Author Archives: Kevin

About Kevin

Kevin Anderson is professor of energy and climate change in the School of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester. He is deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is research active with recent publications in Royal Society journals and Nature. He engages widely across all tiers of government; from reporting on aviation-related emission to the EU Parliament, advising the Prime Minister’s office on Carbon Trading and having contributed to the development of the UK’s Climate Change Act. With his colleague Alice Bows, Kevin’s work on carbon budgets has been pivotal in revealing the widening gulf between political rhetoric on climate change and the reality of rapidly escalating emissions. His work makes clear that there is now little chance of maintaining the rise in global temperature at below 2°C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary. Moreover, Kevin’s research demonstrates how avoiding even a 4°C rise demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda and the economic characterisation of contemporary society. Kevin has a decade’s industrial experience, principally in the petrochemical industry. He sits as commissioner on the Welsh Government’s climate change commission and is a director of Greenstone Carbon Management. Kevin is a chartered mechanical engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Why a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with the 2°C framing of dangerous climate change

This piece is a  response to Professor Robert Mair’s Royal Society science policy blog, Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the UK – an opportunity to shape a constructive way forward” (In Verba, 26th Jan)

(The analysis underpinning this response has been developed with my colleague Dr John Broderick)

Professor Mair’s Royal Society post suggests that the development of a UK shale gas industry is compatible with the UK’s climate change targets. I suggest this conclusion is premised on a partial and overly simplistic interpretation of the UK’s muddled climate change obligations. In brief:

Shale gas within domestic carbon budgets
The development of a UK shale gas industry may be compatible with the UK’s domestic carbon budgets – just. These budgets are however premised on a high probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change and on a highly inequitable allocation of the global carbon budget to the UK. Even under such lax conditions (and hence a larger UK carbon budget) there is a significant risk that a new and large-scale UK shale gas infrastructure could become a stranded asset within a decade or so of major shale gas extraction.

Shale gas within 2°C carbon budgets
The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with UK’s equitable share of the IPCC’s carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2°C obligation. This remains the case even if shale gas can be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The CO2 emissions from gas-CCS are anticipated to be five to fifteen times greater per kWh of electricity generated than are the emissions from either renewables or nuclear. Add to this the timeframe for developing a mature UK shale gas industry and, even with CCS, shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK’s energy mix. 

Please note:
The MacKay and Stone shale gas report for DECC, referred to in the Royal Society post, includes the following important conclusion:

If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.

In relation to the carbon budgets for a “likely” chance of 2°C, it is abundantly clear that there is a complete “absence of strong climate policies”. Consequently, over and above all the detailed discussion in the the Mackay and Stone report, their statement can only be interpreted as concluding that a signficant UK shale gas indutry is incompatible with the UK’s commitment to maintaining temperatures below 2°C (i.e. fitting within the IPCC’s budgets for a likley chance of 2°C).

This challenging statement is reinforeced in Andrew Alpin’s (Professor of Unconventional Petroleum) measured response to the EAC report on fracking.

“The development of new fossil fuel resources such as shale gas is broadly incompatible with the UK’s stated commitment to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  However, any moratorium on shale gas exploration must go hand-in-hand with an equally strong commitment to reducing imports of coal, oil and gas.  Given that fossil fuels dominate current energy consumption, this also implies a massive increase in nuclear and renewables, which will be both challenging and expensive.”


The notes below provide a little more detail to the above headline statements 

A pivotal point to consider before passing any judgment on whether or not UK shale gas is compatible with UK’s climate change obligations is to recognise that the UK holds two very different positions on its mitigation responsibilities – with very different carbon budgets.

UK’s weak domestic carbon budget (high chance of exceeding 2°C)
The UK’s domestic position under the Climate Change Act, is for a 63% of exceeding 2°C; global emissions reaching a peak between 2016 and 2020, including for China, with the rest of the poorer nations reaching a peak collectively just a few years later. Moreover, it assumes that the wealthier industrialised nations take no responsibility for international emissions from deforestation – despite most having already deforested their own nations. Similarly the process emissions from producing cement for poorer nations to construct the infrastructure necessary for their industrialisation are also neglected – despite the UK (and other wealthier nations) already having established infrastructures. Furthermore, the UK’s domestic targets are premised on highly optimistic assumptions about the cumulative emissions budget of non-greenhouse gas emissions from food. If all this is considered reasonable, then there is a small and probably short-lived opportunity for UK shale gas development. However, even with such highly partisan assumptions, by the time significant shale gas reserves are developed (assuming they exist) there is a real risk that the accompanying infrastructure could rapidly become a stranded asset – even under the UK’s weak (i.e. not 2°C) domestic carbon budgets. 

UK’s domestic carbon budget for a “likely” chance of staying below 2°C
By contrast, taking the previous and current Prime Ministers at their word, then the UK’s international climate change commitment is framed by the UK making its equitable contribution to staying below a 2°C rise (explicit in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration). Consequently, the UK’s domestic targets, premised as they are on both a very inequitable distribution of emissions and a 63% of exceeding 2°C, are not only incompatible with, but are indeed far weaker than, our international obligations.

