Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Time for Plan B?

It's less than a week to Copenhagen. On Monday evening I heard Douglas Alexander, minister for International Development, say how important it is to get a deal and how hard the UK government will be working. I'd like to believe it. And it MIGHT happen. That is, we might get a deal that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enough to keep the temperature increase below two degrees. 

But we also might not. In business and war it's always wise to have a backup plan in case your main plan doesn't work. So what should be in the UK's plan B?

We'll need Plan B if we can't keep the temperature rise below two degrees. The Plan B world will be defined by rising temperatures and sea levels, more extreme weather events and more refugees, both nationally and internationally. These effects will continue for several, perhaps many, decades with no certainty about the end point.

Disaster planning

With more storms, tornados, etc., we can expect more floods and other damaging events. 

Plan B should include higher standards for buildings and more investment in flood defences. New building on vulnerable land should be forbidden and some existing buildings will have to be strengthened or abandoned. We will also need extra investment in warning systems and the emergency services.

The cost of disasters will rise despite these measures and insurance premiums will rise in anticipation. The government will need to ensure that we have the right balance between prevention and compensation.


We are already abandoning some coastal land to the sea. This will happen increasingly fast in Plan B with obvious impacts on housing and agriculture. There may be some gains on high ground and in northern England and Scotland but the net effect will be negative. 

All land use will have to become more intensive. In China, where land hunger is a permanent feature, almost everyone lives in tower blocks. We'll need to go in that direction, reserving all agricultural land for agriculture. The planning system will have to become more restrictive and, probably, more directive. Wasteful use of land must become first socially disapproved and then illegal.


The world will progressively lose agricultural land so the price of imported food will rise. The UK will therefore have to become more self-sufficient in food whilst using less fossil fuel for agriculture. 

Plan B for agriculture will require a switch away from meat production to make more efficient use of the land and more intensive arable farming. New crop varieties will be needed to make best use of the new growing conditions and genetic engineering will be an essential tool if we are to do this in time.


If Copenhagen fails then there won't be a much point in cutting UK carbon emissions. However, energy security will be a big issue as climate change destabilises many of the areas from which we import oil and gas. 

The keys to keeping the lights on in an increasingly unstable world will be demand reduction, diversity of energy sources and increased fuel reserves. Plan B will reduce demand by subsidising better building insulation, improving public transport and discouraging flights and driving. Much the same as Plan A in fact.

Plan B will also include a shift to sustainable forms of energy generation. Increased use of wind and tide will reduce our oil and gas imports.  To provide diversity nuclear power will have a place, if we can secure access to Uranium, and it may be worth considering re-opening some coal mines. 


At best the UK will struggle to feed its people. Since most of the world will be worse affected than the UK the number of people trying to come here will continue to increase. If we cannot feed our current population we can hardly admit significant numbers of new residents. Therefore we won't.

Plan B will require much stricter immigration controls which must, in time, apply to EU citizens. Since that is contrary to EU principles Plan B requires us to at least consider withdrawl from the EU. Plan B will also require strengthening of border controls and a generally tougher attitude to would-be immigrants.


But that won't be enough. It will become apparent, over time, that we cannot feed our existing population.

Plan B will therefore involve measures to reduce the population. It's unlikely that emmigration can contribute much to this so we need to concentrate on the birth rate. Forward planning will allow us to do this by voluntary means if we do it soon enough. If not, compulsion may be necesary.

Civil liberties

Each of the policies I've discussed so far implies a reduction in traditional liberties. Several will create conflict with minority communities which will increase the need for social control. 

Plan B will include strengthening of the internal security apparatus. Our record over the last 20 years suggests that too much control will be a greater threat than too little. Plan B should therefore set out the liberties that can be maintained as well as those that cannot.


The biggest remaining uncertainty from a planing perspective is the pace of change. Today's IPCC projections show gradual worsening over many decades. Given foresight and determination it ought to be possible for the UK to implement Plan B.

