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Carbon Pricing

Published on July 12th, 2020 | by Jesper Berggreen


Can A Government Be Held Accountable If Climate Legislation Is Violated?

July 12th, 2020 by  

In June, a majority coalition of the parties in the Danish parliament agreed to introduce a tax on emissions of greenhouse gases for all sectors, thus confirming the reality of the groundbreaking agreement from December 2019 on implementing climate legislation for Denmark no matter who rules, with a first goal of reducing carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and the ultimate goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But how will any sitting government in the future be held accountable for this? In this BBC article by Jocelyn Timperley, the question is raised like so: “One of the most robust laws on climate change yet has been created in Denmark. Can legislation really make failing to act on climate change illegal?” And the core problem is nailed with this:

“The short-term cycles of government can be a real problem for climate change. Even if climate goals are laid down in law, there can often be few concrete measures to stop a succession of governments from taking decisions that collectively end up with them being missed.”

So the law has to account for this:

“But a new and ambitious climate law recently passed in Denmark tries to find a way around this problem, and some of the other common pitfalls of climate laws. It makes Denmark one of a small number of countries beginning to provide new blueprints of how government can genuinely tackle climate change. Its law could turn out to be one of the closest things yet to a law that would make climate change – or at least the lack of effort to stop it – genuinely illegal.”

However, being the closest thing might just be a waste of time then right? Either it’s illegal, or it’s not. And of course there is a subtle difference between making climate change itself illegal, or just making the lack of effort to stop it illegal. I mean, if climate change as such is illegal, we’ve already lost the case and should be collectively punished while going down with the ship. It just might be more motivating to fear retaliation for not doing whatever possible to avoid catastrophic climate change at any given point in time.

Climate minister Dan Jørgensen, in a tweet after the confirmation of the new climate legislation where the question of carbon taxes was agreed to be set in stone with detailed negotiation in the fall, said: “The climate law finally confirmed in the parliament! A good day for the climate!”

In the BBC article, Dan Jørgensen describes the consequences of the law like this: “If you’re not on track, the parliament can say, ‘Well, sorry, you’re not on track so you don’t get a majority.’ In theory, that will lead to a government having to step down.”

And this is the core of it: In theory a government has to step down if they screw things up, but that’s not new is it? No, exactly. We are used to letting governments go if they fail to live up to the social contract of the people’s vote. Many times this has happened in connection to other laws.

However, this time the legal system can measure and weigh the actions on a sitting government in terms of climate efforts, and not only can the people threaten to kick it out if they screw it up, with the new law in hand, once a year, the parliament as a whole can topple a sitting government for neglecting the climate law itself and/or not strengthening efforts if current rules are too weak to bend the carbon emission curve.

Also, parties outside any ruling parties that were in on the historic agreement back in December 2019 will think twice before downplaying the significance of the law, because that would most certainly cost what no party is willing to pay: votes. All this combined is what the world has never seen in effect before.

On the robustness of the core legislation, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg race: The very broad agreement on the law itself, and being able to confirm it in the midst of a economical devastating pandemic slams the ball on a trajectory out of the park, and if so, the homerun will be manifested in industry embracing the common goal and making it viable to do the right thing, namely work to make sure low carbon technology and services are the cheapest option overall. As such, this would make the law obsolete long before the day the ultimate goal is reached.

There are very strong elements in this new climate legislation, like the prohibition of buying emission quotas from other countries. “We say that if all countries just bought credits, then we wouldn’t have the development that we need,” says Dan Jørgensen, and continues: “We need technological advances. We need a system where rich countries can’t just buy their way out.”

However, there are of course no actual personal consequences for the politicians working to reduce carbon emissions if they fail to reach the goals, but what is worse for a politician: Going to prison for embezzlement, or going down in history as someone who obstructed the most important issue a nation has ever faced based on its peoples consensus? Not so different from a situation of war is it? The losers take all the heat.

If you think about the goal of the Paris Agreement to halve global carbon emissions in the next 10 years to keep the world on track to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, it in itself might seem, and frankly might actually be, impossible. But you don’t get points for not trying, we are all in this together, and the sooner a small country like Denmark can show concrete results from functional climate legislation, larger countries just might follow. 


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About the Author

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

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