Rather than designing climate policy in isolation, we need to fully integrate it with other concerns such as energy security and air quality. We need to take all the co-benefits and conflicts of different policy options into account, and set up an integrated policy framework. To illustrate this, here are two visions of the future: one in which we continue with isolated policy initiatives, and one in which we move to a fully joined-up approach.

  1. Isolated policies: fossil fuel lock-in
  2. Joined-up policies: a green economy

Isolated policies: fossil fuel lock-in

Pollution Business continues pretty much as usual. Whilst paying lip service to environmental concerns, governments continue to focus on maximising economic growth. In their view, this means minimal environmental regulation for business, and minimal taxation. In governments across the world, proposals for carbon taxes or renewable energy subsidies put forward by the environment department are overruled by the Treasury. Economies need energy in order to grow, so restrictions on drilling for oil in sensitive regions are relaxed, and subsidies are pumped into tar sands and shale gas. New coal-fired power stations are built, with vague plans to deal with the climate impacts at a later stage by installing CCS systems. There is a ‘dash for gas’, with new power stations being built in the expectation that abundant supplies of shale gas will be forthcoming. There is continued support for energy efficiency, but no restrictions on total carbon emissions or fuel use. Global climate change negotiations continue at a leisurely pace, following the Durban plans for a global agreement by 2015, which will not come into force until 2020.

With rapid acceleration in global energy use, driven by growth in developing countries, reserves of conventional oil and gas dwindle. As production shifts to deeper, lower quality and more remote sources of oil, prices rise steeply. Faced with angry voters, governments respond by cutting fuel taxes. This ensures that there is no major shift to alternative energy sources – we remain locked in to a fossil fuel economy. Despite the cut in fuel taxes, prices continue to rise as demand exceeds supply. The loss of fuel tax revenue means that there is less money available to fund a transition to alternative low-carbon technologies. More households slip into fuel poverty. Food production is still highly dependent on the input of fossil fuels for mechanisation and fertiliser manufacture, so food prices rise. With the development of shale gas in Europe slower than expected due to the difficulty of sinking multiple wells in densely populated areas, there is a shift towards coal for power generation, leaving the newly built gas power stations as ‘stranded assets’. The increased demand for coal causes coal prices to rise as well, making CCS plants (which increase coal use by a quarter) uneconomic.

Pollution from cars As car use continues to increase across the world, air pollution rises. Environment departments respond by requiring manufacturers to fit more end-of-pipe controls to their vehicles. Unfortunately this increases fuel use, thus exacerbating energy security concerns and fuel price rises. Meanwhile, health departments are struggling to cope with an increase in pollution-related illnesses such as asthma, cancer and heart and lung diseases, as well as a rising wave of lifestyle diseases caused by inactivity and poor diet. And planners faced with rising levels of traffic congestion, noise and road accidents are also struggling: it seems that as fast as they build new roads, extra traffic appears to fill them up.

The impacts of a changing climate start to be felt more widely. More frequent storms, droughts, floods and heat waves cause loss of life, damage property and destroy crops and livelihoods, pushing food prices up further. Water scarcity increases, and more species are lost. Other resources are under stress as well: prices for certain rare metals are increasing sharply, and phosphorous supplies are running out. There is a noticeable increase in ‘bad news’ events associated with resource extraction – more oil spills, due to the difficulties of drilling in deep water, and more mining accidents as the hunt for scarce metals intensifies. The global economy becomes ever more unstable, with volatile commodity prices (worsened by financial speculation), mass migration of climate refugees, frequent energy supply disruptions and more resource wars. Growth falters and unemployment rises.

Landfill Too late, policy makers realise that it is now impossible to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. The world no longer has the economic or physical resources or the political stability needed for the herculean effort of replacing all our fossil-fuel powered infrastructure, cars, homes and factories with low-carbon alternatives. In desperation, we turn to geo-engineering. Aircraft spray the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols, and fleets of boats pump iron into the oceans to stimulate uptake of carbon dioxide by algae. These measures have serious side effects: an increase in acid rain; disruption of rainfall patterns and a collapse of marine life that signals the death knell for already over-stressed fish stocks. The limited impact on global warming is partly offset by additional emissions from the aircraft and ships used in the operation. The geo-engineering techniques also fail to address another problem: rising levels of dissolved carbon dioxide that are acidifying the oceans.

