Category Archives: articles & commentary

These are generally shorter pieces published variously in non-academic journals, magazines, newspapers and websites (NB. several of the commentaries have not been published elsewhere).

The hidden agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement

Pre-edited and more complete version of my summary of the Paris Agreement published in Nature’s World View (Dec. 2015): http://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.19074!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/528437a.pdf  

A two-sided print format of this post is available at: Paris Summary 2015

The Paris Agreement is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy and of how the French people brought an often-fractious world together to see beyond national self interest. Moreover, the agreement is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science ultimately defeated the unremitting programme of misinformation by powerful vested interests. It is the twenty-first century’s equivalent to the success of Heliocentrism over the malign and unscientific inquisition.

The international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, but demonstrated sufficient unanimity to quantitatively define it: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But, as the time-weary idiom suggests, “the devil is in the detail” – or perhaps more importantly, the lack of it.

So how then can such an unprecedented and momentous Agreement have potentially sown the seeds of its own demise? Likewise, why did some amongst the senior echelons of the climate change community see fit to unleash their rottweilers on those scientists voicing legitimate concern as to the evolving detail of the Agreement?

The deepest challenge to whether the Agreement succeeds or fails, will not come from the incessant sniping of sceptics and luke-warmers or those politicians favouring a literal reading of Genesis over Darwin. Instead, it was set in train many years ago by a cadre of well-meaning scientists, engineers and economists investigating a Plan B. What if the international community fails to recognise that temperatures relate to ongoing cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide? What if world leaders remain doggedly committed to a scientifically illiterate focus on 2050 (“not in my term of office”)? By then, any ‘carbon budget’ for even an outside chance of 2°C will have been squandered – and our global experiment will be hurtling towards 4°C or more. Hence the need to develop a Plan B.

Well the answer was simple. If we choose to continue our love affair with oil, coal and gas, loading the atmosphere with evermore carbon dioxide, then at some later date when sense prevails, we’ll be forced to attempt sucking our carbon back out of the atmosphere. Whilst a plethora of exotic Dr Strangelove options vie for supremacy to deliver on such a grand project, those with the ear of governments have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising “negative emission technology”. However these government advisors (Integrated Assessment Modellers – clever folk developing ‘cost-optimised’ solutions to 2°C by combining physics with economic and behavioural modelling) no longer see negative emission technologies as a last ditch Plan B – but rather now promote it as central pivot of the one and only Plan.

So what exactly does BECCS entail? Apportioning huge swathes of the planet’s landmass to the growing of bio-energy crops (from trees to tall grasses) – which, as they grow, absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Periodically these crops are harvested; processed for worldwide travel; shipped all around the globe and finally combusted in thermal powerstations. The carbon dioxide is then stripped from the waste gases; compressed (almost to a liquid); pumped through large pipes over potentially very long distances; and finally stored deep underground in various geological formations (from exhausted oil and gas reservoirs through to saline aquifers) for a millennium or so.

The unquestioned reliance on negative emission technologies to deliver on the Paris goals is the greatest threat to the Agreement. Yet BECCS, or even negative emission technologies, received no direct reference throughout the thirty-two-page Paris Agreement. Despite this, the framing of the 2°C and (even more) the 1.5°C, goals, is fundamentally premised on the massive uptake of BECCS sometime in the latter half of the century. Disturbingly, this reliance on BECCS is also the case for most of the temperature estimates (e.g. 2.7°C) ascribed to the national pledges (INDCs) prior to the Paris COP.

The sheer scale of the BECCS assumption underpinning the Agreement is breath taking – decades of ongoing planting and harvesting of energy crops over an area the size of one to three times that of India. At the same time the aviation industry anticipates fuelling its planes with bio-fuel, the shipping industry is seriously considering biomass to power its ships and the chemical sector sees biomass as a potential feedstock. And then there are 9 billion or so human mouths to feed. Surely this critical assumption deserved serious attention within the Agreement?

Relying on the promise of industrial scale negative emission technologies to balance our carbon budget was not the only option available to Paris – at least in relation to 2°C.

With CO2 emissions in 2015 over 60% higher than at the time of the first IPCC report in 1990, the carbon budget for 1.5°C has been all but eliminated. However, reducing emissions in line with 2°C does remain a viable goal – just. But rather than rely on tenuous post-2050 BECCS, this alternative approach begs immediate and profound political, economic and social questions; questions that undermine a decade of mathematically nebulous green-growth and win-win rhetoric.

Not surprisingly this alluring rhetoric has been embraced by many of those in positions of power; all the more so as it has been promulgated by two influential groups. First, those, typically but not exclusively economists, who work on the premise that physical reality and the laws of thermodynamics are subservient to the ephemeral rules of today’s economic paradigm. And second, those vested interests desperate to preserve the status quo, but prepared to accept an incremental tweak to ‘business as usual’ as a sop to meaningful action (e.g. the opportunist enthusiasm of ‘progressive’ oil companies for “oh-so-clean” gas over “dirty & nasty” coal).

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Imagine the Paris 2°C goal was sacrosanct. A 30% reduction in global emissions could be delivered in under a year, simply by constraining the emissions of that 10% responsible for half of all global CO2 to the level of a typical European. Clearly such a level is far from impoverished, and certainly for 2°C reductions in energy demand would need to go much further and be complemented with a Marshall-style transition to zero-carbon energy supply. Nevertheless, such an early and sizeable reduction is in stark contrast to the Paris Agreement’s presumption that ‘ambitious mitigation’ out to 2030 can only deliver around 2% p.a. (with negative emissions technologies in 2050 compensating for the relative inaction today).