Borrowing from the IPCC’s taxonomy of ‘likelihoods’ the language of the agreements to which the UK is a signatory relate to, at most, a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C (with a carbon budget approximately half of that for a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C). However, given where we are in 2015, both our earlier [1] and ongoing analysis typically adopts a much laxer probability of between 66% and 50% chance of staying below 2°C (concluding that this is now the best that can be achieved). We assume a global peak in emissions soon after 2020, with poorer nations, on average, peaking by 2025 and with deforestation and cement emissions accounted for as a global overhead. Our work argues that, though challenging, these assumptions are much more appropriate than the unsupportable starting point of the Government’s analysis. Allying our assumptions with the PM’s express commitment on 2°C (i.e. a more equitable division of the IPCC’s budgets for 66%-50% of staying below 2°C) delivers an uncompromising and unambiguous conclusion. There is no emissions space for shale gas in the UK’s national carbon budgets and emission pathways – and consequently, the only appropriate place for shale gas remains in the ground.

[1] Anderson, K., and Bows., A., 2011, Beyond dangerous climate change: emission pathways for a new world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 20-44, DOI:10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

 The arguments outlined in this response are similar to those developed in a previous letter to the Prime Minister on the appropriate EU 2030 level of emission reductions (for a 2°C framing of climate change); Letter to the PM on how the 2 degrees Celsius target demands an 80% cut in EU emissions by 2030


For further commentary on shale gas, see:

Fracking – a price worth paying?
A debate between Prof. Paul Younger and I on the arguments for and against fracking in the UK

Response to the House of Lords shale gas report 
A response arguing that the Lords report chose eloquence over analysis when addressing issues of climate change

Tyndall submission to the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs

UK commitments on climate change incompatible with a national shale gas industry
A brief comment on the recent Total Oil announcement of its plans to invest in UK shale & the PM’s and Energy Minister’s responses.

Tyndall submission to the Energy and Climate Change committee.
October 2012

UK unveils Office of unconventional gas & oil – another nail in the climate change coffin
A quick response to the inception of the government’s Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil

Shale gas: an updated assessment of the environmental & climate change impacts 
A  more detailed account of the climate change issues is given in chapter 3

Has US shale gas reduced CO2 emissions?
A report suggesting shale gas is likely to add to global fossil fuel reserves and not be a substitute for coal.

Shale gas and avoiding dangerous climate change
A slide show on shale gas recently presented at a Chatham House shale gas summit and later at an ‘all party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas’ seminar (in the House of Commons)


Jan 2015. Evidence to the House of Lords on the resilience of the electricity grid to a changing climate

Video/YouTube: Anderson gives evidence on the ‘resilience of the UK’s Electricity network to a changing climate’, both in terms of low carbon energy supply and changes in energy demand.

The evidence is based, in part, on the research project Resilient Electricity Networks for Great Britain (RESNET); a collaboration between Manchester and Newcastle Universities and the National Grid. Amongst others, the House of Lords committee included reputable scientists, for example Martin Rees and Robert Winston, renown climate sceptic and previous Chair of Northern Rock, Mat Ridley, and climate sceptic/denier William Wade.

Enthusiasm over small fall in EU emissions masks underlying apathy on 2°C

“Delivering on 2020 climate goals shows that Europe is ready to step up its act. And better, still: it shows that the EU is delivering substantial cuts. The policies work.
                                                                                                                       Connie Hedegaard [1]
                                                                                                     EU Climate Action Commissioner

The above is Connie Hedegaard’s response to the Commission and European Environment Agency’s Progress Report on climate action, in which, “according to latest estimates, EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 fell by 1.8% compared to 2012 and reached the lowest levels since 1990. So not only is the EU well on track to reach the 2020 target, it is also well on track to overachieve it.”[1] 

Below is my alternative take on the same announcement.

In the context of international commitments to stay below the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, hand wringing or fist waving over irrelevant 2020 targets is all part of the fog that continues to thwart any meaningful action on climate change. The consumption-based emissions (i.e. where emissions associated with imports and exports are considered) of the EU 28 were 2% higher in 2008 than in 1990[1]. By 2013 emissions had marginally reduced to 4% lower than 1990 – but not as a consequence of judicious climate change strategies, but rather the financial fallout of the bankers’ reckless greed – egged on by complicit governments and pliant regulation.

In the quarter of a century since the first IPCC report we have achieved nothing of any significant merit relative to the scale of the climate challenge. All we have to show for our ongoing oratory is a burgeoning industry of bureaucrats, well meaning NGOs, academics and naysayers who collectively have overseen a 60+% rise in global emissions. Even the wealthy EU presided over rising emissions until the financial debacle hit home. Certainly we have a fledgling renewables industry, some public awareness and a press that has jumped on the opportunity to polarise yet another complicated and nuanced debate. A few prominent climate-change advocates and sceptics have done very nicely out of it, as, of course, have a cadre of bankers and financiers who successfully convinced governments that converting carbon into money would enable them to trade the problem away. But whilst a bewildering array of financial instruments and offsetting ‘products’ may have succeeded in lining their pockets, they singularly failed to make any dent in our emissions.

