Can we stop climate change in time?


January 27th, 2014

The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.

That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

“We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.”  Kevin Anderson.

The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:

  • It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough.
  • To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
  • Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed.

The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.

The Good News

The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!

Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.

Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.

The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.

The Bad News

Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession,” John Barrett told us, “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one metre Hurricane Sandy storm surge, 20cm was due to global warming”.

The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:

  1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie. almost all of them.
  2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
  3. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.

What is to be done?

The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.

But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.

All this is hard but our future requires no less.

Videos of the conference sessions can be found at http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/communication/news-archive/2013/radical-emissions-reduction-conference-videos-now-online

David Flint is a retired management consultant, visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, Practical Action supporter and active member of the Green Party.

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