A prescription for the planet

As we approach the next round of UN climate talks*, Paul Allen talks to Professor Kevin Anderson about what the international community must do to prevent climate breakdown.

“To genuinely reduce emissions in line with 2°C of warming requires a transformation in the productive capacity of society, reminiscent of the Marshall Plan.”

Kevin Anderson’s response to the IPCC report, delivered just a few days after our interview, is typically direct. For decades now he has been sounding the alarm on climate change, and offering solutions to help rein in emissions. It’s a warning that the world’s governments are only just starting to listen to, but are they prepared to make the radical shifts that the science demands? And can change happen quickly enough?

I caught up with Kevin to explore where we are now and what needs to be done to keep the world within 2C of warming.

Kevin Anderson lecturing at CAT
Kevin Anderson lecturing at CAT

Paul Allen: 2018 will most likely go down in history as the time it became crystal clear that humanity is facing an urgent crisis. Both the data and first-hand experiences from the increasing number of extreme weather events in the UK and across the globe very clearly show humanity is now facing a very serious climate emergency. Can you give us an overview of the timescale need to reach net-zero emissions?

Kevin Anderson: Before thinking about the future, it is necessary to consider how we have approached climate change in the recent past. The international community has presided over 28 years of abject failure to deliver any meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions.

Since the first IPPC report in 1990 annual carbon emissions have risen by around 65%. Moreover, include emissions from aviation, shipping, imports and exports, and you find that self-avowed climate progressive countries, such as the UK, Sweden, Denmark and France, have total emissions today as high as they were in 1990.

If the international community is now to deliver on the Paris “well below 2°C” commitment, then we have a set carbon budget range that must not be exceeded; in other words a total quantity of carbon dioxide that can be emitted from now out across and beyond this century.

The actual level of the carbon budget does vary depending on a range of factors, from climate sensitivity through to how successful we are in controlling the non-CO2 greenhouse gases (particularly methane). However, in 2018, the “well below 2°C” carbon budget range is small and rapidly dwindling. Consequently, whilst the specific range remains an area of interesting academic discussion, from a policy perspective the message is clear.

Add our historical failure to control emissions with concept of carbon budgets, and the timeframe to fully decarbonise energy shrinks to just a handful of decades, and even this assumes that we begin rapid and deep mitigation today. To put some numbers on it, and taking account of how Paris permits poorer nations to take a little longer to decarbonise, the OECD nations need zero carbon energy by 2035-40, with interim mitigation rates of 10 to 20% year on year. For the non-OECD nations the zero carbon timeframe extends to 2050-2060, but only if they collectively peak emissions in the early 2020s and then ratchet up mitigation rates towards 10% per annum by around 2040.

With few exceptions, this rate and timeframe of mitigation is far more challenging than is typically tolerated in the literature. This is because most analysis for 2°C relies on future generations deploying highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of this generation’s carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Remove this expedient and often hidden assumption, and the numbers here broadly prescribe the timeframe of the system-level revolution in our energy infrastructure necessary to avoid the system-level chaos of unchecked climate change.

PA: Do you have any good metaphors to help people understand the science and the maths of climate solutions?

KA: The one that I typically use is a pie, or what we colloquially call where I work, a ‘Manchester tart’. This metaphor imagines the global carbon budget as a round pie, representing the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted across the century if we are to “stay well below 2°C”. This pie can then be cut into slices, with each slice representing a nation’s fair proportion of the pie – or, breaking the metaphor, a country’s total emissions across and beyond the century. It is possible to go still further and cut the slice into smaller pieces signifying the budget for regions, cities, sectors, and even individuals.

PA: How does our thinking on climate need to change?

KA: I suggest ten points as a framework for opening up our thinking about the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change:

  • have the courage and humility to question our own prejudice and dogma
  • disregard stifling political and economic sensibilities
  • be open-minded and pluralistic in developing our analysis
  • acknowledge that numbers within context matter – nebulous arm waving around half-baked ideas is a dangerous distraction from consistency
  • develop answers amenable to ongoing iterations; Rumsfeldian unknowns litter the technical, social and economic domains, consequently optimisation, and particularly cost optimisation, are inappropriate analytical frameworks
  • recognise and embed equity between and within nations as a central and quantifiable tenet of our mitigation analysis
  • research and develop negative emission technologies, but mitigate now as if they do not and will never work at scale
  • do not use neoclassical (market based) economics; its foundations in marginal (small) incremental change near or at equilibrium make it inappropriate for addressing a mitigation agenda both far from equilibrium and demanding rapid system-level (i.e. non-marginal) change
  • remember climate change is a symptom of something much more malign in our current model of progress
  • do not misuse responses to climate change to hide other social objectives; aligning the two is fine provided it is done openly and honestly

PA: We need to recognise climate equity – what does this mean for the UK?

