23 September 2019

It’s time for the countries that have signed the Paris Agreement to turn targets into action. But to do this, there must be agreement on what the problem is, argue researchers from Linköping University. In a study they have investigated the ways in which countries describe climate change and the measures for addressing it: Is it a threat or an opportunity?

Map of world

Doctoral student Maria Jernnäs has, together with professor Björn-Ola Linnér, studied the 136 national climate action plans (aka nationally determined contributions or NDCs) that have been submitted ahead of the Paris Agreement. The result, which has been published in the journal Global Environmental Change, describes how the dominant theme in the action plans of the various countries is linked to opportunities in relation to climate change.

“Of course, the countries see climate change as a problem, but they also feel that with the right solutions, they can gain something in the long run”, says Maria Jernnäs, doctoral student at the Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change, Linköping University.

The most prominent theme among the national climate action plans describes the opportunities offered by the phasing out of fossil fuels. Many of the plans describe how the transition to fossil-free fuel can generate new labour markets and boost employment.

“Almost all countries believe that fossil fuels are a potential win-win situation where you can invest in emerging markets, such as Greentech. It’s a view based on not seeing climate change action and economic growth as opposing interests”, says Maria Jernnäs.

In contrast to these new opportunities, the climate action plans also describe climate change as a security threat. The countries portray climate change as something that can contribute to or exacerbate conflicts, e.g. regarding water shortages, raised sea levels and food supply.

“Almost half of the countries in our analysis maintain that climate change is a security threat, and they call for urgent measures”, says Maria Jernnäs.

Other themes that emerged in the plans concerned the importance of managing natural resources, the view that climate change action is a threat to economic development, and that system change is necessary to cope with climate challenges.

To identify the dominant themes in the various countries’ climate action plans, the researchers used a method called discourse analysis. When they had identified the various countries’ views on climate change, the countries were marked on a map of the world. The purpose of this was to see patterns regarding which countries describe climate change in similar ways.

The patterns showed that developing countries see climate change as a broader problem than developed countries. For the developing countries, climate change is part of a more extensive social change, which also includes issues such as justice and vulnerable groups. On the other hand, the developed countries view it in terms of win-win, and do not include other perspectives to the same degree. For these countries, climate change is more of a “separate” problem.

“The results show that countries’ definition of problems, or opportunities, is linked to geopolitics and geographical conditions. What is considered a problem or not can create conflicts regarding which climate measures to prioritise. It’s important to be aware of this, when the Paris Agreement is to be put into practice”, says Maria Jernnäs.

The article:
Jernnäs, M. & Linnér, B.-O. (2019). A discursive cartography of nationally determined contributions to the Paris climate agreement. Global Environmental Change, 55, 73-83.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2019.01.006


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