With Paris set to host the next major round of negotiations in December 2015, there is little time to convert a sow’s ear into a silk purse – and the omens are not looking good if the EU’s decision to adopt a leaky 40% target by 2030 is anything to go by.

If we are serious about repeated international commitments to reduce emissions inline with the 2°C obligation (“consistent with science and on the basis of equity”[2]) the EU will need to reduce its emissions by over 80% by 2030 – with the rapid phase out of all fossil fuels soon after [3]. Recourse to increasingly esoteric Ponzi schemes and fervent discussion of annual tweaks in emissions are all just elaborate ruses for inaction. We have collectively bought into the numerology of incremental change, efficient markets, trading and offsetting – and until we break that spell our emission trends will continue their groundhog day.

The music’s stopped playing, the lights have come on and the doors are swinging open – someone has to make the first move. The EU has over two decades of rousing rhetoric on climate change – so perhaps now is the time for it demonstrate courageous leadership and scientifically informed action.




[2] Data from the Global Carbon Atlas

[3] Report of the Conference of the Parties; fifteenth session; Copenhagen, 7 to 19 December 2009. See also: President Barroso on the results of the L’Aquila summit; European Commission, MEMO/09/332; 10/07/2009

[4] The reasoning behind the 80% by 2030 figure was laid out in a recent letter to the UK Prime Minister prior to his attending the European Council meeting at which the 40% target was agreed. The letter built on an earlier version sent to the previous Commission President in the lead up to the Green Paper, ‘A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies’.




Letter to the PM outlining how 2°C demands an 80% cut in EU emissions by 2030

Below is an open letter (22nd Oct. 2014) to both the UK’s Prime Minister and the Secretary of State at the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC). The letter summarises why the IPCC’s carbon budgets for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the international community’s 2°C commitment, requires the EU to reduce the emissions from its energy system by 80% by 2030, with complete decarbonisation just a few years later.


Open Letter to:

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State at the Department of Energy & Climate Change
22nd October 2014

RE: The EU 2030 decarbonisation target and the framework for climate and energy policies

Dear Prime Minister and Secretary of State,

I wish to state my grave concern about the proposed ‘2030 framework for climate and energy policies’ that is to be finalised at this week’s European Council meeting of heads of state and senior ministers. If the 40% target proposed in the earlier Green Paper [1] is adopted, the EU will be signalling its dismissal of the IPCC’s carbon budgets associated with a 2°C rise in global temperature. It will give priority to politically expediency at the expense of scientific integrity, irrevocably damaging the climate change negotiations in Paris 2015.

My chief concern with the framework relates to the Commission’s assertion that “emissions would need to be reduced by 40% in the EU to be … consistent with the internationally agreed target to limit atmospheric warming to below 2°C”[1]. Whilst such a position may have political traction, it is in direct breach of the EU’s repeated commitment to reduce its emissions “consistent with science and on the basis of equity”[2].

The IPCC’s budgets for a “likely”[3] chance of not exceeding 2°C, accompanied by weak allowances for equity, demand the EU deliver, at least, an 80% reduction in emissions from its energy system by 2030, with full decarbonisation shortly after.

This stark contrast with the Green Paper’s proposed 40% reduction arises from two principal issues.

1) The IPCC’s “likely” carbon budgets The IPCC’s budgets, for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2°C target, range from around 600 to 1200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) for the period 2011-2100 [4]. To put this in context, in the four years since 2011 almost 150 billion tonnes have already been emitted; i.e. between a quarter and an eighth of the total carbon budget for the rest of the century. To estimate the budget for energy-only carbon, it is necessary to subtract emissions from deforestation and cement production [5]. Even with stringent control on emissions from these sectors, the remaining carbon budget for energy equates to as few as 5 and at the most 20 years of emissions equivalent to those in 2014 [6].

2) The inclusion of equity when apportioning emissions to regions The EU has acknowledged the need for its emissions to reach a peak and subsequently begin reducing well before those of industrialising and poorer nations. Even today, the carbon intensity of a typical Chinese person’s lifestyle is considerably lower than that of their European counterpart (5.9 tonnes p.a. per person compared with 9.4 for the EU28, rising to 10.1 and 11.4 tonnes for the UK and Germany respectively [7]). Under even the most stringent deal at the Paris 2015 negotiations, it is doubtful that the industrialising and poorer nations will collectively reach a peak in their emissions before 2025. However, if this were to be achieved, and if by the 2030s they deliver mitigation rates similar to those of the wealthier nations, the “likely” carbon budget remaining for the EU, USA etc. demands immediate double-digit mitigation rates [8].

Put simply, the basic arithmetic of: (1) the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets; (2) highly optimistic assumptions on deforestation and cement; (3) stringent emissions pathways for industrialising and poorer nations; and (4) the EU’s oft-cited commitment on 2°C; requires the European Council to increase the 2030 target to, at least, an 80% reduction in emissions.

Alternatively, if the Green Paper’s 40% target is adopted, the EU should be honest about why it has chosen to renege on it previous 2°C commitments. Moreover, it should explain the reasoning for judging the challenges of stringent mitigation as more onerous than the increased risk of dangerous repercussions for poorer and climatically more vulnerable communities.

