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Brief response to the UK Government’s “net-zero” proposal

Whilst in many respects I welcome the headline framing of the Government’s “net-zero” proposal, sift amongst the detail and all is far from rosy

Kevin Anderson
Tyndall Centre – University of Manchester
CEMUS – Uppsala University
June 2019

1) although on the one hand the Government’s “net -zero” proposal is for the UK to make its ‘fair’ contribution to delivering on the Paris Agreement, on the other it is recklessly pursuing UK shale gas (an energy source that is 75% carbon by mass!). Moreover, it recently celebrated both BP’s new Clair Ridge oil platform, with its accompanying quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and the new Glengorm gas field, adding a further 100 millions tonnes of CO2. To top it all, they plan to expand Heathrow, facilitating more flights with more fossil fuel consumption and hence more carbon emissions (even with efficiency improvements across the sector).

2) the mitigation proposals of Government and its Committee on Climate Change (the CCC) rely in large measure on future and highly speculative Negative Emission Technologies (NETs)[1]. These technologies exist, at best, as small pilot schemes, and often only in the imagination and computers of professors and entrepreneurs. So in reality we are passing the buck on to our children to invent and deploy technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air that we choose to continue to emit today. The unprecedented and planetary scale of NETs assumed by the Government and the CCC needs to be understood.[2] Already the tentative potential of NETs is being used to undermine the requirement for immediate and widespread decarbonisation, passing further unacceptable burdens and risks onto the next generation.

3) against the advice of their own Committee on Climate Change the UK Government intend to rely on ‘international credits’ whereby they can buy so-called offsets from other countries rather than making the reductions themselves. This is typically paying poorer nations to plant trees, change industrial processes, install renewables, etc. Such developments internationally are necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate commitments, but not as a means for permitting the UK’s ongoing emissions. With the UK’s world leading renewable energy potential we should be making the reductions ourselves not paying others to do it for us.

4) the Government and the CCC foresee emissions from the UK’s aviation sector continuing at today’s very high levels (currently around 10% of UK CO2) out to 2050 and on through subsequent decades. So any claim made of the UK being zero carbon by 2050, is simply not true. The scale of anticipated aviation emissions is such that this single sector will consume up to 40% of the UK’s Paris-compliant carbon budget, putting still further mitigation pressures on schools, hospitals and businesses to compensate for this privileged sector.

5) the share of the global ‘carbon budget’ that the UK Government and its Committee on Climate Change assume appropriate for the UK, is far higher than any defensible quota. So the UK not only has significant responsibility for historical emissions, but it is planning to take a disproportionately large slice of the remaining global carbon pie; colonialism thriving in 2019!

Finally, and based on work with University of Manchester & Uppsala colleagues, to meet its Paris obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a.; such an economy-wide agenda will need to embed equity at its core if it is to succeed mathematically and politically, as well as morally.

[1] NETs is also variously referred to as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR), and previously as one form of Geo-engineering. Two other acronyms are commonly used, but are related to particular technology routes. Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS).

[2] Whilst a fully decarbonised energy system is achievable, there will remain some non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agriculture and food. These can certainly be reduced by changes in diets and agricultural practices, but some emissions of methane and nitrous oxide will inevitably remain. In this regard, a well-funded programme of research, development and potential deployment of NETs is required alongside improvement of ‘natural’ processes of sequestration, including forestry management, reforestation and potentially afforestation.

[3] The carbon budget refers to the total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that we can dump in the atmosphere from now and out across the century if we are not to renege on our Paris 1.5-2 degree Celsius commitments. Continue reading

Capricious foes, Big Sister & high-carbon plutocrats: irreverent musings from Katowice’s COP24

… the time for action is not at COP25, but now and during the intervening months …

Four weeks on and the allure of Christmas and New Year festivities fade into the grey light of a Manchester January – a fine backdrop for revisiting December’s COP24

1) An Orwellian tale: myths & hidden enemies
A quick glance at COP24 suggests three steps forward and two steps back. But whilst to the naïve optimist this may sound like progress, in reality it’s yet another retrograde bound towards a climate abyss. As government negotiators play poker with the beauty of three billion years of evolution, climate change emissions march on. This year with a stride 2.7% longer than last year – which itself was 1.6% longer than the year before. Whilst the reality is that every COP marks another step backwards, the hype of these extravaganzas gives the impression that we’re forging a pathway towards a decarbonised future.

For me the fantasy-land of COP24 was epitomised at the UK’s ever-busy Green is Great stand. Here, the nation that kick-started the fossil-fuel era, regaled passers-by with a heart-warming tale of rapidly falling emissions and a growing green economy. This cheerful narrative chimed with those desperate to believe these annual junkets are forging a decarbonised promise-land. Despite my cynicism, I was nevertheless surprised just how pervasive the UK’s mirage had become.

