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Trump – the climate’s secret champion?

Cutting the social cost of carbon to $1/ton reveals the charade that’s supported a quarter of a century of inaction on climate change.

Kevin Anderson[1]
Dec. 2018

This is piece written at the request of the New Scientist following the Trump administration signalling its intention to reduce the ‘social cost of carbon’ from around $50 to $1/ton. This is a pre-edit (and longer) version of that published by the New Scientist and available at: Putting a price on CO2 is a smokescreen that hides its human cost


To an economist, Judas simply underestimated Christ’s marginal value – he got the price wrong. Rather than settling for thirty pieces of silver, he should have held out for sixty, or perhaps even ninety pieces. But to a philosopher, and probably most non-economists, putting a price on your best friend, your child, husband or mother is a ‘category mistake’. The rich, contextual and heterogeneous world in which we live can never be adequately reduced to a single homogeneous index, a Dollar, Euro or Yuan. But that is exactly what the ‘social cost of carbon’ claims to do!

Cut away the economic niceties and the social cost of carbon is little more than an attempt by a particular hue of economists to put a price on the global scale impacts of climate change, from now, throughout this century, and on across centuries to come. Such hubris is the preserve of a select group of typically wealthy, white and high-emitting men[2] in the Northern hemisphere. Sat behind computers in highly industrialised countries, they price the impact of their and our carbon-profligacy on poor, low-emitting, climate-vulnerable, and geographically distant communities. A dollar value is put on the devastation a strengthened tornado wreaks on small coastal towns, financially valuing the people killed, the destroyed homes and destitute neighbourhoods.

Add to this, a guess of the cost to our children of their climate changing too rapidly for them to adapt their physical, social and institutional infrastructures; exacerbated floods, droughts, extreme weather and human migration. Then price in still further warming later in the century, loss of pollinating insects, destruction of virtually all coral reefs, major die back of tropical forests, sea level rises and acidifying oceans.

It doesn’t end there. An emergent property of the ‘social cost of carbon’ is that it can never be too high to raise fundamental questions of today’s dominant economic model. This massaging of costs is achieved by two principal ruses. First, the impact on the poor arising from the emissions of the wealthy is underplayed by valuing such impacts against the low economic ‘worth’ of those suffering them. In economic terms, the models assume the marginal value of money is reasonably constant; the value of $1 to a wealthy high emitter is not too dissimilar to that of a poor Bangladeshi shrimp farmer. Second, the impacts on future generations arising from our emissions are ‘discounted’. Certainly discounting is a live debate between the market evangelists arguing for high levels of discounting (~7%) and the green-growthers suggesting something a bit lower (3%). A child conceived now, and suffering ¥10M (~€1.3M) of impacts caused by emissions from their parent’s generation, would, when aged 50, see those very real impacts wiped off today’s balance sheet at 7% and all but ignored at 3%. Discounting the future by an individual can perhaps be understood as a natural consequence of their certain mortality. But, in many respects mortality is an irrelevant concept for a community that, by definition, is inter-generational and hence “quasi-immortal”.

Could Trump’s effective rejection of the ‘social cost of carbon’ catalyse our awakening from the economist’s morphine? Despite political rhetoric, techno-utopian claims and financial valuations of climate change, emissions in 2018 are almost 65% higher than in 1990, and look set to have risen by almost 3% across this year. So what’s the alternative?

Climate change is a deeply political issue – not one amenable to ‘expert’ takeover. But here, we’re in reasonably good shape. The rightly messy and international political process has already judged the thresholds and time-dependency of impacts collectively deemed appropriate to accept and avoid. This has been informed, but not determined, by science. The 1.5 to 2°C commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement capture these impact thresholds and, combined with climate science, provide a quantitative carbon budget range adequate for evaluating the appropriateness of different mitigation options.

