Expert Perspectives

The Role of Long-term Strategies in Aligning Near- and Midterm Plans with the Paris Agreement Goals: Why, When, and How Is Alignment Feasible and Desirable?

The potential value of long-term planning in promoting alignment between short-term policy and investment decisions and long-term goals is indisputable. In climate mitigation policy, alignment would theoretically avoid short-term decisions that could require extremely steep, unprecedented rates of decarbonization once global emissions eventually peak, and negative emissions at unproven scale in order to achieve the Paris goals. At the national level, governments would decrease the risk of an expensive lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure, which would lead to significant stranded assets in the future (Hare et al. 2017). But just how easy is alignment and what does it take?

The need to translate Paris temperature goals into national language

The Paris Agreement mitigation goals are mainly global. The accord sets the boundaries of the problem but allows each Party to define its individual contribution to reaching this goal (Waisman et al. 2016). Among the Parties, 164 countries have already established mitigation goals for 2025–30 in their respective nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and more than 65 percent include quantitative targets for GHG emissions.1 These are referred to as the short- to medium-term country goals. Of these NDCs, 272 have—or at least refer to—a precise individual long-term objective (20 belong to the Global South, and 7 are from developed countries and the European Union).

It is estimated that the current set of NDCs, if fully implemented, will lead to global warming of about 2.8°C above preindustrial levels by 2100 (Climate Action Tracker 2016), thus exceeding the “well below 2°C” and 1.5°C targets agreed in Paris. However, while the need for further ambition at the global level is certain, which countries should do more or much more is debatable. Naturally, most NDCs affirm that their goals are consistent with a 2°C pathway. The growing consensus, however, is that every country should do more, especially by 2020. Clearly, assessing the compatibility between individual NDCs and the Paris Agreement objectives at the national or subnational levels is, at best, complex. This is true for the short- and medium-term targets, and it will be similar for the long term.

Given the NDC experience, diligent and conscious translation of the Paris temperature goal into domestic development  and GHG emissions goals by 2050 may be required before alignment is even considered. Otherwise, promoting alignment risks getting stuck with low ambition. The international and global anchors, as well as simplified translations of this mitigation goal to the national level, are essential to drive domestic discussions on long-term planning but by themselves insufficient to ensure alignment of domestic short-term decisions with a “well below 2°C” pathway. It requires for a country a precise end point that addresses a full set of development choices. And, more important, it requires to attend to the domestic political economy: beyond objectives, alignment is ultimately needed with actual policies and their implementation. A country thus will need to engage its stakeholders and facilitate an exploration of their collective future selves.

Temperature is projected to increase by 3.6°C by 2100 under current policies (Climate Action Tracker 2016). This gap between NDC objectives and policy sets is further reason to begin translating Paris goals to national jurisdictions.

The challenges of the translation

The scaling of Paris mitigation goals to national levels faces several challenges. Despite significant progress, domestic conversations continue to be arduous in most cases. First, a country must go through the equity debate. This will likely require a carefully thought-through stakeholder engagement process to build a position that reflects and articulates the country’s history. A number of useful tools and platforms exist to assist the domestic discussion,3 and well-established benchmarks can be found at both the sector and economy-wide levels.4 The notion of decarbonizing the economy after 2050, with distinct expectations for developed and developing countries, has proven to be a very useful benchmark too. Nevertheless, reaching agreement on the exact pace of decarbonization can be difficult.

Second, the analytical work underpinning the formulation of a specific long-term position also is generally challenging, requiring countries to address  data needs, projections, uncertainties, and the choice of adequate models. The Mitigation Action Plans and Scenario (MAPS)5 community concluded that when modeling over very long time periods (for example, up to 2050 or 2100), different methodologies should be used from those employed to analyze shorter time horizons. Available modeling frameworks were perceived as restrictive and too static for the long term, which presents both greater uncertainties and greater opportunities to change, or even reinvent, the system (Raubenheimer et al. 2015). Likely technical challenges, including methodologies and availability of data and information, show the importance of fostering peer learning and cooperation (Ross and Fransen 2017).