However, several lines of evidence show that the climate could shift very much faster than that, in years rather than decades. Planning for this is probably pointless since there is no precedent for change on this scale since the death of the dinosaurs 65 muillion years ago. The human species will doubtless survive - we are very adaptable - but few human institutions would be likely to.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Deniers grow desperate

A few days ago someone sent me a link to an article in The Register in which Dr John Theon, ex-NASA scientist, declared that climate change is not man-made. He made a number of curious claims:

  • “The [climate] models do not realistically simulate the climate system because there are many very important sub-grid scale processes that the models either replicate poorly or completely omit.”
  • “Some scientists have manipulated the observed data to justify their model results” without explaining why.”
  • Jim “Hansen was never muzzled even though he violated NASA's official agency position on climate forecasting."

It didn’t take long to throw serious doubt on all this. For instance, a posting on pointed to criticism of many of the supposed facts. In particular the claim that the Bush White House did not attempt to muzzle Jim Hansen is absurd given all the coverage on this. (See, in particular: )

Now it turns out that Theon has been a climate change denier for a few years – which makes me wonder why this has come up now. His views are being promoted by Senator James Inhofe, Republican Senator for Oklahoma. The person most criticized in Theon’s statement is Jim Hansen and Jim Hansen is a leading supporter of energetic action against climate change. Maybe this is an attempt to discredit Hansen and thus to encourage Obama not to take the action needed.

If so it shows how desperate the denial lobby has become. What we have here is opinions from one man that relate largely to a period years after he ceased to work on climate issues. Not exactly compelling.

The body of evidence for man-made global warming, by contrast, is huge. It wouldn't be disturbed by the opinions of a former NASA climate scientist even if he were Mandela, Einstein and Pauling rolled into one!

Friday, 16 January 2009

Pricing carbon emissions

We all know that the long-term survival of our civilisation, if not of our species, depends on sharply reducing our use of fossil fuels. The UK government has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The single most important tool must be to charge companies and individuals for their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and this may be done by imposing a tax or by requiring permits (which have to be paid for). But what should the price be? And how should it be set?

Last summer Friends of the Earth ran a seminar to discuss the options. The 26 participants were drawn from a mixture of academic, consulting and campaigning backgrounds. Perhaps surprisingly, for an FoE event, the seminar did not come to a simple conclusion but did look at four approaches:

  1. Social cost, ie the cost to society.
  2. Marginal cost of abatement, ie the cost of reducing emissions.
  3. Market cost
  4. “Precaution and pragmatism”

None of these approaches produces a clearly correct result (estimates of the costs vary wildly) and each is open to several criticisms. In particular, in each case the number you get depends on the assumptions you make about both the physics of climate change and the policies that governments will follow over several decades. For instance, the more effective we suppose future policies to be:

  • the lower the calculated social cost per ton and likely market price but,
  • the greater, probably, will be the marginal cost of abatement.

In addition:

  • The social cost depends on the values we assign to human life and convenience, ecosystem services and various kinds of damage to life and the environment.
  • The current market price, e24/ton, is based on a badly flawed trading scheme and is absurdly low.

The meeting was unable to decide which approach would be best. I, however, am less cautious.

The reason for setting a price is to enable market mechanisms and organisations’ own decision-making processes to make the decisions that will reduce GHG emissions. We ought to accept the logic of this and set the price so that it produces, in the short-term, the change we need. If, for instance, we need to reduce emissions by 3% pa then we set a price that we expect to do this. If, after a year, we are wrong we adjust the price. We should also, obviously, not make or permit investments that encourage additional emissions.

This, in fact, is the “Precaution and pragmatism” approach. It has five important advantages:

  1. If pursued seriously, it’s almost certain to produce the required reduction
  2. It defines the issue as political and does not seek to hide political choices behind a technocratic smokescreen.
  3. The accountability for setting the price is explicit
  4. The accountable body, the government, is subject to democratic recall.
  5. The link between goal and price is simple and explicit.

On this approach the key decision is just how fast to reduce GHG emissions. My own preference is for 4% pa – which would reduce emission levels by 35% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. This isn’t very different from the budgets set by the UK Climate Change Committee.

There are, obviously, several disadvantages. First the carbon price may fluctuate wildly in the early years since we don’t really know how business and consumers will respond to price signals. Second, government has to review, and possibly revise, the price every year. This provides many opportunities for bad decisions, especially in difficult economic times.

Despite this “Precaution and pragmatism” is the best choice precisely because it is so straightforward.