Caution from India on taking a “net Zero” pledge

The Indian Express recently featured a joint editorial by three of my favorite Indian analysts, Ambuj Sagar, Lavanya Rajamani, and Navroz Dubash, in which the three, all influential in their own right, team up to deliver a common message — India needs to mobilize, but both it and the world may be better off if it concentrates on its existing development first agenda rather than jumping on the “net zero” bandwagon.

I don’t entirely agree with this take. I would have preferred a much stronger emphasis on the emergency, more consideration of the need for rapidly scaled up international support, and more emphasis on adaptation and loss & damage finance. But “the three” have good reasons for their take, which you can imagine pretty easily if you read between the lines, and in particular if you recall the grim nature of the Modi regime.

Class Footprints in the new Emissions Gap Report

The focus of the 2020 Emissions Gap report is, of course, the emissions gap, which, alas, the pandemic will do little to close. But this year’s edition of this indispensable series also contains a surprise: Chapter 6: Bridging the Gap – the role of equitable low-carbon lifestyles.

The gap itself has been well reported, so I’ll not review it. The crucial numbers are that total emissions reached 59.1 GtCO2e in 2019, leaving us with a gap of 15 GtCO2e to close by 2030, if we would have a 66% chance of achieving the 2°C temperature goal, or 32 GtCO2e if we’re still dreaming about 1.5°C (with the same 66% probability).  Today’s pledges (formally, NDCs) are absolutely not on the necessary scale.

“countries must collectively increase their NDC ambitions threefold to get on track to a 2°C goal and more than five-fold to get on track to the 1.5°C goal.”

Furthermore, most of the pandemic stimulus has thus far been wasted. Globally, Covid related government fiscal spending has to this point amounted to about $12 trillion, a huge percentage of 2020’s global GDP. Unfortunately, a lot of this money has gone into high fossil sectors. The details are more than dispiriting, for they show that many countries have used the pandemic emergency to deepen their support for fossil energy. According to Energy Policy Tracker, the world’s largest countries, grouped into the G20, had (as of December 9th) directed more than $240 billion in stimulus funds to support high-carbon activities and fossil energy, while $157 billion had gone to renewables and low-carbon activities. The US, a particularly egregious fossil funder, had directed over $70 billion to high-carbon activities.

The surprise, and a good reason to go beyond the executive summaries and actually read the GAP Report, is Chapter 6, which focuses on “lifestyle emissions” or, as I prefer, “class footprints.” The first part of this chapter ably summarizes the latest research. The second part is also worth a good look, in part because it offers a master class in just how bland and bloodless analytic prose can get, even when it’s taking on politically fraught matters of absolutely existential significance – like the burden of the rich and their consumption.

Anyway, here’s the takeaway, in a nutshell:

“Around half the consumption emissions of the global top 10 per cent and 1 per cent are associated with citizens of high-income countries, and most of the other half with citizens in middle-income countries (Chancel and Piketty 2015; Oxfam and SEI 2020). One study estimates that the ‘super-rich’ top 0.1 per cent of earners have per capita emissions of around 217 tCO2 – several hundred times greater than the average of the poorest half of the global population.”

The two citations here are essential reading. The Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty paper, Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris, is I suppose a classic, because it came out before Paris. (I reviewed it here). The Oxfam and Stockholm Environment Institute paper, The Carbon Inequality Era: An Assessment of the Global Distribution of Consumption Emissions Among Individuals from 1990 to 2015 and Beyond, is the hot new item, and it deserves far more attention than it has received.

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Great overview of “tipping points” science

Of all the fraught issues raised by the climate crisis, tipping points–or, more recently, “tipping cascades”–are the most fraught. Pessimism can be self-fulfilling–it comes to that.

And yet there is the truth, which isn’t looking particularly good. Which is why I recommend The Tipping Points at the Heart of the Climate Crisis, which was published a while ago in The Guardian. It’s the best simple overview to the state of tipping point science I’ve seen, and its both up to date and judicious. No “doomsterism” here, but not false comfort either. Rather, simple quotes, as for example when Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research tells us:

‘The 2016 agreement committed most countries to limit warming to 1.5 to 2C . . . Winkelmann argues that 1.5C is the right target, because it takes into account the existence of the tipping points and gives the best chance of avoiding them. “For some of these tipping elements,” she says, “we’re already in that danger zone.”’

