IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

13.5 Implications for global climate change policy

This chapter has provided information on the national and international policy options available to governments and the global community to address global climate change. We note that there are many tools available and that each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. While further studies are likely to yield additional insights, particularly with respect to the implementation of policy choices, it is unlikely that the suite of policies available to governments will grow substantially in the future.

With this in mind, it is useful to consider several questions in the light of the following background information. Since the IPCC was formed nearly 20 years ago atmospheric GHG concentrations have gone up from 354 to 385 ppm (or approximately 25% of the total increase since the pre-industrial level of 270 ppm) as the emissions of GHG have risen (see http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ftp/trends/CO2/maunaloa. CO2). We have measurement data that indicates that the world is warming, and we can calculate, given the data on past and current emissions, that there is at the present time approximately 0.6 degrees of additional warming ‘in the bank’ (See IPCC, 2007a). Therefore:

  • Why has the application of policies been so modest?
  • Why is the global community not on a faster implementation track?
  • Why have – at the very least – hedging strategies not emerged in many more countries?
  • Is the scale of the problem too large for current institutions?
  • Is there a lack of information on potential impacts or on low-cost options?
  • Has policy-making been influenced by the special interests of a few?

Assuming that policies have been carefully designed, there appears to be no need to delay their implementation – indeed, there is an abundance of information in climate change literature that continues to suggest the non-climate benefits of many of these policies and the potential climate benefits of many non-climate policies. Moreover, as outlined in other chapters of this report, with a few exceptions, these policies would have only a very small impact on national economic growth – albeit the impact would be large in absolute terms.

One answer to these questions may lie in the complex nature of the policy-making processes – both for climate change policy and, even more importantly, in other areas at the national and sub-national level. For example, some of the most significant emissions reductions in both developed and developing countries have occurred at this intersection of policies (e.g. the switch to gas in the UK, the Chinese energy efficiency programmes for energy security, the Brazilian development of a bio-fuel-driven transport fleet, or the trend in the 1970s and 1980s toward nuclear power). Conversely, some of the most significant increases in emissions have been the result of non-climate policy priorities which have overwhelmed climate mitigation efforts (e.g. decisions in Canada to exploit the tar sands reserves, those in Brazil to clear forests for agriculture and those in the USA to promote coal-powered electricity generation to enhance energy security). Assessing how these mega-decisions are made and how they can be linked with climate change policies is the topic of chapter 12 and may be crucial to the future.

A second answer may be linked to the over-riding drive by all governments (reflecting both corporate and individual desires) for cheap and secure energy and for economic growth, to the competitive nature of the global economy and to the perception that any step, however modest, will disadvantage some special interest. Finding a way to mitigate the impacts on the losers – as well as create new winners – may be a key to accelerating the pace of policy implementation. Most importantly perhaps, finding ways to eliminate the climate of ‘fear’ that prevents actions (or more aggressive actions) and to promote a climate of ‘opportunity’ may be crucial to moving beyond modest steps. As outlined in other chapters of this report, the impact of mitigation efforts on national economic growth is relatively small, although the economic impacts differ among countries and may be larger than the impacts of other environmental problems. Mitigation is also more complicated as it involves more political actors and greater levels of cooperation and/or coordination. In this respect, better estimates of the risks, costs and benefits of climate policies in terms of market and no-market terms as well as ethical terms may enable governments to make informed decisions.

From the literature reviewed in this chapter, it is clear that governments, companies and civil society have been actively grappling with these questions. The very diversity of the policy mix, the activism of NGOs and the wealth of modelling, research and analysis (even if, to date, these have yielded only modest changes in emissions) collectively provide a framework for taking additional steps.

New research might provide further insight into why some policies have succeeded – and why others have not. In particular, additional work is needed to bolster the currently sparse body of research addressing the concerns of developing countries. Understanding how to accelerate policy adoption may be the most important research topic for the immediate future. As this chapter and others have noted, technology and policy tools do exist for taking that significant first step in addressing climate change. Potential future agreements can take advantage of this learning to encourage economically prudent and politically feasible actions.