Citizen Action Monitor

Climate change — “The future is almost beyond what we can imagine”

“We must make the impossible possible,” says Kevin Anderson

No 1210 Posted by fw, December 12, 2014

redflag 2“Admittedly, all of this may seem very bleak. But it is imperative not to be dissuaded from purposeful and effective action by a mood of pointless despair. There are many things we can do to attempt to keep to around 2°C, and if this is not possible in the end, then we can at least move in the right direction. What I truly want to convey in this article is that we can act. So, let us conclude with some pointers of where real change may come from – of the opportunities to initiate early and substantive levels of emission reduction.” Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Although, in the concluding passages of his excellent overview of the dangerous face of climate change, climate scientist Kevin Anderson attempts to rally the forces for good, his words fall short of the mark, are too brief, too conditional to be convincing. As with UBC professor William Rees, who, in his 2014 paper, Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy, gifted us with a bold new way forward, ultimately concluded with little hope for our survival.

This is the 8th and final post in this eight-part series extracted from Kevin Anderson’s incisive, fact-filled 2012. 24-page article. To access the preceding seven parts, click on these links — Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

To read Anderson’s complete 24-page paper, click on the following linked title. Alternatively, below is a reposting of the excerpted passages selected for this post, Part 8, with added subheadings inserted as hanging indents in bold italics, added text highlighting and hyperlinks.

Climate change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope by Kevin Anderson, Published in What Next Volume III: Climate, Development and Equity, September 2012 (24 pages)

Before Despairing

Bleak but not without “opportunities to initiate early and substantive levels of emission reduction”

Admittedly, all of this may seem very bleak. But it is imperative not to be dissuaded from purposeful and effective action by a mood of pointless despair. There are many things we can do to attempt to keep to around 2°C, and if this is not possible in the end, then we can at least move in the right direction. What I truly want to convey in this article is that we can act. So, let us conclude with some pointers of where real change may come from – of the opportunities to initiate early and substantive levels of emission reduction.

Summarizing the previous 7-parts…

In summary, following our previous analysis, science tells us that for an outside chance of 2°C Annex 1 countries need to reach emission reductions of the order of about 40 per cent by 2015, 70 per cent by 2020, and over 90 per cent by 2030, with similar reductions globally with a lag of a decade or two – a disturbingly short time frame. These numbers are strikingly different from the sort of numbers we traditionally see. The typical response is: ‘That is impossible’. In response, we need to ask: Is living with a 4°C global temperature rise by 2050 or 2070 less impossible?

Let us not pretend that we are awash with win-win or green growth opportunities

Many people believe that we cannot reduce emissions at these rates, but it is crucial to stress the fact that we almost certainly are unable to adapt to the temperature increases that are likely if we do not cut our emissions drastically. There is no easy way out of this predicament, and we should not pretend that we are awash with win-win or green growth opportunities. Ours is now a world of very difficult futures, and the sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can seriously address the challenges we face.

So what can we do?

First, let us consider the question of equity before turning to technology.


The good news is that we don’t need substantial changes from 80-90 percent of the 7 billion people on Earth

There are presently 7 billion people on the planet. But how many of these people need to make a substantial change in terms of their emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases?

Consider Pareto’s 80-20 rule, which states that 80 per cent of something relates to 20 per cent of those involved – a surprisingly useful and robust rule of thumb. Applied to climate change this would mean that 80 per cent of emissions derive from roughly 20 per cent of the population. This relationship holds fairly well within different nations as well as globally. What if we then look at the 20 per cent group and apply Pareto to them – and then repeat the process again? What we find is that about 50 per cent of the world’s emissions come from about 1 per cent of the world population. Admittedly, this is a very rough calculus; it could just as well be 2 or 3 per cent of the global population responsible for 40 per cent of the emissions or 1 per cent for 60 per cent, but it provides a broad guideline.