So why was this real opportunity for deep and early mitigation muscled out by the economic bouncers in Paris? No doubt there are many elaborate and nuanced explanations – but the headline reason is simple. In true Orwellian style, the political and economic dogma that has come to pervade all facets of society must not be questioned. For many years having the audacity to suggest that the carbon budgets associated with 2°C cannot be reconciled with green growth oratory have been quashed by those eloquent big guns of academia who spend more time in government minister’s offices than they do in the laboratory or lecture room. However, as the various drafts of the Paris Agreement were circulated during the negotiations, there was a real sense of unease amongst many scientists present that the almost euphoric atmosphere accompanying the drafts could not be reconciled with their content. Desperate to maintain order the rotwieillers and even their influential handlers threatened and briefed against those daring to make informed comment – just look at some of the twitter discussions!

Not surprisingly the vested interests won out – and whilst the headline goals of the Paris Agreement are to be welcomed, the five year review timeframe eliminates any serious chance of maintaining emissions within even carbon budgets for a slim chance of 2°C. Science and careful analysis could have offered so much more – but instead we are left having to pray that speculative negative emission technologies will compensate for our own hubris. 

Two further and key failures of the Paris Agreement.

Aviation and Shipping: the final version of the Agreement fails to make any reference to the aviation and shipping sectors, effectively exempting them from having to align their emissions with the 2°C goal. Unfortunately, the emissions from these two privileged sectors are equivalent to those of the UK and Germany combined. Moreover, both aviation and shipping anticipate huge increases in their absolute emissions as the sectors continue to grow – emissions that will only serve to further jeopardise any prospect for bequeathing future generations a stable climate.

Reparation for the poor: finally, there’s the sum of $100 billion that the Paris Agreement proposes should be available as annual support (I prefer reparation) to poorer nations to assist both their development of low-carbon infrastructure and their adaption to an increasingly changing climate. Say it quickly and $100 billion has a resounding ring – but wait a few seconds and the echo diminishes to a cheap and tinny ‘ching’. The normally very conservative international monetary fund (IMF) estimates that the global subsidy (direct and indirect) to the fossil fuel industry in 2015 alone will be $5.3 trillion dollars; fifty three times more than the Paris monies allocated to poorer nations. The UK is a small island nation on the periphery of Europe and with a population of 65 million. Yet it has an economy twenty nine times larger than the monies offered to billions of poorer people to leapfrog our high carbon energy system and adapt to the changing climate we’ve chosen to impose on them. The clever deception of the wealthier and high emitting nations in Paris, was to focus arguments on the details of the $100 billion crumb, circumventing any meaningful discussion of the much larger level of reparations necessary for the poorer nations to actually transition towards a low carbon, climate resilient and prosperous future.

Tentative reflections a fortnight on
Here we are a fortnight or so on from Paris – and the dust has all but settled. Turn on the radio and the BBC is reporting on whether the UK should expand its London airport capacity at Gatwick or Heathrow. No reference to Paris, CO2 emissions or the plight of millions who will suffer the consequences of such decisions, but will only ever see aircraft streaking across the sky 35000 feet above. Next up, the BBC reports on how the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, its Chief Scientific Advisor and the UK’s Environment Agency all enthusiastically support the development of indigenous shale gas – and yet all forget to mention that the UK Government has just reneged on its support for carbon capture and storage. Another high-carbon energy source at odds with Paris and 2°C carbon budgets is simply added to UK’s portfolio of North Sea oil and gas without even a squirm of unease from those authorities who should know better.

So where are we now? Future techno-utopias, pennies for the poor, more fossil fuels, co-opted NGOs and an expert community all too often silenced by fear of reprisals and reduced funding. It doesn’t need to be like this. Forget the vacuous content, it’s the wonderful spirit of the Paris Agreement and the French people on which we need to build – and fast! The pursuit of a low-carbon future could do much worse than be guided by the open concepts of liberté, égalité et fraternité.

Meltdown: climbers and climate change

An article written for the British Mountaineering Council’s (BMC) quarterly magazine
‘Summit’ (#79. Autumn 2015)

The final published Summit piece is available at: Meltdown (published version, 6MB)
A pdf of the word version is available at: Meltdown (without pictures, 100KB)

Harmless fun
Bathed in the evening sun a climber’s fingers curl reassuringly over a sharp edge on a perfect Kalymnos route. A scrambler inhales the fragrance of rosemary and pine on a limestone ridge overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean. An ice climber swings her axe into the flawless ice offered by Norway’s Rjuken valley. Still further afield similar pleasures are being shared in the high Himalaya, skinning up Greenland’s slopes, bouldering at Bishops, trekking in Peru and placing a slippery cam at Arapiles. 

Whose risk: our E9 or their Category 5?
Teetering on the edge of our wonderful addiction we’re the ones taking the risks to reap the myriad rewards – or are we? What if the real risks are not of our fumbling a clip, the ice dinner plating, or our misreading a snow bridge. But instead are of others having their livelihoods and families ripped apart by stronger typhoons, losing precious crops though the salt ingress of rising sea levels, or the increase abuse of women and children within already stressed communities suffering months of drought.

Surely this can’t have anything to do with our harmless enjoyment of magical moments on rock, snow and ice. But, there’s the rub – it does. And each time we board the pinnacle of gas-guzzling activity and jet off to yet another vertical adventure we disproportionately threaten the very existence of those already struggling to eke out a living in grim conditions. Climate change is an existential problem; it begs fundamental questions about how we lead our lives and what sort of person we are.

… a rock & and hard place
Faced with such profound challenges the route of easiest salvation is to join the raucous chorus decrying the science underpinning climate change. If you think God hid fossils to confuse us about evolution and John Dunne and Ken Wilson are mild mannered ambassadors for our sport – then you have the option of joining Sarah Palin and dismissing climate change as a conspiracy of thousands of scientists hell bent on bringing down Western capitalism.

But for those combining a conscience with recognition that science trumps astrology – then even a basic understanding of climate change leaves us shifting uneasily in our squished easy-jet seat.

So what are the basics?
The greenhouse effect exists and without it the earth’s average temperature would be around 18°C below freezing (great friction on the grit!). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important of the long-lived greenhouse gases (i.e. it’s essential for life). The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing rapidly and has done so since the start of the industrial revolution, but particularly since the middle of the last century (& too much CO2 is a problem). This increase is being driven by the rapid rise in our use of coal, oil and gas, (we know this because fossil fuel CO2 contains a unique chemical fingerprint). What we also know is that the temperature rise across this century relates to the total amount of carbon dioxide we emit during the century – in other words the carbon budget.