What we lack is not spurious financialisation of deeply human and ecological values, but the courage and integrity to put in place the suites of measures necessary to deliver on our commitments. This is, and will not, be easy – all the more because cost-optimisation models have reinforced the fondness of us high-emitters for delay over action. Certainly, a price on carbon may be one of many tools employed to bring about rapid decarbonisation. But here price is solely an instrumental mechanism to help initiate change, and in no way reflects a unified metric of value.

Within the political process of responding to climate change, the ‘social cost of carbon’ and the cost-optimisation models reliant on it, are part of the problem, not the solution.


[1] Professor of Energy and Climate Change; University of Manchester (UK)
Professor of Climate Change Leadership; Uppsala University (Sweden)

[2] I am often asked, usually privately, why I note the race and gender element in addressing climate change. I admit to finding it personally uncomfortable bringing it to the fore, particularly as I am a white man who is not well versed on issues of race and gender. But this is really the point. Well-meaning people who look like me dominate formal assessments of climate change. And whilst I’m sure ‘we’ endeavour to be ‘neutral’ in framing our analysis, and certainly our backgrounds differ, we inevitably are highly influenced by how white men living in wealthy nations are typically treated. Consequently, when our analysis relates to deeply social and cultural issues, such as the impacts of climate change, we need to openly acknowledge how our analysis is inevitably coloured by who we are. I am not suggesting that those of us working on formal assessments of climate change are all the same, but it would be churlish not to recognise that, even in 2018, race and gender are important factors in our evolving make-up.
(I do not want this endnote to expand beyond its current length, but this is a sensitive issue that whilst I am ill-equipped to address properly nevertheless cannot continue to be ignored. Consequently, if anyone more au fait with these issues thinks I have wildly misread or misunderstood the situation, I would be happy to consider rewording this note.)

Will Poland’s COP24 Presidency and its addiction to coal undermine ambitious global climate goals?

By Kevin Anderson[1] and Magdalena Kuchler[2]
Dec. 2018

[1]Prof. Energy and Climate Change, CEMUS, Uppsala University
and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester

[2]Senior Lecturer, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development,
Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University

This year’s round of climate change negotiations (COP24, the twenty-fourth meeting of the ‘conference of the parties’) is being hosted by the Polish city of Katowice – the proud centre of the countries thriving coal industry and the powerhouse of the Government’s proposed energy policy.

Katowice was built on “black gold”, the colloquial name for coal, with around 50 collieries operating within the city limits through until the 1930s. Today, as Katowice endeavours to rebrand itself as a city of economic and industrial transformation, twenty-two of Poland’s remaining twenty-three hard coal mines are sited within fifty kilometres of the city, producing more hard coal than any other EU region.

If COP24 coincided with Poland ushering in a clean energy revolution, then inviting the world’s policy makers, diplomats, scientists and NGOs to lend support to such a transformation would be understandable. But in stark contrast, Poland’s draft energy policy is set to lock the country into a high carbon fossil fuel future for many decades to come, in essence, to reject the Paris Agreement and embrace a latent form of climate denial. So why is the Polish government hosting its third COP in eleven years?

The Paris Agreement established a global commitment to reduce emissions in line with holding the rise in temperature to “well below 2°C” and to pursue the even more ambitious target of 1.5°C. Negotiators will be gathering in Katowice to compose the “rule book” for aligning national mitigation with Paris and for increasing financial support to poorer nations. Once established, this rule book will likely remain the principal framework of international guidance for many years to come. By hosting COP, the Polish Government can apply the subtle influence of the COP presidency to constrain the level of international, and particularly EU, ambition. Early signs from Michal Kurtyka, the COP24 president and Poland’s former Deputy Minister of Energy, suggests he will resist aligning the EU’s mitigation policies with the Paris 2°C commitment, let alone consider the rapid and deep reductions called for in the recent IPCC 1.5 °C and UN Emissions Gap Reports.

