Global warming: when citizens were ahead of the curve

Governments in many countries are still reluctant to take strong measures to fight global warming, considering that citizens are not ready for the changes these will have on their day-to-day lives. In 2015, a global citizens’ dialogue on climate and energy (WorldWideViews on climate and energy) had silenced this rather false idea. What if, back then, we had listened to them?

There is a lot of talk in France about the Affaire du Siècle” (The Case of the Century) during which the French state was convicted and held accountable for its climate inaction. More than 5 years after the Paris climate agreement and the commitment of 195 countries to keep global warming below 2°C, it’s it clear that governments have not respected the course of action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and contain global warming. Civil society, on the other hand, has shifted: the Greta Thunberg phenomenon, student strikes for climate, the French Citizens’ Convention… In 2015, a global citizens’ debate on climate and energy was organized to feed the COP21. 10,000 citizens from 76 countries participated. Unfortunately, their expectations are still unfulfilled.

Climate change: an international agreement, a national priority

Global citizens were eager for their policy makers to take ambitious action against climate change. Six years ago, already 78% of the world’s citizens felt very concerned about climate change: 82% in Africa and 87% for people who live on islands. According to 2 out of 3 citizens, measures to fight climate change were an opportunity to improve their quality of life. At the time, the results of the United Nations climate negotiations since 1992 were considered insufficient. And 63% considered that everything should be done in Paris to limit the temperature increase to 2°C. The Paris agreement adopted a few months later was a step in this direction. It has now been ratified by 188 countries, but in the last 5 years, global greenhouse gas emissions have reached an alarming and historical level and gas emissions have increased by 5% between 2015 and 2019.

Although the participants had favored an international agreement on climate change, they supported action in their own countries. 89% of the participants felt that climate change should be a national priority, and for 79%, their country should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, even if other countries did not take action. This result was consistent with the view shared by many citizens that the fight against climate change was an opportunity rather than a threat. This sent a clear message to policy makers that the failure of an international agreement could not be an excuse for inaction at the national level.

This sent a clear message to policy makers that the failure of an international agreement could not be an excuse for inaction at the national level.

A carbon tax / equity and effort sharing

Regarding the tools to fight climate change, it is interesting to note that, globally, 88% of citizens were in favor of a carbon tax and the majority of them wanted it to apply to all countries, but with higher costs for countries that did not reduce their emissions. The most hostile citizens were from the United States, Russia and China. Among the preferred tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, educational programs for the general public came first: 78% (a virtually constant value in all countries). Finally, 45% of citizens wanted to stop all exploration for fossil fuels. Surprisingly, citizens in oil producing countries were 34% in favor of this measure.

In contrast to the strong support for carbon taxation, its pricing was difficult to convince, with citizens preferring to subsidize renewable energy and support research and development of low-carbon solutions. In general, citizens have a preference for incentives and subsidies among mechanisms to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It is difficult on this point not to draw a parallel with the measures of the French Citizen’s Climate Convention.

For a large majority of citizens, high-income countries had to pay more than the amount agreed upon for mitigation and adaptation in low-income countries ($100 billion). A very large majority also felt that contributions from the private sector should be accounted for. More than half of the citizens supported the creation of a third category of countries, the richer developing countries, with more responsibilities.

Making promises is one thing, keeping them is another

If the Paris Agreement has not (yet?) kept its promises, it nevertheless remains a reference because it has created the conditions for “spectacular progress” in low-carbon solutions and markets, according to a report by Systemiq. What is noteworthy is the gap between the expectations of citizens and the time it takes to make decisions; between the commitments made by the States and the awareness of the climate emergency among the population. The global citizen debate also taught us that citizens wanted to take part in the choice of policies to be adopted in the fight against climate change. They wanted to be heard and considered as key players in the decision-making process, rather than simply being subjected to the measures taken by others.

Although the results reveal several differences between countries, these are less significant than the general trend at the global level: citizens strongly supported limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius in 2100 (compared to the pre-industrial level), as agreed by the international community in Copenhagen in 2009. Support for these short- and long-term, legally binding targets showed that citizens wanted to ensure that the commitments made would also be met. They also wanted their leaders to take responsibility for their promises.

They supported the initiative that proposed that countries update their climate commitments every five years and submit annual progress reports. So let’s imagine what COP 26 in Glasgow (postponed to November 2021 because of the pandemic) could be: a time for presenting national commitments co-evaluated with participants from each country. This time, let’s not miss the acceleration of the climate transition that citizens can make.