If this is a war on emissions, governments need a strong arsenal

mitigationSuzi Tart, OECD Environment Directorate

More than 150 countries have submitted their post-2020 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Such contributions are vital to the #COP21 climate change conference in Paris this December. They are often met with fanfare from UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who cheer-leads the much-needed international co-operation in the realm of climate change.

Indeed, significant progress has been made since 1990, when the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was written. The use of coal has declined in 29 of the 34 OECD member countries, and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP have decreased in nearly all of the 45 countries and regions that are responsible for producing 80% of the world’s greenhouse gases (that is the OECD member countries, the OECD 10 partner economies, and the EU). This decoupling of GDP from GHG emissions proves that it is possible to grow the economy while cutting emissions.

Such developments mark great progress and need to be touted as so. But they do not mean that we can become complacent with the fact that we could be doing much more. Aggregate emissions continue to go up worldwide, and many countries continue to rely on fossil fuels to power their economies. When we look at our incredible capabilities, humans are doing a mediocre job on climate.

A new OECD report, Climate Change Mitigation: Policies and Progress, shows that current emissions trends are NOT in line with countries’ targets. It finds that annual emission reduction rates need to be accelerated—sometimes at unprecedented levels—in order to meet many of the mitigation targets and goals that have been announced, let alone the standards required for a two-degree trajectory.

This is an overwhelming finding for your average citizen. So what can we do? We can start by pushing our governments to implement policies that are in line with a shift to a low-carbon lifestyle. Currently, our economies are hardwired around fossil fuels, and putting a price on carbon is essential for this shift. Emissions trading systems and taxes on energy (such as carbon taxes) are the most cost-effective policy approaches for countries to take in order to reduce their emissions, and they are being implemented the world over. Yet, the current trading schemes in place cover only a small share of emissions, and taxes on carbon are unfortunately too low to alter consumer behavior or spur technological change.

A perhaps more difficult, yet equally important approach is cutting policy support for the production and consumption of fossil fuels altogether. India and Indonesia have proven that this IS feasible. More countries need to follow suit. Fossil fuel subsidies remain widespread, and cutting them is often met with resistance from the public and other groups. It is imperative we let our governments know that we stand behind such changes to improve our system in the long-run.

Huge structural changes are required across more than the energy sector if we are to achieve our goal. Agriculture, forestry, industrial processes, and waste are all significant sources of greenhouse gases in some countries. In such cases, efficiency standards, information programs, and government support for research and development need to be implemented in these sectors as well.

While pomp and circumstance accompany the agreements being made at the international level, follow-up action needs to take place at the local and national levels. Without such action, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the world will exhaust its carbon budget for the two-degree goal by the year 2040. Time is of the essence, and our current efforts are simply not good enough. We must convince our governments to start restructuring our economies to be sustainable, and we must convince them to do this today.

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