The curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.
Some of the better sessions of the Bonn climate talks brought out panels of scientists to debate some really tough problems. These are not the kinds of easy debates favored by clickbait media, such as the latest tasty placebo from Elon Musk or Bill Gates. These tackle the more difficult and nuanced issues like how to forge consensus among 7 billion people and to move rapidly to change the way we inhabit a real world — a world going up in smoke.
In these high altitude venues climate scientists must step out of their specialty and offer policymakers strategies we really can do right now given existing political frictions and lubricants. And then they have to contrast that with what will be required if we are going to survive as a species.
On the 6th day of the COP we went to a press conference by Climate Equity Reference Project (CERP) about a synthesis approach to equity benchmarking — a fancy way of saying we have to decide how best to ration the burden of rapid economic restructuring.
The press conference was to announce a report, Equity and the Ambition Ratchet — Towards A Meaningful 2018 Facilitative Dialogue prepared by the Equity/Effort-sharing Working Group of Climate Action Network International (CAN) with contributions from the scores of non-governmental organizations who attend UN climate conferences.
Fortunately, the Paris Agreement offers ways of securing increased ambition, while taking due account of ”means of implementation and support” and being conducted ”in the light of equity”
Ultimately, the challenges here will crystalize around the 2023 Global Stocktake, but the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue will set important precedents. Thus, it must pioneer a process for assessing the adequacy and fairness not only of collective ambition, but of individual country contributions as well.
To that end, Parties should prepare to justify their efforts as fair contributions to a shared 1.5°C global effort. They should do so in transparent ways, measuring their contributions against fundamental equity principles. If their contributions fall short, they must be prepared to quickly strengthen them.
This justice and equity collective voice is there to insist on the Rio Convention’s core social principles, and to then offer indicators most appropriate to measure success on those terms.
The commitments captured in the first round of NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions — the Obama/Clinton voluntary pledge system — ed.] do not come close to keeping temperatures ”well below 2°C,” much less to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Even if all countries were to meet their commitments, the world would still be on track to a devastating 3°C temperature rise or more, with a real chance of tipping the global climate system into catastrophic runaway warming.
Imagine Earth having an atmosphere something like Venus.
Despite today’s unhappy political circumstances, this reality must be universally recognized and turned to action. We must cease to pretend that we are on track. The Parties must very soon increase ambition far beyond the Paris pledges. This increase must begin before 2020, and at the same time FD2018 must focus on ratcheting up the first round of NDCs.
But here is where the talks in Bonn really hit a wall. It is an all-too-familiar wall — one we also hit in Copenhagen, Paris and all the other COPs. Most governments (there are a few exceptions) are unwilling to shoulder more of the burden than they have to. Without any sanctions for low ambition or failing to meet targets, the inertia we’ve witnessed augurs a tragedy of the commons. CAN took a hard look at this and the various ways to bind countries to their fair share.
For now, the sanctions regime relies entirely on shaming.
If we must bring emissions down by 30–50 gigatons, what is the best apportionment? There are two ways to divide that: responsibility and capability.
The industrial world, one must acknowledge, got to where it is on the sweat of energy slaves. It got there on the other kind too, but those reparations belong in a separate discussion.
“We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels.”
— Tom Murphy, Do the Math
“Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground — and thus a bit zombie-esque — these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste.
“This all raises the question — or at least should — of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness.”
— Nate Hagens, Bottleneck Foundation
How far back should we go to assign responsibility? To Javad Melikov’s 1863 Baku kerosene factory that caught the eye of the Nobel brothers? To 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled for “coal oil” under Seneca Reservation land in Pennsylvania? To James Watt’s 1776 coal-powered steam engine that more quickly and efficiently pumped water out of coal mines to sustain its fuel source?
Britain tried to keep secret how its machines were made, but people went there to learn about them and took the techniques back home. Sometimes they smuggled the machines out in rowboats to neighboring countries. The first countries after Britain to develop factories and railroads were Belgium, Switzerland, France, and the states that became Germany. Building a national railroad system proved an essential part of industrialization. Belgium began its railroads in 1834, France in 1842, Switzerland in 1847, and Germany in the 1850s.
