December’s COP25 in Madrid showed how difficult it is proving to get agreement between nations on how to ramp up the deep decarbonisation the world needs. David Victor at the University of California, San Diego, writing for Rocky Mountain Institute, accepts that international consensus is never going to be easy. Instead, he recommends that individual sectors take control of their destiny. His co-authored report “Accelerating The Low Carbon Transition” defines the top 10 emitting sectors as power, agriculture and land use, cars, trucks, shipping, aviation, buildings, steel, cement, and plastics. Within each sector a growing number of firms and sub-national actors are already showing leadership, often aided by governments at the national level. New innovations are emerging faster than governments can agree between themselves on how to use them. If the individual sectors move first and set the pace, governments will find it much easier to reach the international consensus that so far eludes them.
As the United Nations’ annual climate conference in Madrid (COP25) limped to a close, it has become clear that climate summits are stuck in a rut. The job of cutting global emissions is actually getting harder, and not just because the planet keeps warming. Like many of the people in the halls in Madrid, I have been working on the climate problem for 30 years. Over that diplomatic epoch, emissions have gone up.
There are lots of problems with how climate diplomacy is unfolding. Some are rooted in the unavoidable tension between negotiations that must be global in scope—so they are legitimate and account for all important voices—and the challenge of reaching agreement by consensus.
But the biggest problem is the lack of new facts on the ground—practical demonstrations of what deep decarbonisation looks like, what it costs, and why it is a good idea. Diplomacy on difficult topics is always easier when the facts on the ground are more convenient.
New leaders are appearing
The good news is that a growing number of national governments, firms, and subnational actors are willing to lead on climate change. Almost everything serious about achieving deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions—like developing new technologies to eliminate them in the manufacture of steel and plastics, or switching to electric aircraft that yield no emissions—is fraught with industrial uncertainty, cost, risk, and contention. Demonstrating solutions is a task ideally suited for leaders willing to spend heavily to find solutions.
Breaking big challenges down into smaller ones
The governments and industries truly willing to lead are a relatively small and well-aligned group. In diplomatic settings, they can work in small groups to coordinate their actions. Keeping these groups aligned requires breaking the big climate problem down into smaller manageable units because each industrial sector has different politics, technological potentials, and policy needs.
The combination of policies and technologies that work for steel will be different for plastics and different again for electric power. In all, we looked at 10 major sectors, with critical inputs for most of those sectors from the Energy Transitions Commission.
In Madrid, I was part of a team—including Frank Geels at the University of Manchester and Simon Sharpe at the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy—that released a new study, “Accelerating The Low Carbon Transition”, showing what is needed in each economic sector to reduce emissions and how leaders can make a difference.
As we did our work, we were struck and disturbed by how little political and industrial effort has been mobilised to deeply decarbonise economies, despite three decades of international talks on climate change. To change that, we offered two broad recommendations.
Carbon Taxes, Emissions Goals are not enough
The first is that countries need to go beyond simply putting a price on carbon or adopting bold emissions goals. What’s required is a more strategic approach to policymaking aimed at reconfiguring technologies, business models, infrastructure, and markets in each country’s greenhouse gas-emitting economic sectors to reduce emissions.
In an earlier era, this approach to changing facts on the ground was called industrial policy. In many of the western, liberal democracies—especially in the United States—that approach has fallen out of favour. Done smartly, industrial policy focused on deep decarbonisation is what’s needed now.
Focus on sector policies, not national ones
The second is that, though formal climate diplomacy tends to be organised around countries, the real focus both for governments and industries should be on coordinating actions in economic sectors to reduce emissions. Of course, governments must be actively involved by increasing incentives for investment and economies of scale for promising technologies, and by levelling playing fields so that early adopters of new green technologies are not held back by the constraints of competitiveness.
This approach of focusing on new facts on the ground is a way to get a lot more done on deep decarbonisation quickly. Success may well reveal that sectors that many people have long thought to be “hard to abate” aren’t actually so hard, as described in the Mission Possible report. For example, progress on low-cost production of zero-emission hydrogen could make it easier to decarbonise many other sectors, such as steel.
Climate summits will always have an air of despair because it is easy for nations to agree on ambitious collective goals even as, individually, governments are much more reluctant to promise robust action. Action will always fall behind ambition. The key task is to change that math—by showing that it is profitable (and easier than feared) to decarbonise.
Getting out of the climate diplomacy rut requires finding ways to capitalise on the willingness of leaders to invest in solutions. As those efforts bear fruit, we will need to cross the next frontier, which is to help those good ideas that emerge from the leaders become deployed widely by followers. The more successful the leaders the easier it will be for followers to follow quickly. In the extreme, we might be able to replicate the experience with the Montreal Protocol in which more benign substitutes proved less costly (or minimally costly) compared with ozone-depleting substances. Whether decarbonisation will prove that easy is, in most sectors, unknown today. But aiming for that outcome is a worthy goal—and one that will make the work of diplomacy a lot easier.
David Victor is the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, where he co-leads the university’s Deep Decarbonisation Initiative.
This article was first published on RMI.org, and has been reprinted with permission