Certainly, the bulk of the emissions come from a small percentage of the world’s 7 billion people. Yet, in the West, one often hears statements such as ‘Oh yes, but the Chinese! They are becoming rich. Everyone wants a fridge and a car…’. It is true that people want these things. But by the time the mode person (not the mean) – that is, the ‘normal’ person – in China has obtained a car or a fridge, a low-carbon energy system would already have to be in place. It will take China 20 or 30 years, even at 10 per cent annual growth rates, to get its mode population to that level. This means that the poor cannot move fast enough to really affect the basics of this math. We know who the main emitters, the ‘few per cent’, are. Large proportions of those residing in OECD countries. Anyone who gets on a plane once a year. Most academics. In the UK anyone earning towards £30.000 pounds, or perhaps less than that, would be within the ‘few per cent’.

The formidable challenge will be in mobilizing politicians to create and enforce policies that target powerful elites

The question is: Are we, the wealthy ‘few per cent’ – principally, the Annex 1 countries of the world (but also about 200-300 million Chinese are, for example, in the same group) – sufficiently concerned to pass the necessary legislation and make substantial personal sacrifices and changes to our lifestyles now in order to help the rest of the population and future generations? Since we know who needs to change, policies must be aimed specifically at these people. This requires vast political mobilization, but it also offers hope. There need to be policies tailored to reduce the emissions of the 1 per cent, 2 per cent – or even 10 per cent – who are emitting significantly and disproportionately, rather than universal approaches that impact all 7 billion of the population – 80 to 90 per cent of whom are already very low emitters.


Doing the math reveals the inefficiencies in existing fossil-fuel energy technologies

Some of the necessary policies need to deal with technological change. There are many examples of what could be done. Consider the electricity system. To light a traditional light bulb in a fossil fuel-driven electricity system, one needs a transmission network with pylons and wires as a way to deliver the power, a power station to generate the electricity, and people in Columbia or Australia to dig out the coal, or workers in Russia to extract the gas from the ground. Then, the fuels must be exported all the way to the power stations. This means that the energy we need for the light bulb requires much more energy at the source. A normal incandescent light bulb, which is in itself fairly inefficient, will need about 50 units of energy to produce a desired 10 units. About 6-8 per cent of the energy will be lost in transmission and distribution, the power station will be running at somewhere between 35 and 45 per cent efficiency, and there will be about 10 per cent loss in getting the fuel out of the ground, transporting it on a train, taking it to a port, bringing it across the sea, putting it onto another train and delivering it to the power station. All this needs to be done every day of the week for the 40-year life span of the power station. This demonstrates there are huge demand-side opportunities across almost all consumer goods, from cars to refrigerators.

Switching from supply-side to demand-side consumer goods could significantly improve efficiency

Demand-side opportunities dwarf supply-side opportunities, and we can change demand in the very short term. Toasters have a one-to-two year life span, cars only about eight years in reality. Refrigerators and white goods about three-to-eight years.

But changing the regulatory framework could be a showstopper, especially in the US

Real change could be brought about very rapidly through a stringent regulatory framework setting minimum standards.

Private car and public transportation efficiencies are promising but come with a big “IF” attached

Consider car efficiency. The average car in the UK emits about 175 g of CO2 per kilometre. A new car emits on average about 144 g/km. In 2015, the EU plans to introduce legislation requiring 130 g/km as a fleet average (SMMT, 2011). This means the wealthy will be able to drive highly emitting prestige cars as long as the car manufacturers also sell some more efficient cars. In 2008, however, BMW introduced a 3-series 160 horsepower diesel engine. It is a strong, sporty car with a sophisticated diesel engine, but it only emits 109 g/km. Less exclusive cars such as VWs and Skodas were already available with 85-99 g/km. In 1998 Audi had a diesel car that only emitted 75 g/km. It could still travel faster than the motorway speed limits and it did everything a normal car does. With 80-90 per cent of all the vehicle kilometres in the UK (and similar across the EU) covered by cars eight years or younger, existing standard diesel engine technology, tweaked for performance in terms of efficiency rather than in terms of speed, could deliver a 50 per cent reduction of emissions from cars by the early 2020s assuming the overall distance driven remains unchanged (it is currently stable in the UK). On top of this we could add new technologies, such as hybrids and electric cars. If we then reverse the recent trends in occupancy and have more people travelling together, we could probably see something like a 70 per cent reduction in emissions from cars by early next decade.