I understand the enormous political difficulties for European heads of state in developing a transparent and evidence-based mitigation agenda. However, the reasons for today’s climate dilemma reside in our prolonged abject failure to set in train an effective programme of mitigation. A quarter of a century on from the IPCC’s first report, the carbon intensity of a typical EU citizen’s lifestyle remains unchanged [7]. I urge you to resist the vested interests calling for continued inaction and instead drive for an ambitious policy framework “consistent with science” and developed on “the basis of equity”. Ultimately, this will be the legacy we bequeath to future generations.

Yours sincerely

Kevin Anderson

Professor of Energy and Climate Change
Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research University of Manchester
PA- Amrita Sidhu, tel: +44(0)161 306 3700


[1] Green Paper, A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies. Brussels, 27.3.2013 COM(2013) 169 final

[2] Report of the Conference of the Parties; fifteenth session; Copenhagen, 7 to 19 December 2009. See also: President Barroso on the results of the L’Aquila summit; European Commission, MEMO/09/332; 10/07/2009

[3] This is the language used by the IPCC in the AR5 to provide a qualitative interpretation of quantitative probabilities. It is based on the Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties. IPCC Cross-Working Group Meeting on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties. Jasper Ridge, CA, USA. 6-7 July 2010

[4] IPCC Summary for Policy Makers; Working Group III Table 6.3, p.12. The precise budget range is 630 to 1180 GtCO2

[5] With the surge in construction required to transition to a low-carbon infrastructure alongside ongoing industrialisation within poorer nations, reversing the 6.9% p.a. growth in emissions from cement will be extremely challenging. The assumptions used in this letter rely on deforestation and cement emissions, for the century, totalling 100 and 200GtCO2 respectively. For cement this relates to either: 1) an immediate halving in current growth rates with a transition to zero emissions by 2075; or, 2) a continuation at current rates to 2030 with a transition to zero emissions by 2050.

[6] Once deforestation and cement emissions are included the remaining budget range for energy-only is ~190 to 740GtCO2 for 2015-2100. Emissions for 2014 will be around 37GtCO2, hence the 5 to 20 year estimate. It is important to note that global emissions are currently growing at ~3% p.a., and that there is no prospect of this changing significantly before 2020, by when emissions from energy will be ~42GtCO2.

[7] Calculated from consumption-based inventories where emissions from imports and exports are also included. Territorial and consumption-based data is available for the EU28 region and individual EU nations from the Global Carbon Atlas.

[8] For a detailed account of these conclusions in for Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations, see: Anderson K, Bows A. Beyond dangerous climate change: emission pathways for a new world. Phil Trans R Soc A: Math Phys Eng Sci 2011, 369:20–44.

* This letter builds on a previous submission (13.12.2013) to the EU Commission President with regards to the Green Paper A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies. Brussels, 27.3.2013 COM(2013) 169 final 

A response to Victor & Kennel’s commentary “Ditch the 2°C warming goal”

Published in Nature Climate Change. 2nd Oct. 2014

In preparation for an article a broadsheet journalist was writing, I was asked to respond to a series of questions related to Victor and Kennel’s proposition. Below is a tidied up version of the notes I forwarded.

For a more detailed examination of the global climate change framework, see Going beyond two degrees? The risks and opportunities of alternative options – a paper colleagues and I co-authored in 2013 and was subsequently published in Climate Policy.

See also a response on the Real Climate site Limiting global warming to 2 °C – why Victor and Kennel are wrong 


Is it time to ditch the target of keeping temperature rises to 2ºC?

No. It is time to take the international community’s commitment on 2°C seriously, not “ditch” it just because the necessary changes are proving difficult.

2°C is the best (or perhaps the least worst) proxy we have for a range of impacts that, through the messy process of international negotiations, has been defined as the appropriate threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change. Though science informed the discussions, delineating between acceptable and dangerous was rightly the responsibility of policy makers and civil society. By contrast, Victor and Kennel’s paper hints at it being the role of scientists to define dangerous, a role they anyway suggest is inevitably “fruitless”. This important misunderstanding of roles undermines the cogency of some of their arguments.

From an energy perspective, the central concern in terms of mitigation is carbon dioxide emissions. Through a suite of transparent assumptions the 2°C target can be readily translated into carbon budgets and emission pathways, languages accessible to policy makers and wider civil society. That the international community has, thus far, chosen not to act is, to a degree, the responsibility of us as scientists and experts failing to be brutally honest about the policy implications of the small and rapidly dwindling 2°C carbon budget. We have run scared of our paymasters and repeatedly adjusted our responses to fit within their particular Zeitgeist. But now, facing the problem of accumulating emissions, the remaining 2°C carbon budget demands changes that beg fundamental questions of the dominant economic and growth paradigm – and woe betide anyone who suggests that physics trumps economics, or more accurately short-term finance. The current political stasis on mitigation, is not therefore an inevitable outcome of the 2°C framing of climate change, but rather stems from the systemic inertia of the current socio-economic worldview.

So whilst 2°C is far from perfect, it is probably the best proxy we have. Complemented with a range of vital signs it offers an appropriate and robust framework meaningful to scientists and, once translated into carbon budgets, understandable by policy makers, the business community and wider civil society.

