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).

Avoiding dangerous climate change demands de-growth strategies from wealthier nations

 Don’t shoot the messenger: why disliking a conclusion is not a good basis for disregarding it. 

“… for a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, the wealthier (Annex 1) nations need, temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.”

Kevin Anderson & Alice Bows-Larkin
Climate Change negotiations; Warsaw 2013

This article summarises the reasoning behind the contentious conclusion arising from Alice Bows-Larkin and my research – that continuing with economic growth over the coming two decades is incompatible with meeting our international obligations on climate change. The piece was catalysed by a twitter dialogue between Nikolai Astrup (a Norwegian MP), Glen Peters (a researcher at Cicero), Paul Price and me, and followed the Tyndall Centre/Cicero event (slides available from the Tyndall site) at the Warsaw climate change negotiations (COP19, Nov. 2013).

At the end of Alice’s and my presentations at COP19, Nikolai Astrup stood up to disagree strongly with our conclusion that “for a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change the wealthier (Annex 1) nations need, temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.”  Central to our conclusion is the express and clear assumption that the near-term development of poorer (non-Annex 1) nations should not be stifled by an overly constrained carbon budget. This widely accepted position, allied with the maths around 2°C carbon budgets, has grave repercussions for the scale of the response required to address climate change. Put simply, for the wealthier nations, “the necessary levels of 2°C mitigation and short-to-medium term economic growth are incompatible”.

Nikolai Astrup has since and on several occasions asserted that our conclusion is wrong, but, despite several requests, has not provided any analytical evidence to support his position. Moreover, Glen Peters, whilst agreeing with our “maths”, argues that it is our ‘opinions’ that have brought us to the conclusion about de-growth. In as much as our ‘opinions’ are informed by analysis he is correct; certainly our conclusions emerge from a very clear and consecutive set of assumptions accompanied by the maths (with which he agrees). If Nikolai Astrup also broadly accepts the maths, then for them both (and perhaps others) to maintain their objections to our conclusion they must disagree, at a significant level, with our assumptions.

To understand whether their positions stem from dislike of the conclusion or critique of the assumptions, our headline assumptions are outlined below in a sequential and simplified format. Based on these, Nikolai and Glen can outline which assumptions: [1] they consider are unreasonable, [2] they have an alternative for, and [3] how this would change the conclusion we have drawn. The assumptions listed are distilled from two journal articles, Beyond Dangerous Climate Change and the earlier Reframing the climate change challenge; with the principal arguments also outlined in Romm misunderstands … and EU & UK decarbonisation – why so little science.

To reiterate, our headline assumptions all take at face value the international community’s commitment to address the causes of climate change – a commitment reaffirmed by national leaders on many occasions and most succinctly captured in the language of the Copenhagen Accord: “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[emphasis added].

  1. Reductions in emissions greater than 3-4% p.a. are incompatible with a growing economy (or so we’re repeatedly advised). From Stern and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change through to virtually every 2°C emission scenario developed by ‘Integrated Assessment Modellers’, reductions in absolute emissions greater than 3% to 4% year on year are judged incompatible with a growing economy. It is worth noting that if reductions of 4% each year are to occur in an economy growing at 2% each year, then the carbon intensity of the economy must continually improve at around 6% year on year. Despite considerable engagement with those developing energy-emission scenarios and lengthy literature searches, we have found no examples of economists suggesting that prolonged emission-reductions above 3 to 4% p.a. are economically sustainable. Almost to the contrary, Stern’s observation that annual reductions of greater than 1% have “been associated only with economic recession or upheaval” (Stern 2006: pp. 204) is a more typical refrain.
  2. The 2°C obligation relates to a twenty-first century carbon budget. The science underpinning climate change makes clear that the best correlation with temperature in 2100 is the total cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases emitted throughout that century (the carbon budget). In other words the global average temperature rise by 2100 depends on the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted between 2000 and 2100. The concept of the global carbon budget is now well established and the quantities of carbon dioxide emitted for different probabilities of 2°C are adequately defined.
  3. We choose a ~50% (as an upper-end) chance of exceeding 2°C. The probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change has substantial implications for the size of the carbon budget. The language of the Copenhagen Accord can reasonably be translated as a low to very low chance of exceeding 2°C (around 1-10%). By contrast, for example, UK climate legislation is premised on a global budget with a ~65% chance of exceeding the 2°C commitment, which affords a carbon budget about twice that for a 10% chance. Given high and growing emissions between 2000 and 2013, the implication of the different budgets for the necessary mitigation rates is profound. For our analysis we used a range of probabilities – with the analysis underpinning our ‘contentious’ conclusion based on around a 50% chance of exceeding 2°C.
  4. Non-Annex 1 nations peak emissions by 2025. Our conclusion about de-growth relates specifically to the wealthier (Annex 1) nations, with their carbon budget determined by what remains when ambitious and very challenging assumptions are made about the poorer (non-Annex 1) nations. The details of these are outlined in our 2011 paper, with discussion on the important role of deforestation in the 2008 predecessor. However, by far the most significant factor relates to our explicit assumption that non-Annex 1 nations reach a peak in their emissions by 2025 and thereafter mitigate at an unprecedented 7% p.a. We acknowledge these are both extremely ambitious assumptions, but judge it to be the least inappropriate compromise between [1] practicality, [2] remaining within a 50:50 2°C carbon budget and [3] being cognisant of the Copenhagen Accord’s explicit reference to develop responses to 2°C “on the basis of equity”.
  5. The Annex 1 carbon budget depends on the global & non-Annex 1 budgets. Having both established an appropriate 2°C global carbon budget and developed a stringent emission pathway for the non-Annex 1 nations, the Annex 1 carbon budget is simply the subtraction of the non-Annex 1 budget from the global budget.
  6. Annex 1 nations need 8 to 10% p.a. emission reductions. Our original analysis was premised on recorded emissions up to 2009/10, since when global emissions have continued to increase whilst Annex 1 emissions have only slightly reduced (and actually increased on a consumption basis). Consequently the reduction rates we estimated in our 2011 paper will be still more challenging today (2013). Based on the above assumptions the rates of immediate emission reductions necessary for the Annex 1 nations to remain within their fair contribution to the 2°C carbon budget are between 8% and 10% p.a. (see Anderson & Bows 2011, with summary numbers in Table 1).
  7. Q.E.D. Annex 1 mitigation rates for 2°C are incompatible with economic growth. The dominant economic assertion is that rates of emission reduction beyond 3-4% p.a. are incompatible with economic growth. Yet the maths for a 50:50 chance of 2°C, allied with the above assumptions, demonstrate how, even with radical reductions in the projected carbon budgets of  poorer nations, wealthier Annex 1 nations still need to deliver immediate reductions of at least 8 to 10% p.a. If Stern et al are even ‘half right’, economic growth is therefore incompatible with the Annex 1 nations making their fair contribution to a 50% chance of avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change.

To summarise, if: 
1.  reductions in emissions greater than 3-4% p.a. are incompatible with a growing economy,
2.  the 2°C obligation relates to a twenty-first century carbon budget,
3.  a 50% chance of exceeding 2°C is adjudged an acceptable risk of failure,
4.  and Non-Annex 1 nations peak emissions by 2025 & subsequently reduce at ~7% p.a.,
5.  then the wealthier nations’ carbon budget is the global 2°C budget minus the poorer nations’ budget,
6.  and consequently wealthier nations must reduce emissions at 8 to 10% p.a.,
7. Q.E.D. Annex 1 mitigation rates for 2°C are incompatible with economic growth

In ongoing research related to our analysis, Alice and I have frequently enquired as to whether our assumptions are reasonable, with, to date, only nuanced adjustments suggested. Certainly some colleagues and commentators are explicit in their rejection of 2°C as the appropriate starting position; with arguments made both that 2°C is too stringent or that it should be tightened further, perhaps to 1.5°C. However, this is not what either Nikolai or Glen suggest; it is the conclusions in relation to 2°C that they openly reject (or question). However, given that they accept the maths and that the assumptions have, thus far, proved robust, I think it very likely Nikolai Astrup and Glen Peters don’t so much disagree with our conclusion, but rather that they simply dislike it.