What is remarkable about this example is that it does not factor in a big shift to public transport (which is an essential part of the solution); we could still drive as much as we do today. Nor does it factor in a switch to electric cars, which would help the situation even more. It simply means decent legislation driving the penetration of existing technologies. There is huge potential, whether for cars or refrigerators, across the board, to make radical adjustments with appropriate legislation to bring emissions down in line with what is necessary.

Cause for optimism counterbalanced by reality of current daunting emission challenges – and more “ifs”

In this sense, there is cause for optimism. Yet we need to bear in mind the reality of current emission projections. If we are broadly right on the science on cumulative emissions and temperature, if the developing parts of the world can peak emissions by 2025 to 2030, if there are rapid reductions in emissions from deforestation, if we can halve emissions from food production (currently they are going up, not down), if we do not trigger discontinuities (or ‘tipping points’), and if we achieve the reduction rates that the Stern report, the Committee on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency maintain are compatible with economic growth – if all of this happens, a 2°C stabilization is still unlikely. We need to go beyond this.

Then there’s the current political and economic framework — leaving an “outside possibility” of keeping to 2°C

The current political and economic framework, however, seems to make this impossible. But, it is not absolutely impossible. If the ‘few per cent’ of the population responsible for the bulk of global emissions are prepared to make the necessary changes in behavioural and consumption patterns, coupled with the technical adjustments we can make now and the implementation of new technologies (such as low carbon energy supplies), there is still an outside possibility of keeping to 2°C. This is a very positive message. We have the agency to avoid the worst excesses of climate change if we are prepared to make changes now. If we are not, we are heading towards 4°C or more, which could happen as early as 2050. At the end of 2011, the International Energy Agency concluded that there could be 3.5°C warming even by 2035 (IEA, 2011).

The stakes are high for most people on the planet today

We are no longer talking about the end of the century, but about the lifetime of most people on the planet today. And again, 4°C is unlikely to represent a stable condition, and global warming may in fact reach much higher levels.

“Benevolent rhetoric aside, we are racing headlong and consciously toward a dire future”

Where, then, does this leave us? In 2005, Tyndall Centre colleagues and I coined an expression that we judged provided a responsible framing of the climate challenge: ‘To mitigate for 2°C and to plan for 4°C’. But, as my colleague Alice Bows recently observed, we are in effect doing the opposite: mitigating for 4°C (by doing almost nothing to reduce emissions), while only preparing for 2°C.

The tragedy is that those least responsible will be most impacted

This is the worst kind of scenario. Benevolent rhetoric aside, we are racing headlong and consciously toward a dire future; where the first to be impacted will be those who have played no part in causing it.

Real hope can only rise out of an honest assessment of the scale of the challenge

As I have sought to emphasize, this analysis should not be taken as a message of futility. It is intended as a wake-up call, as we have lulled ourselves to sleep, still wearing our rose-tinted spectacles. Real hope, if it is to rise at all, will do so from an honest assessment of the scale of the challenge. It is, admittedly, very uncomfortable: the numbers are brutal and the hope is tenuous – but it still exists. Brazilian philosopher and politician Robert Unger captured the essence of our challenge when he observed: ‘At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and the imagination that it could be different.

“The future is almost beyond what we can imagine. …We must make the impossible possible”

The one thing we know about the future with climate change is that it will be different. If we do nothing, we will be hit by devastating impacts and unmanageable adaptation needs. If we choose to mitigate to avoid the worst, the mitigation will have to be very significant. The future is almost beyond what we can imagine, what we have ever seen before. Therefore, our role now is to think differently, to achieve greater clarity, to foster a greater imagination and to no longer keep saying that it is impossible. We must make the impossible possible.

There is real hope, but that hope reduces significantly each day.

End of Part 8 – End of series

This article is based on a transcript of a public presentation at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in July 2011, available at

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