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Below the Guard Rail

Transformative Change for Climate Security

Sudhir Chella Rajan ( is at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department and is part of the Indo–German Centre for Sustainability, Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Sujatha Byravan ( studies science, technology and sustainability and is a freelancer based in Chennai.

The “1.5 Degree Report” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes scenarios and potential actions to pull the earth away from the brink of catastrophic climate change. The report’s findings are stark but it shows that there are pathways to achieve climate security. The study nevertheless repeats some common errors in framing the ways forward and does not fully explore the potential for transformative change. Some options from the literature that deserve serious consideration are discussed.

The much-anticipated “1.5 Degree Report” released in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides the scientific evidence and knowledge base for limiting the rise in average global temperature to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (IPCC 2018). The report discusses scenarios to get there within a framework of sustainable development, keeping in mind global poverty levels. Given that average global warming already exceeds 1°C, the scenarios described are stringent and likely to keep average temperatures either below the 1.5°C guard rail or overshoot it and then return below it by the end of the century. According to the report, accumulated emissions alone are not likely to raise global mean temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; thus efforts made now are significant and will contribute to limiting global warming. But by the same token, the remaining carbon space is very small, estimated at 580 GtCO2, compared to the current annual “burn” rate of about 42 GtCO2.

The motivation for the study was the demand from small islands and the poorest nations making up the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP–21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015 in Paris to include a commitment in the final agreement to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Countries as varied as Angola, Bangladesh, Palau and the Philippines were at the forefront of political negotiations. With the support of several international non-governmental organisations, they managed to put toge­ther a united coalition with the political savvy needed to counter opposition from high-emitting nations and exporters of fossil fuels (CVF 2015).

The report’s findings are stark. While a 1.5°C target will still result in severe effects, the situation worsens dramatically at higher temperatures. Further, if the rise in emissions is stopped and turned around, there is a better chance of limiting extreme events and runaway climate change. But stabilising warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century will mean generating net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050 along with substantially deep reductions in other greenhouse gases (GHGs), particularly methane. All this seems like a Herculean task, given that global emissions have been rising at about 2%–3% per year in the past decade.

Especially in pathways that temporarily exceed 1.5°C of warming (called overshoot pathways), and for sectors for which no mitigation is currently conceivable (for example, air travel), removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is essential. CO2removal is also needed in the longer term, including both sequestering carbon through land-use changes and the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) at varying levels. Depending on the scenario, this could be as much as 1,000 GtCO2 over the 21st century. Apart from afforestation, which has limited potential, BECCS and geo-engineering options to remove CO2 are either barely technically feasible at present or, if implemented in the future, are likely to have very serious long-term ecosystem impacts (Williamson 2016, 2018).

While the notion of multisectoral transformative change to achieve deep cuts has almost become cliché, how exactly this will be accomplished is anyone’s guess. There are no clear routes or formulae. Worse, scientists worry that their climate models do not capture the acceleration of warming trends (Xu et al 2018). Then, there is the challenge of equity. The world’s richest 10% are responsible for half the GHG emissions and the bottom half for just 10% of the emissions (Oxfam 2015).

The report has already been the subject of much commentary (Stern 2018; WRI 2018). What needs emphasis here, however, is that by repeatedly referring to “trade-offs” across different options, it reproduces a familiar mistake of assuming that addressing climate change as well as sustainable development must be a zero-sum game, except where there are “synergies” between the two. But, as 15-year-old Greta Thunberg noted in her plenary speech to delegates at COP–24 in Katowice, Poland, “If the solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself” (Democracy Now 2018).

Changing the system has also been associated with “transformative change,” a term that appears repeatedly throughout the report, but without much elaboration. In what follows, the focus is on recent discussions on transformative change, along with some opportunities that need serious consideration.

Transformative Change

There is a burgeoning literature on transformation in relation to climate change and sustainable development, which generally falls in three distinct categories. The bulk of it focuses on the system-wide deployment of new low-carbon technology (or “zero carbon,” only if not considered in life-cycle terms) involving renewables, especially solar photovoltaic systems, in combination with advanced forms of storage.

There is great potential in replacing intermediate load and peak load electricity supply options (oil and gas-fuelled generation) through renewables. With storage costs also declining rapidly, there is the tantalising possibility of having widespread decentralised (say, rooftop solar, district energy) power generation to meet all baseload demand as well in the near future. In other sectors, with the possible exception of air travel, non-fossil fuelled options have high technical potential and could become commercially viable soon, with hydrogen as a fuel carrier in some instances and electricity in others (Mathiesen et al 2011; Creutzig et al 2017; Yang et al 2009).

A second strand of literature also relates largely to technological change, with strategies such as a strong push towards a circular economy involving reduced material use and waste recovery to lower overall energy input in industry and commercial applications; improved land-use planning and intelligent transport options, including transit and non-motorised modes; to optimise travel demand; and regenerative land policies (Preston 2012; Nevens et al 2013; Burch et al 2014; Sovacool 2014).

The third type of research on transformation is more diverse and considers significant shifts in social structure through lifestyle changes that impact consumption. A common driver for these approaches is the belief that conventional economic models of continuous growth are no longer sustainable and should be replaced by completely different measures of well-being such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or the Gross Happiness Index (GHI) (Norgaard 2017; Bates 2009; Lawn 2003).

Arguing for growth-driven development, especially in poor countries, reproduces the conventional logic that policies to drive economic growth are of primary importance to take vast numbers of people out of poverty. But the Bhutan case and, in a different way, the Kerala model, offer alternative approaches to improve welfare without conven­tional strategies of industrialisation and growth. Human development indicators are therefore incommensurable with each other and claims about economic growth having priority over social welfare seem questionable (Gardiner 2013). This becomes even starker in conditions of jobless growth and galloping inequality (Wacquant 1999).