To understand the deep desire to thwart an ambitious rule book, it is necessary to recognise how deeply embedded coal is in Poland’s industrial history, how far removed from Paris the country’s existing energy system is, and the depth to which fossil fuels are core to the Government’s energy plans.

The notion of Poland as a country that “stands on coal” was enabled and fuelled by abundant resources of both hard coal and lignite. This indigenous coal played a key role in rebuilding the country after the Second World War, with the subsequent communist period overseeing a peak in production during the 1980s. Following the collapse of communism, the new and democratic government viewed Poland’s coal ‘monoculture’ as a challenge to the development of a progressive society. “Black gold” provided 97% of electricity generated in 1990, a legacy successive governments have struggled to escape. Although Poland meets the Kyoto commitments, the bulk of its emission reductions were a consequence of the prolonged recession accompanying the country’s economic transition. Since 2000, however, reductions in emissions have stalled, with some small increase evident in recent years.

Today a quarter of urban households still burn coal directly in domestic boilers, rising to over three quarters in rural zones. Apart from the carbon dioxide emissions, smoke from domestic chimneys combined with an inefficient housing stock gives rise to serous issues for local air quality, with very high levels of suspended particulates leading to thick smog with accompanying health impacts.

When it comes to electricity generation, 90% is from fossil fuels, with almost 80% from coal. However, the sheer scale of lock-in is only evident when reviewing the Government’s proposed energy plan – which is really a much narrower ‘electricity’ plan. By 2040, their draft policy sees fossil fuel electricity generation drop to a little over 50%, but set against a backdrop of rising electricity demand, this represents a real fall in fossil-fuelled generation of less than 20%. Moreover, the Polish Energy Ministry insists that the share of coal in national electricity will remain at over 60% well into the 2030s. What small reductions are proposed depend entirely on a new nuclear power plant and offshore wind farms. At the same time the Government intends to phase out onshore wind. Away from electricity, the plan provides much less detail, suggesting ongoing use of fossil fuels for both heating and transport.

Poland’s historical and contemporary lock-in to coal poses a huge risk to the forthcoming negotiations. To those unfamiliar with the protracted COP process, Katowice may appear little more than a detailed technical discussion. However to the dedicated few intimately engaged in the process, Katowice is where the fine words of Paris are translated into something more concrete. Without a rule book, or something similar, Paris remains as little more than a rhetorical aspiration. More worrying still, an anaemic rule book risks sustaining a political appetite for ongoing delay and only minor adjustments to business as usual. If the international community is to respond with purpose to the unequivocal evidence linking ongoing fossil fuel use with climate impacts, it needs a rule book informed by the science and aligned with the explicit Paris commitments. The Polish presidency is key to this. One can only hope that the highly educated and able Michal Kurtyka has the courage and invention to see beyond the short-term interests of his nation’s fading coal industry and support a rule book and just transition to a rapidly decarbonised future.

The University of Manchester to demonstrate global leadership by making an equitable contribution to tackling climate change

This proposal is for an energy-based 2°C carbon budget to guide all UoM operations and strategic planning

This submission is to the UoM “Big Ideas” call; Nov. 2018

Corresponding author: Kevin Anderson
(there are 29 UoM signatories to the proposal, including post-docs, PhDs, PS staff and academics)

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear the unprecedented scale and timeframe of the mitigation challenge facing the global community if it is to deliver on the commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

Academia has been central to quantifying and qualifying the global and science-based ‘carbon budgets’ accompanying the Paris 1.5 and 2°C thresholds.[1] Moreover, University of Manchester academics have led on developing a carbon budget framework for the UK (now embedded in the 2008 Climate Change Act), the devolved administrations and, within the last two years, Greater Manchester Combined Authorities (GMCA) and Manchester City Council (MCC).[2]

The “Big Idea” outlined here, is for the University of Manchester to demonstrate its confidence in the veracity of its academics’ research and to fulfil its role as a Manchester, UK and global leader on climate change. Specifically, we propose that the University establish and adopt a comprehensive carbon budget framework to underpin all its future activities and development. To ensure a relatively robust and manageable accounting regime, the budget would relate specifically to energy use, including operational emissions arising from its research, teaching and knowledge exchange activities, along with the running of estates and university-related travel.[3] The most obvious approach would be to borrow the scientific method and analysis developed by Tyndall Manchester academics and used to derive equity-based 2°C mitigation rates for GMCA and MCC.

