Category Archives: Blog

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

A précis of my take on our collective “stupidity”

This is a response to requests I received to clarify what I meant by “stupidity” in the following tweet:

Meticulous and diligent research has furnished us all with a scientific understanding of how the climate works and the role of increasing atmospheric emissions on rising global temperatures.

Shamefully our responses to the challenges posed by this knowledge have been dominated by a litany of scams: Offsetting (getting the poor to diet for us); CDM (officially sanctioned offsetting); EUETS (with so many permits issued the CO2 price remains irrelevant); ‘negative emission technologies’ (sucking 100s of billions of tonnes of CO2 directly from the atmosphere) – and once we’ve acknowledged these have failed we’ll call in Dr Strangelove’s Geo-engineering.  At the same time we have stubbornly refused to try actual and meaningful mitigation? Twenty-seven years after the first IPCC report, emissions this year will be 60% higher than in 1990; abject failure despite the wealth of knowledge we’ve accrued on both the problem and what we need to do about it.

The academic community has remained pliant, the NGOs have been co-opted, the policymakers run scared of their electorate and the economists have been hoodwinked by astrology. The polarising journalists chase advertising revenue, and the public ‘want their cake and eat it’. The naked emperor has been running amuck for a quarter of a century – and we’ve all been party to her delusion.

Certainly we’ve developed a wonderful ability to detail the world as an elaborate collection of building blocks, but thus far we’ve demonstrated no similar aptitude to respond to systemic challenges. Climate change is an example par-excellence, dominated as it is by a Gatling gun of silver bullets – technocratic competitors all vying to solve the problem. There’s no recognition that our systemic malaise has regressed far beyond a soothing ointment or sticking plasters. Sadly, climate change is not the only example of our collective stupidly.  Imposing peace through aerial bombing, razor wire to control migration and our unrelenting penchant for blaming others for our own ills, all point in the wrong direction.

This collective stupidity may yet prove to be more nurture than nature – but to date the signs are not promising.

Before the Flood – a review by Kevin Anderson

This is my review of Leornardo DiCaprio’s film Before the Flood

February 2017
Twitter @KevinClimate

There is much to commend this film – not least Leonardo DiCaprio’s natural propensity to see through unsubstantiated optimism along with his evident appreciation of the science of climate change and the beauty & fragility of our time on this planet. Ok, he’s an actor with an elaborate film crew – but nevertheless something genuine and important shines through. He deserves credit for what he has been part of – and that is not something I find easy to say. Celebrities, including DiCaprio, both epitomise and fuel our greed for evermore consumption. They are the metaphorical Jones family next door with the bigger car, larger house, private jet and obscene carbon footprint – the pinnacle of the increasingly ubiquitous American dream. And in my judgement it is here that the film is weakest – and to an extent disingenuous.

The solutions touched on are far too seductive and make no reference to the carbon budget concept that translates the Paris Agreement’s temperature commitments into the scale and timeframe for reducing emissions. Carbon budgets are simple to understand, but their repercussions are profound, evidently too profound for this film.

So instead we have Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor, and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, asserting the only way forward is though a carbon tax gently “nudging” us towards a technical utopia. Just one hundred of Musk’s “gigafactories” will see the world’s energy supply magically transformed away from fossil fuels. Certainly,  if a significant upstream price is put on carbon, investors will begin to shift away from fossil-fuel energy. Moreover, the Musks of this world indeed have a role to play. But they are not our silver-bullet saviours – they’re one part of complex and dynamic puzzle.

Only Sunita Narain, from Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment is prepared to point to the elephant in the room, the carbon-profligate lifestyle to which DiCaprio, the Koch Brothers, climate elites and professors have grown all too accustomed. Combine this with Johan Rockström’s fear that we are making the transition to a sustainable future all “too slowly” and the plot for a follow-up film begins to emerge.

Certainly huge strides towards low carbon energy could be achieved now with existing energy supply and demand technologies. The research, development and deployment of promising new technologies, including Musk’s solar-battery future, could be accelerated. But Paris and carbon budgets frame an urgent problem far beyond the multi-decadal timeframe of deploying sufficient new energy technologies to displace fossil fuels. Deep and early mitigation through reduced fossil-fuel use by high emitters is key to both extending the window for this technology-transition and for leaving sufficient emission space for those in poverty to have near-term access to fossil fuel energy.