Thanks largely to the railroad boom, by 1900 the United States had overtaken Britain in manufacturing, producing 24 percent of the world’s output. The Russian federation was by then supplying half the world’s petroleum from its Baku fields in Azerbaijan, where Melikov had made kerosene.
The CAN group proposed the question of responsibility be taken up by the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue with the idea of choosing one of these starting points:
“Responsibility since 1990.” This corresponds roughly to the time when negotiations for an international legal agreement to limit GHGs began in earnest and the risks of rising GHGs were acknowledged by the IPCC. The 1990 date is difficult to defend, given that the UN Framework Convention was itself being negotiated at that time, and its authors cannot reasonably be said to have had 1990 in mind when they inscribed the term “historical” into the text. Still, the 1990 case is arguably fair, but only in cases where the benchmark includes capability weighting. This is because historical responsibility before 1990 is highly correlated with national capability.
“Responsibility since 1950.” This date marks a useful middle setting. It defines a period in which the climate threat was known, in which responsibility is comprehensible in terms of human lifetimes, reflects roughly the useful lifetimes of much infrastructure, and avoids some of the historical discontinuities that occur when, for example, wars remake national boundaries.
“Responsibility since 1850.” This date defines responsibility as cumulative emissions since a date that roughly corresponds to the time at which carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached significant levels. This is also the earliest date for which plausible emissions data exist.
Another important consideration is whether a country’s responsibility should be calculated on the basis of production-based or consumption-based accounting. CAN offered an online Climate Equity Reference Calculator that could be toggled either way.
More precisely, a Calculator user selects equity-related settings relating to responsibility and capability, and other key parameters. These settings, taken together, define an “equity benchmark”. This benchmark is then used to estimate national “fair shares” of the global climate-related effort. Again, this effort includes not only mitigation (though most all of our attention is focused on mitigation) but also adaptation and loss & damage.
A second way to assign fair share would be to assess the capability of a country to reach a reasonable degree of well-being for its population. Put a pin in the development continuum somewhere between Yemen and Sweden. There needs to be a guaranteed minimum standard of living.
This notion brooks a popular philosophical divide in many cultures. Should we exclude emissions (corresponding to consumption) below a particular income threshold because they arise from the provision of basic needs? In the US this debate in other forms — framed today as socialist versus free marketer — goes back to Hamilton and Jefferson.
The CAN group defined capability in terms of national income. As in tax policy, the key question becomes how progressively to tithe. CAN suggested four indicative choices worthy of the FD discussions in 2018:
— The “No Progressivity” setting in which there is no income threshold below which individual income is exempted from national capability, either on the basis of a poverty exclusion or a development exclusion. In such a case, when calculating capability, each dollar of income — even for the poorest of the world’s people — counts as much as each dollar of the world’s richest. This approach is inconsistent with the at least mildly progressive perspective that virtually all societies have adopted for the purpose of income taxation, and is impossible to justify in equity terms.
— The “Low Progressivity” setting in which an income threshold is set, one that, while not high enough to be judged progressive in any meaningful sense, is significantly higher than 0. For example, $2,500 has been used to define a useful indicative “Low Progressivity” case.
— The “Medium Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is significantly higher than $2,500. Rather, in “Medium Progressivity” cases, the income threshold is set at $7,500 (approximately $20/day). This level is just a bit above a global poverty line that reflects empirical observations, so it should actually be taken as a low estimate of “medium” progressivity, and can reasonably be said to represent a “development threshold” below which income is legitimately prioritized for basic living requirements.
— The “High Progressivity” setting in which the income threshold is set at the same “development threshold” level of $7,500 as in the “Medium Progressivity” case, with income above this threshold counting toward national capability at a steadily rising rate, until it reaches an luxury threshold (set for this analysis at $50,000), above which all income is counted towards national capability. These settings increase the overall progressivity of the income calculation just as a graduated tax schedule raises the progressivity of an income tax. Note that this is not an extravagantly progressive setting; the $50,000 figure falls below the income of the highest earning “one percent” of the global population.
