Do you remember the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos? “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act” – that was Greta Thunberg’s impassioned plea to the participants, and the rest of the world. Now, almost two years after her remarkable speech, the international community is celebrating the fifth birthday of the Paris Climate Agreement. On this anniversary, the focus has been firmly on the updates by individual state parties to their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But there’s little to celebrate: only 21 of 197 states have submitted new or updated plans, excluding most of the major emitters. And concrete climate protection measures are few and far between.
It’s like the world is in a state of shocked paralysis. The general tenor of the debate on cli-mate protection is pessimistic. We talk about tipping points and missed climate targets, and read about forest fires, floods, and tornados. And, of course, all of this is just a foretaste of the catastrophe that’s coming in a hundred years if we don’t act now. A certain degree of fear is necessary to appreciate the climate crisis for what it is: a crisis. But fear is not going to help us tackle this crisis. We know from psychology that positive reports are more likely to spur us into action than negative ones. For all the unpalatable realities of climate change, we also need inspiring examples, success stories, and rallying visions of the future. In a nut-shell, climate policy has to be framed differently.
The co-benefits concept is a good place to start. It underpins the research on renewable energies undertaken here at the IASS by the COBENEFITS research project. Co-benefits refer to the positive externalities of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies. They in-clude, for example, improved air, soil, and water quality, biodiversity conservation, in-creased economic performance, and energy security. Many of these co-benefits have al-ready been thoroughly researched and promise enormous advocacy potential in lobbying for more ambitious climate protection measures. Yet they’re often overlooked in climate policy.
Negotiations in the context of the UNFCCC have been dogged by the assumption that ambi-tious climate policy stifles economic growth and leads to unemployment. But this narrative is now giving way to another. For many countries, including Nigeria, Mexico, and Vietnam (see the recent blog post by the COBENEFITS team on Vietnam), clean air, better harvests, and the jobs created by renewable energies are taking centre stage. These countries now recognise ambitious climate policy as a motor of new and sustainable economic growth.
In order to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, we all need to adopt this new perspective and acknowledge not just the trade-offs, but also the many co-benefits of cli-mate protection. And now is an ideal time to do so. Thanks to the net-zero emissions anouncements by the EU, China, the US, and many other countries, the Climate Action Tracker has reported for the first time that the 2°-degree goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement is now once more within reach. We have to seize this new-found momentum. We need to ride the net-zero wave instead of letting it engulf us.
The celebrations to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement have shown that we’re far from where we need to be. To have a chance of staying within the 1.5-degree limit, the world needs structural and systemic transformation. The mammoth task of bringing about such transformation without compounding existing inequalities – and ideally eliminating them – falls to climate policy. Whether the concept of co-benefits is helpful here and what obstacles and opportunities arise from it still have to be scientifically evaluated. In my Master’s thesis I explore this question and ask: What changes when policy is driven by co-benefits? Does this make for more active climate policy? I try to answer these questions with reference to four case studies on the development of national action plans to reduce short-lived climate-forcing pollutants with the support of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s SNAP initiative.
One thing is certain: the narrative around climate protection can’t focus solely on the nega-tive. After a year full of bad news, we need motivating dialogues, positive visions of the fu-ture, and a new framing of climate policy. Countries should tap into the potential of the co-benefits concept in order to support concrete action in their Nationally Determined Com-mitments. Only then will we escape our shocked paralysis and make the leap from fear to ambitious action.
Clara Mewes is currently studying in the Master of International Affairs programme at the Hertie School in Berlin and supporting the ClimAct group at the Institute for Advanced Sus-tainability Studies (IASS). She plans to write her Master’s thesis on climate policy co-benefits in cooperation with the IASS this year.