How hot is too hot?
This is not a question science can answer. It can inform the debate, but in the end what is dangerous has to be a decision of civil society delivered through the inevitably messy process of international politics. Here, and I’ll say this only once, the politicians deserve significant credit. This is one area of climate change they haven’t ducked, reaching an international agreement that the global community must “avoid dangerous climate change”, which it defines as maintaining the rise in the “average global surface temperature” to no more than 2°C across the century.

Of course, we don’t live in global averages. A chilly day at Cloggy or a soggy Scafell Pike may benefit from a little warming. But 2°C average is around 6°C at the poles, huge regional changes in rainfall, increased drought and a much more energetic weather system. And whilst us wealthier elites in the climatically more resilient Northern hemisphere think we can ride out 2°C, for poorer and climatically more vulnerable communities 2°C will often prove dangerous and on many occasions deadly. But being poor these folk not only have very few emissions, but also little international clout or big weapons they can point at the unrepentant climbers spewing out yet more carbon in search of the next honey pot sold to us by Climber, Summit, Rock Fax and the like.

Despite the significant humanitarian merits of keeping the temperature rise well below 2°C, our callous failure to heed any warning from the scientific community, has seen our escalating emissions all but blow the accompanying carbon budget. Still worse, as the normally ever so conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) warn, current CO2 “trends are perfectly in line with a 6°C rise by the end of the century … with devastating consequence for the planet”.

But what can we do – surely it’s all about China
Well no! Firstly, nations like the UK have an enormous responsibility for historical emissions – our quality of life was (and still is) built on the back of fossil fuels. Secondly, China, and many of the other poorer nations, have become our de facto manufacturers. Whilst we bask in the glories bestowed on us by Brown & Osborne’s bar and banking economy, our consumer-rich lives are dependent on the factories, power stations and pauper salaries of the Chinese, Bangladeshis, etc. Thirdly, the emissions related to how we live our lives (i.e. including imports and exports) are some 60% higher than those of the average Chinese person – with the typical American almost two times higher still. Finally, the trite argument that the UK is just 2% of global emissions is the recourse of the eloquent fool over the analytically thoughtful. California, Germany, Aviation, Shipping, Beijing and Shanghai are all in the ‘few %’ bracket.  50 x 2% = 100%.  So our 2% matters – not just directly but more importantly as effective mitigation in the UK will help catalyse wider action elsewhere.

Back to us Climbers …
We no longer get to the crag or the occasional alpine trip by cycling, the train, thumbing a lift, or cramming 4 sweaty oiks and their kit into a mini clubman. Now it’s the powerful estate car, the flashy hatchback, Subaru 4WD or the moronic SUV. Worse still, the crag is often now far beyond the local outcrop, it’s a drive to Malham, bagging a quick Munroe, a long weekend in Calpe, a week at Smiths Rocks or a rapid ascent of some Alpine Peak. We take our litter home, the cars have catalytic converters, and we may even fall for the scam of ‘offsetting’ our flight’s emissions. But all this is conscience-salving crap.

A few moments reflection sees our self-delusion dissolve. We’re not custodians of the countryside, we’re not even concerned citizens – we’re simply smash & grab looters, taking what we can from millions of years of evolution and giving nothing back. Worse still, whilst we’re only too willing to embrace the cheap consumerism afforded by globalisation – child exploitation and lax environmental regulations (just check the labels of our rucsacs, thermals & bouldering pants) – we seldom stop to consider the reciprocal globalised impacts of our adventures on the poor and vulnerable. And when we do, it’s through some scheme to help impoverished Nepalese villages build a school, improve their sewage systems or equip a health centre – all trivial and ephemeral compared with the scale of the climate challenge we are superimposing on their already difficult lives. 

Ok – we get the story – so what can we do?
Let’s keep it simple. From a climate change perspective there are three principal opportunities for us to make a difference. The first is to radically reduce our use of energy. Identify our big-ticket CO2 activities, then reduce how often we do them and find alternatives. Curtail how often we fly; drive less; share vehicles; buy efficient cars; and use trains & buses. From experience I can say this is not always easy – but it is doable and in some respects gets easier with time.

I’ve avoided hurtling off the end of a runway for 11 years, substituting with trains to France, Italy and Spain and driving slowly around Europe in my campervan. OK, Kalymnos is a challenge and returning to Thailand will have to wait for my retirement. But Sicily’s San Vito lo Capo is a fun train ride away & offers wonderful climbing

The second is to make a noise about the low-carbon changes we’re pioneering. In isolation the impacts of our individual emissions are relatively small. But become a vociferous ambassador demonstrating change and our actions have the real potential to catalyse a wider low-carbon ethos/movement. So in whatever way works for each of us, engage constructively with our climbing buddies, whether down the wall, at the crag, in our club newsletters, by emailing manufacturers and commenting in climbing magazines. Let’s make our voices heard!

The third is to facilitate rather than obstruct indigenous and very low carbon energy. In the longer term we need to transition all our energy system to zero carbon emissions. Few climbers have the wherewithal to build their own large power stations, but we can all become a voice countering the Luddite status quo. Fossil fuels have had their century and we need now to think differently. Decentralised (e.g. local solar) complementing centralised energy (e.g. large wind farms, Severn barrage, etc.); adjusting demand to match some inevitable increase in the intermittency of supply; increased electrification (remember just 20% of the energy we consume is electricity – the rest is principally oil and gas). So let’s be a strong and cogent voice arguing for this essential transition – rather offering silent support for the status quo or whingeing about localised aesthetics whilst turning a blind eye to the devastation of Australian open-cast mines, Canadian tar sands and Qatar’s gas.