Bizarrely, GDP continues to grow at first. Poverty and starvation are increasing; water, food and energy are in short supply; and environmental devastation is widespread, but at the same time governments are spending more than ever on expensive geo-engineering projects, health care costs, resource wars and reconstruction of infrastructure after floods and storms. It is not until resource limits really begin to bite – when fuel shortages restrict supply of the concrete and steel needed for reconstruction, for example - that GDP finally starts to fall….

Joined-up policies: a green economy

Solar panelPolicy makers experience an epiphany – they realise that climate change can no longer be viewed in isolation, but must form part of an integrated policy framework that takes account of all economic, social and environmental concerns. A new style of policy making sees ministers from all government departments sitting down together to work out how to maximise well-being and achieve a decent quality of life for nine billion people without trashing the planet.

First and foremost, world leaders decide to listen to scientific advice on safe levels of greenhouse gas emissions. They will then try to plan policy so as to keep within those limits. A global cap is set to steadily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to one tenth of current values by 2050. An agreement is thrashed out that recognises the greater responsibility of industrialised countries for historic emissions, and allows all countries to converge on an equal per capita emission limit by 2050. With firm promises of financial and technical help to shift to a low-carbon economy, developing countries happily sign up to this agreement. Action begins immediately.

All countries recognise the co-benefits of a strong climate policy. To cut air pollution, reduce waste and increase energy security, there is a massive drive to increase energy and resource efficiency. This is backed up with information campaigns to promote behaviour change – cutting waste and over-consumption. Governments no longer exhort consumers to shop until they drop, in order to save the economy. Instead, there is urgent research into how to shift to a lower consumption economy. Alternatives to GDP are put in place, in recognition of the fact that blind pursuit of GDP growth ignores environmental limits and does not necessarily improve well-being. Economists and ecologists work together to develop new approaches to finance, taxation and social policy that allow consumption to be reduced without endangering employment and social spending. This may include measures such as ecological tax reform, job guarantee schemes, basic income and encouragement of voluntary reductions in working hours. Financial speculation is curbed, and the role of banks in creating money as loans is reviewed in the light of concerns that this may be a barrier to successfully moving to a lower consumption economy.

Production systems are completely transformed. Instead of adding bolt-on recycling schemes to existing systems, all products are now designed from scratch to be part of a zero-waste system. Products are designed to be durable, with modular parts that can easily be upgraded or reconfigured. A skilled repair industry springs up. Because of the carbon cap and ecological taxation, material prices are higher so that it is now cheaper to repair or upgrade a product than to throw it away and buy a new one. Surprisingly, most people find this far more satisfying – it turns out that many felt annoyed by the poor quality and frequent break-downs of goods in the throwaway society, and felt uncomfortable with generating mountains of waste. Even buildings are now modular – internal walls can be moved around to adapt to changing needs. Products that cannot be repaired or re-manufactured are dismantled for recycling – a simple task, given that products are now designed so that different materials can be easily separated for recycling at the end of the product life.

School children on safe cycle path in the Netherlands

Photo: The Alternative Department for Transport.

Our energy needs are slashed by improved efficiency. All new buildings are super-insulated and built to harness passive solar energy, with large south-facing windows, for example, to maximise solar heat gains in cold countries. Town planners make sure that journeys between homes, shops, schools and businesses can be served by high quality public transport systems, and by safe, pleasant cycling and walking routes. This encourages far more people to leave their cars at home, cutting accidents, traffic noise and air pollution, and improving public health. Encouraged by the new taxation systems that clearly penalise over-consumption of energy and materials, businesses find ever more innovative ways to reduce their resource use. Productivity increases, with a flood of new, green products and services that improve living standards but with less cost to the environment. Air and water pollution falls, and there is no need to produce energy from high-impact sources such as tar sands and arctic oil.