Adjacent to Brexit Blighty’s pavilion was the WWF’s Panda Hub. Here I attended a session at which two British speakers offered advice to the New Zealand government on their forthcoming energy law. The mantra of the UK being at the vanguard of climate action was reiterated by a ‘great & good’ of the NGO world and by the Director of Policy at a prestigious climate change institute. A similar fable from a couple of Government stooges would not have been a surprise. But surely the NGO and academic communities should demonstrate greater integrity and a more discerning appraisal of government assertions?

If you ignore rising emissions from aviation and shipping along with those related to the UK’s imports and exports, a chirpy yarn can be told. But then why not omit cars, cement production and other so-called “hard to decarbonise” sectors? In reality, since 1990 carbon dioxide emissions associated with operating UK plc. have, in any meaningful sense, remained stubbornly static.[1] But let’s not just pick on the UK. The same can be said of many self-avowed climate-progressive nations, Denmark, France and Sweden amongst them. And then there’s evergreen Norway with emissions up 50% since 1990.

Sadly the subterfuge of these supposed progressives was conveniently hidden behind the new axis of climate-evil emerging in Katowice[2]: Trump’s USA; MBS’s Saudi; Putin’s Russia; and the Emir’s Kuwait – with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, quietly sniggering from the side-lines. But surely no one really expected more from this quintet of regressives. It’s the self-proclaimed paragons of virtue where the real intransigence (or absence of imagination) truly resides. When it comes to commitments made in Paris, the list of climate villains extends far and wide – with few if any world leaders escaping the net.

2) Let them eat cake: a legacy of failure & escalating inequity
How is it that behind the glad-handing of policy makers and the mutterings of progress by many academics, NGOs and journalists, we continue to so fundamentally fail?

On mitigation, endless presentations infused with ‘negative emissions’, hints of geo-engineering and offsetting salved the conscience of Katowice’s high-carbon delegates. But when it came to addressing issues of international equity and climate change, no such soothing balm was available. I left my brief foray into the murky realm of equity with the uneasy conclusion that, just as we have wilfully deluded ourselves over mitigation, so we are doing when it comes to issues of fairness and funding.

COP after COP has seen the principal of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) weakened. Put simply, CBDR requires wealthier nations (i.e. greater financial capacity) with high-emissions per capita (i.e. greater relative historical responsibility for emissions) to “take the lead in combating climate change”. This was a central tenet of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and specifically committed such wealthy nations to peak their emissions before 2000. Virtually all failed to do so.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol established binding but weak emission targets for these nations, with the intention of tightening them in a subsequent ‘commitment period’. The all-important second ‘commitment period’ was never ratified – partly because a new ‘regime’ for international mitigation was anticipated.

In 2015, and to wide acclaim, the new regime emerged in the guise of the Paris Agreement. This saw the dismantling of any legally binding framework for wealthier high CO2/capita countries to demonstrate leadership. Instead nations submitted voluntary bottom-up mitigation plans based on what they determined was their appropriate national responsibility for holding to a global rise of between 1.5 and 2°C. True to form, world leaders dispensed with any pretence of integrity, choosing instead to continue playing poker with physics & nature. Even under the most optimistic interpretation of the collective nonsense offered, the aggregate of world leaders’ proposals aligned more with 3.5°C of warming than the 1.5 to 2°C that they had committed to.

So, has the shame of repeated failure on mitigation initiated greater international funding for those poorer nations vulnerable to climate impacts and in the early phases of establishing their energy systems?

In Copenhagen ‘developing’ nations agreed to produce mitigation plans, with the understanding that their “means of implementation” would attract financial support from the wealthier hi-emitters. Move on to Paris, and the wealthy nations flex their financial muscles and begin to backtrack. Rather than deliver a new and anticipated post-2020 finance package, they chose to extend what was supposed to be their $100billion per year ‘floor’ (i.e. starting value) out to 2025. To put that in perspective, $100billion equates to one twenty-eighth of the UK’s annual GDP – and even this paltry sum is proving difficult to collect from rich nations.

Surely COP24 couldn’t belittle poor nations further? Yet the Katowice text stoops to new lows. Funding initially intended to mobilise action on mitigation and adaptation is transposed into various financial instruments, with the very real prospect of economically burdening poorer countries with still more debt.

3) Big Sister & ‘badge-less’ delegates
Finally, I want to touch on something far outside my experience and probably one of the most damning aspects of the COPs that I’ve become aware of.