The game’s up
In 2015 we can no longer plead ignorance – deep down we know that our pretence of environmental stewardship is up. Scattering a few BMC pebbles underneath worn boulders, taking the tram to the airport and buying ethical clothing do not compensate for the ecosystem destruction and human misery our hobby (for that’s what it is) imposes on others. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Today’s climbers are typically wealthy and erudite. We have time and influence – at least collectively. We can still enjoy our hobby, but we can do so much more in tune with the evolutionary processes of nature and without destroying the very fabric of others’ lives. So let us be a beacon of hope, an ambassador of fundamental change. Let us lead by example. For your next climbing, walking or skiing trip, stop and think before you go plane crazy.

Kevin is a keen climber, most regularly found on the back wall of Hobson Moor Quarry (Hobby to its friends) and Glossop bouldering wall once the Winter weather sets in.

Duality in climate science

A commentary published in Nature Geoscience (online Oct. 2015)

Brief Abstract:
The commentary demonstrates the endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those developing emission scenarios to severely underplay the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge. In several important respects the modelling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. Moreover, there is a widespread reluctance of many within the climate change community to speak out against unsupported assertions that an evolution of ‘business as usual’ is compatible with the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets. With specific reference to energy, this analysis concludes that even a slim chance of “keeping below” a 2°C rise, now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.

DOI:10.1038/ngeo2559  http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2559.html

The commentary should also be available to all, including non-subscribers, via http://rdcu.be/eoQY (this may not download onto phones, iPads, etc.) 
An open access and pre-edit pdf is available at: On the duality of climate scientists – pre-edit version of a submission to Nature – 2015 This pre-edit version is also copied below.

 

***** 

On the duality of climate scientists:
… how integrated assessment models are hard-wired to deliver politically palatable outcomes

The value of science is undermined when we adopt questionable assumptions and fine-tune our analysis to conform to dominant political and economic sensibilities. The pervasive inclusion of speculative negative emission technologies to deliver politically palatable 2°C mitigation is but one such example. Society needs scientists to make transparent and reasoned assumptions, however uncomfortable the subsequent conclusions may be for the politics of the day.

June’s UNFCCC Bonn Conference reiterated the headline ‘conclusions’ of November’s IPCC Synthesis Report, which itself was heralded as delivering clear messages to policy makers. As the Financial Times1 noted, meeting the 2°C dangerous limitwould “only cause an annual 0.06 percentage point cut in … economic growth”, a small cost that would, according to the UK’s Guardian, rise by less than 50% even if emissions reductions were delayed to 20302. In similar optimistic vein, The US Associated Press3 and Hindustan Times4 reported that maintaining “the temperature rise below a level that many consider dangerous” may require emissions from fossil fuels “to drop to zero”, but not before “the end of this century”. The Sydney Morning Herald5 concluded that staying below 2°C would require “a fairly strong level of action on greenhouse gas emissionswith, ChinaDaily6 reporting that in delivering the requisite action the solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development.”

Based on such reports it is easy to be left with the impression that the shift away from fossil fuels needs to be much more an evolutionary transition than an immediate revolution in how we use and produce energy. Moreover, it could be suggested that delaying action until 2030 would give more time for considered reflection of the options, yet still only have a very marginal impact on economic growth (i.e. less than a 0.1 percentage point cut) – not a bad exchange perhaps?

In stark contrast, this commentary concludes that the carbon budgets needed for a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change demand profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy. The IPCC’s own 1,000 GtCO2 carbon budget for a “likely” chance of 2°C, requires global reductions in emissions from energy of at least 10% p.a. by 2025, with complete cessation of all carbon dioxide emissions from the energy system by 2050. 

Diluting the message
Whilst the endeavours of the IPCC, since its inception in 1988, are to be welcomed, I have grave reservations as to how the implications of their analysis are being reported. This is not solely the failure of incisive journalism, but is also the outcome of repeated and questionable commentary from some experts engaged in the IPCC process. Even the press release7 for the IPCC’s Synthesis report provided an optimistic spin, with the then IPCC chair stating thatTo keep a good chance of staying below 2ºC, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100[emphasis added]. Moreover, the Co-Chair of the IPCC’s section on reducing emissions made the all-important comment that mitigation costs would be so low that global economic growth would not be strongly affected– echoing the conclusion of the recent and influential report from The New Climate Economy8. 

But does the IPCC’s own analysis support the upbeat rhetoric of evolution as opposed to the more challenging and fundamental language of revolution?

Certainly such evolutionary conclusions are forthcoming from many highly complex integrated assessment models (IAMs) – whereby an understanding of prices, markets and human behaviour is brought together with the physics of climate change to generate ‘policy-relevant’ and cost-optimised emission scenarios. These typically offer highly optimistic futures through a combination of very early peaks in global emissions and a belief that negative emission technologies will prove practically and economically viable in removing CO2 from the atmosphere (hence the reference to or belowzero emissions in Pachauri’s earlier statement).

‘Geo-engineering’ as systemic bias
The analysis within this Commentary makes no allowance for carbon budgets being increased through the adoption of ‘geo-engineering’ technologies, specifically those delivering so-called negative emissions. Such technologies are ubiquitous in 2°C scenarios9,10, despite their remaining at little more than the conceptual stage of development. However, whilst speculative negative emissions are de rigueur, similarly imprecise Earth system processes (but with the potential to reduce the available budgets) are seldom included in quantitative scenarios. The relative importance of negative emissions and Earth-system processes for the size of the available carbon budget varies across the spectrum of temperatures being considered. Yet until both can be adequately and robustly quantified their widespread inclusion within quantitative emissions pathways should be avoided. A small suite of 2°C scenarios may, of course, assume the successful uptake of negative emissions (or further positive feedbacks), but such scenarios should be in the minority and not dominate the outputs from across the IAM community.

