Politics for deeper and faster decarbonisation

  • Climate and sustainability

Andrew Jordan FAcSS, Professor of Environmental Policy, Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia 

In this piece Andrew Jordan looks at the politics of climate change, suggesting that it is essential to somehow simultaneously both politicise and depoliticise the agenda.

How should societies respond to mounting scientific evidence of potentially calamitous climate change? Earlier this year – and after no less than eight years of careful deliberation – academic experts delivered their response: Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argued that global emissions should peak before 2025 and then decline by no less than 43% by 2030. Not one for mincing his words, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, declared that otherwise, the world would remain on a “fast track to climate disaster”.

The 2020s are the critical decade for climate action. Working Group III maintained that they are when “major transitions” must begin in all sectors of society, especially those such as agriculture and transport that have largely escaped stringent policy controls. It was careful to maintain that such transitions, while costly for some, would be broadly beneficial in the long term, greatly reducing the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Decarbonisation is already underway in many parts of the world, but must accelerate to avoid dangerous climate change. After all, the year 2030 is less than 90 months from now. Currently, however, emissions are heading in precisely the wrong direction, rising by around 12% in the last decade alone. The policy solutions to this are relatively well understood. One of the more startling findings of the IPCC report was that policies that reduced the demand for resources and transport could reduce emissions by a staggering 40-70% by 2040.

The main obstacles to deeper and faster decarbonisation are not scientific or even technological (most of the solutions are already known) either.  They are political.  The UK Prime Minister openly acknowledged this in 2021.

Politics has repeatedly bedevilled attempts to craft successful international treaties, dating right back to the creation of the IPCC in the late 1980s. It even bedevilled the completion of Working Group III’s report: governments haggled over the technical summary for policy makers, peppering the text with over 70 footnotes. As attention returns to the domestic political challenge of implementing the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, can society summon the political will to decarbonise itself?

Working Group III pinpointed some modest successes. Societies can, it maintained, deliberately decarbonise themselves, but only by adopting the right policy packages and then quickly ratcheting them up over time. In the last decade or so, at least 18 countries have done this, first peaking their emissions and then systematically reducing them over time.

Our own research confirms that the UK is amongst the 18 so-called ‘peak and decline’ countries. It has benefited from what could be termed a strategy of depoliticisation. The Climate Change Act – which established the legal framework governing decarbonisation in 2008 – was enacted because the main political parties struck a cross-party agreement to insulate the issue from the vagaries of daily politics. A new body, staffed by technical experts, was established to offer impartial advice on targets and conduct progress reports. On the advice of that body – the Committee on Climate Change – MPs used secondary legislation to amend the Act (so it aims for net zero emissions by 2050) with barely any discussion in Parliament. Only later did MPs establish a citizens assembly to debate the precise policy pathways to net zero.

However, it is erroneous to assume that strategies of depoliticisation will deliver the deep-seated, cross-sectoral transformations envisioned by the IPCC. Social scientists argue that they will be manifestly more challenging than the decarbonisation of a single sector such as electricity generation, impinging directly on the daily lives of commuters, homeowners and, importantly, voters. And like all transformations, they will inevitably create winners and losers. This is why politicians have found it more comfortable to debate targets and broad strategies for 2050, rather than precise changes in taxation policy in the annual budget.

To be fair, the climate issue has politicized a lot since 2008: think back to the school strikes of 2019, the citizens assembly in 2020 or the ongoing direct actions of Extinction Rebellion.  According to Ed Miliband MP, one of the original architects of the Act, politicization is a good thing; it keeps politicians on their toes and prevents a cross-party consensus from becoming too cosy.  Decades of political science research confirms his point: when politicians perceive themselves to be under less electoral pressure, they tend give an issue less priority.  And to a large extent, this explains why the pace of climate policy making has slowed in the UK and emissions are not falling at a fast enough rate to hit short and medium term targets.

Social scientists can understand and inform our understanding of this impasse in climate politics. Firstly, they can illuminate what sort of policies publics. While public attitudes towards climate change are relatively well understood, the same cannot be said about attitudes to specific policy interventions. The standard advice from economists is to establish a price for carbon, via a carbon tax or emissions trading system. Yet emissions trading is way too complex for most publics to understand or pay attention to. And taxes (including eco-taxes) tend to trigger automatic opposition from publics, particularly if they have regressive effects and/or trust in decision makers and decision-making institutions is low. A recent literature review usefully underlined the need for more research on public attitudes to a wider portfolio of policy instruments.

Second, what about politicians? In representative democracies, we elect them to make difficult policy design choices on our behalf. Indeed strategies of depoliticisation rely on politicians believing that climate change is a popular and legitimate policy priority. The three main parties continue to buy into the general aim of achieving net zero by 2050. But with some notable exceptions, little is known about how individual politicians weigh voter demands for more (or less) stringent climate action against other priorities. As citizens we say we want politicians to lead on climate change, but as voters we also want them to address rising energy prices and boost economic growth. All too often, some politicians claim they are trapped between the need to secure re-election and voters holding multiple, often conflicting expectations.

Third, social science explores what sort of political processes and institutions publics prefer. The 2020 Climate Assembly is a good place to look for evidence. It has been widely interpreted as suggesting that the public perceives net zero to be an important and urgent policy objective. The public wants decision makers “to get on with it”. In fact, if politicians can paint a sufficiently compelling vision of a net zero UK even more voters are likely to buy into the idea.

That said, the Assembly’s 556-page report contained many nuances that policy designers would do well to reflect on and formally respond to. For example, while Assembly members wanted politicians to demonstrate more active leadership, they were unwilling to give them carte blanche to impose transformations on them in a top down fashion. Members recommended that all voters should receive more information to inform their thinking; in fact, they wanted the public to remain actively involved in decision making, especially on politically sensitive matters such as travel (to foreign holidays), diet (principally meat consumption) and large technological fixes (such as carbon capture and storage).

The challenge, in summary, is to find new forms and processes of politics that simultaneously politicize and depoliticize climate change. Some depoliticisation is surely needed to safeguard the long-term collective goal of decarbonization from short term political challenges, such as those that are emanating from the right wing of the Tory party. The Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, has repeatedly warned how they risk degrading investor and public confidence.

Yet without some ongoing politicization, perhaps facilitated and informed by more deliberative forms of democracy, politicians are unlikely to feel under sufficient pressure to adopt the short term policies that the UK urgently needs to keep deep decarbonization on track.

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About the author

Andrew Jordan is Professor of Environmental Policy at the Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia and Principal Investigator of the ERC funded DeepDCarb project.