With Covid-19 dominating the news, it’s easy to forget the greater threat posed by climate change. Whilst recent months have seen a fall in global emissions, we’re still dumping tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing the concentration of CO2 and hence the level of warming. The Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity to act differently; to learn from our ability to bring about rapid change and to focus the recovery on delivering enduring cuts in emissions. Greater confidence in the prospect of such change would be well placed if those countries purporting to lead on climate change had an appropriate legislative agenda. However, in our new paper in Climate Policy, we analyse two self-proclaimed climate ‘progressive’ nations, the UK and Sweden, and demonstrate just how far removed current policy frameworks are from meeting the commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

Our analysis starts by taking the temperature commitments and principals of equity (represented by CBDR&RC[1]) within the Paris Agreement at face value. Building on the IPCC’s latest report, we determine a high-level global carbon budget that aligns with the language of “pursue … 1.5°C” and stay “well below 2°C”. Focussing on energy emissions, we divide this budget between the Paris Agreement’s categories of   “developing” and “developed” country parties. We then review approaches for apportioning the “developed” country” budget between respective nations, before deriving UK and Swedish ‘Paris-compliant’ carbon budgets. Although uncertainties exist, we judge these budgets are sufficiently robust to provide a quantitative basis for developing national mitigation strategies.

So how do our conclusions stack up against current UK and Swedish policy frameworks?

Whilst the UK’s ‘net zero’ legislation has a much stronger scientific basis than Sweden’s Climate Law, neither have a clearly defined carbon budget to the end of the century. Careful scrutiny of official documents reveals that the implied budgets of both nations exceed our estimate by, at the very least, a factor of two (range 2.2 to 3.2). The implications of this are hard to overplay. If all nations exceeded their respective carbon budgets by the same proportion, global emissions would be more in line with staying ‘well below 2.5-3°C’.

The paper details multiple reasons for the huge difference between our estimates of Paris-compliant carbon budgets and those underpinning the UK and Swedish positions. However, two reasons stand out as key:

  1. In expropriating a large share of the global carbon budget, these wealthy nations reinforce historic inequalities. In contrast, our alternative pathways take seriously the clear equity steer enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
  2. The UK and Sweden transfer much of the mitigation burden on to future generations to develop and deploy planetary-scale ‘negative emission technologies’ (NETs). We argue for R&D into the viability, scalability and sustainability of such options, but that today’s mitigation strategies need to be developed assuming NETs are not realised at scale.

Similar criticism can be levelled at many if not all industrialised nations. Away from the eloquent rhetoric of decoupling and polished images of technological solutions, today’s climate strategies implicitly reject Paris in favour of placating business-as–usual.

As our paper concludes, delivering mitigation rates aligned with “well below 2°C” is now incompatible with the dominant economic model. Whilst a revolutionary shift to zero carbon technologies is a prerequisite of Paris, it is far from sufficient. Only if accompanied by policies informed by equity, within and between nations, and a reframing of what constitutes value, progress and good lives, is a timely transformation to a decarbonised future possible. Perhaps if there is any silver lining to the Covid tragedy, it is that we have seen that rapid and progressive change for the collective good is possible.

Read the full paper.

[1] Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674927818301230

Kevin Anderson is a professor of energy and climate change, working between the Universities of Manchester, Uppsala and Bergen.

John Broderick researches and lectures on energy and climate change in the School of Engineering, University of Manchester.

Isak Stoddard is a PhD researcher at CEMUS, Uppsala University, analysing the Swedish response to the Paris Agreement and what this implies for regional and local councils.