As a professor in the gentle world of academia, I can speak wherever I’m able to get a forum. I can explain my analysis in direct language that accurately reflects my judgements – free from any fear of being actively shut down. Certainly, there are academics (usually senior) who favour backstabbing over face to face engagement, but typically their comments are later relayed via their own (and more honest) Post-Doc & PhD colleagues. And if I find myself on a stage with climate Glitterati & accidently step on a few hi-emitting toes – the worse I face is an insincere smile and being crossed off their Christmas card list. But such bruising of egos and prestige is relatively harmless. Elsewhere however this is not the case – for both early career academics and civil society.

At COP24 I spoke at some length with both these groups. Not uncommonly early career researchers feared speaking out “as it would affect their chances of funding”. This specific example arose during a national side event on the miraculous low-carbon merits of coal and extractive industries. However, similar language is frequently used to describe how hierarchical structures in universities stifle open debate amongst researchers working on short-term contracts. Given senior academics have collectively and demonstrably failed to catalyse a meaningful mitigation agenda, fresh perspectives are sorely needed. Consequently, the new generation of academics and researchers should be encouraged to speak out, rather than be silenced and co-opted.

Turning to wider civil society, I hadn’t realised just how tightly constrained their activities were, or that they are required to operate within clear rules. At first this appears not too unreasonable – but probe a bit further and the friendly face of the UNFCCC morphs into an Orwellian dictator. Whilst country and industry representatives can extol the unrivalled virtues of their policies and commercial ventures, – civil society is forced to resort to platitudes and oblique references. Directly questioning a rich oil-based regime’s deceptions or even openly referring to Poland’s addiction to “dirty “coal is outlawed. By contrast eulogising on the wonders of clean coal is welcomed, as is praising a government’s mitigation proposals – even if they are more in line with 4°C than the Paris commitments.

All this is itself disturbing. Whilst the negotiators haggle over the colour of the Titanic’s deckchairs and how to minimise assistance for poorer nations, the UNFCCC’s overlord ensures a manicured flow of platitudes. The clever trick here is to facilitate the occasional and highly choreographed protest. To those outside the COP bubble, such events support the impression of a healthy balanced debate. National negotiators with their parochial interests and hydrocarbon firms with their slick PR, all being held to account by civil society organisations maintaining a bigger-picture & long-term perspective. But that is far from the truth.

For civil-society groups getting an “observer” status badge is an essential passport to the COPs. These are issued by the UNFCCC and can easily be revoked. Without ‘badges’, or worse still, by forcibly being “de-badged” (as it’s referred to), civil society delegates have very limited opportunity to hold nations and companies to account or to put counter positions to the press. Such tight policing has a real impact in both diluting protests and, perhaps more disturbingly, enabling nations and companies to go relatively unchallenged. The latter would be less of a concern, if the eminent heads of NGOs were standing up to be counted. But over the years the relationship between the heads of many NGOs and senior company and government representatives has become all too cosy. Witness the UK Government’s decoupling mantra forthcoming from the lips of one of the UK’s highest profile NGO figures.

So what level of ‘control’ is typically exerted at COPs? To avoid compromising badges for those wishing to attend future UNFCCC events, I can’t provide detail here, but the range is wide: highlighting the negative aspects of a country or company’s proposals or activities; displaying temporary (unauthorised) signs; asking too challenging questions in side events; circulating ‘negative’ photographs or images; and countering official accounts. In brief, criticising a specific country, company or individual is not allowed in material circulated within the conference venue. Previously, some civil-society delegates have had to delete tweets and issue a UNFCCC dictated apology – or lose their badges. This year, and following a climate-related protest in Belgium, those involved were subsequently stopped from entering Poland and the Katowice COP; so much for the EU’s freedom of speech and movement.

If the COP demonstrated significant headway towards delivering on the Paris agreement, perhaps there would be some argument for giving the process leeway to proceed unhindered by anything that may delay progress. But no amount of massaging by the policy-makers and the UNFCCC’s elite can counter the brutal and damning judgement of the numbers. Twenty-four COPs on, annual carbon dioxide emissions are over 60% higher now than in 1990, and set to rise further by almost 3% in 2018.

4) Conclusion
It’s a month now since I returned from the surreal world of COP24. I’ve had time to flush out any residual and unsubstantiated optimism and remind myself that climate change is still a peripheral issue within the policy realm. The UK is an interesting litmus of just how fragmented government thinking is. A huge effort went into the UK’s COP presence – yet back at home our Minister for Clean Growth celebrates the new Clair Ridge oil platform and its additional 50 thousand tonnes of CO2 per day (a quarter of a billion tonnes over its lifetime). Simultaneously, the government remains committed to a new shale gas revolution whilst plans are afoot for expanding Heathrow airport and the road network.

