Friday, 17 December 2010

Arithmetic of delay

So the Climate Change conference at Cancun has produced a mouse. What does that tell us about the future?

Let's start by noting our target. In 2009 a group of Nobel winners declared that, to avoid catastrophic climate change, world greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015. Actually, that gives a us a good chance of avoiding catastrophe - not a guarantee - which doesn't seem good enough. But let's take that for now.

Now what's the best we can realistically hope for internationally?

To achieve the Lifeboat scenario (my most optimistic scenario) we need a strong, binding, international treaty on climate change. Treaties, however, take time. The 2011 conference in Durban cannot agree a treaty - a year is too little time - but might it agree the principles of a treaty? That requires the US to agree the principle of major emissions cuts by 2050 and China to agree the principle of some restraint to its own emissions. Now these are not independent. China won't agree to anything unless the US agrees cuts and the US won't agree cuts unless China joins the process.

But the Republicans in the US Congress aren't going to agree anything and the earliest we might get a more sensible Congress is 2012 - not that that looks likely. But, just maybe, we might see a change of heart following the 2012 elections allowing agreement on principles in 2013. (Most of any agreement is negotiated in the months before the conference so 2012 is too soon.)

So how long to get from principles to treaty?

Effective action on climate change touches every country and industry. Action needs to be decisive - which means that there will be winners and losers. Governments are not global philanthropists - they defend national interests - so they will want their people and companies to be winners not losers. Does two years sound long enough to turn principles into a treaty with teeth?

An optimist might think so. So, just maybe, we could have a successor to Kyoto by 2015.

International treaties don't come into force until they've been ratified (ie formally approved) by a majority of the signatories. In many cases this requires approval by the national parliament and some parliaments are not controlled by their governments. (The US comes to mind again.)

It took eight years for the Kyoto Treaty to come into force due to delays by various major states. How long will ratification of the successor treaty take? This is obviously another unanswerable question but if it's eight years we may as well give up now. Can we believe in three years?

Let's make another act of optimism and say three. So the new treaty comes into force in 2018.

Of course, we'll still only have words on paper. Now we need to consider the institutions, equipment (eg for greenhouse gas monitoring), staffing, etc. needed. But some of this could be done even before the treaty came into force if some country or group of countries was prepared to fund it. So maybe implementation need only take another year.

Reaching the peak
So, in 2019, the restraint measures in the treaty could begin to bite. Still it's likely that greenhouse gas emissions will have continued to rise since 2010 - as they did in almost every preceding year - and these things have their own momentum. Instant results are impossible even where good will exists (and it is never universal).

So maybe we could see emissions peak in 2021 and reduce, if only by 0.5%, in 2022. That's seven years later than we need to avoid the likelihood of catastrophic climate change.

What are the odds?
The 2022 date is based on five separate optimistic assumptions. Any one is conceivable but that all should prove correct is not. Therefore I conclude that greenhouse gas emissions will not peak by 2022 and may peak much later - if at all.

If saving the world climate depends on achieving peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 then catastrophe is already inevitable. It's past time to confront the real problems we face.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Scenario 1: The Lifeboat Scenario

In this scenario the nations collaborate soon enough to restrain greenhouse gas concentrations and the temperature increase is kept below two degrees. As a result we avoid catastrophic climate change. I call this the Lifeboat scenario since it requires that every major state recognises that we are all in the same boat and that its resources are barely adequate.

The technology base
In his book Heat George Monbiot has described the technology changes needed in the UK to reduce its emissions sufficiently. He believes that the UK and developed European nations can retain their standard of living (except for flying) by making an extensive set of changes to our industrial base. Most of this is plausible but almost every part is challenging. His conclusion that we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% by 2050 requires that we meet every one of these challenges. Given the lack of political will and lamentable failures of Kyoto this would be absurd even if we started immediately. And, that, of course, requires a binding international agreement.

It’s now clear that the failure at Copenhagen was not a temporary or anomalous result but a true reflection of the understandings and priorities of the major powers – especially China and the USA. It follows that the required international agreement will not be established in the near future. The most optimistic view with any plausibility is that the nations may have agreed on the need for effective action by 2015 – though 2020 is more likely. This has major implications for the actions needed to keep us below two degrees.

In brief we’ll have to use geo-engineering methods either to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or to reduce the amount of sunlight falling on the planet. Since all geo-engineering methods have disadvantages we’ll probably have to do both – and to use multiple methods for each.

We will need to do more either by cutting our standard of living or by reducing our numbers.

Global organisation
The key assumption for this scenario is that the nations collaborate but this collaboration will not be easy. As with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) there will be disputes and we will need a World Climate Authority (WCA), analogous to the World Trade Organisation, to deal with them. The WCA will have, at minimum, to issue emissions permits and to check that actual emissions do not exceed these permissions. It will have to impose sanctions against defaulters. These sanctions will have to be backed by at least the threat of military force, though it’s unclear whether this will require a world police force.