If this is the case, I consider it inappropriate and misleading to muddle disliking a conclusion with reasoned criticism of it. This judgement extends well beyond Nikolai and Glen, to the many others who have rejected our conclusion without offering any substantive critique as to why.


NB: Whilst the view that mitigation rates in excess of 3 to 4% p.a. cannot be reconciled with a growing economy is an explicit claim (or implicit outcome) of many climate-oriented economists, there is slim evidence to support the view either way; in essence it is little more than an assertion. When it comes to the ubiquitous nature of climate change mitigation, impacts and adaptation, we are without any appropriate historical analogues. In that regard mitigation rates well above the economists’ 3 to 4% p.a. range may yet prove compatible with some form of economic prosperity. Early work certainly suggests that this is an hypothesis worth exploring and to that end it is the focus of the Tyndall Centre’s forthcoming “radical emission reduction conference” at the Royal Society in London on 10th & 11th December 2013. 

There is a risk that this final NB could be viewed as a self-defeating argument. However unless Nikolai, Glen and others are prepared to support a position that absolute and immediate mitigation rates of around 10% p.a. (i.e. improvements in the carbon intensity of GDP of ~12% year on year starting now) are possible, the NB offers no solace and a cogent base to assertions that our conclusions are wrong is still necessary.



Why carbon prices can’t deliver the 2°C target

After two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.

This article builds on a lengthy Twitter exchange between Glen Peters (@Peters-Glen), Paul Burke (@PaulBurke_econo) and myself (@KevinClimate); with occasional comments from others, particularly Brent Hoare (@brenthoare). The article below was later picked up by The Independent  and a partial version published under the title Plan to use financial markets to halt climate change is ‘doomed’.

Glen and Paul contend that the radical (non-marginal) rates of mitigation necessary for 2°C (i.e. around 10% p.a.) are best delivered through market-based instruments (MBIs) – where a price is placed on each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. By contrast, I hold that such an approach is doomed to failure and is a dangerous distraction from a comprehensive regulatory and standard based framework (within which price mechanisms may play a niche role).

Flavour of the Tweets (29 Jul. to 8 Aug.; slightly abridged. MBI = market based instrument)

PB: If we want more or quicker abatement? Just increase the price or tighten the cap
KA: Hi emitting consumers are effectively inelastic to carbon prices. Lead with regulations
PB: In theory MBIs can achieve large changes in a least-cost way
KA: What Market theory holds for MBIs delivering radical (non-marginal) rates of chance e.g. ~10%p.a.? 
PB: Pollution pricing is least-cost way to achieve big cuts. The theory holds fully. See textbooks!
BH: Standards are useful complementary measure to carbon pricing & MBI’s in achieving abatement?
KA: MBIs allow wealthy hi emitters to buy out of major reductions as poor suffer high energy prices
GP: Could adjust for inequalities in many ways, & not obvious this concern applies only to MBIs.
GP: “We” promote MBIs as evidence suggests they are most effective means of delivering abatement?
GP: Wouldn’t a broad based carbon price take precedence over a patchwork of regulations & altruism?
KA: Set standard at level of best technology, tighten ~8%p.a. Avoid picking winners & plan for rebound
GP: Individual behaviour & end use regulations are not going to change the energy supply systems, etc.
KA: Set standard at ~350gCO2/kWh for suppliers electricity portfolio & 100gCO2/km for new cars.
Tighten standards at ~10%pa & the supply system will change
GP: Policy needs to be environmentally effective, economically efficient, and politically feasible
PB: Can’t get much more certain on emissions outcome than via a cap
PB: “Tax then relax” seems better option for the moment, both fiscally & for emissions.
GP: Use an emissions cap and reduce it at 10%/yr. Take the price you get
KA: l could take the price but the 5 million UK households in fuel poverty would really suffer.
GP: Are you saying regulations have no costs to the poor and high costs to the rich?
GP: A price/cap would seek the low cost options, leading to lower system costs?
KA: Most of the world are already low emitters; its us hi emitters that fear any change!
KA: Yesterdays paradigm will fail. We need courage to make a paradigm shift

NB. The arguments developed in this article relate directly to a global 2°C characterisation of avoiding dangerous climate change and that this equates with a reduction in emissions from Annex 1 nations of around 10% p.a. – starting now and preferably yesterday.[1]

I have previously written about my concerns regarding what I consider to be the obstructive and misguided dominance of economics (or more correctly finance) in framing both the climate change issue and the mitigation agenda (see Climate Change in a myopic world; A new paradigm for climate change; Coaxing the mitigation phoenix from the ashes of the EUETS; on a more fundamental level this was the focus of my PhD – the high-level framing of which is captured in Will Self’s recent piece for the BBC and to some extent in a lecture by Steve Keen – also on the BBC). The points I make in this article build on my previous analyses and comments.

To start, I disagree with two thirds of the headline framing suggested by Glen Peters that “Policy needs to be environmentally effective, economically efficient, and politically feasible”.

Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue!

Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-) industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony. And if that’s too challenging to countenance we should be honest and reject 2°C as either too onerous an endeavour, or acknowledge that we lack the courage to try. However, for this article and our earlier Twitter arguments, 2°C remains an attainable goal (just); and one to which our leaders, with our advice[2], annually commit.

The financial dogma : why price can’t deliver 2°C mitigation
Returning to Glen’s framing – we agree policy needs to be “effective”, but I disagree when he suggests responses to 2°C need to be “politically feasible” (within the existing political Zeitgeist). Nor do I agree 2°C policies must be “economically efficient” – at least not within the neoclassical (market) framing of economics and efficiency. Travel back to the Greek framing of economics as oikonomia (broadly ‘stewardship of the household’) – or even perhaps the more recent classical political-economy framing of value – and 2°C policies become more economically viable. But stick with the narrow neoclassical (chrematistic) framing of economic efficiency, or more properly financial efficiency, and 2°C is a non-starter.

Glen, Paul, et al, suggest that a carbon tax, trading scheme or some other form of market based instrument (MBI) would provide the “most efficient” umbrella for delivering 2°C rates of mitigation; i.e. reductions in emissions of ~10% p.a.  But, as I understand it, the theoretical foundation underpinning Glen and Paul’s assertion is premised fundamentally on marginal change (i.e. small incremental adjustments) – along with a suite of other market/neoclassical axioms. Market theory does not address large (non-marginal) rates of change; and certainly 10% p.a. fits into the non-marginal category. Paul took exception to this, and when asked specifically about theories demonstrating the efficiency of markets for radical change he pointed me towards standard economic textbooks. However, I could find no such support in the textbooks. Moreover, in lengthy discussions with many economists (of different hues), I have not managed to elicit any appropriate theoretical framing for the ‘efficiency of markets’ and price mechanisms for delivering non-marginal rates of change.

The extrapolation of expressly marginal (market) theory to address non-marginal rates of change has been a long-standing concern of mine. “To draw an analogy, quantum theories are appropriate for understanding Einstein’s photoelectric effect and other small-scale phenomena, but inappropriate for understanding larger Newtonian scale observations. Similarly, it is foolish to rely on marginal market economics as the mainstay for achieving non-marginal reductions in emissions.”[3]

So, and despite ongoing protestations, I disagree with Paul & Glen’s assertions that “theory” and “evidence” lends support to their view that market based instruments (MBIs) are the “most effective” and “least-cost way” of delivering 2°C rates of mitigation.

On a more practical note, if their assertions are valid, then it would be very helpful to have some broad understanding of what the level of carbon price would need to be to deliver an almost immediate 10% p.a. reduction in emissions. I have asked several times for clarification on this, but have yet to receive a clear reply; probably the most illuminating was Glen’s suggestion “use a cap and reduce at 10%/yr. Take the price you get”. This really is the nub of the issue. The price would almost certainly be beyond anything described as marginal (probably many €100s/tonne)[4] – hence the great “efficiency” and “least-cost” benefits claimed for markets would no longer apply. Moreover the equity implications, even within the UK and similarly wealthy Annex 1 nations, would be devastating; but nonetheless would pale into insignificance compared with the impacts on the many millions of deeply poor, disenfranchised and powerless people around the world.

