Coal by Thomas Bresson – COPYRIGHT © (CC BY 2.0) – FLICKR
Zero carbon emissions, before the end of the century. This is what it will take to stabilize global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the objective countries have set during the Paris Agreement. Academics and government agencies around the world agree reaching zero emissions is technically possible. The key is to rely on five pillars:
- switch to zero-carbon electricity (did you know that renewable power plants already account for 62% of new power plants built globally?);
- use that carbon-free electricity as much as possible (with electric cars, electric heating, electric cooking, etc.),
- switch to low-carbon materials (such as wood instead of cement for construction), and low-carbon diets (such as meat-free diets);
- improve efficiency and reduce waste in all sectors, including energy and food;
- and stop deforestation and grow more forests instead.
To help Latin American countries apply these measures in a politically-feasible way, we just published a working paper suggesting they focus on three aspects:
- Governments can design sectoral targets to put countries on track towards zero carbon.
The objective is not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing polluting coal power plants with slightly more efficient coal power plants may be cheap and reduce emissions, but it will not contribute meaningfully to full decarbonization. Instead, governments can use sectoral targets to monitor progress towards zero emissions, such as reaching 27% renewable power in 2030, getting to 10% of electric or plugin-hybrid cars in the roads by 2025, making wood the default material for new constructions, getting to 50% of commuters in a city to use public transport or bikes by 2020 or stopping deforestation by 2021. One way to derive these targets, suggested by the Paris Agreement, is to build national roadmaps towards long-term decarbonization.
- Governments can then design pragmatic climate policies to enforce these targets, paying particular attention to distributional impacts.
Emission reduction policies, even if they are good for the planet overall, have potential to create organized groups of losers: poor and middle-class households facing higher energy and food prices due to energy subsidy removal or carbon pricing, or powerful lobbyist and thousands of coal workers opposing the abrupt stranding of coal-based energy. To be successful, climate policies may try to avoid concentrated losses in the first place. Instead of closing down all coal power plants in a few years, governments can ban the building of new dirty power plants and organize the progressive phase down of carbon-intensive sectors. In fact, most existing climate policies work like this. Energy efficiency standards on cars, appliance and buildings apply only to new equipment, patiently waiting for old cars, old appliance, and old buildings to be discarded.
Regardless of the countries effort, some losses cannot be avoided. Governments may want or need to compensate for those. For instance, increased spending on social protection can correct distributional impacts of energy subsidy removal or carbon taxation.
- Finally, governments can align climate policies with local development priories
Even if climate policies enforce decarbonization targets while avoiding or compensating concentrated losses, they are less likely to make it through the political process if they don’t answer to pressing development needs. Climate types like to start their papers with a sentence in the likes of “climate change is the greatest challenge of the twenty first century”; but in the real world, there are other challenges, and reducing carbon emissions is seldom the priority in any country.
Fortunately, many climate policies come with immediate local benefits. Public transport can reduce congestion and pollution that plague many cities in the world. Renewable energy and electric cars can reduce local air pollution that kills millions every year. And carbon taxes can provide revenue to build infrastructure, fund social protection while reducing informality and tax evasion.
The objectives of the Paris Agreement are very ambitious and the transition towards zero net emissions could be disruptive. A pragmatic and holistic policy package, that acknowledges and responds to the concerns for vulnerable population and industries can boost development and transform a global risk into a world of opportunities.