Solutions to Climate Change

The major problem we face is global ignorance, in that the vast majority of the world’s population have no idea of the extent, scale and urgency of the current climate emergency.

Those who understand what is happening find themselves in a sitituation analagous to the fire crew, arriving at a burning stadium to find that the public warning system isn’t working.

We need to get a clear and urgent message to as large a number of people as possible. This requires a basic understanding of the psychology of disasters, and the means of effective global messaging.

Its now generally agreed that the safe level of C02 in the atmosphere is less that 350 parts per million (ppm). We have been above that level for more than twenty years and the principle, as in cooking and sunbathing , is that its not just the temperature that matters, but the temperature plus the length of time you stay there.

We may have as less than a few years before the world is truly cooked. So we need an urgent global program to get the world below 350 ppm as quickly as humanly possible.

A number of strategies need to be adopted immediately. In every analysis these include:

  1. Radically reducing our use of fossil fuels – especially coal
  2. Preserving and regrowing our forests,
  3. Fast-tracking sustainable development and adaptation worldwide,
  4. Reducing the extremely high levels of consumption to which wealthy societies have become accustomed.

All these factors are at odds with expansionist global economics but together they offer the only chance of getting emissions low enough, fast enough to secure a climate in which humans can survive.


The role of activism as a solution to climate change centers on its potential to move decision makers to step up their response to global warming. Public pressure on governments and businesses aims to force change by demonstrating civil agreement or opposition to a policy, practice or structure that impacts on the global climate.

Scientific evidence of human-caused climate change has been public knowledge since the 1980s. Yet political action to solve the problem has progressed at a snails pace. That is why people use their political power as citizens to push for more immediate change to the urgent problem of climate change.

Because there are a wide range of contributing factors and solutions to climate change, as well as a variety of people who control them, activists use different strategies to create change.

From protests, rallies, strikes, street marches and hunger strikes to writing letters to local politicians and newspapers, boycotts and green consumption choices different tactics can all mount pressure on decision-makers to change policies to protect the climate.

Some forms of activism aim to create change directly, rather than indirectly through governments or other major decision-makers. Vegetarianism and veganism, as well as cooperative forms of living are examples of direct behavioural changes to reduce personal greenhouse emissions.

The benefit of activism is that it moves private concerns about the risks of climate change into the public domain. Ideally this forces governments to act according to the will of the public or face loosing an election, or businesses to opt for more environmental production processes or face falling sales.

Nevertheless, the success of activism is difficult to measure, and sometimes it can do more damage than good. Psychologically, negative or aggressive messages may make people switch off or even resist change. Effective messaging in activist communication is therefore essential for positive solutions to climate change.

There is a whole range of ways to be involved in the climate movement. Try an internet search for your local climate action group, or get involved in a global organisation such as, or


To prevent or to adapt? That is the question.

Adaptation refers to systemic adjustment to the impacts of climate change. This includes actions to moderate the actual or expected impacts of climatic change, reduce harm or exploit opportunities.

Mitigation, on the other hand, refers to strategies to eliminate or reduce the risk of climate change. This means tackling the contributing factors or enhancing the solutions to climate change in order to stop releasing greenhouse gases and start removing them from the atmosphere.

Some projects designed to protect economies and societies from the more damaging effects of climate change are already underway. Germany and the Netherlands are currently constructing more sea walls to protect themselves from rising sea levels. The Australian government is diversifying water sources to avoid future shortages, and providing drought training for farmers to help maintain food production levels. Many Asian nations are securing their water supplies in the face of more severe weather.

However some countries are less able to invest in adaptation strategies to secure their future in a changed climate. Many developing countries lack the money and the technology to adapt to climate change.

In order to help developing nations adapt to climate change, wealthy nations have pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cope with climate change. This international agreement was reached at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, and a Climate Investment Fund has been established as a result.

Because some of the effects of climate change have already started biting, and some future damage is now unavoidable, strategic adaptations are needed to protect vital infrastructure.