Third, the difficulty in engaging stakeholders from all sectors of society in long-term planning is familiar to policymakers. In the MAPS experience, ideas for the 2050 assessments coming from “outside-the-box” thinking immediately met with apprehension from stakeholders (Raubenheimer et al. 2015). Many felt that long-term analysis could undermine, and certainly not compare with, the rigorous—often model-based—short- to medium-term analysis (up to 2025) done by countries so far. 

Last but not least, adopting a long-term goal requires political leadership. Long-term decision-making is absent in the economic and political spheres (Raubenheimer et al. 2015). Economic gains from low-carbon pathways generally become apparent in the long term, even without considering the costs of potential climate change impacts and adaptation, as was the case in the assessments performed in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru. In those cases, ambitious climate action in the short term results in losses in present GDP (Rojas et al. 2015), given the early capital investments in certain low-carbon technologies. Beyond economics, psychologists have found that humans have “cognitive tendencies and limitations which produce a ‘massive social trap’” when it comes to long-term issues such as climate change (Lazarus 2009, quoting  Rachlinski 2000). Under these circumstances, individual leadership and action within a strong institutional framework will be needed to sustain the vision over the years.

LTS: With and without a country vision

If a country succeeds in defining a domestic long-term goal compatible with the “well below 2°C” target, then alignment is at least a possibility. Development of the long-term strategy (LTS) could be driven by a known end point. All countries that have officially submitted an LTS with a 2050 time horizon considered a national long-term vision for emission reductions prior to developing their long-term strategy (Ross and Fransen 2017). Notably, in 2009 Mexico published the Special Climate Change Program (PECC), which set out a broad program to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to the 2000 level. This previous work may have allowed Mexico and the countries that have submitted an LTS to develop a long-term strategy more quickly (Ross and Fransen 2017).

Nevertheless, some countries may not be able to agree on a domestic long-term mitigation goal in the near term. Or the vision may be too ill-defined to enforce alignment with Paris. Perhaps failure will result from the political context, or inability to overcome any of the challenges outlined above. In this case, based on the MAPS experience, the lack of an agreed end point among stakeholders could become a major obstacle to development of the LTS itself. In the MAPS case, the Chilean team first proposed to its stakeholder group a “backcasting” approach to the long term. This meant there would first be agreement on the “end point”—that is, the vision for Chile toward the second half of the century. Once the vision, or its main elements, was in place, the group could begin unpacking the interventions needed to bridge the end point and the starting one. Since the MAPS Chile process was well established within the government, the steering committee, representing seven ministries, had to agree on that vision too, and mandate the team to unpack the “how.” The proposed end point, zero emissions in the second half of the century, proved politically unattainable. The model-based mitigation actions and scenarios were analyzed for the period 2013–50: however, results were only presented until 2030 due to high levels of uncertainty for the longer term. Moreover, discussion of different futures was perceived to be beyond the scope of the “mitigation” work to which the stakeholders had been asked to contribute (Raubenheimer et al. 2015). The long-term planning exercise failed to deliver a nationwide picture and instead reinvented itself to explore measures additional to those included in the NDC assessment.

The last point also illustrates the risks of long-term goals centered on GHG emissions, and the level of detail necessary in the 2050 vision to anchor Paris. In most cases, countries will realize that a mitigation goal leaves open a number of crucial debates about the underpinning industrial and urban development choices, the energy system and associated technologies, and so on. A GHG-focused goal will likely be an ill-defined vision of a country’s development that cannot inform policy and strategies across economic sectors on its own. In contrast, and particularly in developing countries, creating or imagining a different future economic structure will have a much greater impact on the emissions profile, including factor income distribution structures or the role and nature of industrialization. These questions will be discussed when developing an LTS. Finally, if the long-term goal is not supported and owned by a large portion of the political economy, it is also likely to fail as a prerequisite for a Paris-compatible LTS. In any of these cases, further quantitative and qualitative work on the vision would be sensible.