A regulatory and standards framing of 2°C mitigation
Building again on the Twitter discussion, Glen enquired as to whether I could estimate the economic costs of a 10%/yr reduction via regulations?” However, in my view, the question belies the problem; it’s almost a category mistake. It risks muddling short term discounted and monetary ‘prices’ that impact the few (i.e. higher emitting people) with long term and potentially infinite non-monetary savings that have impacts for ‘the many’ – including non-humans. Moreover, it holds the marginal value of money as constant for all; supposing that £1 to a university cleaner is the same as £1 to a professor. That said, even within the narrow financial framing of policy I would argue that regulations (within which the price mechanism may play a supporting role) could start to deliver the necessary rates of mitigation at very little, and potentially negative, costs.

For example, considering the same size of fridge-freezer, there is an ~80% reduction in energy consumption between an A++ and an A rated device[5]; i.e. a radical reduction in energy, and hence emissions, with very little price premium. The difference in appliance price typically varies with criteria other than efficiency (does it have a chilled-water dispenser, is it a fashionable retro-design, etc.). Provisional work suggests this broad scale of savings is available across many other appliance categories; most of which have a two to eight year replacement schedule. Similar savings are available for cars; 80g to 100gCO2/km vehicles (with standard internal combustion engines) are already available at no or very little price premium.[6]

Establishing a maximum emission standard for high-energy consuming devices and equipment, set at or around the level of the best commercially available and tightening at 8% to 10% p.a., would radically and rapidly reduce emissions. Moreover, this could be achieved, at least initially, with existing technologies and at little to no additional cost.[7] Given the price of energy, such standards may, in the short-term, deliver net system savings (and therefore require policies to address potential rebound consumption).

I’m fully aware that even this level of regulation would face severe political challenges. No doubt everyone from Jeremy Clarkson, Ferrari and BMW through to the plethora of appliance manufacturers, WTO officials etc. would swing into action attempting to weaken the standards. No one said 2°C would be easy, but, given sufficent political will, suites of appliance standards (expressly not dictating the type of technology) could deliver almost immediate and large reductions at very little cost.

A carbon price can always be paid by the wealthy
Professors, MPs, ministers, business leaders, GPs, barristers, etc. would all be able to absorb a significant proportion of any politically-acceptable carbon price. So we may buy a slightly more efficient 4WD/SUV, cut back a little on our frequent flying, consider having a smaller second home where we may even choose an A+ retro Smeg fridge-freezer (the A++ being a little too ‘modern’ looking) – but overall we’d carry on with our business as usual. Meanwhile the poorer sections of our society (remembering that the mode salary in the UK is around £17k p.a.) would have to cut back still further in heating their inadequately insulated and badly designed rented properties. Their children would perhaps begin to suffer more bronchial problems as their houses become colder and damper; so more trips to the doctor – but the increased price of road fuel makes this more expensive. Perhaps they could cut back on the quality of their food – after all it’s three for the price of two on processed ready meals at the cheapermarket.

No doubt some rebate could be possible – but as carbon prices extend towards the level necessary for 2°C (i.e. 10% p.a.), so the rebates become prohibitive and the vociferous professors and other well educated elites (with support from the Daily Mail) begin to begrudge the increased taxation to cover the rebates.

For 2°C it is difficult to see how price could even begin to deliver the deep and immediate reduction in emissions (i.e. energy consumption in the short-term) necessary from us professors and others in the top 1% to 25% of the income distribution.

So where does this leave 2°C mitigation?
Though not yet fully fleshed out, some of us in the Tyndall Centre are beginning to shape a sweeping programme of 2°C emission reductions (a Radical Plan for 2°C). It is true to say such a coordinated and radical framework is not popular with many colleagues, and some major research funders consider it “too ambitious” and not in keeping with the “Government’s 80% by 2050” target. Despite, such academic and funder opposition to an agenda of ‘radical reductions’, others of us consider it worth a punt (See forthcoming Tyndall Centre Conference on “radical emission reductions” at the Royal Society – Dec. 2013)

In essence a 2°C energy agenda requires rapid and deep reductions in energy demand, beginning immediately and continuing for at least two decades. This lengthens the window of opportunity in which to transition to a low carbon energy supply system (almost zero-carbon for 2°C). Nevertheless, and counter to most low-carbon scenarios, if poorer nations are to be ‘given’ a longer period for decarbonisation, a genuinely 2°C energy supply system for the majority of Annex 1 nations would need to be virtually zero-carbon by around 2030; in effect a Marshall plan for energy supply.

Such immediate cuts in energy demand will require around two decades of revolutionary reductions in energy consumption from high-energy users, and a substantial, but evolutionary, reduction from those with more moderate consumption habits.

My headline (and very provisional) framing for the UK, or similar Annex 1 nation, would include a suite of regulatory measures, buttressed where necessary with price mechanisms. In addition it would be important to understand the role of behaviours and practices both in helping frame effective legislation, but also in fostering a deeper civic and institutional engagement with the low-carbon agenda. At the risk of being either shot down for absence of detail or deliberately quoted out of context, a provisional and partial list of low-carbon regulations offers a flavour of what such an iterative decarbonisation agenda may include:

  • Strict energy/emission standards for appliances with a clear long-term market signal of the amount by which the standards would annually tighten; e.g. 100gCO2/km for all new cars commencing 2015 and reducing at 10% each year through to 2030
  • Strict energy supply standards; e.g. for electricity 350gCO2/kWh as the mean emissions level of a suppliers’ portfolio of power stations; tightened at ~10% p.a.
  • A programme of rolling out stringent energy/emission standards for industry equipment
  • Stringent minimum efficiency standards for all properties for sale or rent
  • World leading low-energy standards for all new-build houses, offices etc. 
  • Moratorium on airport expansion[8]
  • Technological and operational standards for shipping operating in UK waters
  • A suite of iterative mechanisms to counter, or at least alleviate, issues of rebound[9]; this may include price mechanisms, progressive metering tariffs, etc.
  • Revisit the viability of Personal Carbon Trading as a mechanism for improving societal engagement in non-marginal change
  • Appoint a senior minister with the principal responsibility for maintaining an equitable transition to a low-carbon society

All this will be dismissed by many as naïve or impossible – but to some extent dismissals should be taken as recommendations for this agenda; at least for a 2°C future. The political and economic hegemony has procrastinated for too long for it to be able to deliver on its own 2°C promises (on its own terms). So in stark contrast with Glen, Paul et al, I take the view that if the solutions (at least collectively) are deemed politically feasible and economically efficient they will, almost by definition, fail. I finish by returning to the closing comments Alice Bows-Larkin and I drafted for our Nature Climate Change commentary – A new paradigm for climate change: (doi:10.1038/nclimate1646)

… At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

 A new paradigm
This catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change. Early signs of such a paradigm shift are already evident. As Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve and a pivotal figure in the economic orthodoxy revealed, he was “in a state of shocked disbelief ” at having “discovered a flaw in the [free market] model”.8 This is not just a minor flaw; it undermines a central tenet (self-regulation) of the laissez-faire ethos. It is to market economics what Copernican heliocentrism was to Ptolemaic astronomy.

Reinforcing the view that we may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift are the fundamental disagreements between orthodox economists as to how to respond to the crisis. This theoretical disarray has parallels with those rare occasions in history where established knowledge is superseded by new ways of thinking and understanding. Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Planck all represent such radical transitions. They are seldom achieved easily and the old guard typically hangs on kicking furiously to avoid relinquishing its grip on power. Ultimately, however, such protestations are futile in the face of the new insights and new ways of doing things that emerge with the new paradigm. It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

Civil society needs scientists to do science free of the constraints of failed economics. It also needs us to guard against playing politics while actively engaging with the processes of developing policy; this is a nuanced but nonetheless crucial distinction.

Ultimately, decisions on how to respond to climate change are the product of many constituencies contributing to the debate. Science is important among these and needs to be communicated clearly, honestly and without fear.