As it stands, the expedient and ubiquitous use of speculative negative emissions to expand the available 2°C carbon budgets, implies a deeply entrenched and systemic bias in favour of delivering politically palatable rather than scientifically balanced emission scenarios. Nowhere is this more evident than in the IPCC’s scenario database11. Of the 113 scenarios with a “likely” chance (66% or better) of 2°C (with 3 removed due to incomplete data), 107 (95%) assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative emission technologies. The remaining 6 scenarios all adopt a global emissions peak of around 2010. Extending the probability to a 50% chance of 2°C paints a similar picture. Of the additional 287 scenarios, 237 (83%) include negative emissions, with all the remaining scenarios assuming the successful implementation of a stringent and global mitigation regime in 2010.

In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of 2°C assume either an ability to travel back in time or the successful and large-scale uptake of speculative negative emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both ‘time travel and geo-engineering’.

An arithmetic sense check
With IAM outputs typically clustering around evolutionary rather than revolutionary rates of change, there is clearly merit in undertaking some basic arithmetic to sense-check the model outputs, the consequent framing of policies, and the timeframes for delivering deep cuts in emissions. Building on the concept of carbon budgets12-14 the following steps summarise a sequence of reasoning and transparent assumptions that suggest a profoundly different challenge to that dominating the current discourse on climate change.

1) From the Copenhagen Accord12 in 2009 to the New York Climate Summit in 2014 political leaders have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to take the necessary action, informed by science15,16to “hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius”15.

2) The IPCC’s Synthesis Report reiterates their previous conclusion that Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond17.

3) The Report proposes a headline carbon budget of 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (1000 GtCO2) for the period 2011 to 2100 and for a 66% chance, or better, of remaining below a 2°C rise18.

4) Energy-only CO2 between 2011and 2014 inclusive has totalled around 140GtCO2.

5) To apportion the remaining 860 billion tonnes between the principal sources of CO2 emissions, i.e. energy, deforestation, and cement (process only), it is necessary to understand their relevant contexts. In a world genuinely committed to not exceeding the 2°C budget, it is reasonable to assume there exists a concerted effort to reduce emissions across all three emission sources.

6) Against this backdrop, deforestation and land use change emissions for 2011-2100 are based on RCP4.519, the IPCC’s most ambitious deforestation pathway to exclude net-negative land use emissions. The total deforestation budget is therefore taken as ~60GtCO2.

7) Turning to cement, whilst energy-related emissions are included here in total energy CO2, the substantial process emissions are not and so need to be considered separately. Industrialisation throughout poorer nations and the construction of low-carbon infrastructures within industrialised nations will continue to drive rapid growth in the process emissions from cement production (current ~7% p.a.20). An aggressive uptake of lower-carbon alternatives (including CCS) and more prudent use of cement could reduce some of this early growth,21,22 but in the longer term, such emissions will need to be eliminated. Provisional and highly optimistic analysis building on recent process emission trends,20,23 suggests such emissions could be constrained to around 150 GtCO2 from 2011 to their eradication later in the century.

8) Consequently, the remaining budget for energy-only emissions, for the period 2015 to 2100 and for a “likely” chance of staying below 2°C, is ~650 GtCO2.

9) The political and physical inertia of the existing system will likely see emissions continue to rise until ~2020. Assuming there is an unparalleled agreement at Paris and energy-only emissions of CO2 reach a 2020 peak of ~37 GtCO2, a little under 180 GtCO2 will have been emitted between the start of 2015 and 2020, leaving a post 2020 budget of ~470 GtCO2.

10) This would demand a dramatic reversal of current trends in energy consumption and emissions growth. Global mitigation rates would need to rapidly ratchet up to around 10% p.a. by 2025 and continue at such a rate to the virtual elimination of CO2 from the energy system by 2050. 

Unpalatable repercussions
Applying simple arithmetic to the headline data within the IPCC’s Synthesis Report raises fundamental questions as to the realism of both the content and the tone of much of the reporting that followed its publication. Moreover, the failure of the scientific community to vociferously counter the portrayal of the findings as challenging but incremental suggests vested interests and the economic hegemony may be preventing scientific openness and freedom of expression.

The carbon budgets aligned with international commitments to stay below the 2°C characterization of dangerous climate change demand profound and immediate changes to how energy is both used and produced. The IPCC’s headline budget of 1,000 GtCO2, even with highly optimistic assumptions on curtailing deforestation and cement emissions, requires global reductions in energy-CO2 of at least 10% p.a. from 2025, transitioning rapidly to zero emissions by 2050. The severity of such cuts would likely exclude carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a dominant post-2050 technology. Only if the life cycle carbon emissions of CCS could be reduced by an order of magnitude from those postulated for an efficiently operating gas-CCS plant (typically around 80g CO2 per kWh24), could fossil fuels play any significant role post-2050.

Delivering on such a 2°C emission pathway cannot be reconciled with the repeated and high-level claims that in transitioning to a low-carbon energy system “global economic growth would not be strongly affected7. Certainly it would be inappropriate to sacrifice improvements in the welfare of the global poor, including those within wealthier nations, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions. But this only puts greater pressure still on the relatively small proportion of the globe’s population with higher emissions. The strains that such 2°C mitigation puts on the framing of our lifestyles cannot be massaged away through incremental escapism. With a growing economy of 3% p.a. the reduction in carbon intensity of global GDP would need to be nearer 13% p.a.; higher still for wealthier industrialised nations, and higher yet again for those individuals with well above average carbon footprints (whether in industrial or industrialising nations). 

Conclusions
The IPCC’s synthesis report and the scientific framing of the mitigation challenge in terms of carbon budgets was an important step forward. Despite this, there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly. Instead, my long-standing engagement with many scientific colleagues, leaves me in no doubt that whilst they work diligently, often against a backdrop of organised scepticism, many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.

Explicit and quantitative carbon budgets provide a firm foundation on which policy makers and civil society can build a genuinely low-carbon society. But the job of scientists remains pivotal. It is incumbent on our community to be vigilant in guiding the policy process within the climate goals established by civil society; to draw attention to inconsistencies, misunderstandings and deliberate abuse of the scientific research. It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis or to curry favour with our funders. Whether our conclusions are liked or not is irrelevant. As we massage the assumptions of our analysis to fit within today’s political and economic hegemony, so we do society a grave disservice – one for which the repercussions will be irreversible.

