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Dr Marie Claire Brisbois

19 October 2021, 3:58 UTC Share

COP26: the role of research and time for action?

The 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference starts in less than ten days. Each COP is an opportunity for world leaders to come together to jointly address climate change. Dr Marie Claire Brisbois, an expert in energy policy, discusses whether, despite 50 years of academic research highlighting climate change problems, the moment for change is now.

Complexity and lock-in.

Climate change issues are complex and are often collective action problems where the benefits are concentrated, but the costs are diffuse. For example, the benefits from say, polluting the air, are concentrated within the companies that make a profit – whereas the costs are diffused to society. There can be stronger or more direct costs for some communities. However, there are huge environmental injustices in the geography of pollution, and it is often the most disadvantaged who experience impacts most strongly. It is not the people who are making money that bear the brunt of the costs and pay socially and environmentally. So, there is a mismatch between those who benefit and those who pay.

I’ve been reading some work by my colleague, Adrian Smith, that implicitly recognises that economic systems that are orientated towards blind growth and do not value nature , will inherently prioritise things that are not the environment. Systemically, our economies are structured around commodification: the extraction of resources and turning them into profit. In this system, there is already a built-in barrier to seeing action on environmental issues. Therefore, there are huge political feasibility challenges, because we’ve structured our economies around growth, and politicians are really quite constrained in what they are can do.

For example, if you have a conversation with a policymaker about what we need to do to meet our climate targets, they know that more than 50% of the answer is to reduce demand. However, it’s extremely difficult for them to justify the massive public funding required. It’s also difficult because it will mean that the big energy providers will suffer because we will not be using what they are selling.

This is part of the reason why the UK is having such a difficult time getting an energy-efficient homes strategy or building standards for new builds: because the economic incentive is not there. If we all insulate our homes, there will be new jobs and growth in some industries. However, the main result is that we will be using much less energy. Consuming less, when we use progress indicators based on consumption like GDP, makes it look like we’re not doing what is best for humanity.

We are locked-in to a system. In transitions research, we talk about institutional, material and structural lock-in , about how we have rules, and physical and institutional infrastructures that are set up for a particular way of doing things. Our society is set up to keep us on the path we are on.

The hard things need to happen now…

The UK has good overarching climate policy on the books – it was the first in the world and was the best in class when it was introduced. We have net-zero commitments, but we are not on track to meet them because, at this point, we are done with all the small wins. All the areas where you could meet targets through innovation and productivity – such as shifting the power system to renewables, getting off coal (mostly, and we still obviously need to get off gas) – are in progress.

The hard things need to happen now, like home energy-efficiency, or modal shifts in transportation (not just getting people into EVs, because there is huge, embedded carbon in producing a vehicle, and in steel and roads, but to get people to start consuming transportation services and reorientating so we don’t have to travel so far). Such things socially make sense, because people will be happier and healthier, but are economically terrible (under traditional models) because they are not using as many resources.

However, at the same time, things are happening, and the institutions that we have to get science into policy organisations have played a role in making this happen. For example, as announced on Tuesday as part of its net-zero strategy, the government will start incentivising heat pumps , which is a massive energy transition that stems from what the science says we need, with evidence from other countries.

We’re also witnessing a lot of social mobilisation and social movements are important. For example, what the Insulate Britain protesters are asking for are exactly the same things that academics have been suggesting. The reason they know what to ask for is that academics have been researching these issues, presenting evidence and making the case. So, this isn’t the first time that policymakers have heard the case that, for climate and health and social outcomes, we need to insulate social housing.

From my research and the research of many others, we know that one of the best ways to get political outcomes realised is to get different groups from across society asking for the same thing with specifically clear policy requests. This is relatively rare because it’s hard to get social consensus on things, and when there is, it usually means that the science is quite settled and that people have been able to agree on how things might go ahead.

The science that irreversible and catastrophic climate change is already happening has been unequivocal for the last two decades, but the social consensus is only happening now. There is still debate about how fast, and there are some things we just don’t know yet, like if and when the North Atlantic circulation shuts down, how fast will Britain cool? We just don’t know because it is a massive, complex system.

The one thing that has changed is that from the technical side, a lot of researchers have realised that is it not a knowledge deficit that is the problem, but that there are social and political barriers to addressing climate change. There is now a lot more appreciation from physical scientists who have come to understand that politics, communication and behaviour – things that social scientists study – is now what is needed to see action.

Academics are experts, and we need to share our knowledge much more widely than we do currently. Whilst the academic system still isn’t really structured to incentivise this, we can talk to people in our lives, in our neighbourhoods, and especially to our political representatives, and provide the evidence to ground conversations. We should live what we know and do, publicly.

Dr Marie Claire Brisbois , Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit – SPRU, and Co-Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex.

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