Nov. 2012 Contributed a foreword to a report by Steady State Manchester – In Place of Growth.
With a specific focus on the city of Manchester and following discussions with the City Council, the report asked and discussed answers to the questions “How do we create a society with local prosperity and justice? How do we prepare for the challenges that climate change and other aspects of the ecological crisis are already bringing?”
We are where we are …
As evidence mounts that climate change impacts can now be differentiated from natural climate variability, so the international community’s rhetoric around mitigation escalates. PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC), government chief scientific officers and a growing cadre of academics echo the concerns of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) chief executive, that “The current state of affairs is unacceptable[i]. As Maria van der Hoeven goes on to note … Energy-related CO2 emissions are at historic highs, and under current policies, we estimate that energy use and CO2 emissions [will] increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050. Building on this, Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, concludes ominously that current emission trends are “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius, which would have devastating consequences for the planet”. [ii]
All this is far removed from the international community’s 1992 ambition to stabilise “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”[iii] More disturbing still, as the global community was agreeing, in 2009-10, 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”, so annual emissions growth rose to a record 5.9%, despite an economic slow-down in the West.
Exacerbating this already unprecedented challenge is the grudging acknowledgement by the policy community that framing climate change as an issue of long-term reductions targets (e.g. 80% by 2050) is without scientific merit. Instead, the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change links not to emission-levels in 2050, but rather the ongoing build up of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The implications for meaningful mitigation policy of this scientifically-literate interpretation of the challenge are profound and ultimately underpin the legitimacy, timeliness and importance of this report.
What do we need to do?
Characterising climate change as an issue of cumulative emissions and carbon budgets, transforms fundamentally the chronology and urgency of policies for reducing emissions. No longer can mitigation be the preserve of low-carbon energy supply technologies rolled out in 2025 and beyond – instead it calls for immediate and deep reductions in emissions.[iv] For the wealthier nations, such as the UK, the situation is yet more difficult. The Copenhagen Accord recognises explicitly “that the time frame for peaking [emissions] will be longer in developing countries” where “social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities”[v]. Consequently mitigation rates in the UK and other Annex 1 nations will necessarily be much higher and earlier than those of the poorer, ‘developing’ nations.
Focussing in on the UK, even for an outside chance of avoiding 2°C, emissions from energy must reduce by at least 8% to 10% each year starting from today – and preferably yesterday! In brief, the UK should be delivering in the region of a 40% reduction in total emissions by 2015, 70% by 2020 and over 90% by 2030 (c.f. 1990). Homing in closer still on Greater Manchester it is clearly evident these reduction levels hold for the city region. The “core objectives section” of the region’s Climate Strategy (pp21-22) commits Greater Manchester “to make its contribution to the targets set in the … UK Low Carbon Transition Plan” emphasising how “ [t]his is the right thing to do as part of the global effort to combat climate change”. The Low Carbon Transition Plan is itself categorical in its framing of climate change around “must rise no more than 2°C”5 and as such embeds similar commitments to those within the Copenhagen Accord.
Where to from here: economic growth, 2°C mitigation or cognitive dissonance?
A literal reading of the Copenhagen Accord allied with the common refrain of Stern and others that economic growth cannot be reconciled with annual mitigation rates exceeding 2% to 4%, leaves contemporary society facing an uncomfortable dilemma. In 2012, and without attempting to assuage political sensibilities, the choice is stark. Holding to even an outside chance of 2°C cannot be reconciled with economic growth. Further still, without such rates of mitigation, temperature rises of 4°C to 6°C are likely – temperatures the Committee on Climate Change and IEA describe respectively as “extremely dangerous” and “devastating”, and similarly cannot be reconciled with economic growth.
So for the Annex 1 nations, the UK and for Manchester the choice is the same. To begin immediate and deep reductions in emissions at the same time as transitioning towards a steady-state economy. Or to continue with economic growth in the short-term, with “extremely dangerous” and “devastating” impacts collapsing such growth in the medium term.
Alternatively, we could continue with the eloquent rhetoric of green growth and win-win opportunities; reject integrity, placate our paymasters and embrace cognitive dissonance – but ultimately renege on our responsibilities to both the current and future generations.
[i] Van Der Hoeven: The current state of affairs is unacceptable. Clean Energy Ministerial 3 (2012).
[ii] Rose M: UPDATE 2-Global CO2 emissions hit record in 2011 led by China-IEA. Reuters (2012).
[iii] United Nations: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
CCC/INFORMAL/84(GE.05-62220 (E) 200705), (1992).
[iv] Anderson, K., Bows, A., and Mander, S., 2008, From long-term targets to cumulative emission
pathways; reframing the climate policy debate, Energy Policy, 36, 3714-3722.
[v] Anderson, K., and Bows., A., 2011, Beyond dangerous climate change: emission pathways for a
new world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 20-44,