The University already takes an important stand on a range of issues, race and gender equality amongst them. It is also a recent signatory to ‘The SDG Accord’ requiring it to “embed the Sustainable Development Goals into our education, research, leadership, operations, administration and engagement activities”. Underpinning SDG 13, the IPCC’s 1.5°C report emphasises how climate change is an existential challenge that will impose devastating impacts on poor, climate vulnerable and typically ‘global south’ communities. Furthermore and as emphasised by the UN, “Women commonly face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change in situations of poverty, and the majority of the world’s poor are women”. Consequently, the proposed University carbon budgets would have a strong scientific foundation, resonate with its commitments to race and gender equality and align closely with the University’s third (and unique) pillar of ‘Social Responsibility’.

A Russell Group University embedding such academic integrity and moral leadership in its daily operation and strategic planning would lend support to policy makers endeavouring to meet the challenges posed by climate change, as well as to the wider international community.

[1] Carbon budgets put a constraint on the total global quantity of emissions (normally measured in billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide – GtCO2) that can be released from today and on throughout and beyond the century. The budgets relate to a given probability range of remaining below a specific temperature rise; for example a 66 to 100% chance of stabilising the global temperature rise at or below 2°C.

[2] Away from the UK, Tyndall Manchester has contributed evidence to the European Commission’s assessment of the EU’s Paris-based carbon budget range; it has made similar submissions to the Swedish parliament and is currently developing regional carbon budgets for almost half of Sweden’s Län (regional governments) and for the smaller Kommuner (local councils).

[3] Over time a complementary consumption-based accounting regime could be developed to provide guidance on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions associated with purchases of equipment, materials in building projects and food consumed on campus.

Signatories to the proposal:
Prof. Kevin Anderson. Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Prof. Teresa Anderson, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre
Prof. Adisa Azapagic, School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science
Dr. Daniel Bailey, School of Social Sciences
Lisa Bell, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Dr John Broderick, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Claire Brown, Power Networks CDT
Simon Bullock, Power Networks CDT
Philippa Calver, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Timothy Capper, Power Networks CDT
Teresa Chilton, Faculty of Science and Engineering
Prof. Ian Cotton, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Dr. Alejandro Gallego Schmid, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Dr. Claire Hoolohan, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Alistair Hudson, Whitworth Art Gallery
Dr Jaise Kuriakose, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Prof. Alice Larkin, School of MACE
Andrew Little, Power Networks CDT
Dr. Sarah Mander, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Dr. Carly McLachlan, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Prof. Tim O’Brien, School of Physics and Astronomy
Prof. John O’Neill, School of Social Sciences
James Mason, Doctoral Training Programme
Prof. Matthew Paterson, School of Social Sciences
Dr. Kate Scott, School of Environment, Education and Development
Dr. Maria Sharmina, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Amrita Sidhu, Tyndall Centre, School of MACE
Dr. Laurence Stamford, School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science
Esme Ward, Manchester Museum

Callous or calamitous? … the UK climate minister pulls the rug from under 1.5°C

Behind the polished smiles & fraudulent oratory the Minister of Energy and Clean Growth, and her Welsh and Scottish counterparts, dispense with the Committee on Climate Change and embrace a Trumpian view of science.

The Government’s climate Minister, Claire Perry, today (15.10.18) wrote to the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change requesting their advice on the implications for the UK of the IPCC’s recent 1.5°C report. Albeit three years overdue, a cursory reading of the letter suggests that the Government’s reluctance to take climate change seriously may be thawing. Sadly, a few moments reflection dispels any such romantic notion.