Finally, having suspended my antipathy towards individuals with carbon footprints greater than that of many African towns, I was brought rudely back to reality with the film’s closing statement – reiterated on its accompanying website. “The carbon emissions from Before The Flood were offset through a voluntary carbon tax.”  Worse still it then extols the virtues of offsetting by encouraging other high emitters to “Learn how you can offset your own carbon emissions by going to [link omitted]”

I really doubt that the Pope, whose Encyclical makes more systems-level sense than the plethora of glossy reports dispensed by green-growth ‘think’ tanks (and who was interviewed for the film), would sanction the ongoing “buying of indulgences”. For that’s what it is. The emissions from first-class flights, grand hotel rooms and travelling film crews are changing the climate now – and will for the next ten thousand years. The deed’s been done – and no amount of conscience-salving finance can assuage the climate impact. Ok, the projects funded may have real and important value – but asking someone else to diet whilst we binge on high-carbon fun is simply fraudulent. 

The Paris commitments cannot be delivered through well meant technocratic tweaks – even large ones. Technology and new economic rules are certainly prerequisites for delivering on “well below 2°C” – and DiCaprio does an adequate job of making this case. But they fall far short, in both delivery and scale, of what’s needed to stay within the rapidly dwindling carbon budgets accompanying Paris. Here, DiCaprio’s film serves to reinforce the misguided view that clever scientists, engineers and economists have the solutions to hand – just the evil oil companies are in the way. 

Despite my entrenched prejudice against our celebrity culture, I nevertheless recommend DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. If seen in conjunction with Robert Kenner’s wonderful and engaging film of ConwayOreskes’ superb book, Merchants of Doubt, then a real sense of just what we’re up against emerges. But for a complete picture there needs to be a trilogy, with the final film focusing in on its audience. Unfortunately, as self-portraits are always the most revealing of art forms, this final film will be the most challenging to fund and difficult to produce.

A succinct account of my view on individual and collective action

I am regularly accused of reducing responses to climate change to simple individual action, sacrifice and “having to give things up” – hair shirts and all that. 

This is categorically not my view, and whilst I clearly take some responsibility for it being a common interpretation of my position, I also suggest there is some deliberate and perhaps sloppy misreading of my comments, etc.

For the record:

My take on individual & collective responsibility
At the risk of shortening what is most appropriately a lengthy and deep discussion over a beer on a cold winters night, I do not see the individual and collective (formal and informal institutions) as separate. They are unavoidably and intimately entwined, only drawn apart as a convenient reductionist tool of analysis to help make sense of complicated and complex issues. But we have to repeatedly remind ourselves that the separation is nothing but an epistemological construct – it is not ‘real’.

The disciplinary structure of universities, divided into faculties and subdivided into schools, departments, etc. all interpreting the world through their own narrow methodological lens – is similarly little more than an effective and epistemological reduction of whatever is out there (of which of course we’re a part). Such post-enlightenment reductionism has proved phenomenally successful and is a pivotal basis for modern industrial society – both its wonders and its ills. But whilst the ‘wonders’ continue to flourish through still more reductionism (just think of gene therapy) – mitigating the ‘ills’ demands we acknowledge and attempt to address thorny systemic and innately interdisciplinary issues.

It is this fuzzy duality that provides the context for my thinking on climate change – and most other issues. When I focus on the individual, I’m seeing them, typically, as a symbolic but essential catalyst for collective (system) change.

The individual dimension of my focus is on those of us who, by good fortune rather than our own peculiarly hard endeavour (with the odd exception), find ourselves occupying influential positions. As such we have much greater wherewithal and opportunity to initiate rapid and deep change – and in a sense I view this as a ‘duty’ that rightly accompanies our fortunate happenstance. Let me add here – I do not think this is how it should be, but rather that it is an outcome of the huge power asymmetry that our society has still failed to address – an asymmetry that I think is neither healthy nor inevitable.

So individuals are solely an ignition source for the flames from which a Phoenix may arise – but only if others and ultimately institutions are mobilised. In my realm of academia, individual students, researchers and academics can have major influence in catalysing progressive revolutions within their own institutions – divestment being one such example. Similarly, the sacking and subsequent protests by Mary Manning, a young cashier at a major Irish store who refused to put ‘apartheid’ fruit through her till – catalysed a change in Ireland’s national legislation.

