Scientists have proved vital in the push to control COVID-19. We should also use their knowledge and expertise to tackle climate change, argues Alina Averchenkova.
Alina Averchenkova is Distinguished Policy Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, part of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This year, as the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly throughout the world, we were abruptly reminded of the importance of scientific expertise in ensuring the wellbeing of a society and developing informed policy response in the time of crisis.
Citizens needed advice from the health experts – to help keep us safe from the ravages of COVID-19 and give hope for a return to normality. Politicians relied on these scientists and expert committees to guide emergency lockdown measures for cities and countries, and to chart the course to open back up with the least possible economic and human toll.
In times of adversity like these, scientific experts have become our most demanded and trusted voices. This is an important lesson for another larger-scale global crisis the world is facing – the crisis of global climate change.
Climate change is a global threat that scientists have long been warning the public and politicians about, yet with insufficient political response. Will society’s renewed faith in science extend to the climate crisis and force us to take this threat more seriously?
Europe has, to be fair, proven to be more ambitious in its climate action than many in the developed world. But European decarbonisation and adaptation policies still fall shy of what the science says is necessary to avoid the worst fates of climate change, and so we must do better.
The best way to ensure that European climate targets and policies are scientifically sound is to charge an independent expert body with the authority to advise on proposals and assess the progress of plans and policies. Such a body is unfortunately missing from the European Commission’s Climate Law proposal, which would deliver the otherwise laudable goal of enshrining a 2050 climate neutrality target into law.
While the proposed European Climate Law is of a larger scale than Europe has seen at the bloc’s level, this type of law is not a new invention. Comprehensive national climate laws are in place in the UK, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and other countries.
Almost all national climate laws throughout Europe – and even the world – feature an independent expert advisory body set up specifically to advise governments on targets, policy and to monitor progress. And for good reason: the science of climate change is complex and the laws can only regulate the response of the government itself, creating greater need for third party assessments.
Independent expert advisory bodies at the national level helped strengthen the accountability of the policymaking process and political support for climate action. Without an independent expert body, the European Climate Law will have no third party analysis to help bridge the gap between emissions reduction targets and the actual impacts of the policies and plans to meet them.
Nor will there be any clear, trusted authority to assess independently the progress towards these goals. The European Climate Law could become unique for what it lacks, rather than for what it aims to become. A climate law without an independent expert advisory body is like a map without a scale and compass rose, making it difficult to determine the distance and the best route to the final destination.
How can we ensure the implementation of the European Green Deal relies on the best science and expertise? The EU could take inspiration and learn from governance innovations and experience at the national level.
By establishing a European Climate Change Council – an independent expert advisory body that would provide an independent scientific review of targets and policy proposals, review the implementation of the European Climate Law, providing a pan-European perspective on progress and policy consistency.
By providing independent, highly qualified and non-politicised review and advice, the body would strengthen political buy-in to the proposals by the Commission and the overall legitimacy and public acceptability of the implementation of the EU’s transition to climate neutrality.
Some might ask: can’t Europe just rely on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? Why does Europe need its own expert panel?
The IPCC provides policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and future risks, and advises on options for adaptation and mitigation measures. And through its periodic assessments, the IPCC helps deliver a comprehensive state of scientific understanding of climate change, and explains where more research is needed.
The IPCC however does not provide advice on specific targets and policy proposals, nor does it assess progress with implementation in a specific geography.
A European Climate Change Council would complement the work of the IPCC by providing advice distinct to the European Union on specific targets and policy proposals, and by assessing the progress made towards these goals within Europe alone.
Similar advisory bodies at the national level demonstrate that this work does not undermine the IPCC, but rather helps translate its work for specific national and regional application.
The importance of independent expert input in climate policy is evident around the world; indeed, nearly all existing climate laws have established or introduced an advisory body. Europe should not be a laggard.
Last week, the European Parliament voted to establish such a body, and member states should speak up now at the European Council discussions to make sure it is enshrined in law. The past six months have reminded the world just how vital scientists are to our society and our well-being, and the importance of heeding their warnings and advice on matters of public health and environmental crises.
Let’s give science a clear voice in Europe’s response to climate change by creating an independent climate science body to serve the European Green Deal.