References 

1. Clark, P. Financial Times (2 November 2014). http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/26d0edc6-628e-11e4-9838-00144feabdc0.html – axzz3KxE5mP6Q

2.  Carrington, D. The Guardian  (2 November 2014). http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/02/rapid-carbon-emission-cuts-severe-impactclimate-change-ipcc-report

3. UN climate panel says emissions need to drop to zero this century to keep warming in check (Associated Press, 2 November 2014). http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/11/02/un-climate-panel-says-emissions-need-to-drop-to-zero-thiscentury-to-keep/

4. Hindustan Times. UN climate report offers stark warnings. Copenhagen.  (Taken from Associated Press,  3 November 2014). http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/un-climate-report-offers-stark-warnings-hope/article1-1281867.aspx

5. Miller, N. The Sydney Morning Herald  (4 November 2014). http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/ipcc-report-little-time-left-to-act-on-climate-change-20141103-11g2er.html.

6. Jing, F. ChinaDaily: Europe (3 November 2014). http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-11/03/content_18854403.htm

7. Concluding instalment of the Fifth Assessment Report. (IPCC Press Release)  (2 November 2014).

8. Better Growth Better Climate synthesis report. (The New Climate Economy2014). http://newclimateeconomy.report.

9. Fuss, S. et al. Betting on negative emissions. Nature. 4. 850-853 (2014)

10. UNEP 2014. The Emissions Gap Report 2014. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi

11. IPCC AR5 Working Group III. (2014) Mitigation of Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

12. Anderson, K. et al. From long-term targets to cumulative emission pathways; reframing the climate policy debate. Energy Policy 36. 3714–3722. (2008)

13. Anderson, K. & Bows, A. Beyond dangerous climate change. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. A 369, 20–44 (2011).  doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

14. Frame, D. et al. Cumulative emissions and climate policy. Nature Geosci. 7, 692–693 (2014).

15. Report of the Conference of the Parties; fifteenth session; Copenhagen, 7 to 19 December 2009.

16. President Barroso. The L’Aquila summit; European Commission, MEMO/09/332; 10/07/2009 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-09-332_en.htm 

17. IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report (2014); Topic 2.1. p56 and SPM 2.1. p.8.

18. IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report (2014); Table 2.2. p.64

19. RCP online database. IIASA, (2015). http://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/research/researchPrograms/TransitionstoNewTechnologies/RCP.en.html

20. Andrew. R. Global Carbon Project (http://www.globalcarbonproject.org) Private communication (Nov. 2014)

21. International Energy Agency (IEA). Cement Technology Road Map. (2009). https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/Cement.pdf

22. International Energy Agency (IEA). Energy Technology Perspectives. (2014)

23. West. K. International Energy Agency. Cement Road Map (2009) and Energy Technology Perspective (2014). Private communication (Feb.2015)

24. Hammond, G. et al. The energy and environmental implications of UK more electric transition pathways. Energy Policy 52 ,103–116 (2013).dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.08.071

Acknowledgements:

  • Cicero (Oslo): Glen Peters and Robbie Andrew for guidance, respectively, with the IPCC scenario database and global cement emissions
  • IEA (Paris): Kira West information related to IEA cement scenarios
  • Tyndall Centre (University of Manchester): Maria Sharmina and Jaise Kuriakose on deforestation emissions; Alice Bows-Larkin and John Broderick on carbon budgets. 

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.”

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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

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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
pp.498-504

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)

 

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, amrita.sidhu@manchester.ac.uk tel: +44(0)161 306 3700

Notes:

[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 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-09-332_en.htm

[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 

House of Lords shale gas report chooses eloquence over analysis when addressing issues of climate change

May 2014. This short commentary is a response to the climate change chapter of the House of Lords economic affairs committee report on shale gas and oil.

When it comes to climate change, the latest House of Lords report is yet another in a long line of eloquent obfuscations rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic rather than grasping the wheel and urgently steering a different course.

Just last year the IPCC published its authoritative scientific report outlining the cumulative budgets that accompany the UK (and international community’s) commitment “to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”. Yet despite such unequivocal and repeated commitments, alongside our rapidly dwindling carbon budget, the Lords’ report retreats to the numerical fog of efficiency, comparable carbon footprints and other such distractions. These have nothing to do with climate change! Society today is many times more efficient and our carbon emissions per unit of energy much lower then they were forty years ago – yet our emissions are almost 250% higher.

Climate change is a cumulative issue – it is about the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The 2°C threshold between dangerous and acceptable climate change comes with a carbon budget; i.e. how much CO2 we can emit into the atmosphere. If the report was to exchange some of its eloquence for scientific rigour it would become immediately obvious that shale gas development and use in the UK (or any other wealthy industrialised nation) is neither “consistent with science” nor “on the basis of equity”. 

More disturbing still, is the committee’s selective reading of Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas (for DECC). Whilst they repeatedly emphasise MacKay’s reasoned conclusion that shale gas likely has a lower carbon footprint than both liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal, they completely ignored his rug-pulling comment that “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.” MacKay reiterated this point in his evidence to the Committee (see p.353-4)  – evidence they chose to ignore in favour of drawing attention to the politically expedient framing of relative emissions. But, however it is played, shale gas is natural gas, comprising 75% carbon and so when combusted emits copious quantities of carbon dioxide. 

There may be many arguments for the development of shale gas in the UK (assuming large quantities are there to be extracted), but that, as the Lords’ committee conclude, it is “compatible with the UK’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” is disingenuous at best. Shale gas is categorically not compatible with the UK’s obligation to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change – the maths on this are clear and unambiguous. In that regard it is certainly not a transition fuel and if we are serious about our explicit climate change commitments the only appropriate place for shale gas remains deep underground. 

