Caroline Kuzemko, IGov Team, 5th June, 2013
A recent and perhaps controversial report by the Berlin based think-tank, SWP Berlin, poses some interesting questions about the global warming limit, and about climate governance by target setting. It strongly suggests, based on current global emissions trends, that the 2°C limit will be exceeded. It proceeds however not by discussing what policies are still needed in order that the target be met, but by taking the more radical step of analysing ways in which the limit could be plausibly revised upwards. The reasoning for this radical, and to some perhaps dangerous, approach is that targets that are presented as ‘make-or-break’ can become if missed a political liability and a detriment to the credibility of climate policy and, indeed, climate science. This presents us with a Catch 22 situation – targets, as explained in detail below, are an essential part of climate change governance but missing them could also undermine public credibility in low carbon transition. We need to make every effort to meet climate targets, but must also be in a position to avoid climate governance meltdown in the event that targets are missed.
Target setting lies at the heart of climate governance. This is essentially because thus far broad political consensus internationally has been limited to agreement on the 2°C limit which means that this target sits at the centre of what international political consensus there is on climate change. The range of other international and domestic climate change targets that have been set, such as those aimed at reducing carbon emissions, increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency, are aimed at restricting global warming. Agreement on the 2°C limit, and other associated climate objectives, can also be understood as progress in operationalising politically scientific knowledge about anthropogenic climate change. Objective setting is one method, therefore, of taking scientific ideas and giving them political saliency and agency in that they direct policy in certain directions – but this also can establish direct connections between climate policy and climate science. Indeed, policy objectives can be understood both as a statement of what a nation, or a group of nations holds important – in this instance it states that climate change mitigation is something that a given collective is working to achieve. In some countries these commitments are made legally binding, see the UK’s Climate Change Act, which infers that climate targets will be difficult to miss – but also perhaps that there is a likelihood of missing them which the UK wishes to avoid.
Climate targets, derived from climate science, are politically important also in that they can be used to hold politicians and civil servants to account on an ongoing basis. Some countries have established institutions, such as the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, that are responsible for monitoring progress and reporting publically on successes and failures. NGOs around the world have long evaluated and publicised progress made by international and domestic governance institutions in terms of climate change mitigation but this job has been made easier given publically clear targets against which to evaluate progress and hold institutions to account. Targets as a method of holding political institutions to account is, however, where governing towards clearly defined, binding climate objectives becomes more complicated and we are reminded of the deeply political nature of these targets. A recent report by the Energy Coalition suggests that EU 20-20-20 targets, especially that of energy efficiency, will not be met. This is just one of a host of recent reports suggesting that targets may not be met in Europe, and globally, and raises questions about how climate targets will be treated if they are missed. What people experience if and when targets are missed may, unfortunately, colour their opinion of the credibility of the targets and the science behind them.
Such debates are arguably symptomatic of the lack of consensus and perhaps knowledge about the all-important question of how to mitigate for climate change – particularly at the level of detail below producing more energy from renewables, increasing efficiency and lowering emissions. The Kyoto Protocol implicitly acknowledges this in that it is structured around target setting but does not seek to dictate how to reach them. These political differences need to be better accepted and debated given the emergence of a more multipolar world that implicitly recognises a wider variety of capitalisms but also because different approaches to climate mitigation exist within countries. Recent debates between supporters of market intervention to support, for example, renewable energy in the UK and those that strongly disagree are illustrative of these ongoing divides that are delaying progress towards meeting targets. What is also important to note is the degree to which current attempts to mitigate for climate change are unprecedented in nature, particularly in terms of the scale and timing of changes currently required to meet 2°C limits. This adds a further level of uncertainty.
The centrality of targets to current climate governance, the unprecedented nature of low carbon transition and the changing political environment in which we currently live makes the question of what happens if targets are not met one that does need to be considered in detail. This is also because little is really known about what the consequences will be – legal, political or otherwise – beyond the strong sense that climate policy and associated science could lose considerable credibility. The recommendation, in the SWP Berlin report, that the limit needs to be changed upwards is, perhaps, one that many will disagree with. Clearly Plan A remains to make every possible effort to ensure that the 2˚C limit is met and, as suggested by an Environmental Audit Committee report, to make much more regular checks against climate targets and improve policies if countries are not on track. Perhaps what is also needed is the addition of annual indicative targets to keep policymakers on track and, importantly, politicians focused between elections. But debates about how to proceed in the event of key targets being missed as well a forward planning also need to take place. This is not least so that alternative plans can be debated, formulated, understood and communicated well in advance of needing to adopt them.