It is worth emphasising that whilst on aggregate 2°C may have been defined as ‘globally’ acceptable (as distinct from desirable), such rises will undoubtedly have severe repercussions for many poorer and climatically more vulnerable communities.


Do you agree with Victor & Kennel that 2ºC is now “effectively unachievable”?

Certainly no, but I think it very likely we will choose to fail, but this is a choice – not a fait accompli.

To start, 2°C is not a categorical position; it has to be interpreted terms of probabilities, uncertainties and risks. This is important terrain for scientists and social scientists, quantifying the language, arguments, statements and commitments of policy makers in terms of probabilities and finally carbon budgets. From here on science, engineering and academia can only outline the necessary rates of change and the options for governments, institutions and individuals – they cannot define the ‘correct’ way forward. That said, the remaining 2°C carbon budgets require that whatever the mix of technological, social, policy and economic options, they need to deliver on two fronts. First a deep and almost immediate cut in absolute energy demand (and hence emissions) by those whose energy consumption is far above the average level. Guarding for issues of rebound, this would deliver almost immediate reductions in emissions within wealthy nations and a much-reduced rate of emission growth in poorer countries (delivered through a combination of, behaviours, routines and end-use technologies). Second, implement a Marshall-style construction plan of low/zero carbon energy supply accompanied with high levels of electrification.

Such proposals will inevitably face the usual cackles that they are too costly etc. But we are not short of resources to deliver such timely change only the innovative capacity and courage to think and act differently. The UK, almost overnight, conjured up over £350b to bail out the banks and stimulate the economy – but it has earmarked just £3.8b for its Green investment bank! Finance trumps not only physics but also our and the planets future wellbeing. Again Victor and Kennel’s belief that it is the targets that are at fault is misplaced. As before, the failure to deliver relates much more to political inertia buttressed by powerful vested interests in maintaining the status quo, set against a relatively compliant academia and an indifferent public.


What do you think of Victor and Kennel’s suggestion of having a suite of ‘vital signs’ instead; including ocean heat content, high latitude temperature and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere?

I think there is significant merit in including a suite of vital signs alongside a temperature target (2°C by 2100). But these are complementary and not substitutes. In reality this is what is happening anyway. Much of science centres its analyses on more specific impacts and criteria – so formalising vital signs, as the paper suggests, is an approach worthy of serious consideration.


Are Victor & Kennel right that by mainly measuring our progress on surface temperature risks allowing us to miss the other stresses we are putting on the climate system, e.g. the oceans?

There is certainly a risk of this. But rather than reject the current target, I would suggest a somewhat more inclusive approach, factoring in more specific and geographically well defined criteria – alongside 2°C; this is, in many respect, already occurring.


Would agreement at the Paris 2015 COP to work towards a new set of ‘vital signs’ as Victor & Kennel suggest, be a good idea or a distraction from the main negotiating efforts on a climate pact?

Again this is a complementary rather than a replacement issue. Whilst I see considerable merit in the vital signs approach, I suggest it is wiser that those developing such proposals do so alongside the 2°C framing. Scientists infighting on the nuanced differences play into the hands of both the sceptics and our natural tendency for procrastination. For Paris (and really well before then) the 2°C framework needs to be quantitatively, robustly and starkly laid out for policy makers to understand; this could certainly be complemented with a suite of vital signs.


By all working towards a 2ºC goal, which many say is now unrealistic, with 3ºC to 4ºC much more realistic, do we risk being unprepared in our adaptation efforts, i.e. not building flood defences to the right height, not planting the right crops that can cope with higher temperatures, etc.

This is an important issue and underpinned my 2007 suggestion that we should “aim for 2°C but plan for 4°C”.

Describing visions of the future as realistic or unrealistic simply misses the point that the future will be radically different from today. Either we’ll make the necessary changes to our energy and agricultural systems and broadly hold to the 2°C carbon budget, or we’ll continue to make hay while the sun shines and witness the increasingly dangerous repercussions of a rapidly changing climate. These will likely play out initially amongst the poor and vulnerable and then later across every level of our own communities. In today’s terms neither delivering radical mitigation nor living with dangerous levels of climate change would commonly be described as realistic. Our ongoing and abject failure to respond to the climate challenge leaves us now facing a radically different future – whatever we do.

My other concern is that in thinking through the impacts and adaptation agenda for a 3°C to 6°C future, we tend to focus narrowly on people like us. Many of the worlds seven billion population are maladapted to the current climate let alone one with increasingly destructive and unpredictable impacts. If we consider we have the moral calibre, wherewithal and sufficient insight to implement a global 4°C adaptation plan for nine or more billion people, surely it would be wise to put similar if not more effort into reducing emissions now, so as to lessen the likelihood of facing such uncertain futures.


In the end I remain convinced that pulling out all stops to avoid going above 2°C whilst planning infrastructure and institutions etc. for 4°C is the most appropriate policy framework. Vital signs are a potentially important and helpful complement to such an approach; but they are not an alternative.


BBC’s programme on Shale Gas remiss in its neglect of climate change

Response to Costing the Earth’s programme: A decade of Fracking
BBC Radio 4; 1st Oct 2014; 21.00hrs.