KA: It accelerates our mitigation agenda beyond that necessary at a global level. In brief, the UK needs to decarbonise all its energy by around 2035, with mitigation rates of somewhere in the region of 15% year on year – starting now. This will require a suspension of economic growth as an indicator of collective progress.

Breaking the UK into socioeconomic groups suggests a much more nuanced response to climate change, with equity pointing towards regulations rapidly curtailing the energy use (and hence carbon emissions) of high energy users. It is this mobile elite who have normalised high-consumption lifestyles and see only higher consumption as denoting progress and success. At the same time, equity points to poorer communities in our society seeing a near term rise in their material and energy consumption, and hence their carbon emissions. In the medium term this rebalancing of energy use needs to be delivered through much more efficient housing, appliances and transport, a transformation of energy supply to zero carbon technologies, and a recasting of values and ‘success’.

Finally, the UK has to shoulder its historical responsibly for the climate change we have and continue to witness. In partnership with other wealthier OECD nations, the UK should finance any difference in the costs for poorer nations of developing along a low-carbon pathway compared with the higher carbon course (i.e. fossil fuel based) we enjoyed. In addition, we should cover a significant proportion of the adaptation costs our emissions are imposing on other nations. Where we cannot agree a fair buy-in from our OECD partners, the UK should vociferously make unilateral contributions.

PA: What’s been happening in your local area of Greater Manchester?

KA: Some genuine ramping up of the policy framing as a prelude to real mitigation – in some areas. Other more challenging emission sources, such as the airport and the regional road network, thus far appear exempt from making their fair contribution to Manchester’s mitigation agenda.

Certainly the recognition of regional carbon budgets as a guiding framework for mitigation is to be welcomed (and here I declare an interest as Tyndall colleagues and I have worked with the Mayor’s office on this). But to date, the implications of such a framework for the immediacy, scale, rate and timeframe of driving down emissions has not percolated through; neither have the implications of equity for focusing attention on the region’s high-energy users.

All this said – the new Mayor has provided a welcome impetus to the region’s mitigation agenda, as well as a focal point for the many local groups rightly critical of the failure, thus far, to seriously address the challenges posed by climate change.

PA: In what ways do you feel the UNFCCC negotiations need to develop to deliver on time?

KA: I suggest five principal areas to develop:

  1. Agree a global carbon budget range for the 1.5°C to “well below 2°C” commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement – accompanied with the appropriate ‘what if’ caveats on mitigation pathways for non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
  2. Acknowledge that playing poker with climate change negotiations will continue to see meaningful mitigation kicked into the long grass. Perhaps lessons from philosophy may help here? Each country negotiator is randomly allocated another nation to represent. Such an approach would likely see ‘fairness’ emerging as the best strategy for the negotiators to protect the prospects of their home nation. This may sound far-fetched, but surely less so than imagining prosperous and secure lives in a 4°C warmer world. The outcome of such an approach would be a national carbon budget within which sovereign governments can develop mitigation policies that they judge appropriate to their national circumstances.
  3. Develop a form of words or international protocol to provide a robust ‘legal’ framework for requiring nations to deliver on their carbon budgets.
  4. Revisit the $100 billion fund for poorer nations, increasing it significantly and potentially developing more innovative tools for ensuring the funding is genuinely forthcoming (perhaps something along the lines of an OECD fossil fuel levy).
  5. The UNFCCC and negotiation process should demonstrate radical leadership by adopting very low carbon practices and technologies and pushing the forefront of what is possible. Not only would this raise the credibility of the negotiations and provide leadership for other events (from conferences to concerts and sports), but may also provide a positive feedback into the negotiations themselves.

PA: How would you sum up where we are now?

KA: In so many respects we are the pinnacle of 3.5 billion years of earthly evolution. We have an innovative and creative capacity for beauty, captured in Christopher Wren’s souring spires, Jocelyn Bell’s scientific curiosity, Rosa Parks’ courage, Steve Jobs’ iPhone, the humble bicycle and the wonderful music of Simone and Bach.

Sadly this creative beauty has its dark side. From the plethora of devices for killing to the elaborate financial mechanisms of greed, we demonstrate a capacity to lay bare and destroy. But perhaps our most unbalanced and dangerous traits are those accompanying mild success? Apathy, latent self-interest, fraudulent optimism and acquiescence with the status quo, all serve to support incremental destruction; to be the frog in the warming pan.

So are we a genetic cul-de-sac, destined to be little more than an anomaly in the fossil record – or do we yet possess a quality for harmonious survival? Whilst most signs point towards the former, the new Millennia hints at an emerging change in the old guard, a transformation from fear and expedient politics to perhaps a future guided by cogency, courage and beauty? But time is short …

Kevin Anderson is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He is Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester School of Mechanical, Aerospace & Civil Engineering, and Zennström Professor at Uppsala University in Sweden.

He delivered an introductory guest lecture on climate science, impacts and mitigation to CAT postgraduate students that started in 2018.

*Article originally appeared in Clean Slate, our member’s magazine