The Minister opened her letter[1] with a disingenuous statement that did not bode well. The UK has apparently decoupled its emissions (down by over “40%”) from economic growth (up by around 66%). Nonsense. Selective accounting and offshored emissions are the leading lights in this fairy tale performance. Include emissions from aviation and shipping and those associated with our import and exports, and the carbon footprint for UK plc. has barely changed since 1990. This certainly puts a very different complexion on the climate challenge – but not one this government is keen to face.

In penning the letter, Claire Perry & the devolved signatories surgically scythed away the real substance of any review. The CCC is permitted only to comment on the implications of Paris for post 2032 – by when most front benchers will be writing memoirs or fertilising daisies. The offending sentence notes how “Carbon budgets already set in legislation (covering 2018-2032) are out of scope of this request.”

The Minister then proceeds to toughen her preference for near-term Party politics over robust analysis and honest debate when, in bold, she orders the ‘independent’ CCC to inform on “long term” targets, and later in the letter, what needs to be done “by 2050”. Nowhere does she acknowledge the IPCC’s recent call for drastic reductions in emissions by 2030 if we are to have any chance of meeting our 1.5°C commitment.[2]

But is any of this really unexpected? And perhaps more importantly, why have this government been allowed the space and time to embellish their climate rhetoric whilst forcing through high-carbon fracking, airport expansion and stifling solar pv and onshore wind.

Again I turn to my academic community – where are our voices! This is an existential threat for so many people and species, yet we typically remain silent in the face of political and commercial interests.

In 1967 and as part of academia’s efforts to curtail the worse excesses of the Vietnam war, Bertrand Russell established the International War Crimes Tribunal. A half a century later and facing the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change, is it time again for academics to use their research as a platform for speaking out rather than appeasing the status quo?

If so, could this Government’s hamstringing of the Committee on Climate Change finally be a call to arms?



Personal reflections on the 23rd COP in Bonn-Fiji – Nov. 2017

Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate)
CEMUS. Uppsala University
Tyndall Centre, MACE. University of Manchester

Settling wearily into my Deutsche Bahn seat at the start of a two-day journey back to Uppsala, Sweden, I’ve endeavoured below to capture my early thoughts on the latest attempt to forestall our headlong rush towards oblivion.

I said my goodbyes to the geographically divisive COP[1] venue yesterday afternoon. The roadies were already dismantling the paraphernalia that accompanies such events and heavily laden trucks had begun trundling towards the next jamboree. This was my third COP, and despite a challenging schedule of events, I leave Bonn-Fiji[2] more jaded than when I returned from its Parisian predecessor. I was certainly uneasy with the euphoria surrounding the Paris Agreement[3], but I could also see its potential for catalysing a transformation in global responses to climate change. Two years on and Bonn-Fiji signals just how entrenched, powerful and resilient our status quo is and how compliant the ‘established’ climate change community has become.

I’ve divided my thoughts into three short sections. First, a response to the depressing 2017 emissions data released during the COP. Second, a reflection on the “them and us” segregation structurally embedded in the COP venue. Finally, a tentative interpretation of how hope may yet reside in the emergent dynamics of contemporary societies.

Rising emissions and pitiful excuses
Last Monday (November 13th) the Global Carbon Project announced the results of its annual assessment of emissions data. In 2017 carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and cement is anticipated to be 2% higher than in 2016. Is this really such a surprise?

Witness the US and the EU’s fervour for locking-in high-carbon gas[4] behind a veil of closing down old coal. Academic enthusiasm for evermore quixotic ‘negative emission technologies'(NETs)[5] and geo-engineering to support ‘big oil’ and infinite growth. A growing cadre of climate glitterati ratcheting up its rhetoric to align with its rocketing emissions. The UNFCCC’s promotion of expedient offsetting to ‘neutralise’ emissions from air-travel to Bonn and its other global meetings. Meanwhile journalists remain unwilling or ill equipped to call time on this catalogue of subterfuge. It’s twenty-seven years since the IPCC’s first report and a quarter of a century since the Rio Earth Summit, but still our carbon emissions are rising.

