How to deal with climate change

by Professor Sam Fankhauser

23 Aug 2018

It was hot in the northern hemisphere over the summer of 2018. Temperature records were broken from California to Taiwan. A town in Algeria recorded the hottest temperature ever anywhere in Africa. The highest 'low' temperature ever (the night-time minimum in a day) was recorded in Oman. The hot and dry weather led to wildfires in California, Greece, Sweden, Russia and even the UK, which experienced its longest spell of hot weather since 1976.

The sweltering heat has drawn attention to the risks of climate change. Weather patterns fluctuate, but this year’s heatwave is a sign of things to come. Climate change made the hot weather of summer 2018 more than twice as likely as it would have been otherwise. By 2040, we could experience similar summers every other year.

If we do not curtail the emissions of greenhouse gases, the 1oC of global warming we have experienced so far, relative to pre-industrial times, will turn into 3 or 4 oC by the end of the century. The impact on modern life would be unprecedented. The last time our planet was 3 oC hotter was three million years ago.

Legislating on climate change

Averting these risks requires concerted action over many years. In a project supported by the British Academy we sought to document how countries are beginning to take action on climate change. We found 1,500 laws and policies of similar significance on climate change worldwide. They are now publicly available in a searchable database.

There is no country in the world which does not have at least one national law or policy on climate change. The UK has 24 relevant laws, including the flagship 2008 Climate Change Act. China has eight relevant laws and policies, with important climate targets written into its five-year plan. Overall, 139 countries have a governance framework on climate change, similar to the UK Climate Change Act or China’s five-year plan targets.

Understanding good practice

A body of 1,500 climate laws is meaningless unless they have sufficient teeth. We are starting to understand how a good climate law looks.

The UK has one of the best climate change frameworks internationally, and it seems to have been successful. Since 1990, UK emissions have fallen 43 per cent, while GDP has gone up by 71 per cent. No other country has reduced its emissions per GDP faster.

Some of this drop is due to structural factors, such as the economic shift from industry to services and the ‘dash for gas’ in the energy sector. But recent reductions have been driven by policy, particularly in the energy sector, where the share of low-carbon electricity generation has risen from 20 to 45 per cent in ten years.

In another research project we have asked policy makers about the aspects of climate governance in the UK that they thought were particularly important. They named five factors:

  • A long-term target, set in law, which provides clarity about the direction of travel. By 2050 UK carbon emissions must be at least 80 per cent lower than in 1990.
  • A series of five-year carbon 'budgets', which are also statutory and define the path to 2050. Five budgets have so far been enacted, requiring an emissions cut of 57 per cent by 2030.
  • Equal consideration to emission reductions and climate resilience. The Climate Change Act has set up a process of continual adaptation planning with regular climate change risk assessments and national adaptation plans.
  • A powerful independent body, which advises on carbon targets and climate resilience and holds the government to account: the Committee on Climate Change.
  • Mandatory progress monitoring: Regular government reporting to Parliament and the public keeps climate policy on the agenda and ensures transparency and accountability for progress.

The wider experience

It is worth asking to what extent the experience in the UK, a rich country with well-developed institutions, extends to other political and economic contexts. To find out, we are currently also looking at climate governance in Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania. Of these countries, only Mexico has a framework climate law similar to the UK; in fact, several aspects of the Mexico law mirror the UK law. In South Africa and Tanzania, climate policy is driven by government edicts rather than acts of parliament.

In all three countries, climate change governance is weaker – and policy making more difficult – than in the UK. The ability of policy makers to design, implement and enforce climate action is impeded by coordination problems between different government departments and levels of government, limited scientific and policy information, and insufficient capacity and resources.

Nevertheless, good laws make a difference. Mexico, for example, was the first developing country to submit its emissions pledge – called its Nationally Determined Contribution in the jargon of climate negotiations – ahead of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In December of this year, when the summer heat has long abated, the international community will meet in Poland to take stock of these national pledges. This is part of a process established in the Paris Agreement, aimed at keeping the increase in average global temperatures 'well below 2oC'.

Negotiators will be able to point to a growing body of laws and initiatives dealing with climate change. They can draw on an emerging understanding of which policies and governance arrangements are likely to work. But they will also have to ratchet up global commitments. Otherwise, the summer of 2018 will become the new normal – or even start feeling cool.

Professor Sam Fankhauser is Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, both at the London School of Economics. He is Principal Investigator on a British Academy-funded project, ‘The Governance and Implementation of the SDG 13 on Climate Change’.

The project is part of the Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme, which was launched in 2016 as part of the UK Government’s £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund. It has funded 16 research teams so far from across the UK to conduct cutting-edge research into how sustainable development can be made a reality. 


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