Penguins in snow
Photo: Sandwich / Flickr.

Taking ambitious action to tackle global climate change should be a straightforward task. Far from being fake news, climate change science is solid – yes, global warming is happening and humans are responsible – and there is a wealth of strategies to mitigate its most severe effects such as boosting the share of renewable energy sources, and consuming less fossil fuels.

Alas, reality is not that simple. Many good initiatives exist but it’s manifestly clear that even their combined effects fall far short of what is needed to limit global warming to 2°C, let alone the more ambitious 1.5° target famously agreed at the climate summit in Paris in 2015.

Part of the reason is a sort of “tribal” mentality amongst people who tend to stick to their own territory, their own preoccupations and their own priorities: Researchers talk amongst themselves in jargon-laden language, the gap between policy-makers’ actions and the desires of their constituency is increasingly widening, while the business sector might see stringent climate action as a burden and not as the opportunity it is.

To overcome this silo thinking, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) organized a one-day roundtable discussion where researchers, policy makers and business representatives came together in Stockholm to discuss how they could contribute to a low-carbon Europe.

CARISMA meeting at SEI, people around a table
CARISMA roundtable at SEI.

Part of the EU-funded research project CARISMA, the main objectives of the workshop were on the one hand to present research results from other EU projects and to identify further research needs and, on the other hand, to facilitate a much-needed dialogue amongst those tribes. Discussions ranged over a panoply of issues, from EU climate policies to local examples of greening cities and communities helped by technologies and business innovation.

EU policy-making and the challenges of politics writ large

Adopting the right policies to tackle climate change is a highly complex process, particularly in the EU where 28 member states come to the table with different interests, different realities, different national goals and priorities, not all of them compatible. For example, building gas pipelines to enhance energy security can drive up emissions which an Emissions Trading System (ETS) promised to tackle. And while researchers can propose solutions for these problems, it was quickly clear from the discussions that those research findings will always be constrained by what is politically feasible, especially in the EU context, where the ambitions of member states often diverge more than they converge. Tribal instincts, apparently, are not only for researchers and practitioners but also for high-level politicians who often prioritize national solutions to communal problems.

However, diverging interests and ambitions are also rooted in differences as simple as geographical circumstances. Using biomass to create a circular bio-economy is a quite logical idea in forest-rich Scandinavia than in the drier southern countries. But forests and the agricultural sector as a whole are part of vast eco- and biosystems, and their exploitation might negatively impact the livelihoods of many people in a variety of other sectors. Here, a clear research gap about the constraints and sustainability risks of a bio-economy was identified by roundtable participants that is all the more important because making the agricultural sector more sustainable will be one of the big challenges on the way to a low-carbon economy. It is astounding that this important aspect of agricultural policy, a fundamental pillar of European integration, remains under-researched, which perhaps is a testimony to different communities not sufficiently talking to each other.

Getting in sync

But a low-carbon economy and meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement depends on a transformation in how societies produce, distribute and consume goods and services. This demands technological innovation; new business models; the right mix of regulatory, fiscal and other policy support; research; and a well-informed, creative and optimistic public. These are not a given. We know that policies can either hinder or enable innovation while business players can either support a new, emerging system or cling to an old regime. Many EU-financed research projects have come up with innovative ways for politicians and business actors to facilitate this transition, but communication has been weak, with the result that they have not had the influence they should have had. In other cases, researchers have not asked exactly the questions that policy-makers or business need answers to.

This mismatch could have been mitigated by better dialogue between the parties, but diverging time frames are another reason. While research can take a long time to generate robust findings, policy-makers and businesses often need to act in a shorter timeframe, based on incomplete or outdated science. External influences might add to the already delicate balancing act of satisfying as many stakeholders as possible. The impacts of the financial crisis on the efficient functioning of the ETS allowances was one example, discussed by the roundtable participants. However, as data becomes increasingly available in large quantities, one might be optimistic about the capacity of scientists to cater better to policy and business needs if they are willing to listen. Again, establishing and nurturing a continuous dialogue between the tribes becomes imperative.

Many voices, many solutions

The metaphor of tribes is useful up to a point, but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that there can be incredible diversity within these groups. Different stakeholders have very different visions of the best route to a low-carbon economy; and the interactions and tensions between them are here to stay.

But this is not necessarily a weakness. Climate change, and broader sustainability, are complex challenges; having many visions and options to choose from is a considerable strength of open, liberal, democratic societies. There is already a wealth of information and data available to structure and to streamline those visions into operational approaches. The challenge is to draw them together into solutions that are feasible, evidence-based and fit for purpose.

Overall, the roundtable discussions confirmed the importance of ever-greater coordination between science, policy and business. Exchanging ideas, needs and approaches is not only the most effective way for policy and business challenges to take advantage of robust research, it is vital to tackle climate change. At a time when populist movements around the world are trying to drive a wedge between policy, science and public opinion, this message is more timely than ever.