Climate Change: How Parliamentarians Can Turn Down the Heat

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Scientists, with near total unanimity, project that we are moving towards a 4°C temperature rise by the end of the century, the effects of which will impact us all.  Some nations or regions will be affected more profoundly or more quickly than others, but considerable consequences will be an inescapable reality in all corners of the globe. 

The recent “Turn Down The Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided” report by the World Bank illustrates what a 4°C warmer world would look like, and pits that picture against one of a 1,5°C to 2°C rise – a scenario that is still well within our reach, if we act now and commit to strong and sustained policy action.  As a reminder, this is what we are facing in a business-as-usual scenario:

“The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.”

To avoid this scenario, international commitments at the global level are indispensable.  In an ideal world, summits such as the Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the UNFCCC  would lead to global targets that could be translated into legislation for ratification at the national level.  Unfortunately, these ‘COPs’ have fallen far short so far.  Scientists project that, even if current pledges are met, we will still be facing a 3,5°C to 4°C warmer world, if not worse.  More action is needed, and it is needed now.

Legislators at the national level can act by shaping policy frameworks that allow for adaptation and mitigation, and that encourage considerable curbing of carbon emissions.  Parliamentarians in high-risk countries that are already facing the effects of climate change, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to be more prone to taking action.  Small Island States, South-Asia and Oceania, for example, have experienced extreme weather events of such a devastating nature that skepticism towards climate change is increasingly less fashionable in these parts (Australia, unfortunately, is bucking this trend with increasing and quite inexplicable fortitude).  Furthermore, as temperatures increase the vulnerability of these regions will worsen: climate change is set to be felt much more strongly in the tropics, where sea levels will rise more quickly and extreme weather events will be even more extreme. 

Faced with recent disasters and worrying projections, in recent years India and Bangladesh have all taken to investing in renewable energy in a bid to offset their carbon footprints.  While even the increasingly ambitious national targets of a country of India’s size and impact will only go so far, legislating for renewable energy and energy efficiency does deliver results.  A significant and quick reduction of CO2 emissions is necessary to minimize sea level rise and ocean acidification, both of which are detrimental to coastal areas: acidification harms coral reefs and disturbs the ocean’s ecosystem, endangering fishery and leaving coastlines more prone to floods as the water rises and natural barriers (reefs) are broken down.   Beyond this, investments in adaptation and mitigation such as the building of dykes and coastal protection systems are on the rise – such systems have their limits, however, and how long they will be able to keep the worst at bay remains to be seen. 

Other legislative levers, such as the introduction of carbon taxes or the scaling back of fossil fuel subsidies, have proved difficult in the face of strong political opposition.  Fossil fuel subsidies are still estimated at nearly half a trillion USD per year  - a figure that dwarfs the supposed ‘economically unsound’ investments required for large scale renewable energy projects.  Climate financing is perhaps the pivotal challenge ahead for parliamentarians around the globe.  Budgeting for carbon cuts, adaptation, mitigation and so on is arguably the most important and efficient way in which parliamentarians can help avoid the 4°C scenario, but the political will required to propel climate change to the top of political agendas has not yet been cemented.   

Even where budgets cannot be shaped or stretched quite far enough, however, parliamentarians can pave the road ahead by informing their constituents, pushing their governments, engaging with NGOs and civil society organisations, and by setting the example.  Pakistan’s parliament recently went green, and the European Parliament launched a first ‘Citizen Initiative’ on the right to water, an issue much impacted by climate change. 

There’s much to be done, but with the informed support of parliaments and parliamentarians, we might still be able to shape our own scenario. 

This is a blog post by Lotte Geunis of the United Nations Development Programme.