The UN Environment Assembly: an opportunity to change course on climate change?

Dr Graeme Hayes Reader in Political Sociology February 2019

Next month, the UK will participate in UNEA-4, the 4th UN Environment Assembly, in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal of the Assembly is to advance the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed in 2015, and primarily focuses on reducing poverty and promoting more efficient natural resource management.

The Assembly comes at a time of mounting realisation that we have already entered the era of significant climate change, and that the careful approach set out in the Paris Agreement already appears unable to meet the scale and speed of policy change that is needed if we are – as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently underlined – to have any chance of keeping the global average temperature rise to less than 1.5°C.

What kind of a policy approach might this call for? The first thing that the UK might do is be straight about the progress we have made in cutting emissions. In fact, there is an opportunity to do this today, as MPs are due to discuss the UK's progress toward ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions in a Backbench Business debate in Parliament.

Since the introduction of the Climate Change Act in 2008, the UK has made significant progress, particularly in increased energy efficiency and reduced dependency on fossil fuels in domestic electricity generation (almost entirely removing coal), and is legally committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. The Nairobi conference marks the third anniversary of the current government’s pledge to go further than any other developed state, setting a legally-binding ‘zero target’, or 100% cut in emissions on 1990 levels.

But despite the pledge, the government has so far failed to legislate. The fact that today’s parliamentary debate is the first on climate change for two years speaks volumes about the UK government’s inaction.

And the pledge is also already outdated, for two reasons. First, because it is much too slow: the commitment concerns sometime after 2050, and depends on the development of negative emissions technologies (hence ‘net zero’ rather than ‘zero’). Until proven otherwise, this is magical thinking. Much greater and quicker action is needed. Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish school strike activist, recently called on the EU to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% on 1990 levels by 2030, rather than by 2050. Climate action can no longer be thought of as a long-term project.

And second because these figures are largely an accounting fiction, as they only focus on the domestic production of greenhouse gases. This means that they don’t include aviation and shipping, and they don’t include the carbon embodied in imported goods. Once these sources are factored in, the UK’s claims to emission reductions are much less impressive – indeed, the UK’s emissions are only marginally lower than they were in 1990. The same goes, of course, for the EU and the USA.

If the UK is serious about undertaking the type of urgent policy action that respects natural resource use, it must first shift to and champion consumption-based carbon accounting. In the context of the forthcoming UNEA-4 meeting, it has two further implications.

First, it means shifting the focus away from technological solutions to social solutions. Developing enhanced technological solutions, such as electric battery storage, will continue to be fundamental to climate action. Meanwhile, business-oriented solutions, such as the circular economy championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, promote a life-cycle approach to resource input and waste disposal, slowing down the cost of consumption.

The UNEA-4 agenda seeks these kinds of solutions to our high-energy ‘make-take-dispose’ model of consumption. But these solutions can be problematic in that they tend to promote approaches which are exclusively technical, technological, regulatory, and economic – leaving citizens out of the debate.

These approaches also tend to downplay the way our daily lives are structured by intersecting routines, from family to school to supermarket. Policy must address how we work, how we eat, how we move, particularly in urban contexts, and be clear about the trade-offs involved. Again, this must be at speed and at scale. This isn’t just a technological, corporate, or economic project: it requires social transformation – and thus collective democratic decision making.

Second, it means rethinking what sustainability means in terms of justice.

The dominant ‘northern’ position on climate action is economic and future-oriented: the approach is about intergenerational justice, about the world we leave to our children and grandchildren. This sense of justice essentially concerns future versions of ourselves. Much of the political and media reaction to the school strikes – that it is good that our children show concern, it’s their future after all – is a good example of this type of thinking.

But we are not, of course, all in this together: the richest people in the richest societies have the highest carbon footprints, the poorest in the poorest societies the lowest; the richest societies are amongst the least vulnerable to climate change (despite the images of climate events that we tend to see on the news) and the poorest societies are amongst the most vulnerable.

Sustainable development must therefore be a just development. So far, the record of rich states like the UK on thinking about social environmental justice, and about the children and grandchildren of other, poorer societies in the global south, has been desperately weak.

The Green Climate Fund, set up in 2010 after the disastrous Copenhagen climate conference, promised an annual $100 billion in financial transfers by 2020, from rich states to poor, for climate adaptation. The commitment of northern states to this agreed goal has been negligible, with private capital predominantly providing loans to developing countries.

Meanwhile, northern states (including the UK) continue to underwrite fossil fuel extraction and develop new unaffordable infrastructures (such as the third runway at Heathrow), rather than recognise their actual and historical responsibilities, and agree to binding compensation mechanisms.

UN meetings tend to be technical, of course, but they also provide vital platforms for policy change and for setting new agendas. The time left to change course is running out.