Accelerating the post-carbon transition:

Lessons from COP24

Rupert Stuart-Smith

Held among the chimneys of industrial southern Poland in December, COP24 – the most recent UN climate conference – saw the familiar combination of political posturing, procrastination and pleas to prevent the devastation promised by inaction on climate change.

Despite widely publicised contention at the conference over whether to ‘welcome’ or ‘note’ the IPCC’s recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C and eleventh-hour grandstanding over rules on double-counting of emission reductions through offsetting, welcome procedural progress was made on the development of the ‘rulebook’ for enacting the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, the challenges to the success of international climate diplomacy were clear: agreement on some important decisions was postponed to next year and the lack of ambition of some high-emitting countries drew the derision of observers.


Conducting interviews for the Oxford Martin School at COP, the contrast between public hopes for the UN process to keep global warming in check, and the cynicism of delegates was clear. Few interviewees – negotiators, campaigners, lawyers, and academics – spoke assuredly of the potential of intergovernmental climate diplomacy to deliver the rapid decarbonisation needed of the global economy. But with abundant opportunities to move to a net-zero economy identified, the Paris Agreement may still act as a much needed catalyst, promoting international cooperation and driving up the ambition of national and sub-national climate action.

Our interviews sought to elicit potential ‘sensitive intervention points’ – relatively small interventions which would deliver outsized results through triggering positive feedbacks – in the transition to a post-carbon society. Suggestions for the social, economic, political and technological measures which could produce meaningful emission reductions were varied. But what was clear was that sub-state actors including cities, businesses and individuals have a vital role to play in emission reductions and encouraging the implementation of national-level climate policy.

Plummeting costs of renewables have already stimulated investment in decarbonising electricity generation around the world. Looking forward, interviewees cited the increasing demand for electric vehicles (EVs) as an indication that transport may offer the next major opportunity for emission reductions. In turn, utilities may incorporate idle EVs into ‘smart grids’, utilising the storage capacity of EV batteries to smooth out intermittent renewable energy supply. And cities are rethinking urban design to prioritise low-carbon travel, investing in mass transit, EV charging, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. If cities play their cards right, a revolution in urban mobility beckons.

Achieving the rapid decarbonisation needed to limit warming to well below 2 °C, as is demanded by the Paris Agreement, also requires climate risk to be integrated into the economic system. The increasingly apparent costs of climate change have amplified the issue’s salience to the investment community. Extreme weather events, unsuccessful climate change mitigation and adaptation, water crises, biodiversity loss and manmade environmental disasters now top the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report.

Exposure to assets that would be stranded by climate change mitigation policies is of growing concern to investors and corporate assessment methodologies such as the Transition Pathway Initiative have been developed to help investors manage this risk. At the Oxford Martin School, we have emphasised the need for firms to publish plans to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions within three decades if they are to be considered ‘Paris-compliant’.

Increased investor focus on climate change is also needed to deliver the US$2.4 trillion annual investment in the energy system required to hold warming to 1.5 °C. And growing climate concern in investor and corporate circles may create the political space for effective policymaking to drive the transition to a post-carbon society.

Intergovernmental climate negotiations should also promote cooperation and drive up ambition as countries negotiate common climate targets. As the nexus between state and sub-state climate action, the UN climate process integrates cities, states, businesses, and others into international emission reduction and climate change adaptation efforts.

Nonetheless, the lasting image of COP24 should not be that of conference president Michał Kurtyka vaulting the podium of the plenary hall in an act of triumphant – and misplaced – self-congratulation as an agreement was finally reached. Rather, the defiance and moral clarity of 15-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in her address to delegates shining light on the challenges ahead.

Yet around the world, individuals, cities and companies are demonstrating that a transition to a post-carbon society is possible. The growing school strike movement has given climate change a new and inescapable political salience. The front lines of efforts to stop climate change are now all around us: in the courts, boardrooms, cities, and with the rise of veganism, our kitchens.
 
Rupert Stuart-Smith is a Research Assistant for the Oxford Martin Programme on the Post-Carbon Transition and a student at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

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