This is a copy of an email sent to the BBC following Wednesday’s airing of the programme

Presenter Tom Heap noted during the introduction to the programme that he would consider the issue of global warming. However, again the BBC completely missed the more important climate change concerns – focussing instead on localised methane emissions and industry claims that these could be remedied through maintaining well integrity and a schedule of rigorous monitoring.

At no point did the programme address whether shale gas would be a genuine substitute for high carbon coal, and, even if this were to be the case, whether the emissions from Shale Gas (another high-carbon energy source) could be reconciled with the UK’s climate change commitments. These are pivotal issues that academic colleagues and I have raised repeatedly[1], and which the previous Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) chief scientist emphasised in his report for the government[2]:

If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”

Just last week Ban Ki-moon closed the UN climate summit in New York by reaffirming international leaders’ commitment to maintain the global average temperature rise below the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change. The past year has seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide clear guidance to policy makers as to what the 2°C threshold represents in terms of available carbon budgets; i.e. the total quantity of carbon dioxide that can be emitted. Against this backdrop, the perfunctory coverage of climate change in the BBC’s Costing the Earth was seriously remiss and highly misleading.

Kind regards

[1] For example, in a submission to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, see:

[2] Professor David MacKay and Dr Tim Stone. Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use. DECC. 9th Sept. 2013 (p.33)

Don’t muddle energy efficiency with reducing emissions!

This is a brief response to Zachary Karabell’s piece for entitled “Naomi Klein Is Wrong: Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change” (Sept. 30. 2014)

Zachary Karabell’s analysis muddles energy efficiency with absolute reductions in emissions. We are many times more efficient now than we were in 1970 and even more than in 1920 – yet energy consumption and emissions continue their relentless rise. The climate doesn’t give a damn about efficiency, only about emissions. So if companies, governments and individuals, at least the wealthier amongst us, are to make a positive contribution, we need to be delivering absolute reductions in our emissions. And if we are serious about avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, then those absolute reductions need to be in double figures (i.e. over 10% p.a.). Anything less and we certainly should not be claiming to be moving in the right direction – rather moving in the wrong direction, just at a slower rate. So in that regard, Zachary’s subtitle that “multinational corporations” are doing something to ”halt climate change” is categorically wrong. They may be doing something to reduce the rate of increase in climate change – but trying to halt it they are not!

Zachery’s highlighting of Maersk as an example of a company with “sustainability and energy-efficiency central to [its] business model” ignores how history typically demonstrates a divergence between these two goals. Certainly Maersk needs to be congratulated relative to an industry who, even assuming its proposed efficiency measures were implemented in full, is set to triple its emissions by 2050 relative to1990 (or double compared with 2010).[1] Lets be clear about this, Maersk, as the best of a bad bunch, is implementing polices that fall a long way short of anything approaching what would be necessary for a 2°C pathway; but they are in good company. All the other firms noted by Zachary could sail a Maersk ship sideways through the gap between their rhetoric and delivery on climate change.

But it is not all down to the companies. Governments are also failing to implement the umbrella of low-carbon policies within which companies could compete on a level(ish) playing field. At the same time, and not withstanding the recent marches and other good work, civil society demonstrates little appetite for anything other than an ongoing increase in its energy and material consumption – and hence in its emissions.

Zachary’s emphasis on the US reducing its emissions by 10% since 2005 demonstrates our desire to hide, even from ourselves, the real story of an inexorable rise in emissions. In the same way that the climate doesn’t care about efficiency, it doesn’t differentiate between the geographical origin of emissions – they all end up in the atmosphere changing the climate. So it is the carbon-profligacy of our lifestyles that matters, not that we have conveniently exported the emissions to another country. This places a different complexion on the issues.[2]. Between 1990 and 2007 the lifestyles of US citizens had, on average, higher emissions year on year – rising by 34% in seventeen years.[3] The reduction that followed was primarily down to the recession and not the consequence of judicious policies on efficiency and emissions by corporate America or the government. Now, with the US economy picking up, so lifestyle emissions are again showing early signs of returning to growth. There is also no meaningful solace to be gained from the US love affair with shale gas. Whilst it may be good for energy security, in terms of emissions the development of shale gas has gone hand in hand with an increase in the US production of fossil fuels – measured in terms of their carbon emissions (assuming they are combusted).[4]

So I don’t think Zachary’s arguments that “Naomi Klein Is Wrong” stack up. True to say Naomi does not have all the answers – but who does? Set against even a weak 2°C framing of dangerous climate change, she’s not far off the mark. By contrast to suggest, as Zachary does, that Klein’s rhetoric risks obscuring just how much is being done by large companies around the world to reduce their carbon emissions and environmental footprint” implies a misunderstanding of the timeliness of carbon budgets and their implications for evaluating meaningful action. 

However, in the end I think we should studiously avoid setting Zachary’s arguments against Klein’s. When it comes to delivering on our repeated international commitments on climate change we must all solemnly hang our heads in shame, take some time to reflect and then begin anew from where we are today. Meeting our repeated commitments remains an achievable goal – just. But lets not pretend it’s only an incremental step away from where we are today. As Klein rightly notes, “this changes everything.”