It will also have to regulate the geo-engineering systems. Since these are likely to damage some countries and regions even as they improve world climate this regulation will need to include payments, probably very large payments, of compensation. Such payments are needed not only in the name of justice but also as a highly visible sign of the unsustainability of the combination of excessive GHG emissions and geo-engineering.

Cultural change
This scenario requires changes in production with fewer new products, more repair and recycling and longer product lifetimes. It’s likely that the developed countries will see falls in their standards of living; at least according to such usual measures as GDP per head.

A cultural change will be needed to ensure long-term support for the often uncomfortable policies needed to meet our environmental targets, and I’ll call this Green Puritanism. Green Puritans will disapprove of excessive consumption and travel and these attitudes will reinforce and be reinforced by laws against waste. They will emphasise human solidarity and regard competition as a dangerous force – like fire in the proverb, a good servant but a bad master. They will be sceptical of innovations that do not reduce energy use and our environmental impact.

Green Puritans will disapprove of much fashion, since annual changes drive waste, and of its handmaiden, celebrity culture, since that celebrates excess. Indeed they will disapprove of a great deal of advertising and commerce.

Green Puritans will insist that the public and charitable sectors have inherent value and are not to be seen as inferior copies of the private sector. Indeed, they will demand that these sectors behave differently and will the transformation of public companies into mutual societies and co-operatives.

Green Puritans should not be hostile to pleasure (as conventional puritans have usually been). They will applaud the local and home-based pleasures of food, drink, conversation, sport, sex and family life. They will disapprove of energy-intensive pleasures such as motor-racing and holidays in remote places.

The economy
The Green Puritan change will affect business profoundly. In the developed economies growth will cease to be an acceptable objective and may in some cases actually be penalised. Business leaders will have to find other measures of value, such as sustainability and human well-being, and discover how to link them to their internal performance assessment systems.

Much of the Lifeboat economy will be less volatile than we’ve become used to with fewer fashion shifts and less random change. Exceptions will include:
  • Energy generation – where the greenhouse gas emissions targets will prove highly demanding.
  • Energy use – where new opportunities will be sought in all sectors
  • The use of ICT to replace travel through telepresence, simulations and games.
Life in the lifeboat
Lifeboat will be different from our world but could be a good world to live in. Let’s look at the advantages for people in the developed countries – who would be most effected:
  • It’s sustainable. People living in this scenario would not be dooming their grandchildren to catastrophe; and would know it.
  • It’s more relaxed. Without the economic pressure for growth and the psychological pressures of advertising life would be less frantic and people less stressed. People in developed countries would gain health benefits.
  • It’s healthier with stronger communities. As Wilkinson and Picket have shown inequality undermines health, communities and social order. It increases many bad things including ill-health, drug abuse, obesity and crime.
These advantages will take time to become apparent. The first ten years of the Lifeboat scenario will therefore be especially difficult.

It’s tempting to claim that there would be benefits for the less developed countries too. Sustainability would certainly be a benefit for them – most immediately those, like Kenya, Bangladesh and low-lying island states, in the front-line of climate change. Later, states dependent on seasonal snow-melt for irrigation would see benefits. These include India, Pakistan and China.

In general the emerging middle classes of India, China, etc., would share the other benefits too. Continuing economic growth – with its benefits for the poor – is certainly compatible with this scenario but the degree to it occurs will depend political decisions.

In the long run, of course, the Lifeboat scenario is best because it avoids catastrophic climate change whilst allowing for some justice in the allocation of scarce resources.

[This post replaces the description of the Lifeboat scenario published in November 2007.]

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Pessimism in parliament

Last week’s meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change confirmed my current pessimism. Organised by leading development charity Practical Action on 12 October the meeting focused on the importance of adaptation in a ‘four degree future’.

Speakers from a variety of think-tanks and development organisations explained what was needed (essentially the Lifeboat scenario) and noted that the UN process is not on track to deliver it.

So far as I can see the climate change policies of the developed and some developing nations may be summarised as follows:

  • We will set greenhouse gas emissions targets that are not strict enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • We will fail to meet those targets.
  • We will promise the poorest countries the money to adapt to the climate change we are causing.
  • We will set the amounts at less than is needed to adapt.
  • We will fail to provide the amounts we promise, and
  • We will call much of its loans and later demand repayment.
  • We will promise to provide adaptation funds from the Carbon Trading market
  • We will cheat in allocating quotas.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Will the lawyers save the Earth?

Unlikely, I know, but let's not underestimate the sheer tenacity of a lawyer in search of someone to sue!

We know that climate change is due to human activity and that it's made extreme weather events more likely. Recent extreme events include Hurricanes Katrina and Catarina, the European 2003 heatwave, the Kenyan drought and the current Pakistani floods. (So that's five continents covered.)