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As I have noted previously, the four arguments that are repeatedly misused (including by the Lords’ committee) to support the industry are that shale gas …:

  1. … has lower emissions than coal. This is true only if the coal displaced by shale gas remains in the ground and is not combusted elsewhere.
  2. … offers the prospect of low-carbon energy. Gas is a high carbon energy source, emitting half the quantity of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated as the worst and dirtiest energy source we know, coal. Half the worst is still very high emissions.
  3. … is a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. Even the shale gas industry acknowledges that it will not produce significant quantities of shale gas before around 2025, by which time our international commitments on climate change would not permit it to be combusted in any significant quantities.
  4. … with CCS can be a “destination fuel”. Even if the technology of ‘carbon capture and storage’ can be made to work with gas, the level of emissions (at least 80gCO2/kWh) remains too high to make any significant contribution towards meeting the UK’s 2°C commitments (NB. with CCS, gas is still 5-10x higher than both renewables and nuclear).

Kevin Anderson (and his colleague John Broderick) have written extensively on shale gas and climate change, have given evidence at various UK and EU parliamentary hearings, presented their work at a range of industry conferences, and recently were invited to peer-review the UK Government’s 2013 Shale gas review.

For further commentary on shale gas, see:

Tyndall submission to the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs
pp.498-504

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)

 

 

 

Debate with environmental business advisor on flying, emissions & leading by example

Jan. 2014  Is flying beyond the pale?  New Internationalist

A “head to head” debate with business advisor Brendan May on whether those of us espousing significant reductions in carbon emissions should lead by example.

The request for the debate from the New Internationalist arose from a Guardian piece Brendan May had written encouraging environmentalists to fly and my response arguing that it was inappropriate to call for radical change by others but not ourselves.

Linked to the debate, I had previously written a piece questioning the “profligate’ emissions of those of us working on climate change , Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example?

Reflections on the COP19 climate change negotiations

International climate change event (COP19):  Warsaw, December 2013
… succinct reflections for a meeting with the Welsh natural resources minister

This personal account of COP19 was submitted to a meeting of the ‘climate change commission for Wales’ (CCCW) with Alun Davies, Welsh minister for natural resources and food, in late December 2013. It was not intended to be a detailed account, but simply a few rough and ready reflections from having attended the COP event.

Backdrop

  • This was my first COP, as choosing not to fly constrains those I am able to attend.
  • The Tyndall Centre had a stand and a side event; the latter was well attended and triggered considerable interest. The global carbon atlas was released – an open access tool, updated regularly and a valuable resource for considering national and global emissions.
  • The AR5 science report was released in September 27th 2013; the first such report to include carbon budgets. The report made clear that there is now very little time remaining within which to make the reductions necessary to meet our 2°C obligations.

As a contextual framing:
– since the 2007 AR4 almost 200 billion tonnes of CO2 have been emitted into the atmosphere
– emissions are now almost 60% higher than they were at the time of the first IPCC report in 1990 

Quick Impressions
Disturbingly COP19 appeared to have taken no note of AR5. There was no sense of urgency or of the importance of deep emission reductions, either amongst those engaged in the formal negotiations or the majority of wider delegates. With notable exceptions, the COP was attended by many climate change junkies – an industry of folk who already are looking forward to the next climate change meeting in Lima.

I sat in on a range of side events, the majority of which offered only superficial overviews of issues; in this regard it was disappointing to see how few academics presented at COP. The one exception in terms of both urgency and depth of thought was around issues of global justice – but despite the veracity of a lot of the arguments the wealthier high emitting nations paid little more than eloquent lip-service to the genuine and pressing concerns of the poorer nations.

I also sat through various stages of the formal negotiation phases, or at least those where non-governmental delegates could attend. In particular I listened to several hours of concerns raised by the relevant ministers from poorer nations followed by the platitudes and misinformation from their wealthier counterparts. Whilst the UK was not the worst amongst these, the comments from the DECC secretary of state typified such weasel words.

After an array of ministers from poorer nations had made repeated reference to the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, the UK minister noted how the UK and the EU were in line, if not ahead, of meeting their climate change targets. This was disingenuous at best. The UK consumption-based emissions in 2013 are slightly higher than they were in 1990; the only reason they are not considerably higher is thanks to the failure of the banks’ various Ponzi schemes and governments’ inability to appropriately regulate the banking industry. Pre-recession consumption-based emissions were around 20% higher than the 1990 level.

The other significant smoke and mirror trick used by the UK minister, was in reference to the targets. The UK’s domestic budgets are not related to 2°C (see … why so little science), with the only legally binding target being the 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (though even for this, decisions on inclusion of aviation and shipping have still to be settled). Moreover, the UK’s nearer term carbon budgets imply very inequitable divisions of the global 2°C carbon budget (favouring the wealthier high emitting nations) – clearly in breach of obligations on equity enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord and subsequent agreements, including the Camp David Declaration in May 2012

So in brief:

  • AR5 laid out the science case for immediate action on reducing emissions
  • COP19 essentially ignored the science, exchanging analytical and quantified coherence around 2°C for a nebulous framing of climate change & eloquent rhetoric

I left Warsaw with the very clear impression that the spineless nature of contemporary politics on climate change, supported by a supine civil society and a science-base too afraid of its funders to be vociferously candid about its analyses, leaves little hope of reducing even the rate of growth in emissions, let alone absolute emissions. Has 2°C simply become a pipedream?

Still, mustn’t despair, there’s always Lima next year ….

Ps. My lasting memory of the event, was a discussion I had in a windowless main corridor with the lead negotiator for the Philippines (Mr Naderev “Yeb” Saño). He was ten days into his hunger strike, yet each day was still negotiating late into the night. He and his small team of researchers were all based in a corridor – in stark contrast to the negotiating teams from the high-emitting nations, the UK, US and other wealthy countries – all of whom had expensive and well served private rooms. This was emblematic of COP19 and of the two decades of climate change negotiations. The poor countries – those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and responsible for only very low-levels of emissions – are actively marginalised from the process. As for Naderev “Yeb” Saño, his blend of humility, scientific rigour and absence of malice was a beacon of hope amongst a sea of apathy. I’d certainly recommend watching the few minutes of his opening statement to COP – and in particular noting how, when discussing his speech with journalists, he stuck firmly to the science that Haiyan cyclone could not be attributed to climate change, but, as AR5 notes if emissions continue to rise “Increases in intense tropical cyclone activity”[1] are a likely outcome. Whilst Haiyan and its aftermath must not be misused as evidence of climate change – it is appropriate it be used to illustrate the risks associated with our unchecked emissions. If this tragedy cannot drag some humanity from those of us leading carbon profligate lives and shake our leaders into meaningful action the future does indeed look bleak.

