Imagine a world where we managed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees by ending our reliance on fossil fuels completely by the mid-2030s. We invest heavily in renewables and interconnections, and our energy needs including heating and transport are met via carbon-free electricity. High-carbon lifestyles are no longer socially acceptable. We now live in a world of clean but modest energy use. Future generations can cope with the level of climate change brought about by 1.5 degrees of warming. There is societal commitment to keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and adoption of natural climate solutions such as afforestation, rewilding and changes to agricultural practices.
There are few political rewards in making tough decisions that will secure a better future for people 50 years from now
But what happens if we fail? Based on current emission trajectories, we are on course to hit 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030-2035, and 2 degrees by the 2040s or early 2050s. Worryingly, even the most up-to-date integrated assessment models (IAMs) used to build these scenarios rely on negative emission technologies scenarios that are speculative and untested. Even technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) would only be usefully deployed at industrial sites or power plants and, at best, provide a smoother transition to a zero-carbon energy system.
Many of the climate models assume a temporary “overshoot” of the 1.5 or 2-degree limits, so that carbon dioxide will have to be sucked back out of the atmosphere. But these technologies have not yet been proven to work at scale, leading to what scientists Glen Peters and Kevin Anderson describe as an issue of inequitable distribution of risk between current and future generations, along with impacts on poorest countries in the world that have contributed the least to climate change.
Intergenerational climate justice requires that we make decisions that ensure that future generations are not made worse-off. This kind of long-term thinking is vital in climate policy because carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere forever.
Once we’ve used up the global carbon budget, that’s it, the carbon party is over, forever. But this reality has not yet dawned on today’s decision-makers, who are still postponing the deep emission cuts that we should be making today to ensure a safe future for youth and future generations.
Maybe this is because political cycles are notoriously short. There are few political rewards in making tough decisions that will secure a better future for people 50 years from now. This is why putting long-term climate targets in law is so important, so as to bind future governments to achieving them.
Also, assessments of the costs of climate action get distorted by the use of high discount rates to calculate the present costs of actions that will yield a benefit in the future. High rates effectively pit the interests of current generations against future people. The use of a low discount rate or declining rates would protect the interests of future generations in cost/benefit analyses of climate action.
Lowering the voting age to 16 and establishing a commissioner for future generations could enfranchise a younger demographic
How can we design an intergenerational ethic in practice? One modest proposal would be to establish an ombudsman for the future, with powers to scrutinise and comment on legislation and budgetary proposals. Wales has had legislation since 2015 establishing a future generations commissioner with a range of powers to advise and recommend public bodies in maximising their contribution to the sustainable development and wellbeing goals. In 2020, the Irish Government established a wellbeing framework for Ireland, the first report of which was published in July 2021. However, it lacks a future orientation and, unlike Wales, there is no body charged with assessing the long-term impacts of policies.
Longer time horizons
Private and public investments are largely aimed at existing people and their immediate descendants. Governments face a dilemma which is rarely articulated in public debates over whether to borrow for climate mitigation or transfer spending from existing budget lines. Moving public capital to clean technology research may reduce the wellbeing of current generations but new debt could burden future generations.
The tech sector and the pensions and insurance industries frequently have longer time horizons than the State. Pension funds invest many decades into the future, so it is vital that they divest as quickly as possible from fossil fuels and ecologically destructive companies in the Far East. Big Tech invests in blue-sky projects, many of which never get off the ground, but Government investment in R&D is still well below the EU average. Increasing State funding of R&D into clean technologies would pay dividends for future generations.
We must give today’s youth a greater say in decision-making. Lowering the voting age to 16 and establishing a commissioner for future generations could enfranchise a younger demographic, and push their concerns higher up on the political agenda. It would also go some way towards healing the generational divide which has been growing in recent decades. One way or another, existing humans must assume what philosopher Hans Jonas terms a parental responsibility for future generations. We must not shy away from taking responsibility for their fate.