The resulting allocations were sketched in CAN’s pre-Paris report, below, where the national fair shares range is represented by the two green bars (shown here in per-capita terms) selected by the above decisions. This figure includes the 1990 / Low Progressivity benchmark, which is shown (in gray) for purposes of comparison.
The chart was then refined for COP22 Marrakech and again for COP23 Bonn, with a new dotted line bar that represents full domestic decarbonization in 2030. CAN produced two equity benchmarks (green bars) that bound the “fair share range” and a third benchmark (outside the agreed fair shares range) in which historical responsibility is calculated from 1990 and capacity considered in a less progressive manner (with a $2,500 per person per year poverty exemption threshold). This figure further shows (the two blue bars) the results of considering only capacity (with strong progressivity; light blue) or only historical responsibility (from 1850; dark blue), respectively.
What’s the point?
The power of this approach comes from how it allows us to escape the pseudo-debate between, on the one hand, the claim that equity is an entirely subjective matter, a mere battle of opinions, and, on the other hand, the claim that one or another equity approach is the precisely “right one.” It does this by providing a quantitative framework within which explicit choices between well-specified approaches — e.g. more or less progressive responsibility and capability indexes — can be assessed and compared without being over-specified and reified.
The exercise also shows that no matter how you slice it, most people in the world — as represented by India and China — are taking responsibility and reducing production/consumption by their fair share. The rogue nations are the United States and the 28 countries of the European Union, taken collectively.
Regardless of whether you base equity on historical responsibility — even as recently as 1990 — or capacity to become more efficient, the US is only pledging about 20% of its fair share. The EU is pledging about 50% of its fair share. China and India are both at more than 100%. Report cards for each country are available from the Equity Workgroup website.
What if no one cares?
The following day a #2020Don’tBeLate seminar sponsored by Mission 2020 and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gave a 90-minute picture of the present consensus view of climate science and what that really implies. Speaking were Christiana Figueres, former head of UNFCCC, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, and Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change, Tyndall Centre.
Figueres opened with the good news: $130 billion in green bonds issued this year; a dramatic price drop in clean energy — its CAPEX is now below OPEX for even the newest fossil plants, so there is really no economic excuse for not halting pipelines and coal trains and no business case to be made for either new or existing nuclear, oil, coal or gas.
The world is awash with money. You park it in the paradise, or Panama, whatever, you know? People have so much money they do not even know what to do with it, except avoiding taxes of course. That’s a big sport, huh? But otherwise what to do with it? So private money is available if one were to set up a public/private transformation fund.
Figueres handed off to Kevin Anderson to deliver the bad news. He reminded the audience that emissions have been steadily rising since 1990–27 years of abject failure for multilateral UN negotiations. In 2017 they will rise by a breathtaking two percent. Anderson:
The Pope captures this really well in his encyclical where he says “the alliance of technology and economics ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests… whereas any genuine attempt to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.” Where are those romantic illusions? What are the real romantic illusions? A belief in naive and ephemeral text-book economics; an unshakeable confidence in technical utopia — as an engineer I am quite prone to that one; the deliberate neglect of time; faith in Machiavellian mathematics; and an implicit assumption that nature follows our rules. You’d think that after 13 billion years we’d know that nature will always win out.
My somewhat questionable interpretation from inside the climate community is that in developing 2°C emissions scenarios, we’ve applied questionable assumptions and fine-tuned our analysis to fit with political and economic sensibilities. Universities and NGOs have been corrupted by near-term power — we want to be at meetings in Davos, we want to be with the great and the good in our society, we fear questioning the dominant social paradigm — that is much more important than physics apparently — and we have a naïve focus on particular pet technologies whether it is nuclear, wind or solar — its always a supply technology.
Anderson underscored the main point: we are not on track to achieve the principal aim of the Paris climate agreement, keeping global temperature rise to well below 2°C while pursuing 1.5°C. Greater ambition is required. Every few years a consensus report of 2000 scientists (IPCC) pronounces what is technically required to stay within the safe operating boundaries of our climate system. Every time it concludes we are already in great danger and must act quickly.
