COP24 to World: No Climate Progress Without Diversification!

The Problem of Implementation:

In the face of immediate climate impacts and a closing window of opportunity to avoid irreversible catastrophic damage (see IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees Celsius), the global policy toolbox to combat climate change appears limited. At COP24, delegations readily acknowledged these conditions, calling for a drastic ramp up of efforts across mitigation, adaptation, and implementation pillars. Despite the international consensus on an overall vision of progress, climate solutions have largely lagged behind Paris target levels due to individualized national circumstances, vulnerabilities, and capabilities, which make the application of particular policy designs politically fraught and technically challenging to adopt across space.

But what if climate policy structures could be multi-functional enough to allow promising ideas to be recognized, diagrammed, and repackaged to suit tailored needs across countries? What if the exchange of “success stories” could facilitate the synthesis of shared understanding, iterative dialogue, and enhanced policy action? Where would we be then?

At COP24, two side events on economic diversification examined these questions, providing drastically different, yet hopeful pathways each suggesting the importance of learning from isolated national “success stories.” The lesson: economic diversification—the process of transitioning national economies from single income sources to an increasingly broad range of sectors and markets—is a uniquely powerful tool in combatting climate change, as it can be applied to achieve both adaptation and mitigation goals. Thus, diversification efforts can provide a flexible and versatile array of climate and economic benefits, and governments can learn from precedent to shape smart concrete national policy interventions. Here are some examples:

Economic Diversification as Adaptation:

At the 12th Focal Point Forum of the Nairobi Work Programme, case studies were presented framing economic diversification as an adaptation strategy, reducing risk to populations in developing countries dependent on economic activates jeopardized by a changing climate. For instance, Giovanni Calderón of the Chilean Agency for Sustainability and Climate Change described the degradation of the country’s native Sclerophyllous forest due to logging, forest fires, and overgrazing—impacts exacerbated by climate change. Calderón explained how sustainable development efforts—propelled by a Clean Production Agreement for forest management—were able to combat desertification in central regions of the country and redirect unsustainable community interventions. Through conservation policy, Chile has seen a reduction in desertification and greater efficiency in the use of water for agricultural purposes, as well as higher biodiversity and soil quality in the Sclerophyllous forest in recent years. Simultaneously, the agreement’s provisions to allow responsible cultivation of commercial crops—taking advantage of southward crop migration of olives—has increased incomes in the region and has deepened local appreciation for environmental education.  

Sclerophyllous forest, Quebrada El Quiteño, Chile

Calderón’s story illustrating the complementarity between environmental protection and economic development for vulnerable populations, was reinforced by that of Alysha Bagasra, Foreign Policy Officer from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Bagasra shared that approximately 75% of New Zealand’s economy is derived from primary agricultural and horticultural exports, making the sector’s adaptation to climate especially significant for national welfare. New Zealand’s vineyards, for example, have been historically productive and acclaimed for grapes producing sauvignon blanc, however, climate change is quickly altering which grape varieties can be optimally supported. To sustain its vinicultural sector, New Zealand’s national government has commissioned research and modeling from universities for over fifty climate scenarios looking at how grape varieties could shift to harness potential for economic gain.

Crucially, principles supplied by these anecdotes (and countless others) at COP may be subsequently taken back to the home countries of Parties, NGOs, and observers as instrumental tools in enhancing the robustness of national adaptation plans and policies that ensure future climate resiliency in conjunction with economic development.

Economic Diversification as Mitigation:

Framing economic diversification in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as it has been traditionally discussed, proves relevant for an entirely different—yet equally important—subset of countries (i.e. historical emitters perhaps with powerful extractive industries). At the UNFCCC Secretariat Side Event on Economic Diversification as a Channel for Low-Carbon Development and Green Growth, panel discussants contributed a range of perspectives on how nations may capitalize on diversification’s mitigation potential.

Elizabeth Press, Director of Planning at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), described the propensity for a global renewable energy transition to generate prolific socioeconomic gains. Decarbonization of energy emissions, she stated, will be accompanied by increasing GDP and job creation. Indeed, as a multi-billion dollar sector, renewables provide tremendous opportunity for good-paying locally-sourced employment, which can re-purpose talent from declining (read: fossil fuel) industries, all while lowering GHGs. As Peter Govindaswamy, Director of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development explained, these policies have been integral in the diversification stories of countries like Singapore. Indeed, after 50-years of low-carbon development, Singapore has benefitted from incentive programs to encourage industries to invest in low-carbon technology and products. Singapore is also preparing to implement a national carbon tax, illustrating further how “green growth” principles have put Singapore on track to significantly increase the ambition of its Paris Agreement commitments.

Petrochemical plants in Singapore, which will be subject to carbon pricing as of 2019

Surprisingly, the panel argued that even ingrained fossil fuel-dependent (and traditionally mitigation-wary) nations like Saudi Arabia are stepping up efforts to diversify. Wolfgang Heidung of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center explained that, for oil-rich countries, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) allows the co-location of energy-intensive industries with carbon sinks, reducing emissions and dependency on oil exportation.

Climate Progress: A lesson from COP24

Perhaps the most profound achievement of COP24 is its ability to bring together oppositional voices, values, and systems and initiate a dialogue of cooperation. Global climate solutions will ultimately rest in the self-accountability of nations to implement international policy in good faith. The sharing of anecdotes, case studies, and areas for improvement on issues like economic diversification constitute an integral component of operationalizing a collective vision of “climate action” which has lacked agreeable, concrete policy details for decades. To solve the problem of implementation, nations must first ask: do we understand each other, and are we ready to learn? With hope and political pressure, lessons from COP24 will provoke much-needed dialogue on these fronts long after the conference has concluded.

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