For the past months, school students around the world have taken to the streets to call for increased climate ambition. These ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes, initiated by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, have given voice to a generation that, barring rapid and radical reductions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, will be forced to confront the uncertain impacts of a rapidly warming planet. They have instigated a much-needed debate on the state of climate politics, and they have brought inspiration, urgency and hope at a time when the inadequacies of current policies to meet the 2°C temperature target – let alone 1.5°C – were growing increasingly concerning.
As researchers working on climate change – and the various sustainability challenges that are being aggravated by climate change – we can only welcome this student movement. The scientific facts are entirely on their side:
The planet is warming, and it is doing so rapidly. Practically all of this warming is due to human activities. On the current policy trajectory, the world is likely to see 3°C warming or more by the end of the century, the impacts of which are increasingly harmful for ecosystems, economies and societies. Preventing the worst of these impacts is possible, but in the words of the IPCC climate panel demands ‘rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’. Limiting warming below 2°C means reducing global emissions – which are currently still growing – by 5% every single year. To secure the large benefits to people and nature of limiting warming to a less risky 1.5°C, efforts need to be dramatically more ambitious.
School students are therefore right in demanding a drastic upscaling of climate ambitions, to both rapidly reduce fossil greenhouse gas emissions to zero to prevent further damage, and to prepare for the impacts of warming already underway. Current climate policies are far from living up to the urgency and enormity of the task at hand. This goes for Sweden – which must significantly increase emissions reductions further to meet the mitigation target specified in its own climate law – and even so more for most other countries, if they want to meet the international goal to avoid dangerous climate warming enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
Today, 15 March 2019, #FridaysforFuture is organizing a global strike. Organizations across the world have already pledged to take part, and there will demonstrations in many places in Sweden, including in Lund. As scientists who spend much of our time analyzing the urgent questions that students are now bringing out into the public, it feels like our responsibility to support them.
LUCSUS supports the students in making politicians attentive to the responsibility they have towards current and future generations. As scientists we provide evidence to inform policy. As citizens we are part of the global challenge to find and implement sustainable and fair climate solutions.
At LUCSUS we see our research as answering the demands of the youth climate strike to: “Follow the Paris Agreement and the IPCC report. Stay below 1,5°C. Focus on the aspect of equity and climate justice, clearly stated throughout the Paris Agreement. Unite behind science.”
Below we summarize some of our research-based advice for policymakers, business leaders, and others to follow in order to meet these goals.
Unite behind science: Insights from LUCSUS for local to global policymakers
- Energy transitions are urgent and necessary but require attention to questions of climate justice
Meeting the 1.5°C temperature target necessitates widespread infrastructural changes, not least in the energy sector. The urgency of this task however should not blind us to the possible tradeoffs involved, and the various justice concerns that arise when landscapes and livelihoods are restructured in the name of energy transitions (Guðmundsdóttir et al, 2018). Our research shows that initiatives designed using the principles of collective action are effective in creating solidarity and in serving as spaces for learning everyday practices of direct democracy and sustainability (Islar and Irgil, 2018). Applications of these principles in for example community renewable energy project show that inclusive, just and sustainable approaches to transitions are possible(Islar and Busch, 2016).
- Behavioral-based policies shown to reduce household and lifestyle emissions
Meeting climate targets however requires more than political and infrastructural changes. Currently, the average Swede emits about 10.1 tons CO2e/person/year, of which 3.8 tons come from public infrastructure and investment, and 6.3 tons from household consumption and lifestyles (Naturvårdsverket, 2018). Lifestyle emissions (including mobility, food, housing, and goods and services) compatible with 1.5°C must be under 2.5 tons/person/person by 2030 if excessive reliance on future negative emissions are to be avoided (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2019). The highest-impact actions for individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 are to live car, flight, and meat free (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). A range of behavioral-based policies have been shown to reduce household and lifestyle emissions, including financial incentives for reducing personal vehicles use, defaults that promote reduced meat consumption, and feedback to reduce home energy use (Wynes et al. 2018).