It is this system-level interpretation – where vociferous individuals coalescing to form casual collectives that subsequently drive change within larger formal institutions – that always informs my references to individual action, lifestyles, etc. 

Sacrifice … “having to give things up”
I seldom use this expression, but when I do I am focussing specifically on climate change and the international obligations around temperature (e.g. the Paris commitment to take action to stay “well below 2°C” and “pursue … 1.5°C”). Such temperature thresholds relate to specific carbon-budget ranges (i.e. the total quantity of carbon that can be emitted across the century), and in this regard I see ‘sacrifice’ as a zero sum game – operating within highly constrained timeframes; i.e. winners and losers balance out – there is no net sacrifice.

Transforming from a high- to a zero-carbon energy infrastructure will take several decades. In the interim, if carbon budgets are to be respected, reductions in, and redistribution of, energy consumption (and hence emissions) are essential. This is particularly important if domestic fuel poverty is to be alleviated and the development and improved material well-being of poorer nations is to be facilitated through greater access to energy.

Acknowledging that emissions are highly skewed towards a relatively small proportion of the population is a prerequisite of meaningful policy. As Chancel and Piketty note, just 10% of the global population is responsible for around 50% of global emissions. If the carbon budgets associated with the Paris commitments are to be respected, I see no mathematical alternative but for those of us responsible for the lions share of emissions to rapidly and deeply reduce our energy consumption.

That said, I am not of the view that this will be achieved through widespread and altruistic individual action. Rather, and as discussed above, it will require disparate catalysts (initially some individuals) to bring attention to the issues and demonstrate alternatives that  others, and eventually policy makers, can subsequently scale up. But – however the pill may be sweetened – for the many millions of us who have normalised a lifestyle with colossal carbon footprints, the necessary scale of reductions will be perceived as a sacrifice. The quid pro quo of such sacrifice is that carbon ‘space’ will be freed up for others. Such space enables early and additional access to energy to improve the quality of life of poorer communities; i.e. a balance of winners and losers with no net sacrifice.

A final quick note:
In virtually all my presentations and in much that I write I explicitly and repeatedly discuss policies, ranging from specific emission standards through to a Marshall-plan style transformation of the energy system. Given this, to neglect my references to institutional change in favour of exaggerating my focus on the individual masks an alternative agenda (or perhaps is an attempt to undermine a challenging interpretation of where asymmetric responsibilities reside). It is those of us who write and read ramblings such as this who are disproportionately both the problem and the solution to climate change. But such responsibility weighs heavy, it is much easier to point the finger of blame elsewhere.








Is the climate change academic community reluctant to voice issues that question the economic growth paradigm?

Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute is hosting an international conference on 1.5 Degrees: Meeting the Challenges of the Paris Climate Agreement, Sept 21-22, 2016 I submitted an abstract to the event, reasonably confident that the issues I intended to raise would not be covered elsewhere. I hoped that those reviewing the abstracts would find my context-setting agenda worthy of an oral presentation. Anyway, I gather they received far more requests for presentations than could be squeezed into the two days and in the unenviable task of sifting through the numerous submissions my abstract ended up on the cutting room floor. 

Nevertheless, I thought it worth making the abstract open for others to potentially reflect on in the hope that it may catalyse a wider discourse. I certainly know of many colleagues intimately engaged on issues of climate change who broadly share my concerns. I also find it interesting that when we actively endeavoured to attract academics to submit papers to our earlier Radical Emission Reduction (RER) conference (December 2013 I repeatedly encountered the retort that ‘our work simply doesn’t say anything about such a rapid rate of decarbonisation’. 

The RER event was focused on mitigation levels associated with, at best, a 50:50 chance of 2°C. The Oxford conference relates specifically to 1.5°C – with even smaller carbon budgets – yet widespread engagement from across academia is evident. As one colleague wryly observed, with the Paris Agreement’s support for 1.5°C, new funding opportunities now exist. By contrast the framing for the 2°C (RER) conference expressly raised questions about whether rapid and deep mitigation could be reconciled with the dominant economic paradigm. In that sense, presenting at it perhaps risked alienating (UK) researchers from their prime source of academic funding – the research councils – institutions whose strategic goals increasingly align with the Government’s fixation on economic growth (see Appendix 1).



Paris, carbon budgets and 1.5°C: is there an alternative to Dr Strangelove’s beguiling NETs? 