COP can be likened to an ocean gyre with the ‘axis of evil’, Machiavellian subterfuge and naïve optimism circulating with other climate flotsam and with nothing tangible escaping from it. Twenty-four COPs on, questions must surely be asked as to whether continuing with these high-carbon jamborees serves a worthwhile purpose or not? Thus far the incremental gains delivered by the yearly COPs are completely dwarfed by the annual build-up of atmospheric carbon emissions. In some respects the Paris Agreement hinted at a potential step change – but this moment of hope has quickly given way to Byzantine technocracy – the rulebook, stocktaking, financial scams, etc.; not yet a hint of mitigation or ethical conscience.

But is this jettisoning of COPs too simple? Perhaps international negotiations could run alongside strong bilateral agreements (e.g. China and the EU)? Stringent emission standards imposed on all imports and exports to these regions could potentially lead to a much more ambitious international agenda. The US provides an interesting and long-running model for this approach. For just over half a century, California has established increasingly tighter vehicle emission standards, each time quickly adopted at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly internationalising such a model would have implications for WTO. But in 2018, and with global emissions still on the rise, perhaps now is the time for a profound political tipping point where meaningful mitigation takes precedent over political expediency?

Of course, the COPs are much more than simply a space for negotiations. They are where a significant swathe of the climate community comes together, with all the direct and tacit benefits physical engagement offers. But did Katowice, Fiji-Bonn, Marrakech or even Paris represent the pinnacle of high-quality and low carbon discussion and debate? Could we have done much better? Perhaps established regional COP hubs throughout the different continents of the world, all with seamless virtual links to each other and the central venue. Could journalists have listened, interviewed and written from their offices? Could civil society have engaged vociferously in their home nations whilst facilitating climate vulnerable communities in having their voices heard? Almost fifty years on from the first moon landing, are the challenges of delivering high-quality virtual engagement really beyond our ability to resolve?

If the COPs are to become part of the solution rather than continuing to contribute to the problem, then they need to undergo a fundamental transformation. Moreover the UNFCCC’s elite needs to escape their Big Sister approach and embrace rather than endeavour to close down a wider constituency of voices. Neither of these will occur without considerable and ongoing pressure from those external to, as well as within, the UNFCCC. The time for action is not at COP25, but now and during the intervening months.

Lowlights of COP24
i) Several climate glitterati & their entourages again jet in and parade around making vacuous noises. This would be a harmless aside if it were just a tasteless comedy act, but it is these carbon bloaters and their clamouring sycophants that set much of the agenda within which the rest of us work. Whilst they remain the conduit between the Davos mind-set and the research community, climate change will continue to be a failing techno-economic issue, ultimately bequeathed to future generations.
ii) The pathetic refusal of several nations to formally ‘welcome’ the IPCC’s 1.5°C report (and I say this as someone who has serious reservations about the mitigation analysis within the report).
iii) The blatant travel-agency nature of many of the national pavilions – with the periodic glasses of bubbly and exotic nibbles undermining the seriousness of the issues we were supposed to be there to address.
iv) The level of co-option, with academics and NGOs all too often singing from official Hymn sheets.
v) The absence of younger voices presenting and on panels.

Highlights of COP24
i) Amy Goodman and the excellent Democracy Now (DN) team providing a unique journalistic conduit between the COPs and the outside world. Certainly DN has a political leaning, but this is not hidden. Consequently, and regardless of political inclination, any discerning listener can engage with the rich and refreshingly diverse content of DN’s reporting. For a candid grasp of just where we are (or are not) in addressing climate change Amy’s full interviews give time to extend well beyond the polarising headlines preferred by many journalists and editors.
ii) Listening to John Schellnhuber call for “system change” and “a new narrative for modernity”. John is arguably the most prestigious climate scientist present at COPs and the science darling of ‘the great & the good’ (from Merkel to the Pope). Whilst many others in Professor Schellnhuber’s exalted position have long forgone their scientific integrity, John continues to voice his conclusions directly and without spin. I really can’t exaggerate just how refreshing this is. I may not agree with all he has to say, but I know that what he is saying is carefully considered and sincere.
At the other end of the academic and age spectrum was the ever-present voice of Greta Thunberg soaring like a descant above the monotonic mutterings of the status-quo choir. We need many more voices from her generation prepared to boldly call out the abysmal and ongoing failure of my generation. Applying Occam’s razor to our delusional substitutes for action, this fifteen year old (now sixteen) revealed just how pathetic our efforts have been. In so doing Greta opened up space for a vociferous younger generation to force through a new and constructive dialogue.

[1] An actual fall of around 10% in 28 years (i.e. under 0.4% p.a.)
[2] The group of national leaders who refused to “welcome” the IPCC special report into 1.5°C (SR1.5).

For a review of the COP23 (Bonn-Fiji) see:Personal reflections on COP23
An edited version was published in the Conversation: Hope from Chaos: could political upheaval lead to a new green epoch

For a review of the Paris COP21 see: The hidden agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement
An edited version was published in Nature: Talks in the city of light generate more heat

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.