No 1829 Posted by fw, November 21, 2016
Note: This piece appeared with a different title and opening content here on November 17: otherwise, the accompanying video and transcript were identical.
“The problem with climate change is that we must respond quickly. The time frame with which we’re dealing with the science is not compatible with how fast our responses need to be. This has been a dilemma to scientists…. The best chance we are aiming for is at best 50-50, more like an outside chance of 2°C. I don’t like to make comparisons but if you were to fly somewhere would you accept a 50-50 chance of landing safely? – or now, probably, I think only a 30% chance of landing safely. We are prepared to do that with our children’s future on this planet.” —Kevin Anderson, The Real News Network
In a wide-ranging interview, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Universities of Uppsala (Sweden) and Manchester (UK), fields questions from Canadian Dimitri Lascaris in a 22:18-minute interview on The Real News Network.
A primary focus of the conversation is Anderson’s concern that a reliance on unproven negative emission technologies could undermine efforts to phase out fossil fuels. As he puts it,
“The naïve assumption that these [negative emission technologies] will roll out in the future is dangerous. And we are using it to maintain the status quo today so we can carry on burning fossil fuels and carry on living a life style that we have today.”
Of particular interest to Canadians is this comment and question by Lascaris:
One of the things one often hears in Canada when people talk about the responsibility of our country to rise to the occasion in terms of battling the climate crisis is that total emissions in Canada are dwarfed by those of the major emitters. The case of China is constantly raised. And therefore, we can’t make much of a difference and we don’t bear much of a responsibility because total emissions coming from China are so far in excess of those in Canada. How would you respond to that argument?
To which Anderson responded:
“It’s not really an argument. It’s an excuse for inaction…. We are finding every excuse for inaction. And Canada is a major producer of fossil fuels. And Canada is producer of what is the dirtiest fossil fuels – the tarsands. I think it’s morally irresponsible to argue that Canada has no significant responsibility in relation to climate change. It has responsibility historically, it has responsibility in terms of demonstrating leadership, and its emissions do matter.”
Below is an embedded copy of the video, followed by my largely paraphrased, chronologically-indexed transcript. The audio quality at Anderson’s end is not the best, and much worse in the video clip of his comments at the Paris COP21. Alternatively, watch the video on The Real News Network website, sans my transcript.
The major problem with climate change is that the global response that’s needed must move faster than the timeframe for evaluating the scientific data, says Professor Kevin Anderson
Kevin Anderson is a Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Universities of Uppsala (Sweden) and Manchester (UK). He is also the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. For over 25 years Dr. Anderson has worked on issues of climate change – such as translating climate science and carbon budgets into what these imply for mitigation, most recently in relation to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 and 2 degrees C commitments. Dr. Anderson was originally a mechanical engineer, with over a decade of industrial experience in the petrochemical industry.
00:00-01:57 — Dimitri Lascaris – Introduction – Asks Kevin why he is not in Marrakesh for COP22. Asks Kevin about his decision not to fly anywhere. [I did not include Anderson’s response in my transcript].
01:58-02:08 – Lascaris – Will 2016 surpass the record set in 2015 by a significant margin?
02:09-02:30 — Kevin Anderson – Yes that is the case. Even without the El Nino effect, we’re seeing a very clear trend in rising emissions and rising temperatures. What we’re seeing is in line with what our science is telling us.
02:31-02:58 — Lascaris – The number of instances in which the rapidity of climate change, and the severity of its effects, appear to have been underestimated by the scientific community. Do you agree? And if so, why has that happened?
02:59-04:43 — Anderson – We must be clear about what is science. Science is a conservative institution. We cannot always work with the latest data. That data, that understanding must go through a process of peer review. And that’s a lengthy process. So, we’re always working with data from the last few years. Because emissions have continued to rise, we continue to see impacts and levels of growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that are higher than we had previously anticipated. That is how science should act.
The problem with climate change is that we must respond quickly. The time frame with which we’re dealing with the science is not compatible with how fast our responses need to be. This has been a dilemma to scientists. Do you, therefore, come out and talk about the very latest data before we have a chance to do a peer review and scrutinize it, which would normally take a few years. But that’s what the policy realm requires at that level of engagement. But that’s not how we work the science historically. It’s a difficult challenge for us now to reconcile those two positions.
