Trees, Two Degress and the Failure of Climate Policies

11/06/2013 12:26 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

Any last vestiges of faith in the ability of policy makers to implement credible emission reduction strategies must surely have gone up in flames last week, with the news that Europe, in order to meet its renewable energy obligations, is importing trees from the US to burn in power stations. This sorry state of affairs is the norm, rather than the exception. Anywhere you look, you are greeted with failure, whether the millions of pounds spent on myriad small scale household interventions which have had no discernible impact on people's attitudes to climate change and energy use, all the way up to efforts at building global climate change agreements, the bankruptcy of which is spelled out in detail in a new report from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

In the report, Modifying the 2OC Target, Oliver Geden, a Senior Associate at the SWP, details how the desire to avoid warming the world by an average of more than two degrees centigrade has acted as a guiding principle for EU climate policy since the mid-1990's. The target was adopted as a global goal in 2010, even though serious questions had been raised as to whether such a level of warming could indeed protect the world from dangerous climate change. However, with no plan B, policy makers stuck with the target for want of any other ideas about how to steer a course away from a future of ever increasing weather extremes. Geden lays out the evidence which shows that it will now no longer be possible to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to prevent the world warming by more than two degrees centigrade. The two degree target therefore no longer has any function, either as a shared symbolic goal for climate policy, nor as a binding agreement which will drive reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases. In light of these facts, the report seeks to explore the options available to policy makers, though options is perhaps a misleading term for what are, in effect, merely different forms of surrender to fossil fuel and other vested interests.

The choices are either to (i) change the language used to describe what the two degree limit means, (ii) alter the assumptions about the relationship between emissions and warming, (iii) substitute two degrees for a higher limit, or (iv) abandon the idea of targets altogether. Geden describes the dilemma facing the EU - any weakening of the commitment to the two degree target will undermine the EU's status as a global leader in climate policy.

One idea not explored in the report, and absent from the twenty year process of defining an acceptable level of climate change, is to involve the other 7 billion people on the planet who have to shoulder the consequences of the decisions made by a handful of Western elites. This should not be considered a radical suggestion, given the democratic credentials said to characterise Western societies. Combine that idea of a democratic citizenry with the enormity of the impacts projected to arise from climate change, alongside the failure of existing approaches to climate mitigation, and the case for greater participation appears unanswerable. This is not just a moral argument. Opening up the process to the people means the chances of finding a solution are greatly enhanced. By letting a thousand flowers bloom we generate the diversity of ideas which offer our best hope of reducing the suffering caused by climate change. In addition, people will have a greater stake in the solutions implemented, and so will be more willing partners in the politics of climate change. What have we got to lose? After all, it is difficult to imagine anyone coming up with as perverse an idea as importing American trees to burn in European power stations, all in the name of renewable energy.