So far judges have ruled the connection between specific human actions and losses due to extreme weather to be too uncertain to support legal action. That's partly a matter of science - the science hasn't been sufficiently clear - but a recent workshop in Colorado shows that that's changing. According to Anil Ananthaswamy in New Scientist last week scientists at the meeting felt that it is now practical to determine how large a contribution climate change has made to a given extreme event.

There have already been several attempts to sue for extreme weather losses. Though none has succeeded improvements in the science are bound to encourage more lawyers and it seems only a matter of time before one of them finds the winning formula.

America's rigidity was one reason for the failure of the Copenhagen conference. Will lawyers bring change that the scientists cannot?

And if so, what will bring the Chinese - the other cause of failure in Copenhagen - on board?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Which prominent country is spending one billion pounds building a 4,000 km fence to keep out its neighbour’s Muslim citizens?

Hint: It’s not Israel.

It’s India.

India has been building a fence along its border with Bangladesh since before 2005. The fence is about eight feet high, though higher in some places. It is accompanied by a road and patrolled by 80,000 troops of the Indian Border Security Force.

India has defended this rather un-neighbourly conduct by pointing to the supposed threats of attack by Islamic extremists and of illegal (Muslim) immigration. The first is real but small. In any case fanatics are more likely to come from Pakistan than from Bangladesh and, as the Mumbai attack showed, can easily arrive from the sea.

There is, of course, no real threat to India from the ten million Bangladeshis living there, many of whom were welcomed after Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. But there is local friction. Muslims of Bangladeshi origin are thought to comprise 30% of the population of the (mainly Hindu) Indian state of Assam.

These ‘immigrants’ are the subject of the usual accusations, eg ‘they’re taking our jobs’. And, of course, the problem is talked up by rightwing Hindu politicians.

So far, so familiar. But this fence has a broader significance if you look a few decades ahead.

In July 2010 the CIA put Bangladesh’s population at 158 million and its growth rate at 1.3%. That growth is unlikely to be maintained but with a median age of just 23½ and 34% of its people under 14 substantial population growth is inevitable.

By contrast the land area of Bangledesh seems bound to shrink over the coming decades. That’s most obviously because rising sea levels will flood low-lying land but also because more severe storms will make some of that land uninhabitable.

Squeezed out by the rising sea many Bangladeshis will look for somewhere less vulnerable – and where else will they look but India? (Bangladesh’s only other land neighbour is Burma – hardly attractive.)

In this context India’s security fence is a step in creating the Police World scenario described three years ago. It’s not a large step; fencing one’s border is hardly a tyrannical act. But it is through small, defensible, steps that the Police World will be built.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Breaking down the growth fetish

Today, we face four major crises, two immediate and two slow-burn. There’s an immediate economic crisis due to folly in the banking sector and an immediate crisis of social frustration due to – but I’ll come to that.

The slowburn crises are the threat of disruption from climate change within the next 50-100 years and the threat of loss of species and habitats due to economic and population growth within 20-40 years.

The existence of these crises is beyond reasonable doubt. But what about the solutions?

Climate change

If we keep on as we are we can expect a two degree temperature increase well before 2100 followed, almost certainly, by much more rapid rises as positive feedback effects cut in. I’ve discussed the likely social and political consequences in two scenarios (refs).

It’s fairly obvious that to avoid this we need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sharply and globally. This requires us to decarbonise energy production, make less stuff and travel less. The exact mix and timing of these actions is far from obvious – except that a start is already overdue. We need to give up our fixation on growth in consumer goods.

Since we emit GHGs mainly to benefit the rich countries (and elites in poor ones) whilst the costs fall largely on the poor justice requires that we allow the poor to improve their situations whilst taking most of the cuts in the developed countries. We also need to stabilise and then reduce world population.

Species loss

We are already losing species and habitats at an alarming rate. Headlong development is decimating the rain forests whilst the ecology of the sea is already impoverished. These losses contribute to climate change, by removing forests, and deprive us of potentially valuable plant products such as medicines. There’s also a more subtle loss when beautiful things are lost.

To avoid these losses we need to stop treating land and sea as infinite resources. In recognising that we are already using many at unsustainable rates we see that current rates of extraction and use are unsustainable. Again growth in physical activity, and especially our fixation on growth, can be seen to be a key driver of the crisis.

And, again, since the rich nations and elites have created these problems (Britain cut down its forests centuries ago) it’s only just that they should bear the brunt of change.


The financial crisis has already destroyed jobs, undermined pensions and frightened many people. The policies of many governments, including that of the UK, ensure that much of this will continue for years.