[1] IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers. Table 1. p.5.

*******

Links to reports of the Tyndall Centre’s COP event, interviews, etc:

Open Letter to the EU Commission president about the unscientific framing of its 2030 decarbonisation target

Below is an open letter (dated 13th Dec. 2013) to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, outlining how, if the EU is to “set in stone a commitment to cap the temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius” it must double its proposed 2030 decarbonisation target.

As the letter makes clear, for the EU to honour this commitment the Commission must find the courage to pursue an equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target of around 80%. Anything less and the EU will renege on its 2°C commitments and, as the Commission rightly notes, bequeath to future generations a legacy of “devastating impacts”.

The letter was, amongst others, copied to Commissioners Connie Hedegaard and Günther Oettinger, and the UK Secretary of States for Energy and Climate Change (Ed Davey) and Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (William Hague).

A pdf copy of the letter is available at: Letter (pdf) to President Barroso on 2030 decarbonisation – Dec 2013. The letter builds on a range of work, most specifically a peer-reviewed Royal Society publication Beyond dangerous climate change and an earlier article … why so little science.

*****************

Mr. Jose Manuel Barroso

Office of the President
European Commission
B-1049 Brussels

RE: The EU 2030 decarbonisation target and the forthcoming White Paper

Dear President Barroso,

I wish to express my serious concerns that the process for determining the EU’s 2030 decarbonisation target is being conducted in a vacuum of scientific evidence, and that the proposed target fails to quantify honestly the EU’s high-level statements and international obligations on climate change.

The Green Paper “A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies”[1] asserts 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”. Whilst the 40% target hides a suite of inappropriate assumptions[2], my strongest reservations refer to [1] the abuse of probabilities of 2°C; and [2] the highly inequitable distribution of the 2°C emission budget between non-Annex 1 and Annex 1 nations.

[1] The abuse of probabilities
From the Copenhagen Accord[3] through to the Camp David Declaration[4], signatories commit to holding “the increase in global temperature below 2°C” and to taking action “to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”. Echoing this, as Commission President you reaffirmed that the EU had “set in stone a commitment to cap the temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius” and that in translating this into policy the EU would “respect climate science”[5]. Moreover, as the Commission’s proposal to COP19 made clear, “if we fail to achieve [the 2 degree] objective” we will “face devastating impacts”[6].

According to the IPCC’s taxonomy of probabilities[7], both the language of international agreements and your statements as Commission President relate to a high probability of not exceeding 2°C: quantitatively between 1 and 10%. In stark contrast, the analysis informing much of the debate on the EU 2030 targets is premised on a 50% to 70% chance of exceeding 2°C. This misrepresentation of probabilities has dramatic consequences for the necessary scale of mitigation. For example, a 60% chance of exceeding 2°C has a carbon budget twice as large as that for a 10% chance.

[2] Inequitable apportionment of the remaining 2°C carbon budget
Only by relying on the absurd supposition that non-Annex 1 nations will peak their emissions before 2020 – apparent in the Stern Review and most contemporary 2°C emission scenarios – can mitigation rates for Annex 1 nations be maintained at politically expedient levels (typically 3-4% p.a.).

If, instead, non-Annex 1 emissions were to peak by 2025 and rapidly reduce thereafter (still extremely challenging assumptions), then the EU would need to make immediate emissions reductions of approximately 10% p.a., arriving at a 2030 decarbonisation target of around 80%. The mathematics of safeguarding any reasonable probability of 2°C is inescapable, yet such levels of mitigation are far beyond anything countenanced by those engaged in debates on the EU 2030 targets.

Global emissions today are 60% higher than at the time of the first IPCC report in 1990, and in the six years since the last IPCC report (AR4) a further 200 billion tonnes of COhave been released into the atmosphere. As a result, in 2013 the scale of mitigation required is now an order of magnitude more challenging than it was in 1990. The EU must acknowledge this reality if it is ever to catalyse meaningful action on climate change. This demands the courage to pursue an equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target of around 80%. Anything less and the EU will renege on its 2°C commitments and, as the Commission rightly notes, bequeath to future generations a legacy of “devastating impacts”.

Yours sincerely,

Kevin

Kevin Anderson
Professor of Energy and Climate Change
Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
University of Manchester

PA- Amrita Sidhu, amrita.sidhu@manchester.ac.uk
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] 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. Available at Beyond dangerous climate change.

[3] Report of the Conference of the Parties; fifteenth session; Copenhagen, 7 to 19 December 2009.

Part Two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties FCCC/CP/2009/11/Add.1 30 March 2010

[4] Camp David Declaration: Camp David, Maryland, United States; May 18-19, 2012

[5] President Barroso on the results of the L’Aquila summit European Commission – MEMO/09/332   10/07/2009. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-09-332_en.htm

[6] Submission by Lithuania and the Eurpopean Commission of behalf of the European Union and its member states. Vilnius, 16 September 2013 Subject: The scope, design and structure of the 2015 agreement.

[7] 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

 

 

Article on climate science, carbon budgets and fear of speaking out

Dec. 2013.  Piece for the British Science Association. People & Science

An invited article summarising my concerns over the emergent conspiracy of silence amongst policy-makers, business leaders and many scientists as to the political and economic repercussions of science-based carbon-budgets for staying  below a 2°C rise in temperature.

** The fuller pre-editted version is available at: An emergent conspiracy: is the clamour for ‘policy-based evidence’ silencing science?