- New behaviours require new stories
Many of these high-carbon consumption behaviors are perceived as the very markers of the good life. Hence, societal transition is also dependent on us confronting the naturalised beliefs, or myths (Essebo, 2018), that legitimise resource- and emission-intense practices. This is a process dependent on reflection, coherence and on creative collaboration between the spheres of politics, academia and society. Put differently: new behaviours also require new stories and imaginaries.
- Counting on “quick-fixes” to climate change is risky
There is increasing attention in the mitigation debate to sequestration strategies such as ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’, afforestation and a variety of other ‘natural climate solutions’ (Anderson and Peters, 2016). Previous experiences however show that these are anything but the ‘quick’, ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ solutions that they are often promoted as being. Large-scale forest plantations commonly prioritize economic efficiency over sustainability concerns, and therefore come with significant tradeoffs, not in the least for neighbouring communities (Edstedt and Carton, 2018). Even more participatory, small-scale projects are often much more difficult to implement and manage than proponents are willing to acknowledge (Carton and Andersson, 2017). These past experiences show that, while sustainable land use is an important objective in itself, it should not be relied on as a substitute for rapid and direct emission reductions.
- Climate change adaptation: A sometimes forgotten part of the ‘climate story’
While reducing emissions is necessary to mitigate how much the climate will change, societies also need to adapt to the changes already underway. At the same time, adaptation actions taken by authorities can obstruct, discourage or support individual adaptation in many ways (Wamsler, 2017; Wamsler, 2016; &Wamsler and Brink 2014a; & Wamsler and Brink 2014b). So far, only a minority of Swedish citizens are actively adapting their living conditions and lifestyles to climate impacts such as increasing floods and storms, not to mention supporting adaptation efforts at city or regional level (Wamsler and Brink 2014a). This situation is in stark contrast to actions taken to mitigate climate change, where a majority of Swedes (83 per cent in 2009) actively and deliberately try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Naturvårdsverket, 2009), with encouragement from public authorities. Sustainable integration of climate change adaptation into governance and planning thus requires approaches that take into account individual adaptation and provide targeted resources for collaboration (Wamsler 2016; Wamsler and Brink 2014a).
- Limits to adaptation: increased losses and risks of extreme weather with unequal outcomes
If we fail to meet the target of limiting warming to a 1.5°C temperature increase (IPCC, 2018), and we also fail to adapt fast enough (at all scales of society) to climate impacts, we will have to deal with significant losses and damages to our fragile ecosystems (e.g. coral reefs), our infrastructures and livelihoods, and to cultures and heritage (Boyd et al., 2017, Boyd, 2017, Mechler et al., 2019). Ultimately this will be at an enormous cost to society. Climate science has identified the ‘human fingerprint’ driving extreme weather (e.g. floods, droughts, sea level rise) around the world (James et al, 2019). This can help social scientists to understand thresholds that societies face in adapting to climate change, and the limits to our capability posed by societal structures such as institutions, social norms, discrimination, and racialised inequalities.
- Solutions need to include the integration of climate change mitigation and adaptation
Currently, climate policy integration is fragmented at national, regional and local levels. Processes for mainstreaming(strategically integrating) climate change mitigation into plans and policies are often disconnected from those for adaptation, reflecting a larger organisational and cognitive dichotomy between the issues of mitigation and adaptation, which can stand in the way of sustainable transformation and climate action (Wamsler and Pauleit, 2016; Wamsler and Brink, 2014c). The creation and implementation of climate responses is likely to be more effective if mitigation and adaptation are jointly institutionalized in the organizational and political structures of governmental administrations. This means that decision-makers and politicians at all levels should not only consider potential interrelations and synergies between mitigation and adaptation measures, but also make the organizational setting more effective by thinking about the joint implementation of the two issues within the administration (Göpfert et al. 2018; Wamsler 2016).
- Climate solutions must be included in natural resource and spatial planning policies and projects at the national, regional, and local levels (Boda, 2018a). One important result is to prioritize the well-being of citizens and environmental quality over economic efficiency in all efforts to address the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise (Boda, 2018b).In this context, systematic adaptation mainstreaming (which addresses all levels of governance) has shown to be an important avenue for promoting sustainable transformations (Wamsler and Pauleit, 2016; Wamsler, 2015; Wamsler et al. 2014).