Beyond a climate of comfortable ignorance

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We must begin a deep and profound transformation towards a progressive, sustainable and zero-carbon future. 

As 1.5°C drifts into history and the prospect of 2°C rapidly fades, it is essential to understand that these temperatures are not simple thresholds.

We have a little time to reflect with honesty and clarity on the prospects for the global community to deliver on its climate change commitments, now that the Glasgow climate negotiations (COP26) have been re-scheduled for 2021 due to Covid-19.

To shed light on this, we have written a paper that considers the implications of the Paris Agreement for wealthier and industrialised nations. In particular, the paper focuses on the mitigation proposals of two self-avowed ‘climate progressive’ countries, the UK and Sweden. Both have developed high-profile legislation, ostensibly designed to cut their emissions in line with holding the rise in temperature to “well below 2°C” and “pursing … 1.5°C”. 

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Yet as the paper demonstrates, peel away the layers of obfuscation and even these ‘climate leaders’ are actively choosing to fail – and by a huge margin.

Failure

As such, and without a rapid sea change in the policy environment, the future for both humankind and many ecosystems looks bleak.

For thirty years we’ve swallowed the delusion offered by the blue pill, nonsense models of utopian tech and cheery tales of green growth. But in 2020, even the blue pill dealers are having their doubts. Perhaps now is the time to embrace the unpalatable reality revealed by the red pill?

Since 1990, and the publication of the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industry have risen by 62 percent - pumping another 870 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  

Set against this global failure, several countries claim to have demonstrated real leadership in cutting their emissions, the UK and Sweden amongst them. Such nations are regularly held up by academics, journalists and the ‘great and the good’ of the climate world as offering genuine hope that our climate commitments can yet be delivered within the existing economic paradigm.

But is such optimism well founded? This is the question our latest paper seeks to answer.

Budget

As the science makes clear, it is the total quantity of carbon dioxide emitted that most closely relates to the rise in global temperature, and by extension climate impacts. Whilst such a carbon budget framework comes with inevitable scientific uncertainties, it is sufficiently robust to provide an adequate guide for assessing strategies and policies for reducing emissions.

The real challenges with a carbon budget framework are political. First, what chance of meeting the 2°C and 1.5°C temperature commitments is implied by the language of the Paris Agreement?

Second, how should a global carbon budget be divided between nations so as to provide a ‘fair’ national share? And third, how can we guard against governments (and others) adopting accountancy ruses to hide how their emissions are set to exceed their budget.

The Paris Agreement requires the global community to cut emissions in line with holding rising temperatures to “well below 2°C” and ideally “pursue .. 1.5°C”. But let’s be clear, for lots of people around the world, for future generations and for many ecosystems, even these temperature limits do not represent safe thresholds.

Nevertheless, we’re in 2020, and safe rises in temperature passed us by some years back. So, in terms of temperature, Paris now represents the best (or perhaps more accurately, the least-worst) outcome we can achieve.

Challenges

Based on this, and using the headline carbon budgets from the latest IPCC report (SR1.5), we derive a ‘Paris-compliant’ global carbon budget. With careful consideration of non-energy emissions of CO2 from industrial processes (particularly cement) and deforestation, and updating the budgets to the start of 2020, we estimate a Paris-compliant global carbon budget for energy-related emissions of around 660 billion tonnes of CO2 (660GtCO2).

This is the total quantity of CO2 that can be emitted from the start of 2020 out to and beyond 2100. To put this in perspective, it is around eighteen years of current (2019) global emissions. Whilst there are uncertainties as to the science underpinning this 660Gt, for now it represents our best interpretation of the Paris Agreement and the latest science.

However, it should be noted that the early ‘earth system model’ runs that will feed into the next IPCC report (AR6), hint that this value may be too optimistic. Consequently, we suggest that somewhere around 660Gt is considered the maximum value for guiding policy.

Having established a Paris-compliant global carbon budget (for CO2 from energy only), the next challenge was to divide it between the nations of the world. In doing this we took seriously the issue of equity contained within global climate agreements from Rio (1992) through to Paris (2015).