Countries should be encouraged to develop and submit an LTS notwithstanding any previously agreed long-term precise domestic goals. Alternatives to the backcasting approach attempted by MAPS Chile can be classified in two categories. The first includes forward-looking, model-based exercises. The peril of these assessments is that they generally lead to incremental rather than transformational change. The second category involves scenario-based work, including normative-derived pathways. This means scenarios describing what a country would like to be, or the environment that emerges, which become more goals statements than objective planning assessments. Either of these alternatives offers a country numerous benefits and generates all-important analytical evidence to progress on climate policy. However, neither is likely to ensure alignment between NDCs and the Paris goals. The ambition level is likely to remain low, especially if current NDC objectives pointing to a 2.8°C path are taken as a starting point.

Role of the LTS when alignment is not the main objective

If a national government has not adopted a long-term goal, development of the LTS could be an opportunity to work toward a precise domestic vision, launching the debate among  actors in the political economy. The next step would be to unpack the "how" and bridge short and longer time frames. LTS development would focus on identifying, and deepening understanding of, options and trade-offs, as well as impacts and risks of a low-carbon society with a longer perspective.

In all these cases, connecting with the “now” may offer the best chance to be on track toward  ambitious long-term targets. The stress would need to be on increasing short-term ambition and sending a strong signal to markets and society (Hare et al. 2017). The context of the LTS might be more propitious and unrestricted than the planned revisions of NDCs. Alignment with Paris would not necessarily be justified in the LTS policy paper for the 2050 time horizon, but the shift in focus from planning to exploration, and a trusting environment that empowers stakeholders to think beyond current interests, could trigger action that brings greater climate-friendly investment and hastens change.

After all, some scientists are calling for caution with respect to long-term planning: they underscore what they call the “time-inconsistency challenge,” when optimal policy decisions for the long term are not the optimal policy decisions for today (Kydland and Prescott 1977). Emily Tyler (2017a) explains that unequal distribution of power in society works against action for the long term, as this usually comes at a cost to present incumbents. Tyler outlines four policy mechanisms, mainly informed by principles of complex systems, to address the time-inconsistency challenge, an area that she recognizes has been poorly considered by the mitigation community (Tyler 2017b). In other words, working toward alignment might need to be done from a different logic, one that does not distinguish between long term and short term (Tyler 2017b), and that enables construction of many positive feedback loops.

Conclusions

The first set of NDCs did not align with the 2°C goal, although most, if not all, were designed to do so. Why would the sum of the individual LTSs align with the Paris global mitigation goal? This brief argues that domestic work to adequately translate and embed the Paris Agreement objectives in a country’s domestic political economy is essential to reduce the risk of misalignment at the global level. More important, this work is needed not just to build Paris-compatible LTSs but also to increase the ambition of current NDCs, their incoming review, and actual implementation.

The development of the LTS is an opportunity to catch up with this domestic work. Distinct from the process of reviewing existing NDCs, its longer time frame may offer a different perspective on the economics of the country, and infrastructure investments in particular. It basically allows for factoring in the costs of stranded assets in a low-carbon world scenario. It also has the potential to generate an environment enabling greater ambition than do short-term planning exercises.

Based on experience to date, the lack of a domestically agreed long-term mitigation goal may hinder development of an LTS, or at least make it less likely that ambition is increased in both the short and long term. It is also possible, however, that this deficit becomes an opportunity to launch a fresh debate about the transformation needed in the country, or to instigate urgent short-term investments in low-carbon technologies.