Yet adaptation can only go so far. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) states that most systems could never adapt to warming of more than 4°C above 1990 levels. Currently, some climate models predict temperature rises of 4°C by 2060.

This means that limited adaptive capacity means that mitigation solutions are urgently needed for adaptation to be effective in protecting the most vulnerable.

Economic Solutions

Economic solutions to climate change include direct government economic investments as well as the creation of markets in greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions taxes and emissions trading schemes (ETSs) both establish a price on greenhouse emissions, with the aim of making climate friendly technologies more competitive with fossil fuels.

Emissions taxes impose a direct price on greenhouse gas emissions, making polluting activities more expensive and increasing the competitiveness of alternative technologies with lower emissions. Most Scandinavian countries have carbon taxes, as well several states in the US and Canada.

Emissions trading schemes operate by creating a limit on the total amount of emissions, and then establishing a market in the allowable emissions. Pollution permits are then auctioned or given away by a central body, and countries or companies trade between each other in order to reduce emissions at the least cost.

Despite the arguments between tax and trade advocates over which scheme works better, the different economic mechanisms to combat climate change could be complementary, rather than either-or.

For instance, a carbon tax could create a price floor for emissions, and a carbon trading system on top of a tax would fluctuate within narrow range. The advantage of this arrangement is that investors have more certainty than with a pure emissions trading scheme, and more flexibility than with an emissions tax alone.

That keeps the incentive to invest in green technologies strong, while allowing the market to move without great distortion.

However, while a well-designed combination could strengthen both schemes, without careful planning both could be weakened. Administrative double-charging, tax concessions and free pollution permits, low targets and faulty accounting would weaken any economic solution to climate change.

Alternatives to new markets in emissions include direct government investment in renewable energy and other green technologies. Nonetheless, government investment and market solutions are not mutually exclusive, but could work together to provide solutions to climate change.

Emissions Tax

An emissions tax refers to a levy charged on activities in proportion to the amount of greenhouse gases that they emit.

Emissions taxes reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by making polluting activities more costly. This increases the relative competitiveness of alternative technologies with lower emissions. Ideally, an emissions tax would therefore boost investment in cleaner infrastructure and alternative energy.

A tax on emissions would operate in the same way as other environmental taxes. Both are designed to cover the cost of economic ‘externalities’ that result when the social costs of emissions are higher than the private costs. That means that the best level for an emissions tax is the social and economic cost of the impacts of climate change.

In contrast to emissions trading schemes (ETSs), taxes provide price-certainty, which is essential for long term investment decisions. ETSs do not guarantee a price on emissions, but instead guarantee a maximum limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases released.

The benefits of emissions taxes is that they raise revenue that can be used for adaptation and government investment in climate friendly technologies.

However emissions taxes are not without their drawbacks. Introducing new taxes is a hard political move, and therefore unlikely to be embraced by populist governments.

Taxes also share many of the same potential design flaws as ETSs. Insufficient greenhouse gas reduction targets with no scientific basis, tax concessions to big polluters, regulatory and accounting difficulties reduce the effectiveness of both economic mechanisms.

Finally, some people criticise emissions taxes because they structurally distribute the costs of solving climate change onto everybody. Because companies that pay emissions tax on their products are likely to pass this cost onto consumers. This means that the initial result of a carbon tax would be higher household petrol and electricity prices.

However, higher prices will help to reduce consumption, which is likely to be part of the solution to climate change. Also, as the impact of higher prices for polluting goods flows through the system, more sustainable products and technologies will become competitive, thereby lowering prices once more. Taxes could also be structured to make them more progressive by targeting the highest polluters, rather than the everyday person.

Emissions Trading

Emissions trading schemes (ETS) work by creating a market in greenhouse gases with the aim of reducing overall emissions in order to solve climate change.

