A quiet revolution is currently under way in how countries are addressing climate change. More countries than ever before are passing credible and significant national climate change laws. This is the clear message from a landmark study, which is being presented today at the U.S. Senate, in Washington D.C.
The 700-page study covering countries responsible for 88 percent of global carbon emissions is co-authored by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) and the London School of Economics (LSE), and is the most comprehensive review to date on almost 500 pieces of legislation that have been passed in 66 countries since 1997.
The results show that legislators around the world are taking active steps to develop national climate laws and that this is occurring even though international negotiations have failed to provide a level-playing field.
Key points of the report:
- 64 of 66 countries have progressed or are progressing significantly with climate and energy-related legislation.
- Much of the substantive legislative progress on climate change in 2013 took place in emerging economies, including China and Mexico, that are predicted to provide the motor to global economic growth in coming decades.
- 61 out of 66 countries have passed laws to promote domestic, clean sources of energy and 54 have legislated to increase energy efficiency.
- Whilst the legislative approach often differs (whether directly inspired by climate change, energy efficiency, energy security or competitiveness), national legislation is achieving similar results - improved energy security, greater resource-efficiency and cleaner, lower carbon economic growth.
- While current national legislation is cumulatively not enough to avoid perilous climate change, it is putting in place the mechanisms to measure, report and verify emissions, a pre-requisite for a global climate treaty in Paris in 2015.
The key message from the report is that countries are enacting clean energy policies at such a pace that they have opened up the political space for reaching a global deal. By implementing national legislation and regulations, the political conditions for a global agreement in 2015 are being actively created from the bottom-up.
Contrary to conventional wisdom
This point is worth dwelling on as political debates regularly focus on the conventional wisdom that we cannot protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time.
However, as with most conventional wisdom, this notion rests on a pile of unexamined assumptions. Even though we don't have an international agreement on climate change - which would help create a level-playing field for countries and businesses - countries are nevertheless moving ahead (except Japan and Australia that are reversing previous legislation).
According to this new study, it seems that countries shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable and in an increasing number of countries climate action is no longer perceived as a drag on growth, but more as an unavoidable prerequisite for sustained economic and technological development.
Different roads, same experiences
Even though each country has its own unique national circumstances and its own approach to tackle climate change, most countries have had similar experiences along the way.
Regardless of where new pollution standards have been proposed, doomsayers have claimed higher standards would decimate industries. Just as when we removed leaded fuel in our cars or banned cancer-causing chemicals in plastics, it was argued that businesses would move to places with no regulation or simply die out. When we agreed to phase out CFC-gasses to rebuild our ozone layer, critics said businesses would suffer a quiet death.
However, the fundamental problem with the above concerns is that the critics don't believe in the ingenuity and creativity of businesses. Yet nothing supports those claims. We still drive our cars, have refrigerators, air-conditioners and deodorants. Partly due to the environmental regulations, the same products are just more efficient and less polluting now.
And this realization is gaining ground as evidence continues to build up around the world.
Sizeable gap between policy and science
However, it is still short of what scientists recommend. If we are to have more than a "reasonable" chance of keeping global warming below two degrees above the level of preindustrial times, we know that we can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere until 2050. "Reasonable", meaning 80 per cent chance, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.
Adding to this, we annually add more than 30 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere, which means -- if we continue business as usual -- that we have less than 20 years before we break our carbon budget and risk accelerating global warming.
In other words, we stand before an extraordinary challenge that requires extraordinary solutions. The current initiatives are still short of what is needed. However, compared to where we were 10 or 20 years ago, we have not taken baby steps. We have taken significant steps in the right direction.
This study underlines this trend and given the waves of progress that are going on under the radar in almost every single country, there is now a great deal of hope that we are on the road towards a legally binding global agreement in Paris next year.