At the root of the crisis are irresponsible risk-taking by bankers who believed, rightly, that they had nothing to lose and weak regulation by governments who overlooked the eternal truth that nothing lasts for ever. It’s easy, and certainly right, to condemn the individuals who took the risks and weakened regulation. But behind individual errors we see again the pernicious ideology of unfettered growth. Growth in business, no matter how silly! Growth without limit!

It was the ideology of unlimited growth that led buyers to believe that house prices could only rise and led Gordon Brown to believe that he could relieve poverty out of growing taxes. All were wrong.

The remedies include tighter bank regulation, bank taxes and penalties for excessive risk taking and for bankers to compensate the rest of us for their folly. But we also need to set business and national objectives that are not elaborate ways of saying “Give me more”.

Social frustration

There’s more to a good society than consuming more goods and services each year. We all know that and value relationships, families and our communities. Margaret Thatcher may have said “there is no such thing as society” but not even the Tories now believe this.

There are many social problems to worry about, from litter and obesity to crime and drug abuse. And there are differentials, such as the shorter lives of the poor, that ought to be cause for constant outrage in a civilised society.

Sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in The Spirit Level that inequality of income is the single biggest cause of these social problems. In Affluenza Oliver James has shown how this affects individuals. Faced with this evidence a desire for greater equality is more than a political choice, it’s an absolute imperative if we are to live in a more healthy and congenial society.

There are many barriers to reducing inequality. One is the vested interest of the rich – but Wilkinson and Pickett have shown that all but the top few percent would be happier and more fulfilled in a more equal society. Another is our belief that we must, at all costs, have growth.

The fetish of growth

And so we come back to growth.

Growth is the modern philosopher’s stone. It will relieve poverty, reward entrepreneurs, fund social services and provide our pensions. Even to suggest that it’s a problem is enough to mark you as a freak whilst no party except the Green Partyopposes it. Yet growth, in its current form, is entirely unsustainable.

The growth fetish is maintained by a combination of vested interests and a lack of imagination and because, above all, growth is simple. A single number is the measure of economic value.

But no one number is the measure of human value. So I propose the creation of a set of metrics and a process, the social impact statement, to assess them.

The social impact statement

The social impact statement (SIS) is analogous to the environmental impact statement required for a development project. Government, indeed anyone promoting a policy, should be required to produce a social impact statement for that policy. This statement should estimate the impact of the policy on a set of key metrics including economic inequality, health, crime as well as GNP.

Since the relationships between policies and outcomes are often contested we should create an Office of Social Responsibility (analogous to the Office of Budget Responsibility) to help government departments produce sound SISs. The OSR would be funded to commission good research on the consequences of policies and the relationships between policies and the key metrics.

These changes would not produce a revolution. They would not in themselves block vested interests or defuse the bile of the tabloid press. They would be embarrassing for all parties since all have indefensible policies.

But they would contribute to a rational discussion of policies from which we would all benefit.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Scenario 4: Emergency braking

In this scenario the nations do not collaborate effectively but the temperature increase is kept below two degrees nonetheless. Here’s how this might happen.

Copenhagen showed that the USA and China were unwilling to make the changes necessary to achieve the lifeboat scenario whilst China wasn’t even willing for other countries to make the necessary commitments. In this situation most major GHG emitters will give climate change a low priority and the pace of climate change will accelerate in line with the IPCC’s business-as-usual scenario.

By about 2020 the political leaderships of China, India and USA will have recognised that the threat of climate change is serious and urgent but they will remain locked into existing attitudes and policies.

There will then be a serious climate crisis. It might be a storm, flood, drought or fire. Its immediate consequences may be very severe – thousands of deaths and $Bs lost in property damage. However its largest impact may come from symbolic damage, eg the collapse of the Statue of Liberty in a major storm-surge.

This will lead one major nation, let’s call it Maverick, to a realistic re-examination of the climate change threat. It will conclude that it is already too late for the orderly conservation-based approach described in the Lifeboat scenario. As a result, Maverick will take unilateral action in the form of one or more major geo-engineering programmes. Maverick will also introduce strong domestic emission-reduction policies and launch a major campaign for international collaboration. These programmes will restrain the temperature growth within ten years but will probably have a variety of adverse effects on other nations.

At least some of these nations will oppose these geo-engineering programmes but Maverick will use its diplomatic, cultural, financial and commercial muscle to neutralise this opposition. It’s not clear whether war can be completely avoided in this scenario but I’m assuming that any military action against Maverick will not stop its geo-engineering efforts. Maverick will also use its leverage to prevent other powers from benefiting disproportionately from its expenditure on geo-engineering.

The initial hostility to Maverick’s unilateralism will, eventually, be followed by acceptance of its inevitability and even desirability. This scenario is unstable and could degenerate into either of the high temperature scenarios. However, Maverick’s unilateralism may buy enough time for the creation of a consensus between the main powers. This consensus could allow this scenario to evolve into Lifeboat. It will not be sustainable if it doesn’t.