Certainly the modellers can turn the ‘NET’ dial still further to the right – reconciling their Wonderland with our Paris Commitments. But away from the Mad Hatter’s tea party holding to 2°C is now much more of a profound challenge than we appear able to accept. Whether the latest depressing data signals that humanity was only ever set to be a destructive aberration is still not clear. Indeed we may yet discover the moral fortitude to wrestle a decarbonised phoenix from the fossil-fuelled flames. But delivering such a fundamental transformation demands we reject rhetoric, dishonesty and fear and embrace the challenges and opportunities posed by clear thinking, integrity and courage.

Them and Us: segregation at COP23
My principal concern with the organisation of COP23 stems from the highly divisive geography of the venues. The suits, twin sets and occasional indigenous dress of the negotiators and their entourages were firmly ensconced in the Bula zone – along with the ‘established’ journalists. Twenty minutes brisk walk away civil society, NGOs, academics, researchers and other ‘little’ people were given their own ‘Bonn’ zone. Ok, various ad hoc transport options linked the two – but more as a disorganised sop than a genuine attempt to facilitate easy flow between Bula and the Bonn Zone. In Paris, and even in Warsaw (Poland’s 2013 Coal-COP), the geography of the venues saw negotiators, policy makers, journalists and other climate great and good rubbing shoulders with a multitude of the unwashed. They heard protests, chants and songs as well as attended side events and shared coffee tables during breaks. But in Bonn segregation was cleverly engineered into distinct venues so as to minimise any such ‘disagreeable’ mixing.

This invidious isolation of political and business elites from the voices of others was further exacerbated by much tighter restrictions on who could observe the negotiations. Whilst listening to platitudes was permitted, once the machinations began ‘undesirables’ were ushered out should they report on the unholy alliances and underhand agreements that have thus far delivered a 60% increase in carbon emissions.

After twenty-three COPs, perhaps it is time to have a genuinely open process, where the high-level platitudes designed for public consumption can be compared with the detailed arguments, statements and alliances of the negotiators. A process where cogency and honesty would perhaps offer a refreshing alternative to the fluff and nonsense that is normally forthcoming. In 2017 the Greek Gods negotiating society’s prosperity or demise still think feeding the hoi polloi fables and myths is adequate?

Hope from Chaos?
The ‘perfect storm’ is often evoked as a prelude to impending doom – but it may also offer a metaphor of hope, or at least opportunity.

In the geological record our destructive inclinations will ultimately be little more than a curious anomaly. But continue with today’s scams, delusion and fear and the prospect for many humans and other species over the coming decades and even centuries looks bleak. However this preference for short-term hedonism (for the few) over longer-term planetary stewardship is a choice. It is in making this choice that I think the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor illustrates opportunities for rapid change, though not necessarily in a favourable direction.

The first two decades of this millennium are being marked by a series of deep upheavals.

The banking crises exposed the internal failure of our precious free-market model to both self-regulate and deliver on its central tenet – the ‘efficient allocation of scarce resources’. It also revealed how, with sufficient political will, unprecedented finances could be mobilised at the stroke of a pen.

And as the bankers and economists re-grouped to thwart progressive regulation, the power of unaccountable media barons was being appropriated by the amorphous twists and turns of social media. Concurrently political institutions in many parts of the world have faced serious challenges from the left, the right and ‘unforeseen’ circumstances.

Set against this, and despite an orchestrated campaign of denial, there is now common acceptance that responding to climate change requires significant government intervention. Rounding off this assemblage of upheaval, the plummeting costs of renewable energy have coincided with widespread recognition of the security and health implications of coal, oil and gas.

