Category Archives: Blog

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

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 ( and the World Bank’s population database ( 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

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
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. 


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

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.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • has lower emissions than coal. This is true only if the coal displaced by shale gas remains in the ground and is not combusted elsewhere (it is this point the Government’s own report is referring to).
  • offers the prospect of low-carbon energy. Gas is a high carbon energy source, emitting half the quantity of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated as the worst and dirtiest energy source we know, coal. Half the worst is still very high emissions.
  • is a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. Even the shale gas industry acknowledges that it will not produce significant quantities of shale gas before around 2025, by which time our international commitments on climate change would not permit it to be combusted in any significant quantities.

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

For further information on shale gas see:

Tyndall submission to the Energy and Climate Change committee.

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

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

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

Shale gas and avoiding dangerous climate change A slide show on shale gas recently presented at a Chatham House shale gas summit and later at a UK parliament ‘all party unconventional oil and gas group’ session.






Email to the UCU about striking and academics’ pay

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

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


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

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

Kind regards


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To reiterate, our headline assumptions all take at face value the international community’s commitment to address the causes of climate change – a commitment reaffirmed by national leaders on many occasions and most succinctly captured in the language of the Copenhagen Accord: “To hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity[emphasis added].

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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