There is no longer any debate about the reality of human-made climate change. Indeed, a political harmony is building around the concern global warming will have on the wellbeing of citizens. However, we are yet to see a genuine cross-party consensus on the type of interventions that will deliver a low carbon pathway. Yes, we often hear that a mix of technologies and policies will be needed to bring to bear a comprehensive low carbon outcome. But the nature and composition of these measures could lead to any number of permutations that often lead to a rather static debate about ‘what needs to be done’. Ultimately time is the casualty of this process.
So the biggest obstacle governments in industrialised economies have to overcome in achieving low carbon transitions is to put at stake their political capital and follow through with their vision. They need to confront the fear of being pushed out of office, and have faith in their sense of civic duty which presumably brought them to public service. It means to have an open and transparent platform for a genuine deliberation on the climate issue, including an open discussion about consumption. Moreover, governments should recognise that citizens are caught in the business of living, and a number of studies have shown that there is a gap between attitudes towards climate change and the behavioural changes needed to make meaningful inroads in mobilising people towards low carbon lifestyles. Therefore, citizens are looking to governments to start working on the social and technological structures that would help achieve deep reductions in emissions.
One area that governments should prioritise is to raise resources for R&D and large public works for technology innovation and help bring low carbon technologies into the market. It means moving away from the emissions trading scheme in favour of a well-designed (but most of all well-intended) carbon tax for technology investment. The various emissions trading schemes have done nothing but to pioneer complicated and unworkable economic models in defense of market-based carbon reduction mechanisms. Governments now have the window of opportunity to do away with such time-consuming mechanisms, and put a ‘politically negotiated’ price on carbon to raise significant revenue for low carbon technology investments. Thus, this calls a move from emissions reduction to revenue generation for clean technologies, and rather than focus on raising the price of fossil fuels, there should be a deliberate policy to make low carbon technologies cheap. In the end, this is about bringing the public sector to the centre of not just policy formulation but also to be the practical benefactor of the transition to a low carbon campaign. History reminds us that public investment has been behind some of the most important technological breakthroughs, and there are lessons to draw from the past as we move forward.
Yacob Mulugetta, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey