Category Archives: Blog

Quick responses to issues in the media, comments on events and other timely remarks.

Numerical basis for the EU adopting an 80% decarbonisation target for 2030

Background information informing my letter to the EU Commission president about the unscientific framing of its 2030 decarbonisation target

Aubrey Meyer et al requested the following information - March 2014

The 2030 decarbonisation level of 80% proposed in the letter was based on analysis contained in the Royal Society paper Beyond Dangerous Climate Change. The paper disaggregated global budgets to Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations; no direct reduction rates for the EU were calculated. In my letter to President Barroso I assumed the EU28 grouping was broadly representative of the Annex 1 group of nations. Building on this and the framing of the analysis outlined in the paper, I concluded that if the EU were to stand by its high-level statements on climate change it would need to deliver at least an 80% reduction in its emissions by 2030, not the 40% the Commission propose. The notes below provide the numbers underpinning the 80% conclusion, and are taken from Table 1  in the paper (for two global carbon budgets) combined with EU28 CO2 emission figures lifted from the Global Carbon Atlas

a) Based on a 1578GtCO2 global 2000-2100 carbon budget (~50% of exceeding 2°C) 

Scenario C+5 proposes an 8% p.a. mitigation rate post a 2007 peak in Annex 1 emissions. For the EU28 this equates to a reduction from their 2007 emissions of 4007MtCO2 to 589MtCO2 by 2030; i.e. a reduction of 85% compared with 2007 (for 2000 and 1990 baselines the reduction level is within 1 percentage point of the 85% figure).

b) If the chance of exceeding 2°C was reduced to ~37% with an accompanying (and tighter) global budget of 1321GtCO2 for 2000-2100 then:

 Scenario C+3 proposes a ~10.5% p.a. reduction post the 2007 Annex 1 peak, which would reduce the EU28 emissions to ~312MtCO2 by 2030. This relates to a reduction of around 92% on the EU’s 2007 emissions (similar levels of mitigation hold again for 2000 and 1990 baselines).

Ultimately, the letter adopts a conservative interpretation of such analyses (erring in favour of the EU) when it concludes if the EU was to abide by its own high level statements on climate change, it would need an equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target of around 80%. Anything less and the EU will renege on its 2°C commitments …”

NB: whilst the emission reductions outlined above for the EU (and Annex 1 nations) may be considered too demanding, they nevertheless are premised on a very challenging mitigation agenda for non-Annex 1 nations. The C+3 and C+5 scenarios both assume non-Annex 1 nations collectively peak emission by 2025 before reducing emissions rapidly at 7-8% p.a.

UK international commitments on climate change are incompatible with the development of a national shale gas industry

Jan. 2014  This is a quick response to Total Oil’s announcement of their investment in UK shale gas and in the Government’s passionate support for the shale gas industry.

Kevin Anderson1 and Dr John Broderick2
1  Professor of energy and climate change
Deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research
2  Research Fellow
…Tyndall Centre for climate change research

Both are based in the School of mechanical, civil and aeronautical engineering at the University of Manchester


 In May 2012 the UK Prime minister joined with other G8 leaders in reaffirming their respective national commitments to make their fair contribution to avoiding a 2°C rise in global temperatures (Camp David declaration). That is, the UK has committed to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide, and hence its use of high carbon energy sources, in accordance with the science of climate change (the Copenhagen Accord). This weekend the Prime minister attributed the UK’s recent flooding and damaging weather, and hence at least some of the costs, to climate change.

In sharp contrast, just this morning the UK’s Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, welcomed Total Oil’s announcement that it is to invest in the development of the UK’s shale gas industry, with the Prime minister noting how “we’re going all-out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country.”

The Prime minister’s position (and the UK’s international commitment) on climate change are incompatible with his enthusiasm for a shale gas industry in the UK – a point reiterated in the Government’s own recent report on shale gas. As the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s chief scientist stated:

“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.”

Shale gas is indisputably a high-carbon energy source. It is identical to natural gas, with 75% of its mass made up of carbon and consequently when combusted it emits large quantities of carbon dioxide. What is also indisputable is that there is a continued “absence of strong climate policies”.

The science of global warming, the maths of our emissions and our pledge to limit temperature increases to below a 2°C rise lead to the categorical conclusion that shale gas must remain in the ground if we are not to renege on our commitment to avoid “dangerous climate change”.

The three arguments that are misused to support the industry are that shale gas:

  • 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 (it is this point the Government’s own report is referring to).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Kevin Anderson and 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 information on shale gas see:

Tyndall submission to the Energy and Climate Change committee.

UK unveils Office of unconventional gas & oil – another nail in the climate change coffin

Shale gas: an updated assessment of the environmental & climate change impacts  A more detailed account of the issues (see chapter 3 for the climate change focus)

Has US shale gas reduced CO2 emissions? This report suggests shale gas is likely to be 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 a UK parliament ‘all party unconventional oil and gas group’ session.






Email to the UCU about striking and academics’ pay

Below is a copy of an email I sent to the University and College Union (UCU) with regard to the strike action, principally over pay, held on 31st October 2013.

This is posted temporarily as a response to several tweets about the pay of academics (or at least those working on climate change) that I received on 25th November 2013.


As a union member I will be taking part in the strike, but wish to emphasise that from a financial perspective it is the distributional issues that are important and not that all academics etc. are inadequately rewarded. Personally, I consider that professors and other senior members of staff are more than adequately remunerated – and actually some are overpaid by a considerable margin. At the same time many of my colleagues who are on short-term research contracts remain financially undervalued and with very uncertain job security, as indeed are many support staff, from P.A.s to technicians and cleaners. I would very strongly favour action that recognised and sought to address such distributional unfairness, and certainly I would support an absolute pay ceiling for anyone working within the university system. 

Universities should be about working as a collegiate team, not based on a failed model of top-down hierarchy. In 2013 I really think it is time the Union at least recognised the skewed incentive structure of our university system and began a programme of engagement with its members, University management and the Government to instigate meaningful change. Universities are supposed to be at the forefront of contemporary thought – so as systems-thinking is now percolating many courses, surely it is time the Union began pushing to replace the reductionist framing of value (elites overseeing research & teaching fodder) with a more collaborative and dynamic engagement of teams of valued individuals. This is action I could both intellectually and socially support; in the meantime I will abide by the Union’s call for a strike on Thursday – but will be doing so with some reluctance.

Kind regards


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 though 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 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 still be 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 them no solace and they still need to provide a cogent base to their existing and unsubstantiated assertions.



Evangelising from 32 thousand feet: why Brendan May is wrong in calling for more environmentalists to fly

This post, by Kevin Anderson, Dan Calverley and Maria Sharmina, is in response to a Brendan May’s piece Why more environmentalists should fly posted on the Guardian’s Environment Blog; 5 Nov. 2013

It was with growing dismay that we read Brendan May’s most recent Guardian Blog, in which he defends his fifth flight to Jakarta this year and, worse still, exhorts more ‘environmentalists’ to fly (Guardian 6th November, “Why more environmentalists should fly”).  Even more disturbing is how a professed environmentalist could so misunderstand the quantitative and qualitative framing of climate change and the implications of rapidly rising emissions for precisely those issues about which he claims to be concerned.

Why messages from self-styled environmentalists, evangelising to their unwashed parishioners 32 thousand feet below, may ring hollow has been previously covered (see Hypocrites in the Air). Nevertheless, it is worth revisiting some of the issues in response to Brendan’s arguments that people doing “great things in the environmental field” are entitled and obliged to travel the world and that more greens should fly to improve their global perspective.

For Brendan’s position to hold, he must start from one of two assumptions. Either (1) he contends that the 2°C characterisation of ‘dangerous climate change’, with its highly constrained carbon budgets, is inappropriate (or that the science is wrong); or (2) that the emissions released by environmentalists who must fly are outweighed by emissions savings elsewhere. If the latter, then he presumably considers that such worthy people should be allocated a larger slice of the carbon budget; with others accepting a concomitant cut in their budgets to compensate for his and his colleagues’ additional emissions.

Unless we have misunderstood Brendan’s position, his ‘defence’ of relatively wealthy environmentalists flying around the world benevolently resolving the problems of poorer nations is bordering on colonial. This form of patriarchal egotism perpetuates the systemic nature of many issues. Whilst alleviating narrowly bounded but high profile concerns, from the extinction of particular species through to localised deforestation, it neglects more challenging and high-level drivers such as climate change. Certainly there may be niche benefits in Western experts applying ‘sticking-plasters’ to localised problems, but it is an inappropriate model for addressing the pervasiveness of climate change, let alone the more interconnected nature of sustainability.

Emboldening more greens to fly, Brendan goes on to argue that by remaining earthbound the wider “green community” risks wasting its energies on “provincial and irrelevant” issues and losing its “global perspective”. Again Brendan’s arguments come up short here too. He contends that without witnessing “first-hand the changes looming from these emerging economies” it is not possible to comprehend the “size and scale” of the challenges they represent. This is patently false. It is not necessary to have visited Greenland, witnessed the devastating consequences of (some) palm oil plantations or monitored in person the early impacts of acidification and warming waters on coral reefs to understand the seriousness of these issues. Arguing that ‘perspective’ relies on individuals flying to personally witness problems invites mistaking a partial snapshot for the whole truth. Eyewitnesses give notoriously poor accounts of events.

Still more troublingly for a self-proclaimed great environmentalist, Brendan fundamentally misrepresents the basic chronology of avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’ when he declares that “Britain’s environmental footprint is miniscule … and will become ever more so in relative terms as growth continues in emerging economies.” This tired echo of the ‘two per cent argument’ is frequently invoked by those seeking excuses for personal inaction or to avoid putting their own house in order. How often have we heard that the UK is only ‘a few per cent’ of global emissions and hence what we do is irrelevant? Similar arguments are made on behalf of specific industries and equally apply to Germany, California, Beijing or Shanghai – all of which are also just a few per cent of global emissions. Divide the world into a sufficient number of small parts and everything fits within Brendan’s classification of “miniscule”, i.e. so small as to be irrelevant.

But to call Britain’s environmental footprint “miniscule” is extremely disingenuous. The UK’s total consumption-based emissions place it within the top ten high-emitting countries globally, responsible for around 7% of total annual emissions. Even more pertinently, amongst the big emitting nations, the UK has the third highest per capita emissions – almost three times that of China’s citizens (see Given the cumulative nature of carbon dioxide, achieving deep reductions in the UK’s (and Europe’s) emissions, including those related to its imports, over the coming decade is crucial if we are to remain within the rapidly dwindling 2°C global carbon budget. Either Brendan does not understand this, or he chooses to ignore the maths.

In light of this, Brendan’s assertion that “In Britain we see ourselves as a hub of green innovation, the best thinking, the proud host of some of the world’s most sustainable companies” just seems bizarre. We must move in very different circles. Amongst academic colleagues, contacts in NGOs and businesses, as well as during engagement with broader civil society and politicians, we get no sense of Britain being viewed as a proud “hub of green innovation”. However, given that Brendan’s company claims to apply its unrivalled experience in the business and public sectors to designing and developing “ambitious corporate sustainability strategies”, it may be that his view is reflective of the self-worth of the companies he advises; but it is unreasonable to assert that this is the common view.

Turning to Brendan’s concern about the “vast rising middle classes of India, China” etc. – this too arises from a misunderstanding of both the timeframe of mitigation necessary to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ and of the rate at which the poor are becoming high-consuming middle class citizens. Brendan appears to be muddling mean values, skewed by very high emissions from the relative few, with mode averages that take account of issues of distribution. The urgency of reducing emissions within the coming decade relates principally to the few high emitters and much less to the poor consuming more.

