International Association for Impact Assessment

Let's ground our climate castles in the sky

  • Guest post by Emerging Technologies and Climate Change Sections

    Let's ground our climate castles in the sky

    Imagine, for a while, that you are an official in charge of the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs). You duly attend various international meetings, coordinate GHG emission inventories, commission modelling of future GHG emission trends, and prepare climate change mitigation actions. You might also be involved in the design of carbon taxes, emission trading, carbon offsetting initiatives, or climate investment and expenditure reviews.

    The job is difficult, but from time to time, you are proud to see some achievements such as securing financial and regulatory support to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, agricultural practices with lower carbon footprints, or enhancement of forest carbon storage. Yet, alarmingly, these successes do not match the cumulative growth in GHG emissions associated with multiple new projects in industry, energy production, transport, waste management, land use, agriculture, and forestry.

    You are not systematically involved in decision making on these development proposals and may understandably feel frustrated. At times, you are asked for comments, but such invitations tend to come late, and there is not much you can say that would change things. There are no easy-to-use GHG reduction standards. And, actually, planners and project developers are not required to systematically consider alternatives with lower carbon footprints or explore options for offsetting GHG emissions.

    Facing the need to use your time effectively, you focus on your core job duties:  devise rigorous GHG emission inventories, analyze future trends, and promote ambitious GHG reduction strategies. However, the time left for effective action is shrinking and the latest international negotiations do not help much.

    Not a very cheerful prospect, is it? But wait: our purpose is to help overcome this slow progress and sense of frustration. We’re here to propose an important solution for consideration.

    First, we need to understand that the above illustration is not an allegory but a reality in most countries. Growing protests over massive investments in fossil fuel projects since the adoption of the Paris Agreement (or recent publicized examples at COP25 in Madrid, e.g., over a major oil sands proposal in Canada) show a systemic disconnect between our climate change mitigation ambitions and real-life decision making. Beyond these most visible illustrations are multitudes of development plans that open doors for GHG-emitting activities and a plethora of investments that are bound to cumulatively increase GHG emissions.

    This is a consequence of how we currently treat GHG emissions. Greenhouse gases are still primarily perceived as a global issue, and decision making so far does not recognize them as standard pollutants. We don’t put into practice the principle “think globally, act locally,” and instead treat individual contributions of local activities to the global climate problem as too small to be of concern. We are asking countries and societies to reduce GHG emissions, but have typically not been applying a “polluter-pays principle” to individual GHG producers. And we approach GHG offsetting as an option—not an obligation.

    To address this crisis, all available solutions need to be considered. Unquestionably, economic instruments such as carbon pricing, carbon trading, and offsetting create important incentives and disincentives for changing our behavior, whether corporate, public, or individual. It is heartening that 57 carbon pricing initiatives covering 20% of global GHG emissions are being implemented or scheduled around the world. But the reduction needed is far more dramatic: projected to require at least an 80% reduction by 2050 in GHGs emissions below the 1990 baseline emission level. What if our reliance on economic instruments may not suffice, because making a project more costly does not necessarily prevent, or even reduce, such emissions?

    Many environmental conventions are directly linked to routine environmental decision making.

    However, despite their importance, this linkage did not occur adequately with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) or the Paris Agreement (2016). Absent is emphasis on environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA), tools which are particularly valuable in identifying potential GHG emissions and available mitigation measures along with other important environmental, health, and social concerns. Their early application can identify well-performing or no-regret options that support multiple objectives and do not necessarily entail excessive costs to affected societies. Moreover, these tools also help promote transparent public debates on proposed actions while supplementing expert-driven analyses.

    These tools are readily available. EIAs support decision making on proposed investments in all countries globally. Similarly, SEAs are applied to development plans and programs (and occasionally policies) in major global economies. However, only a few noticeable actors currently use them for climate-related considerations.

    Expressed frankly:  we’ve been paying inadequate attention to GHG emissions when deciding on public and private investments. This gap between our climate change mitigation ambitions and prevailing investment decision making is no longer acceptable; it’s a disconnect that seriously constrains our common effort to avert the climate emergency before us.

    Given the growing calls for “all-out” action in the face of the fast-progressing changes in our climatic conditions and related environmental tipping points, we urge officials and practitioners dealing with climate change and environmental protection to explore all opportunities for considering GHG emissions in routine investment planning and decision making. Let’s examine whether we can bridge terminological, methodological, and procedural differences, and use our shared strength to approach GHG emissions with at least the same attention and rigor we give to “visible” pollution (air, water, soil, waste, etc.).

    We face common threats and must work better together as it becomes increasingly clear that voluntary pledges and market-based mechanisms currently cannot avert major changes in our climatic conditions. Our societies need to ground their GHG emission reduction hopes—current castles in the sky―in the way they decide on their development plans and projects.

    Prepared by the International Association for Impact Assessment Sections

    Emerging Technologies Section

    Jiří Dusík (Co-chair)  

    Alan Bond (Co-chair) 

    Climate Change Section

    Weston Fisher (Co-chair)

    Phil Byer (Section member)

    Co-signed:  Riki Therivel, Thomas Fischer, Ivana Šarić, Peter Croal, and Miltos Ladikas

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of IAIA. 

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