Under the guise of the long-established concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities & respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC), we initially split the world into “developing country parties” and “developed country parties” (Parisian language, that broadly means poorer and wealthier nations). Within these categories, China still classifies as a “developing” country, having a GDP per capita of 23 percent of a typical “developed” nation and just 14 percent of an average US citizen.

Equity

Informed by the concept of CBDR-RC and the equity steer of Paris, we assumed “developing” nations would take a little longer, than developed nations, to achieve a fully zero carbon energy system. Nevertheless, the emissions pathway we finally established for this group was more demanding than anything yet described in the mainstream literature, with the estimated total CO2 per person/year out to 2050 still well below that of developed nations.

This enshrining of ongoing unfairness emerged as an unavoidable and practical repercussion of there now being only a whisper of carbon budget remaining, even for 2°C.

Whilst we did not elaborate on the unfairness imposed on developing nations by wealthier countries choosing to maintain high levels of emissions, such unfairness is clearly a key issue in determining the appropriate transfers of climate-finance between “developed” and “developing country parties”.

Bringing together the IPCC’s carbon budgets for a likely chance of 2°C with the equity steer of Paris, we produced a carbon budget for developed nations of 95 to136 billion tonnes of CO2 (again from 2020 out to, and beyond, 2100). The question then, was how do we divide this budget between all the developed nations, with a specific focus on the implications of any such division for the UK and Sweden.

Grandfathering

There are many options for dividing a finite carbon budget, some informed by population, others based on historical emissions, and still others guided by economic indicators. All of these have their respective merits and drawbacks.

The option we judged most appropriately reflects national circumstances within the developed country parties was ‘Grandfathering’. Under this regime, each nation received a proportion of the future carbon budget in line with their recent proportion of emissions.

In essence Grandfathering captures many elements of the other options – from structural lock-in of existing infrastructure through to the economic capacity for reform. Using this approach we estimated that the UK and Sweden had post-2020 carbon budget ranges of, respectively, 2.8-3.7 and 0.28-0.37 billion tonnes.

To reiterate, these budget ranges are for CO2 arising solely from their national energy systems, including an estimate for fuel used in international aviation and shipping. They also relate to a likely chance of staying below 2°C, but only an unlikely chance of 1.5°C. 

To put the budgets in context, for the UK, this range is between seven and nine years of current emissions (based on 2018 data), with Sweden’s range representing six to eight years. Transposing these budgets into emission reductions, points to immediate and double-digit mitigation rates (e.g. for the UK, 10 percent per year starting January 2020).

Assuming a five year period to overcome political and physical inertia, this equates to a rapid ramping up of mitigation to around 10 percent by 2025, 20 percent by 2030 and achieving a real-zero carbon energy system by around 2035.

Legislation

The question then arises as to how these Paris-compliant carbon budgets and emission pathways compare with those implied in the ‘climate progressive’ legislation and policy frameworks of the UK and Sweden?

As it stands, whilst the UK does have a near term and five-year carbon budget framing, the latest government legislation, and indeed the Committee on Climate Change’s (the CCC) ‘net-zero’ report, do not provide a total carbon budget for the UK. Sweden’s much weaker 2017 legislation makes no reference to any budgeting framework, providing little more than long-term (not in my term of office) carbon-reduction targets and loosely defined criteria of an emission pathway.

Consequently, we had to estimate the total national carbon budgets implied in the legislation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the budgets prescribed by both the UK and Swedish governments were far more generous to their own nations than those forthcoming from our analysis.

At 9GtCO2 for the UK, the official national budget is between 2.4 and 3.2 times greater than what we judge is Paris-compliant. For Sweden, at 0.83GtCO2, the range is between 2.2 and 3.0 times larger than our estimate. 

Mitigation

There are two immediate interpretations of the UK and Swedish governments’ choice of weak mitigation agendas. It could be an extrapolation of a long history of colonialism, arrogantly expecting poorer nations to accept still smaller carbon budgets to compensate for richer countries reluctance to question their socio-economic paradigm.