Governments set a policy framework that encourages choice of the lowest impact energy technologies. Renewable energy is high on the agenda, in recognition of the relatively low environmental and health impacts compared to other energy sources. However, there are strict criteria to limit the negative impacts of renewables. Planning policy prevents the installation of wind farms in the most sensitive landscapes, but encourages local communities to be involved in co-operative schemes where they share in the benefits of wind farm development and other local renewable schemes. Biofuels must pass strict criteria to show that they come from certified sources, not involving destruction of natural forests, for example. This encourages the development of more second-generation biofuels derived from waste and algae. Governments encourage a diversity of supply from different renewable technologies, and put in place the supporting infrastructure needed to enable a high contribution of intermittent renewable energy: smart grids, more pumped storage schemes, smart supply and demand management and good interconnections with other countries.

Nuclear power must demonstrate that it has credible plans for safe, permanent disposal of radio-active waste and prevention of theft of radioactive material. This results in a shift away from current construction of existing generation II and III designs, but a renewed focus on the development of generation IV designs, which are capable of reducing the existing stockpiles of waste and have intrinsic passive safety features. Governments also resist the temptation to ‘dash for gas’, wisely recognising that we need to avoid lock-in to fossil fuel technologies, especially in view of the strict limits on total carbon emissions.

Forest waterfall Recognising the importance of preserving our remaining natural forests, governments set up a well-monitored REDD scheme so that communities find it is more profitable to leave their forests standing than to cut them down. At the same time, pressure to exploit forests decreases due to higher resource efficiency, cutting the demand for paper, timber and minerals. Also, people are eating a healthier diet involving less meat and dairy produce, which cuts the incentive to convert forest to grazing land or animal feed crops. Agriculture on the whole is becoming more sustainable. Compost is replacing synthetic fertilisers to a large extent, improving soil structure and cutting water and air pollution from nitrogen fertilisers, as well as improving the amount of carbon stored in soils and improving water retention.

Although this strong and co-ordinated climate policy requires considerable up-front investment, the new approach to policy-making means that governments can see that they are saving money on health care costs, environmental clean-up costs, and the costs of importing fuel and resources. The total costs are affordable – around 2% of GDP – and are outweighed by the co-benefits. A clear long term policy framework gives businesses the confidence to invest in new low-carbon technologies, and governments back this up by doubling their support for appropriate R&D. Although some businesses fail to adapt, the most dynamic and forward-thinking businesses thrive, becoming smarter, cleaner, more efficient and more productive. Governments soften the social pain of the low-carbon transition by providing re-training for redundant workers.

The new carbon cap means that energy prices remain high, although at least they are stable and predictable, and governments have well-co-ordinated policies in place to protect low-income households from fuel poverty. There is a well-targeted programme of building renovations, so that all homes are super-insulated and free from draughts and damp, requiring little fuel to stay warm and comfortable. Public transport is cheap and accessible, and appliances and lighting are more efficient so that electricity bills are affordable.

In developing countries, an international climate fund helps to provide clean, renewable energy for remote communities. Deaths from indoor air pollution plummet as households are provided with more efficient stoves. Exports of raw commodities such as metal ores have declined, but reform of international trade laws and cancellation of unpayable debt has enabled developing countries to shift to higher value-added production, giving them a more sustainable income source for the future. Free of the threat of escalating climate-related floods and droughts, developing countries are able to increase their living standards to the point where family sizes begin to fall voluntarily.

By 2050, we have managed to cut carbon emissions to the point where the worst impacts of climate change have been avoided. Human ingenuity has been channelled into getting the most benefit and use out of our natural resources, whilst living within our means. There has been a gradual shift in culture, with less emphasis on conspicuous consumption and more time for family, friends, leisure and community involvement. The natural world is thriving, with vibrant forests, clean air and water and abundant wildlife. We look forward to a stable and prosperous future.

Links to other co-benefits pages