I particularly appreciated the straightforward manner in which Michael Marshall, the author of this piece, dealt with the debate about 2018’s “Hothouse Earth” paper, which was itself a tipping point. After its publication, the extent of our danger was palpably clearer. Straightforward like so:

“In 2018, researchers including [Tim] Lenton and Winkelmann explored the question in a much-discussed study. “The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth,” they wrote. The danger threshold might be only decades away at current rates of warming.

Lenton says the jury is still out on whether this global threshold exists, let alone how close it is, but that it is not something that should be dismissed out of hand.

“For me, the strongest evidence base at the moment is for the idea that we could be committing to a ‘wethouse’, rather than a hothouse,” says Lenton. “We could see a cascade of ice sheet collapses.” This would lead to “a world that has no substantive ice in the northern hemisphere and a lot less over Antarctica, and the sea level is 10 to 20 metres higher”. Such a rise would be enough to swamp many coastal megacities, unless they were protected.”

Much recommended.

“Fear” vs “Hope” in Climate Communications?

How about brutal honesty?

I live near The Breakthrough Institute (the execrable* one in Oakland), but I remain a definite fan of the The Breakthrough Institute (the admirable one in Melbourne). How could I not when David Spratt, its Research Coordinator, sends out missives like “Fear” versus “hope” in #climate communications. How about brutal honesty?

Read it. It’s basically a tweet stream and it won’t take you long, and it references an admirable chain of comments and papers, all of which any citizen of our frail civilization should be familiar with. The last is from the scientist Kate Marvel, who sums the position nicely in five words. “We need courage, not hope.”

* Is this too harsh? How about “unhelpful”? Is that nicer? In any case, an honest appraisal of the work of the BTI, over its organizational lifetime, would have to conclude that, on balance, it’s existence has been a net negative.

Kevin Anderson Speaks

It’s two years now since Paris, and time for another dose of Kevin Anderson, straight-shooter extraordinaire.  You can get it by watching this talk, given at Anderson’s home base at  the University of Manchester.  The talk begins at time-code 11:00 and runs until about 42:20.   There’s a lot more to say, but Anderson fits a lot into those 31 minutes.  My only quibble is with his explanation of why the political elites behind the Paris Agreement were so eager to celebrate it, which I find to be painfully thin.   But the mainline of talk is great, as far as it goes, and that’s pretty far, actually.  Here’s a sample slide:

Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps

In March of 2017, Johan Rockström, the author of Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries, along with a extremely high-tone list of co-authors, published A roadmap for rapid decarbonization in Science.  In it they propose a “roadmap” of escalating actions from now until 2050, designed to keep the average global temperature change under 2° Celsius, with some chance of limiting it to 1.5°C.

It’s an important piece, and its bottom line, as scientist and critic Kevin Anderson put it, is that the Rockström et. al. have “upped the ante.” In particular, they have translated carbon-budget science into a specific, decade-by-decade plan for a greatly accelerated global technological transition, driving net global CO2 emissions down to a near-zero level in 2050 – a mere 33 years. This type of planning is crucial as policy makers everywhere wrestle with the immense challenges of meeting the collective goals they agreed to in the Paris Agreement. However, a key element is missing from Rockström’s roadmap: equity.  More specifically, they have nothing to say about the fair sharing of climate action among countries. The bottom line here is that we can’t hope to succeed unless this challenge, too, is taken up, so its omission from Rockström’s paper is unfortunate.

Kelly Stone, a senior policy analyst at Action Aid USA, and I replied in the Huffington Post, in a piece called Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps.  Among other things, we said that:

“Morally, there’s no question that developed countries must take the lead, and also assist the poor in the extremely challenging decades that lie ahead. Developed countries including the United States have been emitting far more carbon for far longer than developing countries, and they are, moreover, the homes of most of the world’s wealthy. The top-line message here could not be more clear, for the richest 10% of the world’s people produce half of Earth’s fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%. This is the essential background without which it’s impossible to understand the position today, in which we’ve used up essentially the entire global carbon budget, and, to note the sharpest part of the challenge, developing countries face an urgent need to leapfrog to renewable energy even as many of their citizens still lack basic energy access, let alone proper health and education systems. Even worse, people in the global south – especially the poorest – are already feeling the impacts of climate crises they did nothing to create. Asking them to take to a roadmap that makes no provision for such facts is simply wrong.

