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.