Initially, a central authority sets a cap on the total amount of emissions. Then companies or other groups apply for emission permits that grant them the right to emit up to a specific amount. The idea is that the total amount of permits issued are limited to the amount set by the cap.

Some companies can reduce their emissions easily, so may they have leftover permits which they can then sell. More polluting companies can buy these excess permits to increase their emission allowance.

This means that the companies who pollute less are rewarded through extra money from selling their leftover permits. The buying and selling of permits is an incentive structure, encouraging all companies to emit less greenhouse gases.

The benefits of Emissions Trading Schemes are that they reduce emissions efficiently, because every business is encouraged to save money on buying permits. So those who can reduce emissions most cheaply will do so, and pollution will reduce at the lowest cost to society.

Criticisms of ETSs can be categorised into issues with the design of particular schemes and arguments with their inherent structural flaws.

One common design flaw is that governments set ETS caps to low. If the emissions reduction target is not based on scientific agreement on what is necessary to stop global warming, then an ETS will not solve the problem.

Another problem is that it is difficult to measure emissions, so carbon accounting might miss some emissions and then overall emissions would exceed the cap.

Finally, the effectiveness of ETSs depends on whether governments auction permits or issue them for free. By auctioning permits, the price of emitting greenhouse gases goes up as emissions rise, acting as a disincentive to pollute. The money raised from the auction can be used to invest in adaptation and technical solutions to climate change. However there is a political temptation to give away emissions permits for free to companies that are important to the national economy or to political parties. This was one of the major failings of the European Union’s ETS, which collapsed due the low price of carbon as a result of too many free pollution permits.

Some climate justice groups argue that ETSs can never be a good solution to climate change. For instance, ETSs may encourage carbon offsets with socially damaging consequences, such as cutting down old growth forests to make room for fast-growing mono-cultures that sequester carbon rapidly but damage local economies and ecosystems.

Despite these concerns, ETSs are the most commonly suggested solution to climate change. The next international treaty will probably focus on implementing a global ETS.

Targets and treaties for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Strong targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are needed on a global level to prevent dangerous climate change. And a binding treaty that commits all countries to reducing emissions to that target is the only way to ensure that we stop global warming from reaching alarmingly high temperatures.

Global warming is, as its name implies, a global problem. The problems caused by climate change will not stop at national borders, but droughts will stretch across continents, extreme weather will strike entire regions, and environmental refugees will flood neighbouring nations as they flee the chaos.

Similarly, the causes of global warming span national boundaries. Fossil fuels mined in Australia are shipped to China to power factories that make goods for excessive consumption by US and Europe. So who should be responsible for the consequences?

The answer, of course, is that we all are. That means that international cooperation is needed to combat climate change. No country stands to benefit from a treaty that fails to really reduce the root causes of climate change.

Yet so far, no strong treaty or binding global target exists.

Part of the problem is getting all countries to agree on how to share the burden of a target. Every nation emits greenhouse gases, with China now the biggest single contributor because of its large population. However, if we look at historical contributions to the problem, western European nations and the US have contributed the most. Finally, if we look at emissions per capita, the US and Australia emerge as the worst culprits.

Another problem is how we measure targets. In 2009, the US committed to reducing emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. The European Union had already committed to cutting emissions by 20% by 2020. Although these two targets: 17 and 20%, do not seem too different, it’s important to look a bit closer. The US is using 2005 emissions levels as their baseline, while the EU is using 1990 levels, which are the standard measure. Effectively, that means that the US target is only a 6% cut below 1990 levels.

Clearly, the devil is in the detail.

Choosing a target is another problem. The impacts of climate change become more severe and more rapid with every additional degree of warming. That means that the lower the global temperature rise, the better for everyone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended cuts of 25-40% of emissions on 1990 levels by 2020, and this may be a conservative estimate of the needed reductions.

To be effective in stoping dangerous climate change, a global target needs to reflect scientific reality, rather than political ease of implementation. A good treaty should incorporate strong targets, and an equitable distribution of emissions reductions.