Focus on China underplays the urgent need for the US & EU to lead on 2ºC mitigation

China revisited: a response to Glen Peter’s interview in the New York Times (21/09/14) New CO2 Emissions Report Shows China’s Central Role in Shaping World’s Climate Path
A shortened version of this post is included as a comment on the NYT website.

The abridged interview with Glen Peters risks overplaying the role of China and underplaying the emissions of the wealthier nations. Whilst in the full interview Glen acknowledges China’s role in manufacturing goods for the rest of the world, he does not develop this important point and it is anyway absent from the final published version. Taking account of such imported and exported emissions provides a much clearer picture of how carbon intensive are the lifestyles of citizens within particular nations – and provides a very different perspective on apportioning responsibility for emissions and hence potential solutions for reducing them.

Using the Global Carbon Project’s excellent online Atlas ( and the World Bank’s population database ( enables the carbon emissions associated with the lifestyle of a nation’s typical citizen to be estimated. So whilst Glen notes “China has per-capita emissions 45 percent over the global average, and higher per-capita emissions than the European Union” – the Global Carbon Project’s own consumption-based data points to a very different conclusion. The carbon emissions from an average Chinese person’s lifestyle are only 18% higher than the global average, are 36% lower per capita than those of a typical European and just a third of the emissions from a US citizen. For Norway, where Glen is based, emissions are almost twice those from a typical Chinese person, and in Australia, Glen’s home country, emissions are almost two and half times greater. The lifestyles of UK, German and Japanese citizens emit, respectively, 110%, 90% and 70% more carbon than do their Chinese counterparts. Even with widespread and low carbon nuclear energy, French emissions per capita are still over 35% higher than those of an average Chinese person.

Consequently, whilst Glen’s warning that “[m]ost analyses use models that have very optimistic assumptions [on] carbon pricing globally and the availability of key technologies” is well made, his suggestion that China needs to reduce emissions at a “greater [rate] than the mitigation challenge for the United States” is misleading and potentially divisive.

If the global community is serious in its repeated commitment to ‘stay below a 2°C temperature rise’, the mitigation challenge for all nations will be extremely demanding. Glen’s suggested 10% p.a. reduction in emissions illustrates the scale of the challenge, but it needs to be delivered first in the US, the EU and other wealthier nations whose citizens typically live higher-carbon lifestyles, with China only following suite much later1.

Table 1 Lifestyle carbon emissions of Chinese citizens compared with those from a range of wealthier nations. Calculated from Glen Peter’s 2012 consumption-based data (see above link)

   Annual emissions in
tonnes of CO2 per person

World                           5.0
China                          5.9
France                         8.1
EU28                           9.4
UK                             10.1
Norway                     11.1
Germany                  11.4
Japan                       12.5
Australia                   14.9
USA                          17.7

1 For the upper end of the IPCC’s “likely” 2°C carbon budget range, China needs to peak emissions by around 2025 and then begin an immediate programme of decarbonisation to match rates of mitigation similar to those of the wealthy nations by the early 2030s. 

Full global decarbonisation of energy before 2034*

This brief blog provides the headline numbers underpinning my disagreement with Glen Peters’ (Aug 27th 2014) estimate of the time available to remain within a 2°C carbon budget of 1000GtCO2 (for the period 2011-2100).

Glen tweets that:
 “At current emissions rates it will take 30 yrs to emit enough CO2 to pass 2°C”
      In a later tweet he notes …
“The 30 years is 66% chance. About 1000GtCO2 from 2011, from IPCC WG1 SPM …

In contrast, I suggest:
- At current (2014) emission levels, the 1000Gt will be consumed in less than 23 years.
- But with CO2 certain to rise over the coming few years, then, at the likely 2020 emission level, there will be ~13.5 years until the full 2°C carbon budget will have been consumed; i.e. full decarbonisation of energy before 2034.
- This is a much more challenging decarbonisation agenda than Glen’s 30yr figure suggests

Background to the 23-year figure (from the end of 2014)
- CO2 emissions in 2000 were 24.787Gt, in 2012 these had risen to 35.425Gt1
- This is a mean growth rate of a little over 3% p.a. for 2000 to 2012; a period that included, arguably, the most severe global financial crisis since the Great Depression.
- Assuming emissions have continued to grow at ~3% p.a., then emissions for this year (2014) are likely to be ~37.5Gt.
- The IPCC’s 1000GtCO2 carbon budget is for the period 2011 to 2100.
- Emissions from 2011 to the end of 2014 (i.e. four months from now), will be ~144Gt, leaving ~856Gt for the period 2015 to 2100.

If emissions were to stabilise at the current (2014) level of ~37.5GtCO2, the remaining 865Gt would be used up in 23 years; i.e. during 2037. 

Background to the under 14-year figure (from the end of 2020)
- Given the Paris 2015 COP is, at best, seeking agreement on post 2020 mitigation, emissions are almost certain to grow over the coming few years.2
- Assuming current emissions continue grow at ~3% p.a., then emissions for the year 2020 will be ~44.8GtCO2.
- Following on from the above, by the end of 2020 in the region of 394Gt of the 1000Gt will have been emitted, leaving a budget of  ~606GtCO2 for the period 2021 to 2100.