Nevertheless, we must be more careful in how we relate what we discover in the science, and what we know is at the very cutting edge of research. As you say, we’ve underestimated what’s happening in terms of levels of concentration [of emissions] in the atmosphere, the changes in temperature and so forth.
04:44-05:02 — Lascaris – If the global community were to fulfill the emission reduction targets, what is the science telling us we’re going to experience in terms of global warming in the coming years?
05:03-06:20 — Anderson – If we deliver on the promises that were made in Paris, then we’re talking about 3 to 4°C temperature rise across the century. Remember, this is what governments put together, saying this is the best ambitions that we could imagine, and submitted that in to Paris. When you add all those together, what it comes to is the 3 to 4°C mark. Yet, collectively, those same country leaders said we must aim for 1.5 to 2°C. So, there’s this huge gap between the action that governments are prepared to make and the rhetoric that they’re using at these COP events. The job for the scientist is to say “This is not good enough.” Let’s be honest. Either, let’s be clear that we’re going to bequeath our children and future generations, and those that live in climatically vulnerable parts of the world, a catastrophic future in terms of 3, 4, 5°C in temperature rise. Or let’s be honest and say we will start to make the dramatic changes that we need in our energy system, in how we use energy today, and the lifestyles that those of us responsible for the lion’s share of emissions that go into the atmosphere – and be prepared to make those sorts of changes. Or will we pretend to be doing something significant, while just carrying on with business as usual.
06:21-07:55 — Lascaris – In Canada, one of the ways in which the governments, both federal and provincial, particularly oil rich provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan — which have aggressively sought to develop their tar sands deposits – on the ways which they talk about meeting their obligations under the Paris Accord is negative emissions, particularly carbon capture technology. Here’s a statement from the Saskatchewan minister of the environment, Scott Moe, who is coming to Cop22:
“Our commitment to carbon capture and storage technology, and out aggressive move towards renewable electrical generation technologies are two other key planks in our strategy.”
You however, with Gary Peters in an article, [The trouble with negative emissions] published on October 14, had this to say:
“Negative emission technologies are not an insurance policy but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble. There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise. If the emphasis on equity and risk aversion embodied in the Paris Agreement are to have traction, negative-emission technologies should not form the basis of the mitigation agenda.”
What is proven in terms of negative emission technologies? What hopes or expectations of these technologies are playing in the efforts of countries to meet their obligations under the Paris Accord?
07:46-10:40 — Anderson – Disturbingly, what we’re seeing in the Paris Accord underpins most government policies is “a belief” that large levels of negative emission technologies will work. And they will start to work very soon – as early as the mid 2020s-2930. And the assumption is that these will be rolled out across the rest of the century. Let’s be clear. We’re not just locking this in for the next 5-10-20-30 years. We talking about carrying on these negative emission technologies well beyond the end of the century.
Within the guidance that government ministers are receiving from these integrated assessment offices, significantly dominated by economists, that advice is assuming we’ll moving from the atmosphere the same amount of carbon dioxide that the oceans do today. And by the end of this century we’ll be moving as much as the oceans and the plants do today. That’s the equivalent of having another biosphere, like another planet, alongside ours, [to which] we move the carbon dioxide — that we have not been prepared to be removed by changing our high carbon activities today. So, that’s the minimum assumption that’s in there.
How well are we developing these technologies? At best, there are one or two very small pilot plants that are operating. And these are already struggling to operate efficiently. Most of the work on the next emission technologies is still in the laboratory or on pieces of paper as conceptual diagrams. That’s about as far as we have so far got in terms of these technologies. And yet the assumption is these will be rolled out starting within the decade are very large scale.
I think it’s worth looking, within Canada you’ve got the Boundary Dam experiment – that’s what it is – and there they’ve been testing with carbon capture and storage. And that has proved itself to be incredibly challenging. They’ve had a lot of technical problems with it. It’s probably only captured about 40% of the carbon dioxide that it should have captured. And that carbo dioxide has then been used to enhance all the recovery, so it’s not been particularly good for the climate anyway.