Treaties on Climate Change

An effective international treaty on climate change needs to address the concerns of the international community. Industrialised countries must commit to meaningfully reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries like China and India must commit to limiting the growth of their emissions without limiting their economic advancement. And a funded financial plan is needed to work out how to help developing countries transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

International climate change negotiations have continued for nearly 20 years, with few results. Below is a list of the major treaties:

  • 1992 – Earth Summit, the first climate change convention, was nearly universally signed. This document bound countries to work together to stablise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and to have annual meetings, called ‘Conferences of Parties’ or ‘COP’s to negotiate reductions.
  • 1997 – Kyoto Protocol signed. Kyoto was the location of COP3, however the treaty did not come into binding force until COP13, in 2007.
  • 2005 – Kyoto protocol entered into force. This meant the development of a global emissions trading market. However Kyoto never won the crucial support of the United States, who refused to ratify the treaty.
  • 2007 – Bali roadmap set the course to future agreements.
  • 2009 – Copenhagen agreement for post-2012 action. This agreement bound developed countries to nominate their emissions reduction targets for 2020 and bound developing countries to nominate a schedule of emissions reduction actions. US$100 billion a year by 2020 was also allocated to mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries.

While these treaties have made some progress, the last 20 years of climate change negotiations has still failed to create a global commitment to reduce emissions. This failure has occurred in the face of strong evidence of the reality of climate change, and alarming predictions as to the costs of global warming. How has this happened?

The influence of climate change skeptics is one factor. Lobbying by corporations that profit from the activities that contribute to climate change is another. Combined, the work of skeptics with a large paycheck has slowed government action on climate change since the 1980s.

Psychology is also useful in understanding the deadlocks in international action on climate change. Self-interest, bad information and an inability to co-operate means that individual nations face barriers in reaching global commitments. Many governments have not found the political strength to tell their constituents that they have committed to reducing emissions, when this might involve new taxes, higher electricity prices or reduced consumption.

However, many of the concerns that make action on climate change unpopular are informed by data presented by climate skeptics and the corporations with interests in continuing business as usual. In order to make international co-operation a reality, better information and messaging is needed, as well as activism to show governments that strong and binding treaties have community support.


Technological solutions to climate change come in all different shapes and sizes. Because global warming is the result of several contributing factors, multiple technologies are needed to tackle the various aspects of the problem.

Burning fossil fuels for energy is the main contribution to excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That means that alternatives to fossil fuels must be part of the solution to climate change. Nuclear power, ethanol, wind and solar power are all technologies that could replace fossil fuels as our main energy source and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if we switch to low-emission energy sources today, we already have too much carbon in the atmosphere to keep the climate stable. Today there is 393.20 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide which is much higher than the safe level of 350 ppm. That means that not only do we need to stop pumping carbon into the air, we need to start drawing it out of the air until we reach a safer level.

Sequestration technologies are needed to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it securely away, such as in forests and the soil.

We need to reverse deforestation, which is a significant contribution to our total greenhouse emissions. Sequestration of carbon in forests could therefore be a solution to the climate crisis. Sequestered carbon could also be used in carbon trading systems as offsets to unavoidable greenhouse emissions.

Other forms of sequestration, such as biochar and ethanol, pull excess carbon from the air and can be used as energy alternatives to heavily polluting fossil fuels.

In addition to altering our current energy systems, we need to change the way that we live. Sustainable cities could see the introduction of all kinds of technologies that make the urban environment more climate friendly.

New green infrastructure, including better public transport and urban green spaces will help move us into a sustainable future.

However, many of these technological solutions to climate change come with their own problems. Nuclear power, biochar and biofuels all have fierce critics, and wind power and sequestration technologies both face challenges such as public antagonism, pollution and negative impacts on global food production.

Combining these different technologies, and continuing research into improving their drawbacks, will help to solve climate change. We can implement many of these solutions today, and stop global warming tomorrow.


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