We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. Anderson says to have a realistic chance of going on living, we need to reach a 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or, better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).
This kind of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the number of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the number of gas-powered engines. Half the number of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that again by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture.
Anderson says the IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The red zone in its chart offers more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business-as-usual.
How can IPCC justify staying above the required curve so long? Anderson says it does that by conjuring up nonexistent “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust (yellow zone) to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in short term (and indeed subsidizing delivery of, to the tune of 1 trillion dollars per year).
Anderson says the amount of drawdown required for the fairy dust technologies is roughly equal to the natural carbon absorption capacity of Earth’s biosphere. In other words, by 2040 or thereabouts we will need another Earth to absorb the extra pollution we’ll be adding during the next 22 years.
The technology — we do not know if it will work, we are not really sure what it will look like, but we are relying on it already, in our own governments’ position in this policy debate.… If these things don’t work we are locking ourselves into a 3 to 5 degree future.
Instead of that, Anderson proposes industrial countries reduce emissions at 10% or more, per year, starting now, with the aim of a greater than 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 (7 years from now) and to be fully decarbonized in the energy sector by around 2035–40. For the non-OECD countries he extends the timeline for an extra decade but fully decarbonized by 2050.
John Schellnhuber agreed we have a have a very short time to respond. If we waste time we have to bend the curve much more dramatically. We need to peak GHG emissions by 2020 and halve emissions every decade thereafter.
But nothing works in isolation. Johan Rockstrom reminded the audience:
There is no such thing as delivering on Paris without the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and there is no such thing as achieving the SDGs without succeeding on Paris, and there is very strong scientific support for this.
Rockstrom observed that we have entered a curve in the solar energy build-out where capacity doubles every 5.4 years. When you have only small numbers — all renewables are 2 percent or less of world energy capacity — that doubling doesn’t seem like much, but follow that curve out a few more doublings. On its present trajectory the energy sector will achieve 100% renewables by 2045. We need the same kind of revolution in food production and buildings, but that will be coming.
“And if we do all of this — an energy revolution, an agricultural revolution a technology revolution and a sustainability revolution — we have a 66% chance of staying under 2 degrees.”
Prodded by Christiana Fiqueres saying she did not agree with his critique of IPCC, Kevin Anderson challenged Rockstrom’s rosy picture of a renewables revolution.
We are really talking about shifting the productive capacity of society from what it does today and for at least the next 50 years to responding to the climate challenge. Renewables are really important but renewables have really only been in addition to other fuels so far, they have not been substituting, and the climate does not care about renewables — of course I am very much in favor of them. It does not care about energy efficiency. All it cares about is how much carbon you are putting into it. And therefore we have to close down the incumbents. At the moment, every single year we burn more peat, more oil, more gas, more coal. We have never in human history, post-industrial revolution, seen a substitution in energy types at the global level.
Both Rockstrom and Figueres challenged this, and it took John Schellnhuber to give the final word:
We all adopted after the Second World War a culture of convenience and consumption. This is simply the wrong pattern. Along that pattern there is no solution to the climate crisis and to the SDGs.
In principle there is a simple narrative for modernizing our society. It would be renewables, plus distributed storage, plus electro-mobility, plus a cap on air travelling — we have to reduce the flights simply, there is no other way — plus dietary change, and of course, we have to change the construction sector completely. We have to get rid of cement and we have to return to wooden buildings once again.
Under the Paris Agreement the first quarter of 2020 will be the appointed time nations come together to increase ambition. That year (as is each year) is the last time we have to change course before we lock in greater catastrophe. In the run-up to 2020, next year’s UN agenda will feature the Facilitative Dialogue (#FD2018), intended to fashion tools by which we will navigate the political minefield our guilty knowledge has strewn.
Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (gvix.org), and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies. Please consider supporting this work by becoming a patron at https://www.patreon.com/peaksurfer