Or, perhaps there’s widespread but silent acceptance of Paris as little more than a rhetorical device, with the temperature thresholds serving as a convenient delusionary distraction.

Both of these see the Agreement as a useful tool for encouraging incremental greening of business as usual and offering NGOs and more concerned citizens something to cling to, but ultimately they reduce Paris to a mere handmaiden of existing power structures and the dominant economic model. 

The scale of the failure seemingly locked in to the UK’s ‘climate progressive’ legislation really becomes evident when played out at a global level. If every nation failed to deliver their respective Paris-compliant carbon budget by a factor similar to that of the UK, the global emissions would relate to holding the temperature rise to “well below 2.6 to 3°C” and “pursuing … 2 to 2.3°C”.

This is a profoundly different human and ecological world to the Paris framing of  “well below 2°C” and pursue ... 1.5°C”. But it does facilitate near-term business-as-usual.

Reform 

What we currently have is polished green tweaks, a focus on efficiency rather than absolute emissions, rousing speeches by ministers, academics rewarded for evermore reductionist tinkering, journalists regurgitating soothing technical balms – and with anyone daring to ask system-level questions quickly admonished and silenced. 

And as the decade passes and today’s great and the good good have either retired with their ill-gotten gains to Tuscany or are pushing up the daises beneath a headstone of titles, gongs and prizes, so our children will begin witnessing the legacy of climate chaos we have knowingly bequeathed them. 

It did not have to be like this, and, with luck, we may still have an opportunity to exchange white lies and delusion for uncomfortable truth and fundamental reform.

If climate sensitivity plays in our favour (and sadly this looks to be increasingly unlikely), then a mitigation agenda aligned with “well below 2°C” is still within our grasp. As for “pursuing … 1.5°C” – this has almost certainly gone the way of the Dodo.

The only glimmer of resurrection is if we deliver real-zero informed by 2°C and ‘negative emission technologies’ (NETs) do become viable and sustainable at scale. In stark contrast and under the fluttering banner of ‘reality’, we are already relying on ‘NETs’ and other ruses even for many of our 3°C scenarios; so the prospects of 1.5°C are vanishingly slim, with 2°C also now rapidly striding towards extinction.

Catalyst

Recognising where we are today, whilst waking up to the Orwellian recycling of failure into narratives of success, risks extinguishing glimmers of hope and undermining any drive for action.

But as 1.5°C drifts into history and the prospect of 2°C rapidly fades, it is essential to understand that these temperatures are not simple thresholds. Staying below 2.1°C is better than 2.3°C, which itself is an improvement over 3°C.

Yes, the higher the temperature the more people will die and the greater will be the levels of societal disruption and ecological breakdown. But how all this finally plays out is subject to suites of interacting uncertainties, from scientific through to societal responses.

So acknowledging our pitiful and callous failures should not be used as an excuse for despair and acquiescence, but rather as a catalyst for a real mitigation agenda far removed from the spin and prestige of today’s nonsense.

The only absolute on climate change is that the future will be radically different. Either we continue with deception and dithering only to be battered by the consequent climate impacts, or we immediately begin a deep and profound transformation towards a progressive, sustainable and zero-carbon future.

Alternative

Ultimately both are different worlds from where we reside today. The former allows high-emitters a few years reprieve at the cost of long-term devastation for many, if not all.

Whilst the latter repurposes the labour, resources and productive capacity of society from serving primarily the high consumption lifestyles of the relative few, to delivering a sustainable epoch for the many.

We shouldn’t be here, but this is where our myopic choices have brought us. Whilst the increasingly shaky hands of the old guard continue to dispense blue pills, there are now firmer and younger hands offering a red pill alternative. It is not sweet – but it offers a viable home and a chance to develop a more life-affirming future.

These Authors

Isak Stoddard is a PhD researcher at the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, Uppsala University. Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change, with joint appointment between the Universities of Manchester, Uppsala and Bergen. This article summarises and expands on a paper, “A factor of two”, published in Climate Policy, May 2020. 

Image: Tony Webster, Flickr

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