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Climate action: addressing a wicked problem

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By James Balzer

· 6 min read


Climate change is a clear and demonstrable example of a ‘wicked problem’. Its cause may be well accepted, but its solution is still debated and mired in political ideology and short-termism. Global investment portfolios depend on fossil fuels for financial returns, major polluters such as India and China continue to erect coal-fired power stations and rhetoric continues regarding the need for fossil fuels for grid firming, job prospects and national security - particularly in light of the Ukraine war. 

What’s more, the influence of special interest groups, lobbyists, industry moguls and financial actors stifle and confuse what best-practice science and engineering know are the sound and sensible solutions to this global problem. To a large extent, climate policy is caught in the cobwebs of democratic deliberation and obfuscation - with powerful actors and special interest groups distorting the democratic process to suit their industry’s needs. In countries such as the United States, politicians and presidential candidates still highlight the ‘climate cult’ and ‘globalist’ sentiments that remove the legitimacy of climate action. 

2023: where do we stand? The good and the bad 

At the dawn of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) events, it is no secret we are clearly about to breach the ominous and impactful 1.5-degree threshold agreed upon in Paris, 2015 (COP 21). There is a recognition of the inevitability of climate change impacts - which are blatantly demonstrable at the time of writing this article. Record-breaking floods ravage Greece, Turkey, and China, to name a few, and horrific heatwaves and wildfires have consistently dotted the global landscape in summers across the last few years. 

Juxtaposed to the elation and optimism of COP21, contemporary climate discourse has a notably more somber and pragmatic tone. We slowly but surely concede to the adverse impacts of climate change, and even discussions around ‘loss and damage’ are becoming more ubiquitous - conceding to unstoppable climate change impacts. Movements such as the Bridgetown Initiative push for global financiers to redirect and reformulate financing toward the communities most affected by climate loss and damage. In itself, this represents a heavy critique of global financiers - having failed the world’s most vulnerable if they choose to maintain a ‘business as usual’ conduct and mandate.

And yet, despite these messy political and organisational barriers, the solutions for combating global climate change appear to be more promising than ever. Indeed, it is strange yet promising how despite the dire and pressing nature of climate change, there are promising and cutting-edge financial and technical solutions to the problem. 

Typical bemoaning of ‘the wind doesn’t always blow’ or ‘the sun doesn’t always shine’ are squashed by some of the most promising hydrogen and battery storage capabilities the world has ever seen. Battery technology is becoming more cost-effective and technologically capable than ever before, meaning we can store enormous levels of intermittent energy usage in our pursuit of a decarbonised world. 

Private and public financial markets are demonstrating increasingly robust efforts and mandates to tackle climate change and fulfill their ESG criteria. For instance, as of 2023, 935 global green bonds have been issued, raising $351 billion in H1 2023 alone, meaning 2023 will be a record year for green bond issuances. Large polluters also pulled their weight. The USA was the largest country source and priced the highest share of sustainability deals at US$21.5 billion, and China produced the largest volume of green bonds at US$85.4 billion. However, only 23% of global green bond issuances are from emerging markets, beckoning greater financial activity in emerging markets. 

Global governments are also conducting net zero pledges at national and sub-national levels, creating a robust and promising regulatory environment for promoting a zero-carbon world. As of November 2022, about 140 countries had announced or were considering net zero targets, covering 90% of global emissions. 

Likewise, in 2022, 3 in 20 cars sold worldwide were electric, with China accounting for more than half of those sales. In percentage terms, 29% of all electric vehicles sold in the world are in China, 21% in Europe and 8% in the United States. This signals marked improvements in electric car sales in recent years - particularly in the major polluting countries.

However, there is still cause for concern. Global energy CO2 emissions grew by 0.9% in 2022 (321 million tonnes), reaching a new high of more than 36.8 billion tonnes. Carbon Dioxide emissions from coal grew by 1.6%, especially driven by Asia. Furthermore, there is a 66% chance the world will have annual average temperatures of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels in the next five years - displaying a defeat to a major Paris Agreement pledge.

Where to from here?

One of the most promising aspects of the contemporary climate movement is the amount of youth involved. Movements such as Fridays for Future are fantastic initiatives of youth-driven, grassroots movements shifting the conversation surrounding climate change.

Given the very intergenerational nature of climate change, youth involvement is not just promising, but absolutely necessary.

There is also a growing movement of climate risk assessment methods, including the Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which focuses on ‘Governance’, ‘Strategy’, ‘Risk Management’ and ‘Metrics’ for climate risk. Having seen this also implemented in the work of the public sector, it is confidently stated that climate risk is now increasingly accepted as a legitimate and pressing threat. It is not just a nice-to-have, but a necessary-to-have.

COP28, as with other COPs, provides an opportunity to discuss the seriously ‘wicked’ nature of global climate change. While there are competing ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors stifling and promoting climate action, there is an air of change happening for climate action at different scales. From the grassroots, to Main Street, to Wall Street, and beyond, incrementally, and in a non-linear fashion, trends are shifting. 

It is important to never let a good crisis go to waste, so may we never forget the lessons we’ve learned from this climate crisis - before it’s too late.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

James Balzer is an Australian climate and sustainability policy practitioner, with experience in the Australian Federal Government and the New South Wales Government. He has experience in climate and sustainability policy across think tanks, NGOs and social enterprises in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia.

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