Brendan May concludes his colonial rallying cry by noting how if the West’s great environmentalists don’t use their “power and skills to change the world [and] don’t travel round it with a sense of urgency, there’ll be little left to talk about”. But isn’t this exactly what self-appointed elites have been doing since the first Rio Earth summit over two decades ago – with precious little evidence of any systemic improvement in either emissions or broader sustainability?

So before anyone is taken in by Brendan’s superficially attractive arguments and jets halfway around the globe to bestow pearls of wisdom on the planet’s needy folk, we need to stop and think long and hard. Apply a little circumspection and humility; is another wealthy Western environmentalist really able to offer a skill set that does not exist more locally or could not be rapidly fostered? If after very careful reflection the answer is yes, go ahead and arrange the travel – though preferably not by plane (see the dynamic arguments in the Hypocrites in the air article), and preferably not for short, repeat visits (is it a failure of memory or of organisation?). But all this is a far cry from the gung-ho colonialism that underpins Brendan’s piece.

Prejudiced Chair of Welsh Affairs Committee devalues shale gas hearing

22 Oct 2013. Oral evidence: energy generation in Wales: Shale Gas

Chair David TC Davies MP (MP for Monmouth)
House of Commons – Portcullis House.

Panel 1: Professors Hywel Thomas, Richard Davies & Kevin Anderson
Panel 2: Trefor Owen (Natural Resources Wales), Nick Molho WWF & Gareth Clubb (FoE Cymru)

I have engaged widely and vociferously on issues around shale gas, including at several evidence sessions for different committees, in heated debates at industry conferences and as a reviewer on the DECC shale gas report – all of which have been a rewarding mix of challenging and enlightening. Unfortunately today’s appallingly chaired session with the Welsh Affairs Committee was neither – despite valiant attempts by some of the members and witnesses.

The brief for the session noted the importance of shale gas resource potential – on which there was broad agreement amongst the witnesses; concerns over local environment impact – on which there was some debate; the economic/financial implications – with witnesses sharing similar views; and climate change – a subject not raised by any member and when brought up by witnesses either shut down or flippantly dismissed by the chair.

Given the significance of climate change within DECC’s recent and detailed review of shale gas, it is surprising and disappointing that it featured so superficially in today’s hearing. Certainly the failure of any member to enquire as to the carbon implications of shale gas was remiss and parochial, but much more concerning was the atrocious and partisan chairing. Throughout the hearing the chair repeatedly fiddled with his laptop searching for news snippets, which he then used to attempt to trip up witnesses. Beyond this, the chair dominated the hearing both in terms of time speaking and in his frequent and facetious remarks.

I have given oral evidence at many parliamentary committees and have typically found them to offer valuable opportunities to explore and understand differences in views and conclusions. Given the importance of such committees, I hope today’s experience was simply a one off; certainly I have not previously experienced a member of the committee so incensed as to feel obliged to apologise to the witnesses for the dismal chairing – but today that is exactly what happened.

As a final comment, the committee clerk requested that all witnesses turn off their phone and IT devices so as not to interfere with the hearing’s recording equipment. This perfectly reasonable request should surely apply equally to all committee members? Certainly having the full attention of the chair, rather than competing for interest with his computer searches, would have fostered a more engaged and courteous rapport with the witnesses.

Romm misunderstands Klein’s & my view of climate change & economic growth

Having read the interview with Naomi Klein, Joe Romm’s commentary on the interview and Klein’s succinct rejoinder, I do not want to unnecessarily extend the discussion prior to the publication of Klein’s forthcoming book. However, Alice Bows and I do want to respond briefly to Romm’s suggestion that “green groups disagree” with our conclusion that “dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within [developed] nations” because they think our “view of economics … is wrong”. Our disagreement with Romm’s assertion stems from two related arguments.