[1] For a succinct account of the reasoning behind the 10% figure see an earlier submission to the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the UK’s carbon budgets – repeated with permission at EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science? For an accompanying academic paper see: Beyond Dangerous Climate Change)
[2] Or at least are typically reluctant to be public about disagreeing with the target; and following Thomas Moore’s maxim, “qui tacet consentire”, such silence suggests consent, i.e. agreement with the target.
[3] Coaxing the mitigation phoenix from the ashes of the EU ETS
[4] Previous research demonstrated how even at €300/tonne the price of a typical flight would increase by only around 25%. It is unlikely that to frequent fliers, who typically have high incomes, such a shift would radically reduce their personal flying. Nor is it likely that a 25% increase, to just one aspect of the overall cost of work travel, would catalyse more than a marginal change to work related flights. See: Aviation in a Low Carbon UK pp. 89-109
[5] See the Committee on Climate Change; The Fourth Carbon Budget Report, December 2010. P.205.
[6] It is worth noting the ‘real world’ emission figures are typically 10% to 20% higher than those forthcoming from the standard tests.
[7] Admittedly some retooling etc. would be required on manufacturers production lines, but given many of these are the same companies that are already producing the more efficient designs this should not be a major or long-term expense.
[8] For underpinning reasons, see: A one-way ticket to high carbon lock-in: the UK debate on aviation policy and Aviation and shipping privileged – again? UK delays decision to act on emissions
[9] For poorer households and in the very-short term, rebound would likely be a desirable impact, helping to facilitate improved living conditions.

EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science?

The debate on the appropriate level of EU emission reductions for 2030 is being conducted in a scientific vacuum. Certainly the decision is ultimately political, but the neglect of any robust scientific framing is emblematic of how the rhetoric of climate change has come to dominate even well meaning discussions, whether amongst governments, NGOs, businesses or academics.

If the 2030 decarbonisation target is to align with the wording and spirit of the Copenhagen Accord, Cancun Agreement and the Camp David Declaration (May 2012), then it must be founded on transparent assumptions, including about the probability of 2°C, the choice of climate model and how the subsequent carbon budget should be apportioned.

As it stands, many of those undertaking internally consistent and quantitative analysis do so from a nebulous framing of these fundamental starting points. Consequently, whilst their recommendations may appease political sensibilities they are neither “consistent with science” nor on “the basis of equity”. This expedient framing of the EU 2030 target mirrors the UK’s similarly opportune choice of carbon budget. At the same time as the International Energy Agency reiterates how current emissions are in line with a “temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C” (by 2100), analyses of the EU and UK’s fair contribution to 2°C typically refuse to offer candid and scientifically robust conclusions.

The following text is taken from a recent submission to the UK parliament’s Environment Audit Committee (EAC) review of the UK’s carbon budgets.  Whilst the analysis has a UK focus, it is equally applicable to discussions over the EU’s 2030 decarbonisation targets.

The evidence to the EAC reflects on the appropriate probability of 2°C, reframes deforestation emissions as a global overhead and, in line with international commitments, revisits the issues of equity and the apportionment of emissions.

It concludes that if the emissions of ‘less-developed’ nations (non-Annex 1) peak by 2025 and subsequently reduce at ~7% p.a., then for a ‘reasonable probability’ of 2°C the UK and EU must deliver immediate emission reductions of ~10% p.a., with complete decarbonisation of the energy system by around 2030. Such levels of mitigation are far beyond anything countenanced by those engaged in debates on the UK carbon budget or EU 2030 targets; yet if avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change is to be taken seriously, the maths of the situation are inescapable.


Text from a submission to the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the UK’s carbon budgets (May 2012 – used with permission and with small adjustments).

Considering the appropriate probability for 2°C
From the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and subsequent COPs (conferences of the parties) through to the G8 Camp David Declaration (May 2012) the UK has repeatedly committed to making its fair contribution to “hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”. Moreover, much of the UK Government’s domestic language has, since its 2009 Low Carbon Transition Plan (DECC 2009), been around “must rise no more than 2°C” (p. 5, emphasis added). Whilst this qualitative language of consensus around 2°C has been clear and consistent for many years (“hold below”, “must not exceed”, etc.) there has been no open clarification as to what quantitative probabilities such language represents. Yet, without quantified probabilities it is not possible to determine the accompanying range of twenty-first century cumulative emissions budgets from which emission pathways can be derived (Anderson & Bows, 2008).

In the absence of any explicit quantification, probabilities may be inferred by adopting the approach developed for the IPCC’s reports, whereby a correlation is made between the language of likelihood and quantified probabilities (IPCC, 2010). Following this approach, the Accord’s, EU’s and UK Government’s statements all clearly imply very low (0%-10%) probabilities of exceeding 2°C. Even a highly conservative judgement would suggest the statements represent no more than a 33% chance of exceeding 2°C. However in 2013, and with the UK government’s preferred climate sensitivity and carbon cycle assumptions (Murphy et al 2004), a 0%-10% chance of exceeding 2°C would leave almost no available carbon budget. Stretching the probabilities much further really starts to detract from any reasonable interpretation of the “must not exceed” language; though given the emissions released since 2000, it is now difficult to envisage anything much lower than 30%-40% chance of exceeding 2°C being either physically viable or deliverable in practice.

Set against such a quantitative backdrop, DECC’s choice of a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C is clearly incompatible with the UK’s repeated commitments made at various international forums (Anderson et al., 2009). Consequently, the UK has at least (see below) two climate change targets. One with budgets related to “must not exceed” (say 0%-10% – and potentially 30%-40% chance of 2°C) and another with budgets related to a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C. These two budgets are associated with radically different emission pathways and hence provide fundamentally different criteria for judging the appropriateness or otherwise of alternative mitigation options – both individually and collectively.

Considering apportionment of the global carbon budget to the UK
Exacerbating the UK’s profoundly inconsistent domestic and international positions on climate change are issues related to how the UK chooses to apportion global emissions to the national level.  In this regard two particular issues arise; a) who is responsible for deforestation emissions; and b) how should global emissions be divided between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations. Both the issues relate to the equity dimension of mitigation and against which the UK’s current domestic position again conflicts with its international rhetoric.

Issue a) deforestation The UK’s budgets imply all responsibility for emissions from global deforestation accrue solely to those nations deforesting. Whilst, such a position may have merit in terms of increasing the available ‘energy’ budget to the Annex 1 nations such as the UK, it does so at the expense of major reductions in available ‘energy’ emissions space for the poorer, non-Annex 1, nations (where the deforestation is occurring). Climate change has arisen as an issue principally from the emissions of wealthier, and already deforested, Annex 1 nations (Anderson & Bows, 2011). It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the UK view that responsibility for current deforestation emissions belongs solely to those nations’ deforesting with the explicit equity dimension of various international agreements. In response to this inequity, deforestation could be considered as a global overhead, thereby allocating emissions from deforestation amongst all nations – not only those deforesting. Such a global overhead approach would not absolve non-Annex 1 nations of responsibility for deforestation emissions, as their available budget for energy-related emissions, along with the budget for Annex 1 nations, would still be reduced as a consequence of the emissions from deforestation.  Anderson and Bows further defended this position by noting how historical emissions (pre-2000) are essentially considered a global overhead that favours Annex 1 nations. Ultimately they concluded that “getting an appropriate balance of responsibilities is a matter of judgment that inevitably will not satisfy all stakeholders and certainly will be open to challenge. As it stands, the approach… in which historical and deforestation emissions are taken to be global overheads, is a pragmatic decision that, if anything, errs in favour of the Annex 1 nations.”[1]

Translating this principle into a quantitative constraint for the UK, Anderson and Bows (2008) estimated a twenty-first century budget of 266GtCO2 from deforestation, which, disaggregated to the national level, equates to about a 20% reduction in the available energy-emission space in the UK’s budget. However, since Anderson and Bows first proposed the 266GtCO2 budget, deforestation emissions have fallen sharply, with a similar method likely to almost halve the global overhead to around ~150GtCO2.[2] In light of this, it is appropriate that the UK budget be reduced by approximately 7% to account for the nation’s ‘fair’ share of global deforestation.

Issue b) apportionment between nations A much more significant issue relates to assumptions about emissions from non-Annex 1 nations, and therefore what is a reasonable budget for Annex 1 nations, including the UK? As it stands the UK approach implies a highly inequitable division of emissions – with very little distinction drawn between the two groups. In brief, the UK choice of budgets and pathways is based on a global peak in emissions of around 2016, with non-Annex 1 nations, on average, peaking around 2 years later. As with the attribution of deforestation emissions, such a division of the global budget between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations is far removed from both the wording and spirit of the equity dimensions of the various international climate change agreements.