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of 1.5°C has catalysed fervent activity amongst many within the scientific community keen to understand what this more ambitious objective implies for mitigation. However, this activity has demonstrated little in the way of plurality of responses. Instead there remains an almost exclusive focus on how future ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) may offer a beguiling and almost free “get out of jail card”. This presentation argues that such a dominant focus, evident for 2 and 1.5°C, reveals an endemic bias across much of the academic climate change community determined to voice a politically palatable framing of the mitigation landscape – almost regardless of scientific credibility.

The inclusion of carbon budgets within the IPCC’s AR5 reveals just how few years remain within which to meet both the 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” objectives. Making optimistic assumptions on the rapid cessation of deforestation and uptake of carbon capture technologies on cement/steel production, leaves between 3 and 13 years of current energy emissions before the 50% and 66% budgets of exceeding 1.5°C are surpassed. To put this in context, the INDC’s are not scheduled to undergo major review until 2023 – eight years, or 300 billion tonnes of CO2, after the Paris Agreement.

Despite the enormity and urgency of the 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” mitigation challenges, the academic community has barely considered delivering deep and early reductions in emissions through the rapid penetration of existing end-use technologies and profound social change. At best it dismisses such options as too expensive compared to the discounted future costs of a technology that does not yet exist. At worst, it has simply been unprepared to countenance approaches that risk destabilising the political hegemony.

Ignoring such sensibilities, the presentation finishes by offering a draft vision of what an alternative mitigation agenda may comprise.


APPENDIX: How aspiring to support economic growth dominates the framing of research funders’ programmes

The notes below are taken from a personal email response (prior to Paris 2015) I sent to an overseas colleague enquiring about my comments on how the economic growth dogma has infused the previously intellectually independent research councils. The informal notes should be treated as such. I acknowledge that my reading of the research council’s strategy documents, mission statements etc. may be too selective; the original email was intended to give a flavour rather than a definitive account of the changing research-funding landscape. 

Funders and funding

There is huge pressure on academics (including those on tenure) to attract evermore income to universities. We are quantitatively judged against such income and compared individually, at a school and faculty level and across different universities. Tenure does not insulate against the increasing financialisation of university life. Many universities have now established ‘load models’ – where any reduction in an academics research income is met with increased teaching, admin and service duties.

In many respects academics are simply subject to the same changing pressures that our institutions typically face – nowhere is this more obvious than in the framing of research funding.

The UK’s research councils all now have economic growth deeply embedded in their strategies, mission statements, etc. – putting increasing pressure on the academic community to ensure their research proposals fit with the government’s agenda. This is a notable shortening of the historically precious “arms length” separation between the near-term aspirations of government and the longer-term objectives set by the research councils (the funders).

So whilst scientists may be operating objectively, they do so within potentially very subjective boundaries: boundaries that increasingly are prescribed by short-term political objectives.

Below is a brief review of the three UK research councils that fund most of the UK’s academic (non-medical) research, with a quick mention of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. All demonstrate an economic framing that risks constraining the boundaries of the analyses they support. 

EPSRC (engineering and physical sciences research council): Its Delivery Plan and Strategic Plan have a strong economic dimension, with the Strategic Plan’s closing and highlighted quote taken from the previous Business Minister; “our leading universities” need to “become centres of innovation and entrepreneurship, generating commercial success to fuel growth.”  Throughout the EPSRC’s Delivery Plan the importance of scientists and engineers to “growth” is emphasised; similarly, the Strategy Plan points to EPSRC’s research having a pivotal role in the betterment of “society and the economy” – as if the economy is separate from society rather than a tool to help deliver a good society. The EPSRC’s “mission” reinforces the importance of the economic driver, specially linking its research with contributing to “the economic competitiveness of Our United Kingdom and the quality of life” – again an odd priority. Surely quality of life is what matters – regardless of “economic competitiveness”.

ESRC  (economic and social research council): Has three headline “priorities”, the first of which is “Economic performance and sustainable growth”. In similar vein the opening paragraph of their 2015 Strategic Plan outlines the “challenges” of research, the first again being “how to achieve sustainable economic growth”. Turning to their latest Annual report and “growth” is peppered liberally throughout; interestingly, on one occasion, as “employment, growth and prosperity”. Apparently, prosperity and employment aren’t adequate markers of a good society. Abstract “growth” is now an essential indicator in itself.

