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.]