1) We engage regularly with NGOs at many levels, as we do with others intimately involved with climate change, including scientists, policy analysts, politicians, civil servants and economists. Once we quantify the 2°C probabilities and carbon budgets underpinning our analysis (and provided there are no nearby microphones and it is not a public fora) seldom is there any serious disagreement with either our analysis nor the broad thrust of our conclusions. Consequently, it is not, as Joe Romm asserts, that others simply consider our “view of economics is … wrong”. Rather, that when in more open fora, many people, including NGOs, find it either uncomfortable or unproductive to challenge the doctrine that ‘growth is compatible with combatting climate change’. On the few occasions where disagreements with our conclusions do remain, they stem typically from: 1) a strong belief in the efficacy and very rapid diffusion of negative emission technologies; 2) a suite of abstract assumptions on early mitigation accompanied with a higher probability of exceeding 2°C (see below); or, 3) a nebulous framing of climate change and unquantified rates of mitigation.

However and in contrast, by far the most common view expressed privately, is that we have left it too late to meet our 2°C commitments without unacceptably high rates of decarbonisation (i.e. rates incompatible with conventional economic growth). This position is shared by many senior scientists and economists advising government. 

NB For the record, we disagree with this position and contend that a slim (and rapidly dwindling) chance of not exceeding 2°C remains. It requires some ‘luck on the science’ (i.e. a lower climate sensitivity) and mitigation rates for the wealthier (Annex 1) nations beyond those many economists assert are compatible with economic growth. Provisional Tyndall Centre research suggests such mitigation rates may be viable economically viable, even in the short term (this it the subject of a forthcoming Radical Emission Reductions conference at the Royal Society.

2) Our conclusion that “… dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations” was premised on a series of highly specified and explicit assumptions. Pivotal amongst these were the estimates, by Stern, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and others, that mitigation rates in excess of 3% and 4% p.a. are incompatible with economic growth (we are unaware of any IAM that, for a reasonable probability of 2°C, outputs a prolonged mitigation rate over 4% p.a. – and most are well below this). So for Romm to justify his statement that “the literature, as well as [his] own experience helping companies reduce carbon pollution for two decades” doesn’t support our conclusion, he must demonstrate, a) Stern et al are wrong in their judgment that mitigation rates above ~4% p.a. are incompatible with economic growth; b) our choice of 2°C probabilities and accompanying carbon budgets is inappropriate; or c) our estimates of the 2°C mitigation rates for Annex 1 nations is flawed.

If it is either b) or c), then Romm has to make a case as to which assumption underpinning our analysis he disagrees with. In this regard, I point Romm directly to our Royal Society paper Beyond Dangerous Climate Change for a detailed account of our assumptions. However, to simplify, if it is judged appropriate to accept both a 50:50 chance of 2°C and that non-Annex 1 nations peak their emissions in 2025, then just one of the CO2-only scenarios delivers a 2°C budget (C+5 in the paper). This scenario requires immediate reduction rates of over 8% p.a. from Annex 1 nations, with non-Annex 1 nations delivering similar reductions in their emissions from fossil fuels from 2025.

In many respects we agree with the broad thrust of Joe Romm’s views as expressed in his Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost. However, the rates of reduction he is referring to are still well below those necessary for the Annex 1 nations not to renege on their international commitments on 2°C. Consequently, we hold to our original conclusion, noting only that given fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2013 are likely to be almost 3 billion tonnes higher than they when our analysis was published (online in 2010), the necessary mitigation rates will be more challenging still.


For more information see:
A new paradigm for climate change  - a commentary published in Nature Climate Change that sketches the need and opportunity for a radical transition from the status quo.
EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science? – a commentary providing a little more detail to the arguments underpinning the scale of 2°C mitigation necessary for Annex 1 nations.

***Tyndall Centre Radical Emission Reduction conference***
If you’re academic attempting to understand how rapid transitions have, do or could occur, or a practitioner attempting to bring about step-change reductions in energy consumption, the forthcoming Tyndall conference may be of interest. The event is at the Royal Society in London in December 2013


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.

Framing an energy transition for 2°C

This is a very quick & unpolished post expanding on a conversation of tweets (23 June 2013) between Iain Stewart, various tweet pseudonyms, John Broderick and latterly myself – all relating to how the UK could deliver a low-carbon transition. The discussion was initiated by a recent Horizon documentary Fracking: the new energy rush, presented by Iain.

