Event summary by Shobhan Dhir
Covid-19 has sparked the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and has dramatically altered our way of life for the foreseeable future. Given the pressure governments are under to keep people safe and recover the economy, what will be the implications of this crisis on climate policy going forward? How will future climate negotiations be impacted? And what are the most effective climate policies which are viable in this new political climate, and could any actually facilitate economic recovery?
Professor Jim Skea is the Co-chair of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), leading their work on climate change mitigation. The IPCC is the world's highest authority on climate change science - advising governments on all scientific information related to climate change, its impacts, and its mitigation so they can develop effective climate policy. Jim Skea is also Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, and he was a founding member of the UK's Committee on Climate Change.
Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change, holding a joint chair at Manchester and Uppsala University. He was also the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He has contributed to the development of Paris-compliant carbon budgets for Sweden, and his analysis contributed to the framing of the UK’s Climate Change Act and the development of national carbon budgets.
Jim opened by saying how most of us are interested in how Covid will affect the climate agenda, but that policymakers are interested in the reverse – how will climate action support a response to Covid-19, especially the economic recovery as we come out of lockdown? He explains that policymakers are looking for three key things from actions in a recovery:
Jim then explained that there are a host of climate actions which fit these criteria, such as retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient, tree planting and restoration, and rearranging urban landscapes to encourage more active travel, such as cycling. However, he noted that many of the worst hit sectors are the most carbon-intensive, such as airlines and car manufacturers, and that these industries will also be queuing at the doors of government to make their case for support. Therefore, cases for a green recovery need to be made very effectively. He identified five key priorities:
Kevin’s presentation focused on how Covid-19 demonstrates the inequalities which exist in our society, and the ways the system ought to change in the aftermath, where recovery from Covid-19 should be seen as an opportunity for change. He drew on the ideas of Robert Tressel, understanding key workers as the ‘Ragged Philanthropists’ of the modern day. Originally these ‘ragged philanthropists’ referred to those whose toil, struggles, and often mortal sacrifices working in the factories, built the modern world. Now, Kevin argued that the term could be used to speak about today’s Covid-19 key workers who give up their time, health and often their life, to save the high emitters of today.
One of the most stark facts from Kevin’s presentation was that 50% of all CO2 emissions are caused by the richest 10% of the world’s population. If regulations forced the top 10% of global emitters to reduce their carbon footprint to that of the average EU citizen (hardly too onerous a demand) - and the other 90% of the population made no change, we would reduce global emissions by a third. The pledges submitted under the Paris agreement are projected to result in almost no emissions reduction by 2030, demonstrating how resistant our societies are to changing the lifestyle of the high emitters and how committed to maintaining the status quo. Kevin said this needs to change: labour and resources spent furnishing the lifestyle of the high emitters must be used elsewhere, and these high consumers must change their lifestyles. Kevin concluded by saying we need new narratives on:
The feasibility and risk of carbon capture and storage (CCS) being used by policymakers as an excuse to avoid early action was addressed, with Jim explaining we need to throw everything at the problem. He said he doesn’t see how we can get to Net Zero without removing something from the atmosphere, as some sources of emissions are very difficult to eliminate. Kevin, however, warned of the significantly higher lifecycle emissions from CCS at power stations, with these being many times higher than that of renewables or nuclear, demonstrating that this technology is still far too high in emissions to be compliant with the Paris Agreement. However, for cement, CCS could be very effective. He said direct capture is preferable, but that CCS is a long way off. He also said we should address mitigation policies on the assumption that CCS won’t work, due the high uncertainty involved with the technology at large scale, and the number of feedbacks in the climate system. He also identified the fact that every pound spent on CCS is an opportunity cost elsewhere.
On the topic of stimulus policies, both agreed regulations are very effective and should be pushed. Jim provided the example policy of ‘no gas going into homes after 2023/24’, a tool that can really shift the system to electrify. He also added that with oil prices so low, it is a great time to add a carbon price without consumer resistance. Kevin had a much greater preference for regulation rather than prices, because prices don’t give as definite an outcome. He spoke of setting maximum CO2 emissions limits for fossil fuel companies and car manufacturers, which are reduced each year, letting the companies identify the best way to achieve this. Both agreed that all policies need to be screened for social equity.
On the question of what people can do whilst waiting for leaders to act, Jim said flying less and eating less meat are the two biggest things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Kevin said we should not wait for leadership, but must see ourselves as part of the process of leadership. We should all take an active role discussing with friends, families, and colleagues; and engaging at the local and national level or on social media, adding our ideas and thoughts to the debate. He added that the leadership of the last 30 years has collectively failed, as we have not succeeded in mitigating climate change, and are not on track, so we need input and leadership from young people on how to make change.
On how to impact high consumers without affecting ‘Tressel’s workers’, Kevin said frequent flier levies with geometric pricing would work, producing a situation where ticket prices rapidly increase with the number of tickets purchased. Also, standards such as limitations on the size of homes could work. Jim said we need to be careful about unintended consequences, for example people with multiple passports taking advantage of flying levies. Finally both emphasised the critical importance of taking a risk-based approach in assessing climate change solutions and policies, rather than a cost-benefit analysis, which fails for large scale issues with complex variables. Jim said the IPCC have been firm that cost-benefit analyses does not help with climate change policy.
To hear a more in depth exploration of the impacts of Covid-19 on Climate Policy and for many more fascinating discussions and questions, head to our YouTube channel for the event video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGxOxiCFJ3A&t=4926s
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science, policy, perspectives and more from the OCS team.