No simple answer to carbon complexity

“These are the times that try men’s soul” wrote Thomas Paine in his famous pamphlet American Crisis in the heat of the American Revolution. These words well describe the present time too – in their broadest meaning. The political systems in the western world are under unprecedented pressure not witnessed since the dark times of the 1930’s.

But we also see the raise of a quite new kind of awareness among people and businesses on climate change. The public discourse on emissions has jumped to another level compared to just a few years ago. Our leaders are being challenged to move from just talking about the issue, to undertaking stronger measures to cut carbon emissions quickly.

At the same time, bottom-up popular movements are entering the political arena reflecting our political systems’ inability to adequately reflect on timely issues. However, they also reflect the failure of our politicians to equip the people with the tools and skills required to handle with wicked problems such as climate change.

The climate change movement is obviously getting stronger in several member states of the EU, and also resonated in the recent European Parliament elections. It may, however, still be too early to claim a coming leapfrog in climate policies due to the shifting political landscape in Europe, though all scientific evidence univocally speaks for its urgency.

But let’s make a ‘gedankenexperiment’ by assuming that in spite of all the uncertainties, Europe would soon make a shift towards a stricter climate policy. Instruments for emission cuts are in place (e.g. the price of emission allowances in ETS could be better regulated, among others). Scenario tools such as those used in the Horizon 2020 INNOPATHS project can help to construct least-cost technology trajectories to reach a zero-carbon energy sector in Europe. From a techno-economic point-of-view, we could well find a feasible deep decarbonization solution for Europe.

But would society be prepared for such a quick energy transition?  Deep decarbonization equates in practice to a huge technology disruption similar to the industrial revolution. It goes beyond the techno-economic realm. It involves profound social issues. It is essentially a social-technical transition in which institutions and business models supporting present technologies need to be changed to enable adoption of new clean technologies and practices.

Consumers also need to adapt and engage in new ways. How to deal with distributional effects? A change involves winners and losers. For example, a high carbon tax may sound like a perfect tool for cutting emissions as it forces those who pollute to pay and it could motivate the polluters to change their behaviours. But from a justice point of view, it could also legitimize those who can afford to pay to pollute (even more) and not to change their lifestyles, whereas those who cannot pay or afford non-polluting solutions, could face large challenges in their everyday lives. A just climate legislation would therefore strive for measures which treat each of us equally in relation to our capabilities.

There are multiple ways to frame the energy and climate problem1. Importantly, the way we frame it would also prioritize the values and factors against which we make our decisions, which in turn will shape the solutions. Personally, I would prefer to see the more fundamental factors being prioritized in any type of climate framing, namely the Science (laws of nature), the Planet (planetary boundaries), and the Ethics (universal values).

Though a lot of research has already been done on policy and social dimensions, also within the INNOPATHS project, the complexity of the issues involved is so profound that this would call for much stronger efforts for this area of research in the coming Horizon Europe R&D programme.

Thomas Paine ended his pamphlet with the words “…the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”. For me his inspirational words sound in today’s terms more like where there’s a will, there’s a way – also in the quest of solving the carbon question.

1 Sun-Jin Yun, John Byrne, Lucy Baker, Patrick Bond, Goetz Kaufmann, Hans-Jochen Luhmann, Peter Lund, Joan Martinez-Alier, and Fuqiang Yang. 2018. Energy and Climate Change. In: Rethinking Environmentalism: Linking Justice, Sustainability, and Diversity, ed. S. Lele, E. S. Brondizio, J. Byrne, G. M. Mace, and J. Martinez-Alier. Strüngmann Forum Reports, vol. 23, J. Lupp, series editor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018 ISBN 9780262038966.

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