In themselves each of these discrete disruptions has important implications for the evolution of contemporary society. But broadly aligned they could represent something much more revolutionary – perhaps even a progressive and epoch-changing confluence of circumstances?

Final thoughts
A few minutes ago I boarded the ferry for the short sea leg North towards tonight’s stop in København. This shift in mode signals my increasing temporal and geographical distance from Bonn and its opaque negotiations. Certainly amongst the charlatans, there will be many good people in Bonn working hard and with a genuine desire to make a real and meaningful difference. And perhaps in some important area they will. But stand back from the rarefied atmosphere of COP23, particularly the Bula zone, and the sheer scale of the challenge looms large. A belief that cleverly arranging angels or deckchairs can reconcile our Paris commitments with the dominant socio-economic paradigm is doomed.

Disturbingly, and with the exception of utopian technophiles, few of those deeply engaged in climate change are convinced we “can have our cake and eat it”. Sadly, senior policy, scientific, academic and NGO figures are seldom prepared to voice publically what they admit privately. This repressive influence of the status quo both demonstrates its stifling power and hints at its potential weakness.

Imagine a space where climate academics and others could be truly honest about their analysis and judgements and where disagreements were discussed openly and constructively. Add to this, informed dialogue on the ‘confluence of circumstances’ outlined above. And finally reframe climate change not as a threat to some arbitrary economic indicator, but as a secure, local and high-quality jobs agenda. Under such conditions, and with vociferous engagement by the ‘next’ generation, I can envisage an alternative progressive paradigm being ushered in – and soon.

Do I think this is likely – far from it? But I certainly judge such a decarbonised and prosperous future to be both plausible and desirable.

[1] COP – Conference of the Parties (annual climate change negotiations).
[2] The twenty-third COP was held in Bonn, Germany, but with Fiji as the co-host.
[3] Talks in the city of light generate more heat (a slightly longer pre-edit version is also available free)
[4] Natural Gas and Climate Change within the EU
[5] Duality in Science, The trouble with negative emissions – the former is available free. In addition a
recent paper may be of interest What if negative emissions fail at scale, a pre-print is available free.

What if ‘negative emission technologies’ (NETs) fail at scale: Implications of the Paris Agreement for big emitting nations

This new paper is published in Climate Policy and is available at: and

A pre-edit version of the paper can be found at: ‘What if NETs fail at scale’ – pre-edit version of Climate Policy paper – August 2017

Authors: Alice Larkin, Jaise KuriakoseMaria Sharmina, and Kevin Anderson


A cumulative emissions approach is increasingly used to inform mitigation policy. However, there are different interpretations of what ‘2°C’ implies. Here it is argued that cost-optimisation models, commonly used to inform policy, typically underplay the urgency of 2°C mitigation. The alignment within many scenarios of optimistic assumptions on negative emissions technologies (NETs), with implausibly early peak emission dates and incremental short-term mitigation, delivers outcomes commensurate with 2°C commitments. In contrast, considering equity and socio-technical barriers to change, suggests a more challenging short-term agenda. To understand these different interpretations, short-term CO2 trends of the largest CO2 emitters, are assessed in relation to a constrained CO2 budget, coupled with a ‘what if’ assumption that negative emissions technologies fail at scale. The outcomes raise profound questions around high-level framings of mitigation policy. The paper concludes that applying even weak equity criteria, challenges the feasibility of maintaining a 50% chance of avoiding 2°C without urgent mitigation efforts in the short-term. This highlights a need for greater engagement with: (1) the equity dimension of the Paris Agreement, (2) the sensitivity of constrained carbon budgets to short-term trends and (3) the climate risks for society posed by an almost ubiquitous inclusion of NETs within 2°C scenarios.


Before the Flood – a review by Kevin Anderson

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

February 2017
Twitter @KevinClimate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A succinct account of my view on individual and collective action

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

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

For the record:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Funders and funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where doe this leave us …?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two further and key failures of the Paris Agreement.

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

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

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

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