Category Archives: Blog

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

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

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

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

Below is my alternative take on the same announcement.

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

[1] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-1202_en.htm

[2] Data from the Global Carbon Atlas

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

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

 

 

 

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

Published in Nature Climate Change. 2nd Oct. 2014

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

***** 

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

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

***** 

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind regards
Kevin


[1] For example, in a submission to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, see: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmenergy/writev/isg/m30.htm

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

Don’t muddle energy efficiency with reducing emissions!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Annual emissions in
tonnes of CO2 per person

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

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

Full global decarbonisation of energy before 2034*

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

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

In contrast, I suggest:
- At current (2014) emission levels, the 1000Gt will be consumed in less than 23 years.
- But with CO2 certain to rise over the coming few years, then, at the likely 2020 emission level, there will be ~13.5 years until the full 2°C carbon budget will have been consumed; i.e. full decarbonisation of energy before 2034.
- This is a much more challenging decarbonisation agenda than Glen’s 30yr figure suggests
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Background to the 23-year figure (from the end of 2014)
- CO2 emissions in 2000 were 24.787Gt, in 2012 these had risen to 35.425Gt1
- This is a mean growth rate of a little over 3% p.a. for 2000 to 2012; a period that included, arguably, the most severe global financial crisis since the Great Depression.
- Assuming emissions have continued to grow at ~3% p.a., then emissions for this year (2014) are likely to be ~37.5Gt.
- The IPCC’s 1000GtCO2 carbon budget is for the period 2011 to 2100.
- Emissions from 2011 to the end of 2014 (i.e. four months from now), will be ~144Gt, leaving ~856Gt for the period 2015 to 2100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

________ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

An inconvenient truth: US proposed emission cuts too little too late

June 2014  A response to the US draft mandate to cut carbon emissions from its power sector by 30% by 2030 (c.f. 2005)

Kevin Anderson1 and Dr Maria Sharmina2
1  Professor of energy and climate change
   Deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research
2  Research Associate
   Tyndall Centre for climate change research

Both are based in the School of mechanical, civil and aeronautical engineering at the University of Manchester
_________
The maths accompanying obligations to “avoid dangerous climate change” demand fundamental change rather than rousing rhetoric and incremental action.

The announcement from the Obama administration that the United State’s power sector would deliver a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 was hailed by many as a breakthrough in meaningful action. John Kerry suggests the “US is setting an example to the world on climate change” whilst Reuters lead on how the “U.S. unveils sweeping plan to slash power plant pollution” and the president of the World Resources Institute declares the proposals to be a “momentous development”. Dig a little deeper and there is recognition that more still needs to be done. Bryony Worthington tweets “US creeps towards comprehensive climate action plan. Level of cuts too low over too long a time period. Will need tightening. Just like EU” whilst Connie Hedegaard (European Commissioner for Climate Action) notes how “for Paris to deliver what is needed to stay below a 2°C increase in global temperature, all countries, including the United States, must do even more than what this reduction trajectory indicates.” 

But how much more is needed from the US and international community to meet their repeated commitment  “to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius”? And is the US proposal part of the solution or part of the problem?

The United States’ plan to reduce power sector emissions by 30% by 2030 (c.f. 2005) is the jewel in the crown of US mitigation policies. Under current proposals economy-wide reductions in total emissions will be much less than 30%; Climate Action Tracker (CAT) estimates emissions will be just 10% below their 2005 level. Yet even if total emissions were to follow the example of the power sector, they would still fall far short of the country’s 2°C commitments enshrined in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration.

The EU, with emissions per person just 50% of those for a typical US citizen, needs an across the board reduction of over 80% by 2030 (c.f. 2005)1 if it is to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change. Given the higher per capita emissions of the US, reductions there would need to be greater still.

Consequently, whilst Obama’s proposition is certainly brave within the rarified political environment of Congress, it signals yet another wealthy nation whose weak domestic targets are fatally undermining international obligations around 2°C. The low level of ambition of the US, EU, Russia, China et al is why global emissions are set on a pathway much more aligned with a 4°C to 6°C future (~RCP8.5) than the 2°C of our rhetorical targets. Moreover, given that temperatures relate to the cumulative build up of CO2 in the atmosphere, failure to radically reduce emissions in the short-term locks in higher temperatures and “dangerous” impacts, particularly for “poorer populations. Ramping up the mitigation effort post 2030 will simply be too late. This is a challenging message with implications for policy makers (and all of us) that we have thus far refused to countenance.

So whilst the science and maths around 2°C provides an unequivocal basis for radical reductions in emissions from wealthier nations, the politics continues to deliver grand but ultimately ineffectual gestures. Politically Obama’s proposal is certainly courageous and one for which he deserves credit. But scientifically, the 30% target and the collective acquiescence it has triggered, is a death sentence for many of tomorrow’s more vulnerable communities.

 1. This assumes, in the aggregate, that non-Annex 1 nations a) significantly reduce their current rate of emissions growth b) peak their emissions by 2025 c) reduce their emissions thereafter at around 7% p.a. For more detail see: EU 2030 decarbonisation… : why so little science?, Numerical basis for 80% decarbonisation and Beyond dangerous climate change.

 

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

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

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

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

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

More disturbing still, is the committee’s selective reading of Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas (for DECC). Whilst they repeatedly emphasise MacKay’s reasoned conclusion that shale gas likely has a lower carbon footprint than both liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal, they completely ignored his rug-pulling comment that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.” MacKay reiterated this point in his evidence to the Committee (see p.353-4)  – evidence they chose to ignore in favour of drawing attention to the politically expedient framing of relative emissions. But, however it is played, shale gas is natural gas, comprising 75% carbon and so when combusted emits copious quantities of carbon dioxide. 

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

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

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

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

For further commentary on shale gas, see:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.