One of the big topics of conversation here at the Royal Society last week was (as described by one of our panellists, Jeremy Leggett) “the most significant event in human history”. That is, the latest round of the international climate change negotiations that concluded at the end of last year with the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change. We were joined by an expert panel of speakers and around 200 people to discuss what this new Agreement might mean for the UK.
What were the ‘take home’ messages?
A number of issues were raised during the discussions: from the role of science to the implications for the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget. From the myriad of topics discussed, I’ve pulled out a few of the themes that I felt came through most strongly. If you missed the event, you can also watch a summary video at the bottom of this blog post.
The Paris Agreement: “All positive”
All the panellists agreed that the Paris negotiations were a success, on the upper bounds of what could have been expected. John Loughhead asserted that, from a UK Government perspective, the outcomes were nearly “all positive”. In particular, the periodic review cycle was “better than anything we’ve had before”.
Why was this? Tributes went to the French leadership and organisation in building transparency and trust between countries. But credit was also given to the leadership role played by the UK Government in helping to raise the ambition levels.
Most importantly, it was felt that Paris was a success where other negotiations had failed because, as Nick Stern put it, “people wanted it” (see this blog post for more details of why that might be). For example, Jon Williams described how climate change has become one of the top business issues for many CEOs because of the risks posed by climate change as well as the opportunities from tackling the issue.
Joanna Haigh highlighted how the negotiation process was a good story of where science has informed policy – the Paris Agreement calls on the best available science in many places.
What does it mean for the UK?
The panellists also agreed that the Paris Agreement, whilst very positive, marked only a first step – the international momentum generated needs to be maintained and built upon.
Looking specifically at the UK context, Matthew Bell discussed what the Agreement might mean for the UK policy – our ongoing carbon budget process and long term emissions reductions target enshrined in the 2008 Climate Change Act. This is something that the Committee on Climate Change are in the process of considering (their initial response is outlined in this letter written to Amber Rudd MP last month).
Matthew Bell stressed that, while all the evidence is still being considered, the Fifth Carbon Budget should leave options open for increasing ambition if needed. John Loughhead reiterated this point; that dealing with climate change is a ‘learning-by-doing’ story and policy will need to take into account the changing context and technology as we go along.
“A hypocrisy problem, not a leadership problem”
Despite the general positivity, audience members raised concerns that, while the UK Government played a positive leadership role in raising the ambition of the Paris Agreement, climate policies at home were lacking that same ambition.
The UK is on track to meet its current Carbon Budget, but the discussions indicated that the opportunities presented by the low carbon economy were not being maximised. Panellist Jeremy Leggett summarised it succinctly as “a hypocrisy problem, not a leadership problem”.
The UK 2008 Climate Change Act is based upon the goal of reducing emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. An important aspect of the Paris Agreement was a long term goal: net zero emissions early in the second half of the century. How the UK will help deliver that was a key question raised by Matthew Bell, but one that still requires a lot of analysis to properly answer.
The role of science
A key research priority will therefore be to understand pathways beyond 2050 and what a carbon neutral world might look like.
Joanna Haigh flagged that further research is needed to support climate change adaptation decisions, for instance around better understanding regional climate variations and extreme weather (see our report on Resilience to extreme weather for more on this) as well as the relationships between climate change and human health. An important area for science to address is in the linkages between different aspects of the system: climate, biosphere and social and economic systems.
Finally, science and innovation will be central to delivering some of the solutions needed for transition to the zero carbon world set out by the Paris Agreement as the long term goal.
If you’re interested in finding out which bits of the evening caught the audience’s attention, we’ve pulled together this storify of the event.
Read other InVerba commentary on climate change.
Register for our PolicyLab on 24 March “Clearing the air: how to tackle air quality and climate change?”