Strategies for Transformation

Achieving 1.5°C involves a steep decline in GHGs to zero from present levels and requires what the Club of Rome (2018) rightly terms a Climate Emergency Plan for collective action. The club’s report uses elements from all three groups of strategies, recognising fully well that technology change is essential, as are appropriate economic instruments and financing, but that these must be accompanied by large-scale changes in social behaviour. Unfortunately, the last of these is also the least understood, in large part because of a systematic bias in climate change research, where non-economist social scientists have only lately (and often tangentially) become involved.

While it proposes alternative indicators like the GPI to measure social, environmental and economic welfare, the Club of Rome report does not have clearly defined strategies other than calls for retraining workers, citizen action, empowering women, and so on. The paucity of ideas around social transformation is starker in the IPCC study, which is after all a synthesis of existing research, where the predominant emphasis is on rapid technology change with appropriate fiscal and monetary policies to implement it.

In the scenarios examined in the IPCC report, the bulk of the proposed emissions reduction is expected to be from rapid deployment of renewables, although some scenarios anticipate the carbon removal from afforestation and the BECCS to play a big role. In part because the report relies on a range of simulations by integrated assessment models to build scenarios around gross domestic product (GDP) growth, human development indicators and resource efficiency, the report misses the opportunity to highlight the manifold opportunities present in integrating smallholder and otherwise organisationally transformed approaches to sustainable soil and food systems, which would involve changes in land use, agroecology farming practices and the practices that reduce energy use and waste in food. Ensconced somewhere in the middle of the technical report is this critical sentence, with associated references but not more commentary:

However, pursuing such large-scale changes in land use would pose significant food supply, environmental and governance challenges, concerning both land management and tenure, … particularly if synergies between land uses, the relevance of dietary changes for reducing land demand, and co-benefits with other sustainable development objectives are not fully recognized.1 (IPCC 2018)

Estimates vary on the role of food in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, but at least in terms of emissions, up to 50% of global emissions are tied to food systems (Vermeulen et al 2012). Yet, precisely for that reason, along with its considerable water and land footprint and principal role in supporting large populations living in poverty, it is important to caution against targeted engineering policies to reduce food system emissions (Clapp et al 2018; EAT-Lancet Commission).2

To begin with, soil is a powerful connector to mitigation and adaptation. The value of increasing soil carbon lies in its ability to improve soil structure. This can also protect from erosion, increase crop yield and biodiversity, reduce chemicals flowing into waterbodies if soil is enhanced without chemicals, all of which improve a number of planetary boundaries and contribute to mitigation and adaptation. Protecting peat land, enhancing carbon uptake, using appropriate technologies, working with local communities, testing various successful approaches, monitoring soil carbon and health are all a range of activities that are being studied (Rumpel et al 2018).

The main reasons for food waste vary in different parts of the world, and identifying and improving these will yield a range of positive results. Following mostly plant-based diets is a way to reduce energy, improve health and reap land use co-benefits. Eating local food, eliminating chemical inputs, and focusing on building a rich soil humus are the kinds of sustainable food practices that need to be replicated. Food systems as a whole, and improving soil health in particular, may indeed be the final frontier in the battle to address climate change.

Finally, sorely missing in the synthesis report are alternative framings of life-worlds around consumption, social structure and deliberative democratic settings to achieve the transformation. Social ecologists, in particular, have for at least five decades promoted steady state economics, reimagined value and work, developed new frameworks of environmental accounting, and proposed red-green political strategies. More recently, there have been calls for de-growth, on the basis that whereas rich countries’ growth is only possible through hyper-consumption, meaningful improvements in quality of life require more leisure time (Murray 1982; Ivan 1974; Martínez-Alier et al 2010).

Strategies for macroeconomic transformation could include de-growth strategies in wealthy countries and windfall taxes to mitigate against excessive rent-seeking, particularly in extractive industries such as oil, coal and other minerals. A shift in indicators of national welfare away from GDP could also be implemented across the board. These varied frameworks are, however, nowhere explicitly considered in the assessment scenarios.

Concluding Thoughts

A revealingly honest but forgotten quote from the Nobel laureate Frank Knight reminds us that the current economic system operates principally on belief:

There must be ultimates, and they must be religious, in economics as anywhere else, if one has anything to say touching conduct or social policy … Certainly the large general [economics] courses should be prevented from raising any question about objectivity, but should assume the objectivity of the slogans they inculcate, as a sacred feature of the system.3 (Knight 1932)

If the foundations of neo-liberal policy were acknowledged as being explicitly ideological by one of its most famous champions, then a new economic order based on the challenges of planetary boundaries ought not be so difficult to build on sounder, evidence-based principles.

That implies, however, that much more research is needed on transformative change—its sociology and politics, in particular—to restore the balance. Most of climate change research has been dominated by engineering, natural science and conventional economics. We need more agroecologists and social scientists to contribute to this movement.

Donors too need to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. Several areas of research in transformative change (at multiple scales) need to be supported along with demonstration
areas as living labs or pilots. Estimates of productivity must measure system-wide changes, and different measures of value, instead of simply focusing on
income or yields/hectare.

The world is already seeing political reactions and uprising in a few countries partly as a result of fossil fuel taxes. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that a number of protests and marches in favour of strict climate policies are taking place in various parts of Europe, Australia and North America, especially involving young people. Therein lies hope, but also the sad truth of collective failure and corruption of current and historic generations through the elite capture of the development agenda. Greta Thurnberg says, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.”


1 “1.5 Degree Report,” Chapter 2, Section,p 125.

2 See also EAT-Lancet Commission—planetary boundaries—“win-win” diets … turning agriculture into a carbon sink from the single largest carbon source.

3 Cited in Richard Norgaard (2015).


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Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2019


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