Greta Thunberg is Right! So, Then What?

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Urs Luterbacher
Professor emeritus
Centre for Environmental Studies
Centre for Finance and Development
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Synopsis: Why leading by example sometimes does not pay, and why a return to the principles of the Kyoto Protocol is necessary.

Keywords: climate change, Paris Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, Greta Thunberg

Is Greta Thunberg, right? She has been sounding the alarm over the dangerous path climate change is currently taking.  She is right! Rapidly unfolding feedback tendencies are starting to emerge in (at least) three areas and threaten to push the world well over a two degrees Celsius warming limit. Temperature increases are starting to generate cumulative influences: Melting ice diminishes the reflectivity of surfaces on earth and thus increases retention of heat in the atmosphere. Changes in weather patterns give rise to excessive droughts, which in turn lead to more forest fires and thus more release of carbon into the atmosphere. Last but not least, increased acidification of oceans due to CO2 absorption limits their capacity to absorb more CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

If things continue to evolve at this pace, we might face heat waves in the future that will make the current ones look tame by comparison. A paper published in Science Advances forecasts possible heat waves toward the end of the century in the Indian subcontinent, generating so-called wet bulb (a combination of heat and humidity) temperatures of 35°C and higher. Such temperatures lead to severe physiological problems that make it impossible for people to live and work. If these heat waves prevail, vast population movements can occur with the likelihood of political instabilities leading to domestic and international conflict.

“…the currently proclaimed mitigation strategies would lead nowhere and just add to popular frustrations. Preaching to the converted is not very effective.”

So, the current climate change situation is alarming. But then what? Which strategies are suggested to deal with this problem? One strategy consist of putting pressure on willing governments (quite a few are not so willing) to do more in their efforts to mitigate climate change. This strategy is inspired by the latest international accord on climate change, the 2015 Paris Agreement (PA). Is this approach likely to succeed? Here my doubts.

A look at the latest data on emissions released by the International Energy Agency are telling: Most of the increases in greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions occur in Asia (see figure below). So, CO2 emissions rose by 3.1% in the United States and 2.5% in China in 2018. Indian emissions grew by 4.8% the same year, while EU emissions diminished by 1.3% in 2018 following a trend initiated in 1990. Who are the willing governments? Most of them are located in Western Europe. The figure shows clearly that even if European emissions were miraculously reduced to 0, this would not stop the growth of global emissions. Thus, the currently proclaimed mitigation strategies would lead nowhere and just add to popular frustrations. Preaching to the converted is not very effective.

Figure1 Luterbacher

The followers of Greta Thunberg are essentially acting within a framework of the non- binding Paris Agreement, which is (Pareto) inferior to more constraining cooperative frameworks which define obligations precisely and contain sanctions for non-compliance. In it, contributions are individual and voluntary; they can give the illusion that the collective good at hand can be reinforced by increased individual efforts without well-defined international frameworks. This constitutes the flaw of the demands formulated by the followers of Greta Thunberg: Individual (here national) efforts are insufficient to solve the problem given its magnitude, ubiquity, and urgency. To bolster the importance of individual efforts, the claim is often made that it pays to lead by example. There is, however, no evidence supporting this theory: A downward trend of emissions in Europe has not been imitated by other parts of the world. Similarly, naming and shaming strategies may not be effective here when countries are very poor (the goals of getting out of poverty dominate) or authoritarian (and less sensitive to public opinion).

 Thus, we should move again toward the internationalized structures that existed under the Kyoto Protocol (KP), such as the Clean Development Mechanism, and reinforce them. This could be done by an informal coalition of states and non-state actors. In the current climate situation, it is essential to proceed toward a massive transfer of technology to emerging countries. It is also crucial to thoroughly discourage investments into fossil fuels. In a paper published in 2010 we showed that if non-carbon energy technologies show greater rates of return than carbon-based ones, the latter will be abandoned provided a coalition is formed to enforce the process. In another publication in 2012, we showed that transfers from industrialized to less developed countries are optimal provided that the price of emission reductions in developing countries is not too low, because then they can do them themselves (respectively if the price of transfers is too high in industrialized countries).

Clearly, if our work points to the right direction, the PA is not the required institutional framework. A return to the principles of the KP appears necessary. A stronger international framework could be instituted by a coalition of countries, Non-Governmental Organizations and industries.

This is the first piece for our debate on “Global Environmental Governance.” Read the response by Naghmeh Nasiritousi entitled, “Societal Mobilization is Key to Global Climate Action.”

Leave a Reply