Anderson and Bows (2011) took a different framing of equity than that assumed by the UK government (and the CCC 2008/10), starting instead with the question “what reduction profiles could non-Annex 1 nations reasonably be expected to achieve if pushed extremely hard in terms of a rapid transition away from their growing emissions and towards absolute mitigation”. They adopted a range of scenarios, but suffice to say the budget remaining for the Annex 1 nations in all of these was dramatically more challenging than the proportional budget adopted by the UK government.

In brief, and to put some perspective on the change in the scale of the challenge, if non-Annex 1 nations can peak by 2025, and reduce emissions thereafter at around 7% p.a. (approximately twice the level Stern et al suggest is possible with economic growth), then there is no discernible emission space remaining for Annex 1 nations. Only if the growth to a 2025 peak in non-Annex 1 emissions is radically curtailed to just 1% p.a. and subsequently reduced at over 7% from 2025, is there any space for Annex 1 emissions – but still only if the latter’s emissions begin reducing at over 10% p.a. immediately.

As Anderson and Bows (2011) demonstrates, the UK’s proportion of the global carbon budget for a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C is premised on an apportionment regime that is highly partisan and certainly far removed from the UK’s explicit and international commitments on equity.

Combining probabilities and equity
Far from being a technical and nuanced issue, the disjuncture between the UK’s high profile and repeated commitments on 2°C and the Government’s legally binding carbon budgets is profound and with fundamental repercussions for the framing of carbon-reduction polices.

The legally binding budgets essentially reject 2°C in favour of maintaining some emission space out to 2050 and hence a relatively slow transition to a lower-carbon society. By contrast, taking Government international statements on 2°C as an honest reflection of commitments demands immediate behavioural adjustments alongside rapid penetration of low-carbon technologies; with complete decarbonisation of the energy system by 2030.

Ultimately, if the UK wants to develop a consistent and evidence-based framing of its climate change commitments, it needs to match its legally binding domestic budgets with its international rhetoric on 2°C.


  • Anderson, K. & Bows, A. (2008) Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions A 366, 3863-3882.
  • Anderson, K., R. Starkey, and A. Bows (2009) Defining dangerous climate change – A call for consistency. Tyndall Centre Briefing Note 40.
  • 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
  • Camp David Declaration (2012) Leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) Camp David, Maryland, United States May 18-19, 2012.
  • CCC (2008), “Building a low-carbon economy – the UK‘s contribution to tackling climate change: The first report of the Committee on Climate Change”, HMSO, Norwich
  • CCC, (2010), “The fourth carbon budget: reducing the emissions through 2020” Committee on Climate Change, London, UK
  • Copenhagen Accord (2009) FCCC/CP/2009/L.7. UNFCCC, Geneva, Switzerland
  • DECC (2009) The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan: national strategy for climate and energy. London: HM Government
  • Murphy, J.M., Sexton, D.M.H., Barnett, D.M., Jones, G.S., Webb, M.J.,Collins, M., and Stainforth, D.A. 2004. Quantification of modelling uncertainties in a large ensemble of climate change simulations. Nature, v.429, p.768–772.
  • IPCC (2010) Cross-Working Group Meeting on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties, Jasper Ridge, CA, USA 6-7 July 2010. Table 1.
  • Jiankun, H., Wenying, C., Fei, T., Bin, L. (2009). Long-term climate change mitigation target and carbon permit allocation. Tsinghua University.

[1] It is worth noting that, Jiankun, H et al make the case that  “reasonable rights and interests should be strived for, based on the equity principle, reflected through cumulative emissions per capita”. Building on this ‘cumulative emissions per capita’ approach, the authors demonstrate how China’s historical cumulative emissions are only one-tenth of the average in industrial countries and one-twentieth that of the U.S.

[2] This is the subject of a paper currently being developed, and is again based on FAO and other similar data.


Coaxing the mitigation phoenix from the ashes of the EU ETS:

why the near-collapse of Europe’s carbon-trading scheme could be good for reducing emissions

A pdf of coaxing the mitigation phoenix is also available

The past fortnight has been a time of considerable disquiet for those who consider carbon trading generally and the EU’s emission trading scheme (ETS) more specifically a cornerstone of mitigation policy.

Certainly the potential demise of the most advanced carbon-trading regime yet is reflective of the EU parliament’s collective preference for short-term hedonism over medium-term stewardship[1] – a situation that does not bode well for the development of any meaningful climate change polices.

However, and more profoundly, carbon trading, as with any market or price-based mechanism, cannot deliver the scale of emission reductions necessary to meet the EU or international community’s commitments to staying below a 2°C rise in temperature.

If this were 1990 or even 2000 then gradual reductions in emissions could arguably keep the carbon budget broadly in line with the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change. But, despite more than two decades of international negotiations, emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise and, at least for the coming few years, show no sign of changing direction. Consequently, in 2013, the 2°C threshold is no longer deliverable through gradual mitigation, but only through deep cuts in emissions, i.e. non-marginal reductions at almost step-change levels.

By contrast, a fundamental premise of contemporary neoclassical[2] economics is that markets (including carbon markets) are only efficient at allocating scarce resources when the changes being considered are very small – i.e. marginal.

Conversely, for a good chance of staying below 2°C, future emissions from the EU’s energy system (or from any industrialised, ‘Annex 1’, nation) need to reduce at rates of around 10% p.a.[3] – mitigation far beyond what marginal markets can reasonably be expected to deliver. To draw an analogy, quantum theories are appropriate for understanding Einstein’s photoelectric effect and other small-scale phenomena, but inappropriate for understanding larger Newtonian scale observations. Similarly, it is foolish to rely on marginal market economics as the mainstay for achieving non-marginal reductions in emissions.

Personally, I consider the ETS and other carbon pricing discussions a serious distraction from decisive mitigation through a stringent and annually tightening suite of standards. These I suggest apply to all sectors and include a strong signal to markets as to how they will change over the coming decade.

For example, the power companies could only operate if their portfolio of power stations did not exceed 500gCO2/kWh starting next year; with the standards tightening at 15% p.a. thereafter. Similarly, for cars, from 2014 a maximum of 110gCO2/km, tightening at around 10% p.a., – and with no option for buying out of the standard. For domestic refrigerators, say 200kWh/year, again with a clear 10-year signal of the standard tightening at around 10% p.a.

Such standards would not in themselves be sufficient to meet the EU’s 2°C obligations. Certainly they could be usefully complemented with market-based approaches, progressive metering tariffs, carbon prices and perhaps even some sector-level trading – particularly where such mechanisms helped alleviate fuel poverty. However, standards would provide the principal mechanism and in so doing offer a range of benefits over relying on carbon trading or more interventionist regulatory mechanisms.

  • Standards do not pick technology winners (CCS, wind, nuclear etc. would be the choice of companies operating in the market and not of governments favouring one technology over another).
  • Companies would have a level playing field and a 10-year signal of how the standards would change.
  • Standards reduce if not eliminate carbon speculators and other market actors – all of whom increase the costs of carbon-trading and consequently push up energy prices at no net carbon or social benefit.
  • Standards reduce the opportunity for wealthier and high-emitting individuals to simply buy their way out of making any change. This confers two important advantages over markets:
        a) High profile role models are required to make low-carbon lifestyle choices (the Ferrari
            would also be subject to the 110gCO2/km limit)
        b) The innovation process would be energised by wealthier & high-emitting individuals
             becoming early adopters of new (and initially costly) low-carbon technologies.

Ultimately, whatever mechanisms are chosen, if they are to be coherent and evidence based they must be compatible with the carbon budgets accompanying the EU’s explicit 2°C obligations. Carbon trading, markets and prices are unable to deliver the rates of mitigation demanded by such obligations.[4] Consequently, alternative measures must be urgently implemented if the EU is not to renege on its international climate change commitments.

The anticipated collapse of the ETS provides an important opportunity for a root and branch rethink of carbon-reduction policies; an opportunity that the EU must grasp if it is not to abandon its international leadership on climate change!

