with climatic phenomena increasingly wreaking havoc.
It is hence essential to exploit areas of political and economic convergence and aim at the establishment of a circular, no-waste, steady-flow economy that will aim at the minimization of matter and energy throughput. This is a game changer, and a potential booster for the economy. For example, fossil energy may in the face of it still appear more attractive than growing renewable resources. If one adds the pros stemming from low-carbon security, though, the belittlement of the risks emanating from an inherently unstable international energy market and projected utility costs, the equation ceases to tilt in the former’s side.
An important caveat, though, is that climate policy should be holistic, extensively scrutinize synergies with, and its impact on, the other sectors and policy issue-areas, and lead to systemic, rather than piecemeal, spasmodic and fragmentary solutions. Climate policy, in this understanding, has to cut across sectors and be granted the status of an overarching policy that will serve as the structural catalyst for the building of sustainable livelihoods, and robust and resilient economies and societies.
With the main aim being the targeted reduction of greenhouse gases well within biophysical limits, the main policy priorities should be the:
a) Prohibition of extreme energy extraction
b) Cessation of anti-climate policies
c) Massive introduction of renewable energy
d) Sound and rationalized demand management
e) Increase of energy efficiency
f) Thorough electrification of public transportation
g) Encouragement of shared-use of means of private transportation, and electric and hybrid cars
h) The building of passive houses
i) Change of corporate models in the direction of minimizing the throughput of matter and energy (e.g., in electricity generation and computers retail sector)

A number of policy tools can be put into good use to achieve these priorities. A particular positive effect of these policies is the generation of new ‘green’ employment places that will make up for the loss of employment places caused not only by creative destruction, but also by outdated and climate-averse economic activity. In particular:
a) Green audits have to systematically monitor progress and locate shortcomings in the transition process.
b) State-run, or market-based, schemes have to be established to organize, implement, monitor and scrutinize the building of/ upgrade to passive houses/ working spaces with optimal energy efficiency potential
c) An ecological tax reform has to be put in place, which will tax heavily energy resources and pollution, and proportionally relieve citizens of income and employment taxes. This will create perpetual nudges to citizens and consumers to save, and invest, on energy, at the same time that their welfare level will improve with only moderately prudent housekeeping.
d) Massive investments in renewable energy production have to be endeavored – this will vary from state to state and from region to region. Solar, tidal and wind energy form appropriate examples. Crucially, this should not be confined to large-scale projects, but also span to the residential sector.
e) Relevant with the above point, it is essential to move in the direction of building up resilient prosumers’ markets, with two-way network flows. Citizens will this way be enabled to produce and sell energy themselves, and not only be provided with energy by the outdated one-way energy networks.
f) Massive investments on cutting-edge R & D on renewable technology are to be undertaken with the eventual aim to render all surfaces energy absorbers and energy production devices.

Bold, radical and perhaps utopian these suggestions may sound, they make up, collectively, the main body of policy-making needed for the 21st century. Some of these policies are already underway, but implemented only sporadically and spasmodically; at this rate, they will naturally only have a marginal impact on the climate. It is hence imperative to utilize the growing body of relevant scholarly and policy-making literature and endeavor the huge societal transformation at hand.