NERC (natural environment research council): Even NERC feel obliged to demonstrate how their “natural environment” research helps “meet the UK’s innovation needs and support economic growth with responsible environmental management”. In describing its “strategic research” the opening line notes how NERC supports research into “areas of major economic and societal importance.” NERC’s strategy document is blatantly titled “the business of the environment” – in which they proudly conclude their research helps “deliver sustainable economic growth and public wellbeing –  a refrain it repeats on several occasions.

 Horizon 2020: The language across the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding mirrors that of the UK’s research councils – with the opening description of the programme noting, first, that it is a “means to drive economic growth”. 

So where doe this leave us …?

There is a very clear understanding amongst virtually all of the academics I engage with, whether directly on projects or simply through discussions following seminars etc. that  “growth” is sacrosanct. Economics trumps physics – and given, from a funding and career perspective, it is unwise to suggest that our scientific conclusions beg questions of the ‘immutable economic logic’ of modern society, we find ways of reconciling the two. Not by fiddling data but typically by adopting expedient assumptions – from the ubiquitous use of BECCS and very early global peaks in emissions through to using increasingly low probabilities of meeting 2°C and recourse to magical build rates and technical utopias. Perhaps most disturbing of all – the more we reluctantly subscribe to such expediency the more we begin to forget we’re doing so reluctantly, and the more the rhetoric becomes the only ‘reality’ – very Orwellian!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two further and key failures of the Paris Agreement.

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

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

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

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

The Paris Agreement: 10/10 for presentation; 4/10 for content. Shows promise …

The Paris Agreement is a fitting testament to how years of diligent and meticulous science has ultimately weathered relentless and well-funded attempts to undermine its legitimacy. Building on this science base and under the inspiring auspices of the French people, the global community has come together as never before to tackle what is arguably the first truly globalised and self-induced challenge to humanity.  

However, whilst the 2°C and 1.5°C aspirations of the Paris Agreement are to be wholeheartedly welcomed, the thirty-one page edifice is premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today. If such highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ prove to be unsuccessful then the 1.5°C target is simply not achievable. Moreover, there is only a slim chance of maintaining the global temperature rise to below 2°C. 

In the absence of negative emissions, staying below the 2°C commitment demands levels of reductions in emissions far beyond anything discussed during the Paris negotiations. If we are serious about climate change, the 10% of the global population responsible for 50% of total emissions need to make deep and immediate cuts in their use of energy – and hence their carbon emissions. In addition, the huge and growing emissions from aviation and shipping, currently exempt from the Paris negotiations, need to be included for there to be any meaningful control over climate change in line with 2°C. 

 The inclusion of a 40Gt figure for 2030 as being in accordance with the 2°C commitment, underscores the techno-utopian framing of the Paris Agreement. It is hard to underplay the fundamental reliance on the massive uptake of untried negative emission technologies to maintain the legitimacy of the Agreement. However and despite this reliance, there is no direct reference to such technologies throughout the thirty-one-page document.

If the global community is to maintain emissions with the 2°C carbon budget, there needs to be much greater recognition of the profound and immediate challenges we face. The scale of emission reductions will not be delivered through eloquent speeches, win-win rhetoric and green-growth spin. Zero carbon energy technologies are a prerequisite of a 2°C future – but they are far from sufficient. They will only deliver the necessary levels of mitigation if they are accompanied by fundamental changes to the political and economic framing of contemporary society. This is a mitigation challenge far beyond anything discussed in Paris – yet without it our well-intended aspirations will all too soon wither and die on the vine. We owe our children, our planet and ourselves more than that. So let Paris be the catalyst for a new paradigm – one in which we deliver a sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all.

Response to questions on the Paris climate change negotiations (for The Big Issue)

These are my responses to questions raised by Clare Speak in relation to her piece Warm Words Cold Reality (Big Issue No.1109. 30 Nov – 6 Dec 2015)

Q1. – Is there anything about COP21 that makes you think it could be likely to succeed where previous talks have not?

If success is measured in relation to a binding agreement designed to keep global emissions within the carbon budget for a good chance of staying below a 2°C rise in temperature – then no. Yet this is exactly what our leaders have repeatedly committed to deliver ever since they became signatories to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

As it is today, we are heading for a weak agreement based on each nation’s ad hoc and voluntary proposals to cut emissions. Collectively these are more broadly consistent with a 3°C to 4°C future – the former if you believe the accompanying rhetoric the latter if you think each nation has painted their contribution in a very favourable light. Few nations, if any, are yet prepared to lead by example – there are lots of fine eloquent sentences uttered, but unpicking them reveals elaborate ruses to do little more than the least possible without losing face.