[1] Based on the collective choice of MEPs not to backload the ETS (by a small majority of 19 votes). This decision was much less informed by concerns about the integrity of the trading scheme and its role in combatting climate change, and much more by concern for short-term energy prices.
See: Climate change in a myopic world. Kevin Anderson. Tyndall Briefing Note No.36 May 2009;
and Reframing the challenge of climate change. Anderson and Bows. Royal Society 2008
[2] This extends beyond neoclassical economics to the broader range of market-based variants.
[3] Beyond dangerous climate change. Anderson and Bows. Royal Society 2011
[4] Op. cit. 1 & 3; A new paradigm for climate change. Nature climate change. Aug. 2012

Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example?

(the arguments outlined in this commentary apply equally to any politician, civil servant, journalist, NGO or business leader calling for stringent mitigation)

The commentary is also available as a pdf: Hypocrites in the air and is now a chapter in Beyond Flying

From the World Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers through to Stern and the International Energy Agency, analyses increasingly demonstrate how, without urgent and radical reductions in emissions, global temperatures are set to rise by 4°C or higher – with, as the IEA emphasise, “devastating” repercussions for the planet.

But whose responsibility is it to initiate such radical mitigation?


My partner and I recently arrived in Sicily for a couple of weeks’ camping and rock climbing – not exactly sun-kissed limestone (15°C and damp), but still a little warmer than the Arctic blasts battering the UK at the moment.

As we try to avoid flying we’ve travelled here by train: Manchester to London and then onto Paris, overnight Paris to Rome, a day strolling between the Pantheon and the Colosseum, before another overnight train to Palermo in the North West corner of Sicily.

The journey took longer than flying, but we get a day each way to explore Rome and overnight travel to and from Sicily, so in terms of price and time it isn’t that different to flying. But when it comes to emissions I stand by the arguments I made following my train trip to Shanghai in 2011 (for work on that occasion). At a system level, trains have an order of magnitude lower emissions than the metal bird alternative – the saving is that significant.

If my arguments are valid, surely those of us intimately engaged in climate change should, at the very least, curtail our use of the most carbon-profligate activity (per hour) humankind has thus far developed.

For those interested, the arguments I previously posted on the Tyndall Centre website are repeated below. In addition, I’ve included a few thoughts in response to the comeback often made – “those of us with children can’t afford the longer journey times as we have overriding parental commitments”. 


Slow and low – the way to go: A systems view of travel emissions

When planning the journey from Broadbottom (UK), to Shanghai, and also since my return, I have been asked frequently about the associated emissions:

  • “I thought trains weren’t much better than planes, what’s the difference?”
  • “Was it worth the effort for whatever you saved?”

On the face of it, these and many similar queries are completely reasonable questions to ask. But, in my view, they miss the point, and without trying to be overly provocative (that’s for later), I don’t think they are so reasonable – particularly from the array of informed experts who asked them. So why do I think the questions are unreasonable – and what would I suggest as an alternative framing for assessing emissions from travel?

The following blog-style analysis is a mix of provocation, parody and some different ways of thinking about emissions from our travel. I’ve tried to make a coherent case on the basis of argument, but some of the language may not be what you would typically find in an academic paper. Nonetheless, I stand by the well-intentioned thrust of the case and if anyone has any substantive disagreements I’d be pleased to hear them. It is intended to hold a mirror up to the climate change community – and as with all mirrors, it can make for grim viewing. I know: it’s a fit 36-year-old who looks in the mirror – but a less fit grey-haired and 49-year-old bloke who stares back at me!

My concerns about the questions I’ve been asked fall into three broad and related categories. They were asked by folk who work intimately on climate change as a system. But not one person asked a systems-level question, ‘How are you going to compare the plane and train emissions?’ – or – ‘Have you thought about rebound, where time saved via faster travel is spent on additional carbon-emitting activities?’

Instead, all of the questions relegated climate change to a purely technical, quantitative or efficiency issue – none of which address what we need to do to reduce total emissions

The opportunity costs, rebound effect, carbon intensity of time, technical and financial lock-in/lock-out, early adoption, role models, diffusion and so on, are all concepts the climate change community are familiar with. Asking emissions questions without direct or indirect recourse to any of these is, in my view, neither responsible nor reasonable.

 Unreasonable reasonableness – another Rumsfeldian paradox
The first argument for my concluding the reasonable questions aren’t so reasonable relates to it being academics working on climate change (amongst others) who asked them.

For the last decade the language of climate change used in proposals for funding, research council calls, brochures, government documents and so on, has been awash with terms such as ‘whole systems’, ‘systems thinking’, ‘interdisciplinary’, and the like. Put us in a room and we’ll espouse eloquently the virtues of such approaches, noting if we’re to tackle big issues like climate change we have to think on a systems level. But as soon as there’s something that can be readily quantified we’re like moths to a flame: here’s something familiar to our 2000 years of reductionism, some knowledge – but without understanding. The virtues of systems thinking that we were waxing lyrical about moments before are quickly forgotten in the mad scrabble to get to the numbers. We know what to do with numbers and, as Lord Kelvin so persuasively put it, ‘When you measure what you are speaking of and express it in numbers, you know that on which you are discoursing, but when you cannot measure it and express it in numbers your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind.’ Well I’m not sure this always holds, and when we do use numbers they have to be meaningful. Isolated numbers tell us little about the system, and worse, they can lead to decisions based only on the bit we can measure. This may be worse than doing nothing or taking random action; at the very least numbers have to be contextual.

So having made the argument that systems thinking requires some systems thinking itself, the following sections outline more precisely defined and technical matters that underpin my concern that the climate change community continues to take overly narrow views of systems-level issues. In 2011, we ought to know better.

System saving no.1: Relative dimensions in distance, time and emissions
If we accept temperature as an adequate proxy for our various concerns about climate change, then there is broad acceptance we must stay below a 2°C increase in global temperature. Thus the climate is only really concerned with our cumulative emissions over a relatively short period of time – a period longer than the Broadbottom–Shanghai train journey, but stretching only about as far as 2020 for 2°C (and for 4°C sometime around 2030). There is some maths behind these dates linked to how high we are already on the emissions curves, the ‘real’ emission growth trend, realistic peaks and the proportion of our carbon budget we’ve squandered already (see: beyond dangerous climate change).

Coming back to the train and its emissions relative to other transport modes: from a systems perspective, it’s a good enough approximation to consider the CO2 per passenger kilometre for planes, trains and automobiles to be similar. Ok, alone in a Ferrari with your foot to the floor will be many times worse than being sardined into one of EasyJets relatively new aircraft. Similarly, four people cosying up in a small Fiat Panda will knock the socks off any scheduled airline (that is, have much lower CO2 emissions). But put a couple of academics in a diesel family saloon and any disparity in emissions between the modes over the same distance will be lost in the system noise. The difference, of course, arises from the distance we deem reasonable to travel – and really this is less about the distance and more about the time.

Attending an ‘essential’ conference to save the world from climate change in Venice, Cancun or some other holiday resort, is perfectly do-able by plane. However, the rising emission trends don’t seem to have registered the sterling work we have achieved at such events. Perhaps if we flew to more of them, emissions would really start to come down – we may even spot some flying pigs en route. Instead, junk the plane and get together with a few other UK speakers heading to the same event, cram yourself in a trusty Fiat Panda and set off for Venice. Somewhere around Dartford, what was previously ‘essential’ begins to take on a different hue, and by Dover a whole new meaning has evolved. Essential has become a relative term, dependent on: Can we get there by plane? Are our friends also attending? Is it somewhere nice to visit (or name-drop)? Will we be taxied around? Are we staying in a plush hotel?

This is where the first major saving resides: slow forms of travel fundamentally change our perception of the essential. We consequently travel less (at least in distance), and given that air travel is the most emission-profligate activity per hour (short of Formula 1 and possibly space tourism) the emission-related opportunity costs are knocked into a cocked hat. Of course, as climate change specialists we are exempt from such analysis – our message truly is essential – so we’re the exception that should be able to carry on emitting as before.

Ah, yes, and business folk – we need them to drive the economy. Tourists are yet another really important economic driver (not to mention the great cultural gains from staying in western-style hotels with like-minded folk and observing other cultures pass by the windscreens of our air conditioned taxis). Next there are the pop stars and celebrities – the world would be such a dull place if they weren’t able to prance about at international festivals. The football and tennis players must test their mettle in the international arena – and of course they need their fans to cheer them on.