If emissions were to stabilise at the ‘likely’ 2020 emission level of ~45Gt, the remaining 606Gt would be used up in under 14 years, i.e. before 2034.

* NB: if Annex 1 nations were to begin a programme of radically reducing their energy consumption (& hence emissions) over the coming decade, there may be scope for non-Annex 1 nations to continue emitting energy-related CO2 out towards 2050

1 Figures taken from the Global Carbon Atlas
2 It may well be that emissions growth actually exceeds the 2000-2012 mean level (~3% p.a.),
particularly if the global economic ‘recovery’ continues.

To get an early response to Glen’s estimate, I have pulled the above analysis together in quick fashion; if there are any important errors (in the numbers or maths) please feel free to email me – thanks.



Does Greenpeace’s sanctioning of short-haul flights mirror wider hypocrisy amongst the climate change community?

June 2014. The following article is in response to a report in the Guardian in which the head of Greenpeace UK defends the need for one of its top executives to make regular flights between his home and work (Amsterdam and Luxembourg).


The recent suite of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underline the rapidly dwindling global carbon budget into which we have to squeeze twenty first century carbon emissions. This transition from society’s ill-informed focus on 2050 (or some other conveniently far off date) to scientifically credible carbon budgets, reframes the mitigation challenge in terms of deep reductions in emissions delivered over the coming decade. It is within this context of urgency and in the pivotal run up to the climate negotiations in Paris 2015, that Greenpeace’s sanctioning of regular short-haul flights, needs to be considered.

Defending their international programme director’s regular Luxembourg to Amsterdam flights on the basis of “needs of his family”, resonates with my experience as an academic working within the climate change community. Amongst academics, NGOs, green-business gurus and climate change policy makers, there is little collective sense of either the urgency of change needed or of our being complicit in the grim situation we now face.

Since the first IPCC report in 1990, even the rate of emissions growth has risen – to a point where emissions today, a quarter of a century later, are some 60% higher. If such emission trends continue, then we’re heading for enormous changes for many families even in the short term. These families may not be our own – much more likely they’ll be those who have not contributed to the problem, have little income and live in areas geographically more vulnerable to climate impacts. We choose to fly to be with our family as quickly as possible – so as not to be away for more than a few days. But the repercussions (ok, not on a 1-to-1 basis perhaps) are for another family in another place to lose their home, suffer food and water shortages, social and community pressures and wider conflicts – to put at risk the very fabric of their families and communities.

Moreover, using fast and high carbon transport to reduce the time we spend away from our families also has longer-term repercussions for our own children. Are we rushing back for the sake of our families or for our own individual engagement with our families? This is a subtle but important distinction. Are we concerned about our families only whilst we’re around to enjoy and benefit from them, or are we more altruistically concerned regardless of our own immediate returns? When we’re dead and buried our children will likely still be here dealing with the legacy of our inaction today; do we discount their futures at such a rate as to always favour those family activities that we can join in with?

Flying is emblematic of a modern and thriving society. Regardless of evidence the aviation industry is touted as central to future prosperity – a view deeply embedded in the culture and internationalisation agenda of both universities and many NGOs. But such a framing of contemporary society is categorically at odds with the carbon budgets accompanying the global community’s pledge to hold the rise in temperature below 2°C – i.e. to avoid “dangerous climate change”. Aviation, as with virtually every sector, makes all the right noises about becoming more efficient and reducing carbon intensity. But this misunderstands the science and challenge of climate change. All that really matters are absolute emissions – not how efficient we are. This ultimately is the rub – we have left it far too late for technology alone to deliver the necessary rates of mitigation.

Those of us intimately engaged on climate change know this. Whether academics, NGOs, business leaders, policy makers or journalists, we cannot hide behind a lack of knowledge of our emissions or a poor understanding of the impacts of climate change. Despite this, the frequency of our flying to ‘essential’ meetings, conferences etc., mirrors the rapid rise in global emissions – all salved with a repeated suite of trite excuses. Surely if humankind is to respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by soaring emissions, we, as a community, should be a catalyst for change – behaving as if we believe in our own research, campaign objectives etc. – rather than simply acting as a bellwether of society’s complacency.


The above response borrows from previous articles, particularly Hypocrites in the air and Evangelising from 32 thousand feet.

A further exchange, unhelpfully titled “Is flying still beyond the pale”, was published in the New Internationalist.

With a specific focus on the UK see:
Aviation & shipping privileged again?  – published as a Tyndall Centre Briefing Note 47
A one-way ticket to high carbon lock-in please – published in Carbon Management

In addition, the following papers address issues on aviation at the EU, UK and regional levels (these were written several years ago, but the arguments remain broadly valid today – 2014):
Aviation in turbulent times
Air transport, climate change and tourism
Policy clash: Can aviation growth be reconciled with the UK 60% carbon-reduction target?
Apportioning aviation CO2 emissions to regional administrations

For discussion on aviation in relation to 2°C carbon budgets, see 2013 book chapter: Carbon budgets for aviation or gamble with our future

For similar arguments made in relation to the shipping industry (another sector exempt from the Kyoto protocol and often neglected in national carbon inventories) see: Executing a Scharnow turn: reconciling shipping emissions with international commitments on climate change