CoP21 Paris – can research help to curb climate change?

by Roger Williamson

The appalling massacres in France have highjacked the media (and to some extent political) attention away from the climate diplomacy of CoP21 and onto combatting terrorism. Concerns about security mean that public protest will be curbed. Paris is now primarily associated with terrorism and fears for safety, not concerted action for climate change. It is necessary to maintain focus not only on the dramatic security issues, but on the entire range of threats to humane living conditions on the planet.

The WIDER context: the importance of analysis

Amartya Sen, in this year's WIDER Annual Lecture, spoke of both the content of the environmental challenge (for example, whether nuclear power is an adequate response to the need to move away from burning fossil fuels) as well as seeking to improve the evaluative framework within which decisions should be made (in this instance, the need to elaborate a robust methodology for assessing societal risk through time).

My rule of thumb is as follows: each time there is a scientific report, the situation seems more serious and complex. And more sophisticated climate models make additional layers of complexity and feedback loops apparent. As the news becomes worse and more complicated, analysis can induce paralysis.  

For example, as a result of the main ‘set piece’ discussion on energy and climate change at the UNU-WIDER 30th conference, should one be discouraged that the pre-Paris pledges do not add up to sufficient reductions to keep global warming below the 20C threshold or encouraged at the huge technical possibilities of a renewable energy network?

Channing Arndt helpfully shows a way forward in a recent blog, emphasizing the importance of the national context as the primary locus for decision-making. UNU-WIDER’s Development Under Climate Change Project may be crucial in helping to inform this decision-making. The project assists policy makers in developing countries to address the uncertainties of climate change by translating scientific and biophysical processes into economic outcomes, which can then be addressed through policy. 

National responsibilities are important, but context is crucial

Key jargon often needs unpacking and sometimes makes sense if you think about it. ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’ means that recognition of the importance of context is essential, or in the case of low-lying small island states like Kiribati, faced with complete disappearance if sea level rises, existential. To least developed countries (LDCs), the question is about access to any kind of modern energy sources. Climate finance, which should be additional to aid, rather than replacing it, has a role to play here as Finn Tarp stresses. To the BRICs, the decisions affect the energy choices for the next stages of industrialization. To OECD countries, the challenge is improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions so that their economic growth can be decoupled further from greenhouse gas emissions. Only then will there be an opportunity for developing countries to progress.

If major industrialized countries continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases, global climate change challenges will become more intense, and development will be harder to achieve. There is the danger (as the major ReCom project concluded in ‘Aid in a post-2015 World’) that climate change could overwhelm the development agenda, forcing aid back into the provision of disaster relief as more extreme and more frequent weather events wreak havoc on vulnerable economies.

There is a huge challenge in how to integrate modelling of the economy with climate modelling, to give a sufficiently precise tool to improve the quality of data available to decision makers to determine directions for, for example, energy investment, other infrastructure, or policy for agriculture or forestry through to 2030 or 2050.

UNU-WIDER’s work with the government of South Africa is a pioneering approach. When choosing power stations or which trees to plant for thirty years ahead, decisions, which will have impact for decades to come, need to be made now. It is obviously better if they can be made on the basis of the most accurate and complete projections of economic and climate data which can be assembled and presented in understandable form.

UNU-WIDER work shows change is possible: renewables and Africa’s energy futures

UNU-WIDER is accumulating evidence that change is possible. It is precisely this which lies behind the project on the political economy of clean energy transitions.

In line with UNU-WIDER’s particular commitment to Africa, the project on Africa’s energy futures centres on that continent capitalizing on long experience in the region and special working relationships with some of the governments in the region, particularly South Africa and Mozambique. The presentation made by UNU-WIDER Director Finn Tarp at the recent MIT Global Forum, co-sponsored with key South African government ministries, is just one example of how creative coalitions can mutually enrich analysis.

One of the particular challenges of renewables is that of intermittent generation. UNU-WIDER is addressing this by such approaches as looking at the possibilities of regional power pools (particularly in Africa) and, in effect, of using large hydro scheme as batteries to store power generated by wind power.

The logic of these approaches is compelling. With power pools, over a large enough area electricity is likely to be generated somewhere in the catchment area. With combinations of technologies the chances are much higher that rivers will be flowing, or the sun will be shining, or the wind will be blowing somewhere in the catchment area, than exclusive or excessive dependence on one of these technologies.

Beyond Paris

So will Paris be a success or a failure? There has been movement in the national commitments, but not yet enough. But as I have argued elsewhere, the simple dichotomy ‘success or failure’ is not the right question.

It makes us into spectators. The more important question is how one reinforces approaches which help to open out a more positive future and avoid mistakes which are damaging or dead ends. New sources of hope (China-US co-operation, the mobilization of the global Catholic community) emerge from sources one might not predict. Horizon-scanning for unexpected good news is a part of research as much as deepening awareness of problem complexity. That is why the careful and often cross-disciplinary work of UNU-WIDER is important as a contribution to this multifaceted set of problems.

Now the set piece speeches of the world leaders are done, and the leaders have returned to their capitals, the real work of seeking a maximum consensus is handed to the diplomats and practitioners. One thing is sure, however successful they are there is research to be done and policy to be made well beyond the end of the Paris Summit.

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