However, the Paris negotiations have only just started – and all is still to play for. It is the role of those within civil society who are genuinely concerned about climate change to put increasing pressure on our policy makers to act with integrity and abide by their high-level commitments and promises. We are very likely to fail – but if cogent and vociferous voices are not heard failure is guaranteed.

Q2. – You write in your recent article “Enthusiasm over small fall in EU emissions masks underlying apathy on 2°C” that “If we are serious about repeated international commitments to reduce emissions inline with the 2°C obligation the EU will need to reduce its emissions by over 80% by 2030 – with the rapid phase out of all fossil fuels soon after”. Are there realistic means of achieving such a huge reduction (in terms of affordable technology, for example) and is a lack of political will the only barrier?

There is a lot in this question. Within our current mindset the future cannot be “realistic”! Either we radically reduce our carbon emissions in the short-term, or we fail and, in the medium-term, suffer the radical repercussions of very high levels of climate change. Whichever route we take the future is a radically different place from where we live today. We need to think differently. To question what we mean by “realistic”. To open up the constraints we place on what’s acceptable and to construct alternative sustainable, low carbon and prosperous futures – not ones that are simply “affordable” in today’s terms.

And what do we mean by “affordable” – and just as importantly, affordable to whom? The lion’s share of emissions come from relatively few of us – and if we are to remain within the 2°C carbon budget, we have very little time to dramatically reduce our emissions. So 2°C is a consumption issue dominated by the already wealthy and high emitters. It is not about the poor trying to become richer and therefore emitting more carbon. By the time the poor have sufficient income to use lots of energy, the transition to a low carbon energy system will need to have been completed – or we will have failed on 2°C anyway. From then on, and from a carbon perspective, the newly wealthy citizens can use all the energy they wish – though they will of course be subject to many sustainability constraints.

This brings the “affordability” issue home and how it will play out for the likes of me and other high emitters. We can make huge adjustments to our lives, and yet still maintain a quality of life, at least in any material sense, that remains well above the average of those even within our own nations. We will moan, and arrogantly (and incorrectly) claim that we are such important drivers of society that we should be allowed much higher emissions than others – a refrain regularly trotted out by environmentalists and academics through to business leaders and politicians. However, if we are serious about climate change it is this group that needs to make the largest proportional and absolute cuts in their emissions – and we can easily afford it.

Turning to technology. There are many existing technologies, often attracting no price premium, that have far lower energy consumption (and hence emissions) than the average being sold today. Courageous politicians choosing to take little notice of their financial astrologists (economic advisors) could easily develop sophisticated legislation that ensured the inefficient rubbish cluttering up the high street was replaced by far more efficient alternatives. As I say, this is not necessarily about novel technology – or even more expensive technology. It is about intervening in the market to provide low carbon rules to guide what can be purchased. Why are A-rated refrigerators being sold when A++ and now A+++ options, for the same size, use 80% less energy? Why, are we selling cars that emit 130 to 250 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilometre driven, when there are many models of similarly sized (petrol and diesel) models that emit well under 100grams – even allowing for fiddled car tests! So a lot can be done technically – even before turning to renewable energy and more exotic high-tech and low-carbon futures.

Finally, when we ask about whether a future vision is “realistic” and “affordable” – we should first think about the situation we are in today. According to an important International Monetary Fund report (barely a left-wing think tank) the subsidy underpinning fossil fuels in 2015 alone will be in the order of $5.3 trillion – more than total global spending on health and 8% higher than the subsidy was in 2013. If a low-carbon future was proposed that assumed an annual $5.3 trillion subsidy for renewables, energy efficiency and conservation – it would be dismissed immediately as “unrealistic” and not “affordable” – not least by the coal, oil and gas industry already in gracious receipt of society’s largesse!

 Q3. – I’ve read that, as the commitments given ahead of COP21 so far to reduce emission levels are not sufficient, it has been suggested that “non-state actors” such as cities, local governments and businesses should be encouraged to play a larger role in reducing emissions. How realistic do you think that idea is?

