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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two further and key failures of the Paris Agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

For further commentary on shale gas, see:

Tyndall submission to the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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