Nor is climate equity just a moral challenge. There are strong instrumental reasons to believe that, unless we put the equity challenge front and center, there’s little hope of following any road as difficult as the one that Rockstrom and his co-authors have laid out. The bottom line here is that, given the emergency situation we’re now facing, developing countries must mobilize on a scale that far overwhelms their capacity to act alone, and they must do so even as rising climate impacts force them to prioritize adaptation. They cannot possibly meet these challenges without support from developed countries, and even in the short term it’s difficult for them to lay the necessary plans without some modicum of confidence that such support will be forthcoming.”

Drawdown is a real step forward, though another is needed

My review  of Drawdown was published in The Nation on May 28, 2017, under the title A New Book on the Climate Crisis Makes the Persuasive Case That We’re Not Doomed,  Not for technological reasons, anyway.”   It richly praises the book, and the effort behind it, then it adds this:

“I must add that Drawdown is not yet a tonic strong enough to cure the dystopian plague that has come to penetrate most all our visions of the future. It illuminates the techno-economic path forward, and it insists that social justice is also a prime concern, but on this second front it offers almost nothing that is concrete, specific and believable. To be truly “comprehensive,” a deep-decarbonization plan must recognize the dire threat which economic stratification poses to our ability to mobilize, and reveal the mechanisms by which we will learn, again, to cooperate. Which is to say that, when it comes to both domestic and global environmental justice, an ethos is not enough. The deeply political, justice-based side of the climate-transition equation needs a lot more attention than it gets here, and it needs it now.

But Drawdown’s catalog of solutions omits long-term democratic planning, which is essential to any true deep-decarbonization roadmap. It makes no mention of the overarching challenge of ensuring a just transition, one in which all those whose lives will be disrupted by the climate transition are, somehow, made whole, or at least whole enough. (Think coal miners, but think too of all the communities and even countries that are dependent on the fossil-fuel economy.) It talks of “net costs,” but it does not talk about winners and losers, as if any acceptable pricing system could gloss over the challenge of today’s obscene level of inequality. There’s no discussion of progressive approaches to climate taxation, without which we haven’t got a snowball’s chance. There’s no mention of cap-and-dividend systems, or energy-subsidy reform, or the international finance and technology support systems that will be necessary if the Paris Agreement is to deliver. Or of fair trade. Or of class.”

Read the whole review here.

Renewables Build-out is too Slow to hit Paris Targets

SciDev Net has an interesting, and extremely bracing, view of the new Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Future report from the International Renewable Energy Agency. In a nutshell, it says that developing countries that already have a high share of renewable energy in their power mix have it by virtue of “traditional bioenergy” and are unlikely, all else being equal, to grow this share further, this because of a “skyrocketing demand for cheap electricity” that still favors fossils over “modern renewables.”

To be sure,

“many developing countries made huge strides towards deploying renewable technologies over the past decade — but this rise is now leveling off.  Instead, these countries are turning towards fossil fuels to meet the energy demands of their citizens.”

“Nicholas Wagner, an IRENA programme officer who helped prepare the report, says countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria “have a high share of renewable biomass as part of their energy portfolios.” [This is mostly traditional biomass.] But rather than rapidly building out their infrastructures with modern renewables, these countries have “turned to fossil fuels to power greater demand for heating, cooling and transport, he says.”

“Beate Braams, a spokesperson for Germany’s energy ministry, says the drop in the proportion of energy coming from renewables in developing countries could be because growing energy needs are largely being met by other sources. “If there is a growing energy demand in an economy and if this additional demand is covered by fossil fuels, the relative share of renewables will decrease, even if there is no decrease in absolute terms for renewable energy,” she explains.”

To be extra clear, the bulk of the report is extremely optimistic about renewables. As of course is IRENA.

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