Whilst I remain supportive of ongoing international negotiations (COP etc.), they need to be complemented with real action driven at every level of society – from cities and regions through to institutions and companies onto local communities and individuals. We live in a complex globalised world – and as with all complex systems it has emergent properties – where the simple ideas of a school girl as much as the elaborate policies of a prime minister may well be a catalyst for major reform. Acknowledging the complexity of our world helps us shed the apparent certainties of yesteryear and think anew. We all have the potential to be agents for change, the person, organisation or city whose ideas and examples initiate a whole new way of thinking. It is not an issue of top-down or bottom-up, of us or them. If we are to deliver the timely revolution in our energy system, and hence our emissions. it will need to be a partnership – not something simply imposed from above or forced through from below. In this is a real message of hope. We don’t need to wait for others – we just need to act, to begin the process of change. Most new ideas will ultimately fail – but even then they may trigger others to try something different. But from amongst many thousands of seeds a few will take root and flower. And when they do it is the role of government – the top down – to nurture fledgling ideas. To learn from them and how they may be scaled up to deliver the fundamental changes necessary if we are to bequeath our children a low carbon and flourishing society.

UK’s new energy policy “direction” demonstrates the Government’s climate sceptic credentials

This is a quick response to Amber Rudd’s (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) speech “on a new direction for UK energy policy“ - 18th November 2015.

Behind its confident bluff and eloquent rhetoric the UK Government’s new energy focus reveals its contempt for contributing to any meaningful deal on 2°C in Paris. 

Through smoke and mirrors Amber Rudd claims her Government’s love affair with gas is aligned with the UK’s domestic commitments on climate change. But this is all an elaborate ruse – one in which too many academics, NGOs and climate change experts are complicit. The UK’s domestic carbon budgets are far removed from the Government’s repeated international commitment for the UK to make its fair contribution to “hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius”. 

Whilst some gas may just about squeeze into the UK’s budgets, these are themselves premised on a very high chance of exceeding 2°C. More disturbing still, the Government then assigns a significant and highly inequitable slice of the global carbon budget to the UK. To cap it all off, they then assume that a large scale uptake of highly speculative negative emissions technologies will, in some far off decade, suck our CO2 emissions out of the air. 

Dismantling this expedient catalogue of nonsense leaves the UK with a ‘fair’ 2°C carbon budget that has absolutely no emission space for a new fleet of high carbon gas-fired power stations – the arithmetic is that simple!

Meltdown: climbers and climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response to DECC Minister’s (Amber Rudd) speech on climate change

The Minister’s speech was given on the 24th July 2015; the full transcript is available at: secretary-of-state-speech-on-climate-change


The Secretary of State’s eloquent speech is long on rhetoric but short on coherence. Let’s be blunt, whilst the Minister has chosen to view her Department’s responsibilities solely through a parochial financial lens – many poor people living in climatically more vulnerable parts of the globe will face the life and death repercussions of her Government’s increasingly weak stance on climate change.

In evoking the legacy of Margaret Thatcher in support of her Government’s position the Minister demonstrates the contortions she and her Department are having to go through to comply with the Chancellor’s austerity diktat. Since Thatcher’s 1990 speech, global emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, have risen by over 60%. For the UK, consumption-based emissions (including CO2 associated with imports and exports) were up 12% prior to the economic collapse, with the latest post-collapse data still putting UK emissions 1% higher than they were in 1990. All this points towards a future with catastrophic levels of climate change. Only an urgent rejection of the incremental escapism that dominates the UK and international policy arena can now deliver the necessary rates of emission reduction. Yet the Minister’s speech acknowledges no such urgency – instead she chooses to focus on how responding to climate change dovetails with the Chancellor’s drive for short-term financial growth.

The Minister closes with an assertion that the 2°C goal remains an imperative for her Government. Yet her own policies are premised on the UK’s receiving a hugely inequitable share of the global 2°C carbon budget, alongside the large-scale uptake of highly speculative negative emission technologies sometime in the far distant future.

Behind the eloquence of the Minister’s rhetoric lurks a UK Government’s position on climate change increasingly informed by a muddled blend of policy machinations and Dr Strangelove technologies, rather than by rigorous analysis. Ultimately there is something deeply concerning about the most vulnerable communities’ being forced to pay the cost of the ineptitude of the banks and the spinelessness of the legislature. Yet it is exactly this approach that informs the scientifically illiterate basis of the Minister’s speech.