We can then turn to whole industrial sectors’ that put forward an equally bewildering array of ‘reasons’ why they should be the exceptions and exempt from major emission reductions. This extends to government departments, climate change think tanks and some NGOs – with the remaining less deserving sectors and individuals taking up the slack. It really is a puzzler as to why emissions keep on rising – all the more so since fuel prices have rocketed to levels way in excess of any carbon price economists previously told us would collapse the economy! Still, a few more international conferences and guidance from the carbon-market gurus will have us turn the corner on this one, I’m sure.

Obviously these caricatures are so far from reality that we don’t recognise ourselves in any of them – but nevertheless the message is clear. Travelling slowly forces us to travel much less, to be much more selective in what events we attend, and to endeavour to get more out of those trips we do take. Fewer trips and potentially longer stays: not rocket science – just climate change basics. 

System saving no.2: Iteration, adaptive capacity and indulgences – how to avoid carbon lock-in
It may be apocryphal, but I have heard from several reputable sources that China is in the process of constructing 150 new international airports. This perhaps sounds implausible, but China’s population is approximately 22 times the UK’s, and the UK has around 25 international airports. Proportionately, China would need 550 international airports to match the per capita equivalent of the UK. Suddenly their construction rate seems less implausible. Either way, flying to Shanghai sends a very clear market signal: expand your airport. And that is exactly what they’re doing right now, so they’re reading our repeated signal loud and clear.

But how is that worse than expanding the rail network? Firstly, there is potential to radically improve the efficiency of train travel – until very recently efficiency has not been a major concern for the industry. This is not the case for aviation. Jet engines and current plane designs have pushed the orthodox design envelope about as far as it can go; so 1 to 2 per cent per annum improvement is about as much as can be wrung out of the aviation industry in the short to medium term. In the longer term things may change, but this will not be within the short timeframe associated with climate change. Consequently, flying now locks the future into a high-carbon aviation infrastructure. By contrast, trains have substantial efficiency potential (though this may be compromised with the very high-speed trains) and, more significantly, trains can run on electricity (many already do) and electricity can be low-carbon (some of it already is). Trains can also have regenerative breaking (tricky with aircraft) and overnight trains can be used to flatten demand curves (and cut back on hotel emissions). Planes are currently locked into high-carbon kerosene whilst trains already have several low-carbon options.

So there you have it. Jump on a plane and you send a suite of very clear market signals. Please buy some more aircraft that will operate for 20-to-30 years and have a design life of 40 years. Please build some more airports. Please divert public transport funds so passengers (and shoppers) can travel to the airport on low-carbon trains or trams. Please expand the airport car park for when bags are just too heavy to lug on a tram. Please keep producing the black stuff – without it we will have invested billions in an industry dependent on kerosene; lock-in par excellence. They don’t tell you all this on the back of the ticket – though there may be some oh so useful advice on carbon offsetting. Again, is it any wonder that emissions aren’t coming down when we, the high-emitters, can buy indulgences so easily and cheaply? 

System saving no. 3a: Opportunity costs constrain carbon
Here we turn to the old chestnut, opportunity costs. Basically if I had flown – and assuming the direct emissions per capita were the same between the plane and the Trans-Siberian Express – then what would I have been doing for the time I wasn’t on the train?

Let’s say the plane took two days – one day each way (UK to Shanghai), while the train took a total of 20 days (10 each way), leaving an opportunity cost period of 18 days. If at home, I certainly would have been taking the train to and from work each day. I’d probably have had around four longer UK trips, typically at around 650 kilometres per return trip. I’d have visited a few rock-climbing venues in my immediate vicinity around the Peak District (say 200–300 kilometres in total, probably shared with a couple of others in the car); I’d have watched a few movies, listened to the radio a lot – and all the usual stuff. The total distance travelled would be equivalent to 3000–5000 kilometres, that is, very roughly 10–20 per cent of the Trans-Siberian trip distance. But if I was a regular flyer, in 20 days I may have taken a flight or two, and if I was one of the great and the good this would have been business or first class. Added to this (if we treat offsetting with the disdain it deserves) the opportunity-cost emissions could easily have exceeded those from the full return journey to China by train. And if offsetting had been used, I take the view that the emissions would have been still higher (increased lock-in, reduced incentive for the ‘donor’ to change behaviour and the economic multiplier effect for the ‘recipient’ – see: the inconvenient truth of carbon offsetting). All of this assumes that during my 12 days in China I emitted roughly the same quantity of CO2 per day as if I’d remained at home in the UK. This is probably not too unreasonable, but again if I were one of the great and good, I’d no doubt would have had much higher emissions from further business-class travel to champion my low carbon message in yet more exotic venues.

By including opportunity costs, this slow-travel stuff really starts to notch up the carbon savings for those of us who travel a lot – particularly if it includes international travel.

System saving no. 3b: The slippery slope: thinking low-carbon engenders thinking low-carbon which engenders …
A final point worthy of a brief note: making the transition from fast to slower forms of long-distance travel may engender slower forms of travel elsewhere. Once we’ve made such a transition, it becomes more ‘natural’ to avoid taxis and instead to seek out the public transport, walking or cycling options we espouse for others. Taxis are another market signal for more roads. Jamming our bodies onto the Tube (or Beijing subway), or waiting for the reliable late-night bus from Norwich station to the University of East Anglia, all give much lower carbon signals, especially if supported with the occasional letter, either chastising the London Mayor for not doing more with the Tube and local trains, or complimenting Norwich bus planners – or however we think admonishment and praise should be meted out.

So there you have it: my potted account as to why I think the climate change community needs to put its own house in order before wagging its hypocritical finger at others or espousing low-carbon solutions to ministers that we simply wouldn’t accept for ourselves.

Final thoughts: Can slow travel be justified in a busy university life?
My guess is that a common retort to my ramblings will be, ‘it’s ok for him, I’m too busy to take such a long time off work, it’s just not practical – I’ve got to live in the real world.’ But the real world has us flying half way around the world to give banal 20 minute presentations to audiences who know what we’re going to say. Even if our talks are riveting canters through the intellectual surf, are they really so important that we have to be there in person and in an instant, before launching off to dispense our pearls of wisdom to another packed house in another exotic location? Isn’t our situation emblematic of the problems (such as fast and self-important lives for the few, no time for thinking, reflexivity and humility) that we are abjectly failing to shed any light on?

My life is perhaps not as busy as some, but I still clock up a fair few work hours, have meetings to attend, admin to do and research to deliver on. The train was certainly not as simple to organise as a plane – though next time it would be much easier, and I wouldn’t worry so much about getting everything perfect and having back-up plans in place. Long and unusual journeys inevitably take more planning, not least to ensure the time spent travelling can be productive. And in terms of cost, the reimbursement system is just not set yet up to support such journeys, so you’ll likely have to dip into your pocket, as long train journeys typically cost more than taking to the air. Moreover, receipts don’t come with purchases of strange foods from sellers on station platforms and odd bits of accommodation.

So what of the work you can do while travelling? I had planned and expected my many hours of mildly enforced confinement to provide a good working environment. But I wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be the most productive period of my academic career, particularly on the return journey. During the outward trip, I read a range of papers and managed to write another on shipping and climate change. However, after having spent 12 days in China bombarded with fresh experiences, new ways of thinking and new information, the return journey was a wonderful opportunity to begin to make sense of it all, embedding much of it in a paper which a colleague and I had been working on for the past year. This was the first time I had actually put pen to paper with regard to that research.

The train’s ability to remove many of the choices that clutter my daily life gave me the seclusion and concentration I needed to set to work on what has proved a very challenging paper. By the time Moscow arrived, I had completed about 75 per cent of the writing; this would have taken another six months had I flown to Shanghai.

From a productivity perspective, the 20-day train journey easily trumped the two-day flight. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but I remain convinced that a carefully planned train journey not only delivers lower emissions by an order of magnitude, but facilitates the process of research in a way that universities and daily life simply can’t match. Add to that the ‘slower’ ethos that such journeys engender, and I think there may be early signs of making a meaningful transition to a low-carbon future – or at least a bridging ethos – while we wait for the panacea of low-carbon technologies to become the norm.


