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by Rachel Kyte, Dean Emerita, The Fletcher School at Tufts University
25 October 2023
In driving climate action we must dare to be honest and ‘fear no labour’

Rachel Kyte, Dean Emerita, The Fletcher School at Tufts University

In driving climate action we must dare to be honest and ‘fear no labour’

Two significant developments have occurred since the international community came together in Paris in 2015 and agreed to drive climate action. First, energy transitions are underway. The pace of uptake of modern renewable energy has outstripped every model, leading to a fast-moving shift to electric vehicles, too. Scotland is at the forefront as a renewable energy superpower. Secondly, at the same time as we can celebrate the renewable energy revolution it hasn’t yet brought transformation everywhere. We have endured a global pandemic that slowed economic growth, a war in Ukraine that drove up energy food prices, which in turn drove inflation. We have a war in the Middle East, and tensions between the United States and China are rising. The world became more complicated.

While the world looks different today than in 2015, our destination has not changed: a world where we limit global heating, our economies are net zero by 2050, and where we can have clean air, better jobs, more jobs, clean water greater peace, and security.

The problem is not that the Paris Agreement is not working, but that it's not working fast enough. We are not on track. The big question before governments as they gather at COP28 in Dubai in November is how to get back on track.

At home, how do we build confidence that as we try to balance the books at the end of every pay period, we can make big investment decisions that will serve us well over the long run?

Can we close our eyes and imagine what a more climate resilient world that works better for all of us looks like? More wind turbines bring cheap, clean energy and 21st-century grace and beauty to landscapes shaped by previous industrial and agricultural revolutions and waves of ownership and occupation. Clean energy banishes the memory of spikes in paediatric asthma and chest infections. Clean energy transforms transportation, making our commute easier, cleaner, and quieter. Job streams for young people leaving technical colleges and universities are more compelling, and a new generation of green apprenticeships and new programs to reskill people mid-career build career paths. There is good work with reasonable wages close to home for building refurbishment. Hospital wards are safer following refurbishment, staying cool in the extreme heat of summer. Schools can stay open even in the intense heat of May, August, and September.

Further afield, across the world, in the towns and villages to where so many Scots trace their roots, schools have reliable electricity so that students can study more, healthcare centres have reliable electricity so that doctors and nurses can work more, farmers have access to heat and drought tolerant seed varieties and cold storage for their produce. All of this is from a renewable energy revolution at home and abroad.

And how did we pay for it? We curtailed the harmful subsidies to the fossil fuel economy – estimated by the IMF at $7tr a year in 2022. And, because we put a dollar tax on every business class flight, letting families vacation without additional burden, and a modest windfall tax on the $4tr of energy company profits after Russia invaded Ukraine, we could subsidize heat pump installation at home and contribute to loss and damage funds overseas to help those most vulnerable and who, only by the accident of geography, pay the price of climate change even though they did nothing to contribute to the state of climate emergency.

In climate diplomacy, there have been no breakthroughs without the leadership of small countries. There would have been no Paris Agreement without the High Ambition Coalition, and there would have been no such coalition without the leadership of the Marshall Islands. Without Rwanda's leadership, there would have been no Kigali Amendment phasing out harmful climate change-accelerating refrigerants. Without Vanuatu, we wouldn't have judgments from the International Court of Justice on the responsibility of states to protect their citizens during a climate crisis. With Costa Rica, we wouldn't have a resolution that we have a right to a healthy environment.

It was at COP26 that Scotland made the first contribution to a loss and damage fund. Can Scotland gather small nations and now push for international solidarity fees, business class air travel, windfall taxes, bunker fuels in shipping, overconsumption that can support transformation at home, and loss and damage contributions abroad? Supported by the UN Secretary-General and Gordon Brown, I hope in the future, we will say, "we wouldn't have found new ways to transfer financial resources to support climate resilience without Scotland". 

Now is the time to imagine the world the way we want it to be, shepherd our resources fairly and with ambition, and build a cleaner and fairer world where we don't leave people behind, for we will all do better as a result. We can change the conversation.  Scots know, better than most, that we must dare to be honest and as Robert Burns said ‘fear no labour’.   

Rachel Kyte will be speaking at Holyrood’s annual climate action summit next month

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