So, the basic technologies, and the parts of the puzzle themselves are not working well now. The naïve assumption that these will roll out in the future is dangerous. And we are using it to maintain the status quo today so we can carry on burning fossil fuels and carry on living a life style that we have today. The view that Glen [Peters] and I have on this is that while we should research these technologies, assuming they will work is a moral hazard. That is our concern. We are reducing our mitigation challenges today because we’re relying on this highly speculative technology tomorrow.
10:41-10:59 — Lascaris – How well do you think leaders in the Western world, particularly in high emitting jurisdictions, understand the extent to which assumptions about negative emissions are built in to the advice they’re receiving about mitigation and about emission reduction strategies?
11:00-11:56 — Anderson – I’m aware that a very few policymakers are aware that negative emission technologies are underpinning lots of the advice they’re receiving from the experts. But then if you ask them, do you have any idea of the scale of negative emissions that are assumed, none of them have any idea of that scale. Indeed, a lot of the scientists’ working on climate change are shocked when you tell them the level of negative emissions that are assumed in the models that we are using to advise governments. So, many of us that work in climate change have been very surprised to understand this oversight, this hidden agenda within the models. I’m certain that the policymakers have no conceptual grasp of the scale and the rollout [garbled] that are assumed in the advice that they are receiving. (11:50)
11:57-12:22 — Lascaris – Last year at COP21 you offered an assessment on the accord. Let’s revisit what you had to say.
12:23-13:36 — Anderson – I do not think peaking emissions as soon as possible is scientifically robust, especially robust. And there is no reference to the levels of those peaks. There is no reference to fossil fuels in the document despite the fact that 1.5 to 2°C we really need to be keeping around about 90 percent of all current reserves in the ground. The language of neutrality masks the ruse that we have developed for the assumptions we have that we’re going to suck very large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the future and that means that we do not have such significant reductions in the near term. That also means without those negative emissions 1.5°C is not viable.
Some will argue that the current text is described as “practical” – I’ve heard that already – a manifesto for green growth and a “win-win”. But to whom is it practical? It may be practical to those of here, high emitters in the northern hemisphere. To the poor climatically vulnerable, typically non-whites living in the southern hemisphere, the current text is somewhere between dangerous and deadly. There’s a slight risk the document is appeasement to our desire to continue to use fossil fuels, to a business-as-usual model rather than something that is and aggressive agenda for humanity.”
13:37-14:09 — Lascaris – In your commentary you raise serious questions about whether the temperature limit of 1.5°C was achievable. And a year later what do you think our prospects are for remaining within that limit? And what do you believe our prospects are for remaining within the 2°C limit, particularly in light of the election of Trump, a climate change denier?
14:10-19:38 — Anderson – Let’s focus on 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us a set of carbon budgets – how much carbon dioxide we can emit across this century to hold to the 1.5°C threshold. There are uncertainties in the absolute levels of carbon budgets; nevertheless, somewhere between say 5 to 10, at the very outside 15 years we would have used up all that carbon budget. It is fair to say that given we are not going to review significantly14:45 the pledges made by the countries to Paris before 2018 and the major check in 2023, we should be at 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide away from now. It’s fair to say that the chances of staying to 1.5°C are somewhere between incredibly low and zero.
The only hope we would have is if these highly speculative negative emission technologies turn out to work and that we can roll them out at very significant scale. I think that is a very dangerous assumption. Nevertheless, as I said, we should research them. But to assume that we’re going to hold to 1.5°C particularly when no country is demonstrating any leadership on climate change. It is dangerous to assume we will hold that temperature threshold.
I understand what some of the poorer countries, some of the lower-lying nations in the southern hemisphere, are very vexed about this issue. To them, 1.5°C means the loss of their habitat. I can see why they want the global community to deliver on that. we have left it so late at 25 years now since the first IPCC report, and we’ve abjectly failed. The emissions this years will be 60% higher than they were when we first had the IPCC report in 1990. We’ve used up the carbon budget. I think 1.5°C is in any scientific sense no longer viable.