Addendum:  Children, families and slow travel …
Amongst the wealth of responses to the original blog, a recurrent theme was “I really can’t see how those of us with young children could spend so much time travelling slowly when we could, by flying, be back home quickly and spend more time with our families”. On a more altruistic note, several colleagues with children suggested that they “should perhaps avoid any longer-distance travel, as the emotional pull to return quickly is inevitably very strong”.

I certainly can empathise with the challenge of balancing work and family pulls on our time. Ultimately, climate change is mostly about families and friends – but surely not only ours in the here and now?

If the science is broadly correct and the emissions 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 change impacts. So the choice is about whose family and friends matter most. We choose to fly back 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, our reducing time away from our families by using fast and high carbon travel also has longer-term repercussions for our own children. Are we rushing back for the sake of our own families or for ‘our’ individual engagement with our own families? This is a subtle but I think 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?

I’m not talking about this solely in an abstract manner; most of my immediate family have gone on to more ethereal activity leaving me with an uncle in Scotland and another in Australia who is getting on in years and not in the best of health. I last saw him in 2004 and have since stuck to the difficult decision not to return to visit him. Ok I may relent one day, but for now I’m unable to reconcile my desire to share family memories with my fine Ozzie uncle and the fact that my visiting him jeopardises others’ abilities to lead good lives with their families.

Life in a changing climate is awash with such thorny issues and tough decisions. To me the guiding principle (supported by the maths) is that those of us responsible for the lion’s share of emissions are the same group that need to drive emissions down – and fast.

Technology alone cannot deliver the low carbon promise land in a timely manner. The future is in our hands now, our lifestyles, behaviours, practices and habits. If we are truly concerned about families (others as well as our own – now and in the future), then perhaps the overseas trip is not as ‘essential’ as when we could travel quickly by plane. Alternatively, if we still consider it an important trip, we must assess whether the additional time away from our family as a consequence of slower travel is compensated by the value of our message. The decisions just got tougher. Of course, it could be that we are that shining example of an exception to the rule – enlightened beings preaching real mitigation to our parishioners 32 thousand feet below.


Is it really surprising that the hoi polloi are indifferent to our pronouncements and politicians pay only lip service to our analyses, when those of us working on climate change exhibit no desire to forego our own high-carbon lifestyles?

Supporting information on wind-nuclear comparison – Ref: response to Sue Ion

Further to my response to Sue Ion’s comparison of nuclear and wind turbine output, there was some disagreement on Carboncounter as to the numbers I had used. I take the view that this disagreement is unjustified, with my reasons outlined below.

Fair comparisons need to compare like with like!

I made absolutely clear my calculations were for comparing proposed new build nuclear in 2020 with an assessment of typical large offshore turbines in 2020; for which I assumed 6MW at the lower end (as these are already being built and operated) and 10MW for the upper end.

The 2020 date here is pivotal and is being missed by some others’ comments and calculations, where they compare a new nuclear plant operating in 2020 (or possibly 2018) with current operating offshore turbines; this is not like with like!

Personally, from a policy and investment perspective I think there is not much benefit in comparing today’s technologies; but if we are to do so it needs to be on a fair basis.

So here goes:?5MW turbines are already generating electricity offshore around the UK (e.g. Ormonde wind farm). So I suggest a fair comparison for today is the UK’s largest nuclear station (Sizewell B) at 1.191GW (according to British Energy) with the largest turbines at 5MW.

In terms of capacity factors if, as some comments suggest, the last few years of offshore wind is to be used as a guide, then so should the last few years for nuclear generation, i.e. a five year mean load factor of 60% (see DUKES)

Using these figures, the number of turbines is between 408 and 433.

I will finish by stating that I am agnostic about nuclear power, but hold strongly to the view that comparing the various merits of different options and portfolios of options needs to be done fairly. Moreover, in considering the future, whilst we need to be guided by history, assuming the future is the same as the past is unhelpful. This is why my original calculations took a positive view about nuclear and wind.

Nuclear expert, Sue Ion, dramatically underestimates output of wind turbines

Pdf version of the full comment is available at Response to Sue Ion on wind turbine numbers

In BBC Radio 4’s the Life Scientific (Tuesday 26th February), Jim Al-Khalili interviewed the former technical director of British Nuclear Fuels, Sue Ion.

This is a response by Kevin Anderson to her comments on wind turbines

Sue Ion suggests 1500 offshore wind turbines generate the same electricity as one nuclear power station; the real number is much lower – somewhere between 250 and 600.

Early on in the programme Sue emphasised how she is committed “to try and do more to help get facts across as opposed to just let the media run with whatever they thought … sometimes stories run when they actually do have no foundation in fact”.

Certainly the world of energy and climate change is awash with educated eloquence trumping quantitative analysis – and any attempt to rescue the latter from the former has to be welcomed.

However, despite Sue Ion’s concern about energy stories often having “no foundation in fact”, when it came to drawing comparisons between electricity generation from nuclear and wind power her comments only added to the misinformation that pervades energy debates.

 “To get a feel for the numbers” Jim Al-Khalili asked about “the amount of energy produced by one modern nuclear power station – how may wind turbines would that need?”

Sue Ion was very specific and categorical in her response; “well you’re talking about one thousand five hundred [1500] of the modern turbines out at sea. So to get the space for that is similar to that of greater London – so you’d be covering the area that is currently greater London with wind turbines – out at sea.”

The real numbers are however very different.

Over a typical year, one of the proposed new nuclear power stations would generate the same quantity of electricity (TWh) as would 250 to 600 modern offshore wind turbines  …  figures far removed from the 1500 Sue Ion claims.


The calculations demonstrating how the estimate of 1500 turbines dramatically exaggerates the real numbers and, in so doing, inadvertently risks misleading both the public and policy-makers, are available at Response to Sue Ion on wind turbine numbers

Climate policy based on naive assumptions in modelling the 2°C target

6 Feb 2013  Climate policy based on naive assumptions  environmentalresearchweb

Liz Kalaugher, editor of the Institute of Physics’ environmentalresearchweb, reports on the Cabot 2012 Annual Lecture “Real clothes for the emperor: facing the challenges of climate change”.

In his presentation Anderson argues scientists at the interface of climate and policy commonly use naive assumptions when modelling the 2°C target. “Integrated assessment models typically use similar and inappropriate sets of assumptions, and so repeatedly come up with the same narrow and fundamentally flawed answers.” He suggests assumptions are massaged to give a more palatable picture. “We’ve underplayed everything we can – done exactly what the sceptics have said – but in reverse”.

Asked if those like James Hansen are too extreme, he notes how it is important to use extreme adjectives when they appropriately reflect the ‘extreme’ conclusions of our analysis. Many climate scientists use words like “challenging” and “doable” in relation to a 2°C limit for temperature rise – it all sounds too feasible and does not acknowledge the scale of radical change forthcoming from the  analysis.



Aviation and shipping privileged – again? UK delays decision to act on emissions

Dec 2012  Aviation and shipping privileged – again? UK delays decision to act on emissions – Tyndall Briefing Note 47
Just a week on from the Prime Minister publicly declaring his “Government has the most incredibly green set of energy policies”DECC chooses to continue ignoring emissions from aviation and shipping. This note illustrates how in 2012 the government a) refused to set a 2030 ‘decarbonisation’ target for electricity generation; b) gave a green-light to shale gas exploitation (a high carbon fossil fuel comprising ~75% carbon); c) proposed up to 37GW of new gas-fired power stations; and d) reversed the decision to rule out a third runway at Heathrow. This note argues such decisions cannot be reconciled with the PM’s claim to lead the “greenest government ever”.

A one way ticket to high carbon lock-in please: the UK debate on aviation policy

Dec 2012  A one way ticket to high carbon lock-in please: the UK debate on aviation policy – Carbon Management
Following strident calls by senior UK politicians for the urgent expansion of aviation capacity, this commentary tests how their arguments stand up to the evidence on the role of aviation in climate change and economic reform. The article highlights how the presumption that further aviation growth is good for the economy is at best premature and may be dangerously misleading. On climate change the conclusion is unequivocal. Regardless of the EU ETS, aviation growth is incompatible with the UK’s commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun Agreements and the 2012 G8 Camp David Declaration.