The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) closed its 30th anniversary meeting on Friday with darkening storm clouds gathering around international efforts to tackle global warming. Not only did last week see United States President Donald Trump install climate sceptic Mike Pompeo as US Secretary of State, but the IPCC moved closer to producing what is likely to be the single biggest agenda-setting, climate science report of the year with bad tidings.
The pending report, due for release this September, comes in the context of Trump’s continuing scepticism about global warming and his decision to sack Rex Tillerson who favoured Washington staying in the Paris treaty. His replacement by Pompeo underlines how the US president continues to fill the upper ranks of his administration with officials who are fellow climate change sceptics.
In this context, an early draft of the IPCC report for release this Autumn asserts “there is a very high risk that, under current emissions trajectories and current national pledges, global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. This 1.5 degree Celsius mark, which was the target set by Paris, was made to avoid the worst impacts of so called ‘runaway’ climate change.
This is not the first time this claim has been made — for instance a group of senior climatologists warned in September 2016 that the planet could as soon as 2050 see global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet, the IPCC enjoys special credibility in this debate, hence the importance of its findings.
In these circumstances, pessimism may grow in coming months about the future of global efforts to combat climate change. Yet, while the scale of the challenge remains huge, the Paris deal does allow for countries to ratchet up their emissions cuts in future.
This underlines that while the deal — reached in 2015 by more than 190 countries as the successor treaty to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — is a welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, even more ambition is very likely to be needed in the future. Indeed, rather than viewing the agreement as the end of the process, it is only the beginning of a longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in 2018 and beyond, with or without Trump. The roadmap for moving forward after the IPCC meeting is already clear. Firstly, implementation of the Paris deal will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible. The country ‘commitments’ put forward in 2015 will be most credible — and durable beyond the next set of national elections — if they are backed up by national legislation where this is possible.
In the US, part of the reason Trump can potentially unravel Paris ratification so relatively straightforwardly is that it was, politically, impossible to get the treaty approved in the US Congress. Former US president Barack Obama therefore embedded the agreement through executive order which was also being challenged in the US courts before Trump set his own counterpart executive actions reversing his predecessor’s order.
Legislation is more difficult to roll back. And this is especially when supported — as in many countries — by well informed, cross-party lawmakers from across the political spectrum who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation, and hold governments to account so Paris delivers.
While the pledges made in Paris may not be enough yet, the treaty has crucially put in place the domestic legal frameworks which are crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the agreement to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans submitted to the UN. States must also update these every five years to highlight measures being pursued to implement the goals.
In the future, the ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. And there are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.
What this movement towards a more robust stance on climate change shows is the scale of the transformation in attitudes already taking place amongst many governments and wider societies across the globe. As has been shown yet again last week at the IPCC, many countries now view tackling global warming as in the national self-interest and see, for instance, that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions, but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels.
Reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness. Improving resilience to the impacts of global warming also makes economic sense. And domestic laws also give clear signals about direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.
Going forward, all of this underlines why legislators must be at the centre of international negotiations and policy processes not just on climate change, but also other sustainability issues, including the 2030 development goals. With or without Trump, lawmakers can now help co-create, and implement, what could be a foundation for global sustainable development for billions across the world, starting with implementation of Paris from 2018 onwards.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.