Iain et al:

All the following comments are premised on taking, at face value, the international community’s repeated 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”.

“To hold … below 2 degrees Celsius” the UK & other Annex 1 nations need to deliver a ~10% p.a. reduction in emissions (“consistent with science”) if any viable emission space is to remain for poorer, non-Annex 1, nations to pursue short-term development (”on the basis of equity”).[1] It is interesting to note that the UK government’s current carbon budgets are premised on a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C (far removed from “to hold below”) and imply a peak in the global emissions from non-Annex 1 nations of around 2018 (far removed from “on the basis of equity”).

Some early work by colleagues and myself suggest using existing technologies alongside behaviour, practice and operational changes could deliver a 60-70% reduction in energy demand in little more than a decade (we acknowledge that though possible, this would be far from easy!). Such changes could begin almost immediately – probably starting with stringent emission standards for a wide range of equipment (i.e. don’t pick technology winners, but set the standards and provide a medium-term signal as to the annual rate at which the standard will be tightened[ 2]; – for example, all cars to meet a minimum emission standard of 100gCO2/km from the start of 2015, with the standard tightened at 8% p.a. for the following decade). Note: for any programme of mitigation to be successful understanding and counterbalancing issues of rebound will be pivotal – this is, in itself, a major challenge.[3]

As the same time as short-to-medium term reductions in energy demand are being pursued, a ‘Marshall plan’ of implementing almost zero carbon energy supply would be necessary. Each nation would need to play to its particular ‘supply’ strengths – so in this regard the UK should focus on renewables – with nuclear (the only alternative ‘zero’-carbon supply option) arguably appropriate for those nations without such a promising renewable regime. Note: for Annex 1 nations carbon capture and storage (CCS) can have no role to play in the energy mix as its life-cycle emissions (even for gas with CCS) are likely to lie somewhere between 50g and 80gCO2/kWh. This is far too high for such technologies to fit within the dramatically reducing 2°C carbon budget of Annex 1 nations.

In conclusion – to deliver on the UK’s 2°C commitments, we need to embark on:
1) reductions in energy demand of around 10% p.a., starting now and continuing until a decarbonised energy supply is in place
2) implement a Marshall plan’ to rapidly transition to ‘zero’ carbon energy supply

… alternatively we be should be honest and openly renege on our 2°C commitment!

In a nutshell the above scribbled notes capture my thoughts – slightly more than a tweet’s 140 characters, but far less than is necessary to really do the arguments justice. Certainly the framing outlined here departs fundamentally from many other analyses proposing low-carbon transitions, however few such analyses maintain a coherent 2°C characterisation of climate change and fewer still attempt to embed any reasoned technical, political or equity context [4][5] – hence the radically different conclusions.

[1] Beyond dangerous climate change – a paper published by the Royal Society that lays out the reasoning behind the ~10% p.a. reduction rates.
[2] Coaxing the mitigation phoenix from the flames of the EUETS – some thoughts on emission standards as an alternative to prices
[3] Understanding energy efficiency rebound – Interview with Steve Sorrel
[4] ERL – talking point: are we heading for 6°C temperature rise
[5] Models guiding climate policy are ‘dangerously optimistic’ -

For more information see:
EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science? – commentary providing a little more detail to the arguments underpinning this blog.
Climate change in a myopic world – more thoughts on the misplaced role of economics, or more correctly finance, in describing and ‘solving’ climate change.
A new paradigm for climate change  - a commentary published in Nature Climate Change that sketches the need and opportunity for a radical transition from the status quo.

***Tyndall Centre Radical Emission Reduction conference***
If you’re academic attempting to understand how rapid transitions have, do or could occur, or a practitioner attempting to bring about step-change reductions in energy consumption, the forthcoming Tyndall conference may be of interest. The event is at the Royal Society in London in December 2013 – and the call for abstracts is still open.





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.