State of Climate Action 2023 By the Systems Change Lab
State of Climate Action 2023
By the Systems Change Lab
This Report by the Systems Change Lab, a collaboration led by the World Resources Institute, provides a sector by sector score card on how the world is doing in terms of the emissions reductions needed to achieve Paris temperature goals. Spoiler alert: we are far behind where we need to be. 41 out of 42 indicators are not on track, and of those, 24 are well off track; 6 are heading in the wrong direction entirely. The sectors reviewed are as in Figure 1.
We will come to the detail in a second, but the USP of the Report, apart from the 150 pages on eight different sectors, is the analysis of actual or potential innovation S-curves. These track change as in Figure 2. Technologies emerge, then they break through, then they are widely adopted, and finally they reach saturation. Focusing only on linear trajectories and growth rates can underestimate the rate of change and the potential for tipping points – not for every sector, but for some.
Which sectors have this feature? The Report has three categories:
- S-curve likely: 9 indicators here, including electric vehicles, renewable energy, electric vehicles, and green hydrogen production;
- S-curve possible: 9 indicators here, including coal for electricity generation, the carbon intensity of buildings and the carbon intensity of global cement production
- S-curve unlikely: 24 indicators, mainly forests and land, food and agriculture, and finance.
There is probably some debate to be had about which sectors qualify as having S-curve potential and which do not. The Report is careful to say that
‘Critically, categorizing an indicator as ‘S-curve likely’ does not guarantee that it will experience rapid, nonlinear change over the coming years; rather, it signifies that, if and when adoption rates of these technologies begin to increase, such growth will likely follow an S-curve.’
The Report also offers a disclaimer on social and political factors, relevant in the light of the parallel discussion on managing the political economy of climate policy (my review of the new World Bank book on that topic is here)
‘It is also important to note that, in addition to technology adoption, social and political forces can also contribute to or hinder nonlinear change . . . Our assessment of recent progress made toward near-term targets does not consider these factors fully, given the challenges of modelling these effects and data limitations.’
There is one other methodological issue to note, which is the choice of indicators. For this, you have to go to the separate methodology paper. There you read that the critical shifts needed for each sector are based on the judgement of the authors as to what needs to happen for the radical transformation needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Importantly, trade-offs between sectors are pretty well ruled out:
‘because the remaining GHG emissions budget is small, the degree of freedom to assign different weights to different sectoral transformations that must occur is relatively constrained, . . . So, if a transformation across one sector is slower than this global requirement, another needs to transition proportionately faster, or additional CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere. Arguing that a sector needs more time for decarbonization, then, can be done only in combination with asserting that another can transition faster, if our global temperature goal is to be met.’
So, it’s 1.5 degree trajectories, with some S-curve potential, author-prescribed targets, and no room for substitution. What then are the findings? They are reproduced in the Annex below, but as an example, here is the one indicator which is on track, to increase the share of electric light duty vehicles (LDVs) to 75-95% of all sales by 2030. The number in 2022 was only 10%, but this is an S-curve compatible sector, so rapid progress is possible.
As noted earlier, the other 41 indicators are all off track to a greater or lesser extent. The Report tries to be optimistic and energise change. It concludes that
‘Nearly halfway through this decisive decade, leaders must pick up the pace and shift into emergency mode. They must nurture rapid, nonlinear growth, accelerate progress, and expand much-needed support to all sectors, especially those lagging furthest behind.’
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What to think about this? Four points.
First, yes, it is useful to have targets and measure progress against them. The sectoral breakdown is also helpful. The UK Climate Change Committee does something similar in its regular updates (Figure 4) and probably other national authorities do so too.
Second, it is worth having a conversation about the specific indicators the Systems Change Lab team have chosen – and about S-curve potential. As an example, just compare the global indicators in the Annex with the UK-specific indicators in Figure 4. The UK has battery cell prices as an entry, for example, and peatland restoration. These might be good global indicators too. It is also notable that the Systems Change Report has very little on consumption indicators, except for an item on meat. As to S-curve potential, if social and political factors were included, there might be more candidates. For example, tree-planting is probably not likely to see a technological S-curve, but perhaps with finance and political leadership it could really take off.
Third, and the biggest issue, is that the Systems Change Lab sets the bar very high by looking only at the 1.5 degree target, and actually only at 2030 targets. Given that the budget is pretty well exhausted (only 150 Gt of CO2 for a 67% probability), it is not surprising that the targets are very demanding and mostly not met. What would happen if a 2 degree target were used instead of 1.5? And if trajectories at least through to 2035 were examined? In fact, I think it is necessary to have that analysis.
Fourth, then, if that were done, there would be space for a discussion about choices, trade-offs and sequencing as between indicators. Of course, in an ideal world, everything needs to happen all at once to limit global warming. But in the real world, there are financial, institutional and political constraints. Again, see my review of the World Bank book by Stephane Hallegatte and colleagues on navigating the political economy of decarbonisation. It is worth remembering that climate goals can be set globally, but delivery happens at national and local level.