Climate change—the impetus for the transition to a low-carbon economy—is unlike other previous threats to civilization. It suffers from issues of uncertainty and complexity; is global in its cause and effect; the long term location of harm is most severe in the developing world; and its global public good nature creates free-riding and coordination problems. This explains why the forces of personal, political and corporate inertia have triumphed to veto the major lifestyle changes required to confront the challenge. This is nevertheless a Pyrrhic victory. Politics as usual will likely only crystallize in favor of strong action when climate change become scientifically or economically (too costly) irreversible. Getting the politics right is the condition precedent for success.
As transport and energy are the largest and fastest growing sectoral sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the developed world, addressing these provides both the symbolism and global leadership necessary to convince other countries. On the energy side, McKinsey & Co. has reported that many zero-cost policies exist for tackling energy efficiency; these are low lying fruit that should be plucked first. Also, the developed world needs to seriously reconsider nuclear as a long term energy option. It should also invest in research to perfect carbon-capture and storage (CCS) for coal plants to address the short-term energy challenge. Requiring CCS for new installations can provide the incentives to perfect the technology. On the transport side, a carbon tax should provide a minimum threshold for fuel prices to reduce the volatility of incentives for alternative sources of transport energy and greater efficiency. For many developed countries this also requires long-term planning and investment in both public intra and intercity transport links. Government investment will have to supplement airline industry funds to develop a technological solution to reduce GHG emissions. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a modal alternative to long-distance air travel, so a technological breakthrough is necessary.
Andrés Drew is an MSc candidate in environmental regulation at the LSE