Victor: Acting on Emission Cuts, Solving ‘Hard Problems’ Matters More than Statements of Ambition
The utter failure of leadership at this year’s United Nations climate conference shows that the next step for climate leaders is to evaluate everything they do “through the lens of whether it increases the chances of followership,” international relations specialist David G. Victor writes for the New York Times.
With established climate leaders steadily losing ground through the UN process, adds Victor, a professor at the UC San Diego School of Global and Public Policy, the path to wider public support is to deliver on the climate solutions that every country will need.
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The problem is acute, because “as the United Nations’ annual climate conference in Madrid winds to a close, it has become clear that climate summits are stuck in a rut,” he writes. “Climate summits have become festivals at which leaders talk about leadership. But leadership doesn’t matter without followership. And that’s the problem in addressing the climate crisis. There aren’t enough followers.”
By Victor’s math, the jurisdictions on track to become climate leaders accounted for 34% of global emissions when the annual talks leading up to the Paris Agreement began in 1990. Today, they “account for just about 20% of global emissions, a share that keeps shrinking as they make further cuts, while emissions from the rest of the world keep growing.”
That means “the more the leaders lead, the less direct relevance they have to the climate problem. Worse, emissions from countries that have often blocked action on climate change—Russia, plus Saudi Arabia and other members of OPEC, the oil exporting cartel, now stand at 12.4% and are rising. The rest of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, two-thirds of the total, come from countries that may care about climate change but care a lot more about other issues, like poverty and local air pollution.” (It isn’t clear whether Victor counts the United States in the original leadership group, or how readily they’ll join after their next presidential election on November 3, 2020.)
Victor assumes only the most zealous countries will buy into “aggressive programs to convert whole economies to renewable power at a breakneck pace,” given the “expense and difficulty of quickly replacing the last 20 or 30% of an electric grid’s remaining fossil fuel generating capacity” with what he counts as “unreliable wind and solar power.”
But there are still constructive steps to be taken that would expand the constituency for climate action along the way.
“Demonstrating how to solve hard problems, like decarbonizing high-heat applications in refining, steel and cement production, and other processes at reasonable cost, passes the followership test,” he writes. “All economies will need those fixes because emissions from those applications are rising quickly, and proven solutions don’t exist. All economies will also benefit from practical demonstrations by leaders of programs that make big increases in energy efficiency, which can lower energy costs and also cut emissions.”
Leaders can also share the good ideas they develop, “as Denmark has done, for example, by passing on to China’s electric grid operators what it has learned about how to operate a grid with lots of variable wind power. When tiny Denmark uses more wind, the impact on global emissions is minuscule; when China does, the effect can be enormous.”
And with “industrial uncertainty, cost, risk, and contention” attached to many of the major deep decarbonization options, he says, “demonstrating solutions is a task ideally suited for leaders willing to spend heavily to find solutions.”
In preparing a study released during the Madrid COP, Victor says he and a team of colleagues were “struck and disturbed by how little political and industrial effort has been mobilized to deeply decarbonize economies, despite three decades of international talks on climate change.” To correct that problem, they call on countries to push beyond carbon pricing and “bold emissions goals” to embrace “a more strategic approach to policy-making, 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, that was called industrial policy, an approach that has fallen out of favour in many countries but, done smartly, is what’s needed now.”
They also recommend reorganizing formal climate diplomacy around economic sectors rather than countries. Although, if that happened, “governments must be actively involved to increase incentives for investment and economies of scale for promising technologies, and to level playing fields so that early adopters of new green technologies are not held back by the constraints of competitiveness.”
As for the UN’s increasingly tattered COP process, “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,” Victor concludes. “Action will always fall behind ambition.”
But “the real test of leadership isn’t ‘stronger ambition’, a favourite phrase in the Madrid hallways, but the swifter diffusion of new technologies and approaches that will reduce emissions rapidly. It is the followers who will determine the fate of the planet.”