At present, the main risk is sticking with current low-ambition NDCs and establishing LTSs that reinforce current trends and embrace incremental approaches insufficient to meet the Paris goals. To avoid this, this brief discusses two potential approaches. For a country with a previously set clear end point soundly aligned with the Paris goal, development of the LTS enables it to unpack the “how” and provide specific recommendations for the short and medium term. This country positions the country to clearly understand how to best reduce risks of expensive carbon lock-in and stranded assets. By contrast, a country missing the end point could use LTS development to establishing a common future position among stakeholders and gently exploring the options for shaping the future selves. The LTS policy paper could then focus on identifying and/or influencing urgent short-term lock-in decisions. This would be invaluable groundwork for climate action in the short term and, indirectly, for alignment with the Paris goals in the long term. Complexity theories are warning about the perils of “perfect planning” and encouraging decision-makers and practitioners to develop interventions suited to uncertain, interconnected, and unpredictable conditions. Alignment of LTSs with the Paris Agreement will ultimately be about humankind’s capacity to act decisively today in the face of these circumstances.

References

Climate Action Tracker. 2016. Paris Agreement in Force, but No Increase in Climate Action. Climate Analytics, New Climate Institute, and Ecofys. https://climateactiontracker.org/assets/publications/briefing_papers/CAT_temperature_update_November_2016.pdf.

Hare, Bill, Andrzej Ancygier, Laetitia De Marez Paola, and Yanguas Parra. 2017. “Facilitating Global Transition: The Role of Nationally Determined Contributions in Meeting the Long-Term Temperature Goal of the Paris Agreement.” Expert Perspective for the NDC Partnership.

Kydland, Finn E., and Edward C. Prescott. 1977. “Rules Rather than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans.” Journal of Political Economy 85 (3): 473–92. https://doi.org/10.1086/260580.

Lazarus, Richard J. 2009. “Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future.” Cornell Law Review 94 (5): 1174.

Rachlinski, Jeffrey J. 2000. “The Psychology of Global Climate Change.” University of Illinois Law Review 299: 300.

Raubenheimer, Stefan, Marta Torres Gunfaus, Andrea Rudnick, Michelle du Toit, Harald Winkler, et al. 2015. Stories from the South: Exploring Low Carbon Development Pathways. Cape Town: SouthSouthNorth. https://mapsprogramme.org/wp-content/uploads/Stories-from-the-South-Online-Edition-7.1MB.pdf.

Rojas, Ana M., Marta Torres, and Tara Caetano. 2015. An Overview of the Analytical Results of MAPS Latin American Processes. MAPS Programme. Cape Town: MAPS South Africa. www.mapsprogramme.org.

Ross, Katherine, and Taryn Fransen. 2017. “Early Insights on Long-Term Climate Strategies.” Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. /publication/early-insights.

Tyler, Emily. 2017a. “‘Time-Inconsistency’: The Heart of Climate Mitigation as a Policy Problem.” https://emilytyler.co.za/2017/03/14/time-inconsistency-the-heart-of-climate-mitigation-as-a-policy-problem/. Accessed August 20, 2017.

Tyler, Emily. 2017b. “Policy Mechanisms for the ‘Time-Inconsistency’ Challenge.” https://emilytyler.co.za/2017/05/04/policy-mechanisms-for-the-time-inconsistency-challenge/. Accessed August 20, 2017.

Waisman, Henri, Marta Torres Gunfaus, Thomas Spencer, and Andrew Marquard. 2016. Emerging from Paris: Post-2015 Process, Action and Research Agenda. Institut du développement durable et des relations internationales (IDDRI), France, and Energy Research Centre, South Africa.


1 Per https://cait.wri.org/indc/, downloaded August-20, 2018.

2 Own analysis based on Track0 data (https://track0.org/countries/).

3 For example, the Climate Equity Reference Project (https://climateequityreference.org/) or the CAIT Equity Explorer (https://cait.wri.org/equity/).

4 For example, converging emissions per capita found in initiatives such as Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (https://deepdecarbonization.org), Climate Action Tracker (https://climateactiontracker.org/decarbonisation/), or Science Based Targets (https://sciencebasedtargets.org).

5 The MAPS Programme (2010–15) sought to build national scenarios to inform action toward a lower emissions future in four Latin American countries: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru. More information at www.mapsprogramme.org.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.