I think there’s a little more hope at 2°C because the carbon budgets are bigger. But even there a high chance of 2°C is very unlikely unless we were prepared at a global level to approach climate change as if we had a war footing – that every country would mobilize its industries to start building very low-carbon power stations. To have massive levels of electrification, huge changes in energy use, effectively rationing energy use in the short to medium term to control emissions.
No country is demonstrating anything along those lines, let alone collectively at a global level. Unless something changes almost immediately then we have foregone a reasonable chance of 2°C. The best chance we are aiming for is at best 50-50, more like an outside chance of 2°C. I don’t like to make comparisons but if you were to fly somewhere would you accept a 50-5 chance of landing safely? – or now, probably, I think only a 30% chance of landing safely. We are prepared to do that with our children’s future on this planet.
So, 2°C remains viable as an outside chance. But even for that we would need dramatic changes. The two things we would require is a Marshall style plan like the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War in terms of building low-carbon energy supply, electrification, and dramatically changing our infrastructure to be very low carbon and very low energy use. But that would not be enough. We also need to reduce emissions dramatically in the short term to extend a window of opportunity for building that new infrastructure. And to reduce energy consumption means those of us responsible for the lion’s share of emissions would have to cut or change our lifestyles. It’s important to realize that 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions comes from only 10% of the global population. If that 10% were to reduce their emissions to the level of the average European citizen, that would reduce global emissions by about a third. It just shows you this huge asymmetry – the responsibility for emissions significantly resides with a small proportion of the population. The problem is that small proportion of the population of all those people at COP, and people like myself, there are those of us who are engaged in the policy realm, there are those of us who make the new rules on climate change, and they seem to be reluctant to make the rules that people like us will have to change our lifestyles. And so we continue to rely on other forms of scams where that’s offsetting the clean development mechanism re trading rules, and now we’ve got the negative emission technologies. It’s never real mitigation. In every single country, we have failed on real mitigation.
And going back to Canada – Canada has very high emissions. Sweden’s emissions are about 4.5 tons per person. Canada runs at about 16 tons per person. Saskatchewan is near 60 tons per person. Across the western part of the world there are huge differences in emissions, and we’re not even prepared to make big changes to them using existing technologies.
19:39-20:10 — Lascaris – One of the things one often hears in Canada when people talk about the responsibility of our country to rise to the occasion in terms of battling the climate crisis is that total emissions in Canada are dwarfed by those of the major emitters. The case of China is constantly raised. And therefore we can’t make much of a difference and we don’t bear much of a responsibility because total emissions coming from China are so far in excess of those in Canada. How would you respond to that argument?
20:11-22:18 — Anderson – It’s not really an argument. It’s an excuse for inaction. The UK emissions are not that dissimilar to those of Canada – around about 2%. Aviation emissions are about 2%. Shipping emissions are about 2%. Germain emissions are about 2%. California is 2-3%. Beijing and Shanghai together are about 2%. We can split the world up into fifty 2 per cents and then argue that every single one of those 2% has no effect. But 50 x 2 equals 100%. It is no argument for Canada to say that its emissions don’t matter. You can always divide the world up like that but it gets you nowhere.
Historically Canada is much more responsible than many of the poorer parts of the world. Canada has a real responsibility, as does the UK, as do other countries that have historically been responsible for climate change. And the last 25 years have done so knowingly. We have the responsibility to demonstrate by leadership to bring our emissions down.
In addition, the emissions per capita in places like Canada or the UK – the wealthy parts of the world — are far above those at the poorer parts of the globe. Although people start to say China’s emissions are rising, that’s significantly because they are making the computers for Canadians. They make our equipment, our clothes – so much of the manufacturing in the world is made by these poor parts of the world using relatively inefficient energy systems quite often. We complain that their emissions are high. We are finding every excuse for inaction. And Canada is a major producer of fossil fuels. And Canada is producer of what is the dirtiest fossil fuels – the tarsands. I think it’s morally irresponsible to argue that Canada has no significant responsibility in relation to climate change. It has responsibility historically, it has responsibility in terms of demonstrating leadership, and its emissions do matter.
END OF INTERVIEW
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