Category Archives: Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meltdown: climbers and climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with the 2°C framing of dangerous climate change

This piece is a  response to Professor Robert Mair’s Royal Society science policy blog, Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the UK – an opportunity to shape a constructive way forward” (In Verba, 26th Jan)

(The analysis underpinning this response has been developed with my colleague Dr John Broderick)

Professor Mair’s Royal Society post suggests that the development of a UK shale gas industry is compatible with the UK’s climate change targets. I suggest this conclusion is premised on a partial and overly simplistic interpretation of the UK’s muddled climate change obligations. In brief:

Shale gas within domestic carbon budgets
The development of a UK shale gas industry may be compatible with the UK’s domestic carbon budgets – just. These budgets are however premised on a high probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change and on a highly inequitable allocation of the global carbon budget to the UK. Even under such lax conditions (and hence a larger UK carbon budget) there is a significant risk that a new and large-scale UK shale gas infrastructure could become a stranded asset within a decade or so of major shale gas extraction.

Shale gas within 2°C carbon budgets
The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with UK’s equitable share of the IPCC’s carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2°C obligation. This remains the case even if shale gas can be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The CO2 emissions from gas-CCS are anticipated to be five to fifteen times greater per kWh of electricity generated than are the emissions from either renewables or nuclear. Add to this the timeframe for developing a mature UK shale gas industry and, even with CCS, shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK’s energy mix. 

Please note:
The MacKay and Stone shale gas report for DECC, referred to in the Royal Society post, includes the following important conclusion:

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.

In relation to the carbon budgets for a “likely” chance of 2°C, it is abundantly clear that there is a complete “absence of strong climate policies”. Consequently, over and above all the detailed discussion in the the Mackay and Stone report, their statement can only be interpreted as concluding that a signficant UK shale gas indutry is incompatible with the UK’s commitment to maintaining temperatures below 2°C (i.e. fitting within the IPCC’s budgets for a likley chance of 2°C).

This challenging statement is reinforeced in Andrew Alpin’s (Professor of Unconventional Petroleum) measured response to the EAC report on fracking.

“The development of new fossil fuel resources such as shale gas is broadly incompatible with the UK’s stated commitment to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  However, any moratorium on shale gas exploration must go hand-in-hand with an equally strong commitment to reducing imports of coal, oil and gas.  Given that fossil fuels dominate current energy consumption, this also implies a massive increase in nuclear and renewables, which will be both challenging and expensive.”


The notes below provide a little more detail to the above headline statements 

A pivotal point to consider before passing any judgment on whether or not UK shale gas is compatible with UK’s climate change obligations is to recognise that the UK holds two very different positions on its mitigation responsibilities – with very different carbon budgets.

UK’s weak domestic carbon budget (high chance of exceeding 2°C)
The UK’s domestic position under the Climate Change Act, is for a 63% of exceeding 2°C; global emissions reaching a peak between 2016 and 2020, including for China, with the rest of the poorer nations reaching a peak collectively just a few years later. Moreover, it assumes that the wealthier industrialised nations take no responsibility for international emissions from deforestation – despite most having already deforested their own nations. Similarly the process emissions from producing cement for poorer nations to construct the infrastructure necessary for their industrialisation are also neglected – despite the UK (and other wealthier nations) already having established infrastructures. Furthermore, the UK’s domestic targets are premised on highly optimistic assumptions about the cumulative emissions budget of non-greenhouse gas emissions from food. If all this is considered reasonable, then there is a small and probably short-lived opportunity for UK shale gas development. However, even with such highly partisan assumptions, by the time significant shale gas reserves are developed (assuming they exist) there is a real risk that the accompanying infrastructure could rapidly become a stranded asset – even under the UK’s weak (i.e. not 2°C) domestic carbon budgets. 

UK’s domestic carbon budget for a “likely” chance of staying below 2°C
By contrast, taking the previous and current Prime Ministers at their word, then the UK’s international climate change commitment is framed by the UK making its equitable contribution to staying below a 2°C rise (explicit in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration). Consequently, the UK’s domestic targets, premised as they are on both a very inequitable distribution of emissions and a 63% of exceeding 2°C, are not only incompatible with, but are indeed far weaker than, our international obligations.

Borrowing from the IPCC’s taxonomy of ‘likelihoods’ the language of the agreements to which the UK is a signatory relate to, at most, a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C (with a carbon budget approximately half of that for a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C). However, given where we are in 2015, both our earlier [1] and ongoing analysis typically adopts a much laxer probability of between 66% and 50% chance of staying below 2°C (concluding that this is now the best that can be achieved). We assume a global peak in emissions soon after 2020, with poorer nations, on average, peaking by 2025 and with deforestation and cement emissions accounted for as a global overhead. Our work argues that, though challenging, these assumptions are much more appropriate than the unsupportable starting point of the Government’s analysis. Allying our assumptions with the PM’s express commitment on 2°C (i.e. a more equitable division of the IPCC’s budgets for 66%-50% of staying below 2°C) delivers an uncompromising and unambiguous conclusion. There is no emissions space for shale gas in the UK’s national carbon budgets and emission pathways – and consequently, the only appropriate place for shale gas remains in the ground.

[1] Anderson, K., and Bows., A., 2011, Beyond dangerous climate change: emission pathways for a new world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 20-44, DOI:10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

 The arguments outlined in this response are similar to those developed in a previous letter to the Prime Minister on the appropriate EU 2030 level of emission reductions (for a 2°C framing of climate change); Letter to the PM on how the 2 degrees Celsius target demands an 80% cut in EU emissions by 2030


For further commentary on shale gas, see:

Fracking – a price worth paying?
A debate between Prof. Paul Younger and I on the arguments for and against fracking in the UK

Response to the House of Lords shale gas report 
A response arguing that the Lords report chose eloquence over analysis when addressing issues of climate change

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)


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.




[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

[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.


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

[1] For example, in a submission to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, see:

[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 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 ( 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.