Accelerating the pace of climate change policy through science, economics and diplomacy

4 May 2023


Accelerating the pace of climate change policy through science, economics and diplomacy

Reported by Victoria Price, CSaP Policy Intern (April - July 2023)

The rate of decarbonisation of the global economy is dangerously slow. In fact, Simon Sharpe, a former Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy and a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute, argues that we need to decarbonise five times faster to avoid the devasting consequences of a 1.5°C global rise in temperature and that this will only be possible with some significant changes to our ideas and institutions.

With the support of Professor Laura Diaz Anadon, Chair of Climate Change Policy at the University of Cambridge, who chaired the event, Simon launched his new book, ‘Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics and Diplomacy of Climate Change’ in Cambridge last month. Drawing on his experience as a diplomat, policy maker and a user of science and economics, Simon outlined his vision for the major institutional changes needed to reach net zero global emissions by 2030.


Simon began the launch, held at Christ's College, Cambridge on 25 April, by highlighting his most significant issue with climate science: the wrong questions are being asked.

“…what we need is risk assessment and most of the time the science is giving us predictions…”

“diplomacy is only ever useful when you break it down into manageable chunks, for climate change this means breaking it down into the different emitting sectors of the global economy”

Predictions, Simon explained, ask first what is most likely to happen, while risk assessments ask what the worst-case scenario is. Simon pointed out that there are few studies of cities' limits of adaption to sea level rise. An exception is one study that has estimated London's limit of adaptive capability at around 5 – 6m. This compares to the IPCC's predicted long-term committed global sea level rise of around 10 –12m with a sustained 2°C of global warming.

For Simon, the underestimation of risk — as can be seen in the changes over time in the expert judgement of the risks of tipping points, and others of the IPCC's 'Reasons for Concern' — and the understatement of risk, are further shortcomings of scientific research and communication. The scientific code of ethics is to never overstate the findings of research, creating a strong aversion to false positives, but a relative tolerance for false negatives. Simon stressed that professional cultures of risk management tend to have the opposite approach: a relative tolerance for false positives and a strong aversion to false negatives. When that risk is an existential threat to human society, this raises a concerning issue of communication.


Turning to economics, Simon argued that the currently dominant form of economics assumes equilibrium, defined as a situation in which no actor has any reason to change their actions, so that the status quo can continue. He argued that to make progress in decarbonisation the economy must be seen as an ecosystem, “evolving, fundamentally uncertain… with unlimited possibilities for change”, and not as a static ‘machine’.

He discussed this in relation to instruments of policy, explaining that the ‘machine’ view of the economy leads to the recommendation that putting a price on carbon is the most efficient approach to decarbonisation, whereas the 'ecosystem' view supports the recommendation that governments should be investing in new technologies.

“We didn’t move from horses to cars because we taxed horse poo… we invested in motors… factories… built highways and wrote the highway code”

Simon also drew attention to the difficulty of putting a price on the social costs of climate change; estimates of such values are arbitrary and so unlikely to be helpful guides for policy. He suggested it was the relative value that mattered: tax should instead be used to activate tipping points, highlighting that the UK has seen the fastest power sector decarbonisation in the world, and Norway the fastest transition to electric cars. In both cases, tax tipped the scales in favour of clean technologies, in the context of other policies also supporting the clean energy transition.


The most significant barrier to diplomacy making progress on climate change was the scope of the problem:

“We can’t solve the whole of global emissions in one go, that would be a bit like trying to agree on world peace in one global agreement”

Simon explained that the problem of emissions needs to be broken down into sectors — aviation, agriculture, shipping, steel etc. — for diplomacy to be more effective. In each of these emitting sectors there are different problems to be solved and different countries that can influence the global transition. Typically, the top 10 countries account for ¾ of global production and consumption of the goods involved in any of the emitting sectors, meaning a small group of countries can accelerate the global transition in each sector and the participation of all the countries in the world in climate negotiations makes the task unnecessarily difficult.

He used the global car market as an example, where if Brussels, Beijing and Washington were to align their regulations, the point at which electric vehicles become cheaper than petrol cars could be brought forward to five years. If the rest of the world followed suit, it would bring the tipping point forward by only one more year.


A lively debate with the audience followed the presentation. Professor Diaz-Anadon asked Simon why changing economics and science is the right solution, and not better political leadership. Simon replied that it is about leaders, but it is not just about leaders. The right science, economic analysis and diplomacy can make politics easier, so that with whatever political will there is, more can be achieved.

One attendee asked what arena climate change diplomacy should be taking place in. Simon strongly believes that a new set of institutions are required – one for each sector, with the most relevant countries working together. Another audience member enquired about the role of culture and beliefs. Simon suggested that changing beliefs is unlikely to happen fast enough and the advantages of adopting a new paradigm for economics is that it could enable much faster progress for any given set of social preferences.

Closing Thoughts

Simon ended his talk on a positive note, reiterating that there is a moment in any transition where things get easier. To pass this tipping point, science, economics and diplomacy must all work together and ensure clean technologies are the most affordable, attractive and accessible option within each sector. Then, maybe, we can go five times faster.

To listen to the book launch, please click on the link below:

Image credit: William Bossen on Unsplash

Illustration credit: Dionne Kitching