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“Nature cannot be fooled.” Kevin Anderson on mitigation as if climate mattered

This post is based on a presentation given by Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester. Anderson gave the presentation in January 2018. It remains as relevant as it was 18 months ago, perhaps more so.

Anderson talks about romantic illusions and negative emission technologies. He focusses on BECCS (biomass energy with carbon capture and storage), but he could just as well have focussed on natural climate solutions, including REDD.

While proponents of natural climate solutions argue that tree planting and protecting forests could mitigate 37% of global carbon emissions by 2030, the reality is that natural climate solutions currently do not exist on anything like the scale needed. And even if they did, we cannot offset continued emissions from fossil fuels by planting trees or preserving forests, if want to stand a chance of keeping warming below 2°C.

Achieving 37% mitigation of carbon emissions would require planting an area somewhere around the size of India with trees. But trees take decades to grow, and such a vast area of land is simply not available to be handed over as a store for the rich world’s carbon.

Protecting existing forests is the other main action required to meet the 37% figure. The fires this year in the Amazon, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland illustrate how far we are from achieving this.

The recent record on tropical tree cover loss is far from impressive:

And a 2017 paper in Science found that tropical forests have moved from being a carbon sink to being a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t plant trees or protect forests. We should do both. We just shouldn’t rely on either to address the climate crisis.

Nature cannot be fooled

Here’s Anderson’s presentation in full (starting at 11:13):

Anderson begins with a quotation from Richard Feynman, from 1986. Feynman was chair of the President’s Commission into the Challenger Shuttle accident and was writing about that rather than climate change:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

“But I think what he said was important,” Anderson says. “What we are trying to do on climate change and have done for the last 20-odd years is fool nature.”

Romantic illusions

Anderson follows up with a quotation from the Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which he describes as one of the best publications available on climate change:

… the alliance of technology and economics end up side-lining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. … whereas any genuine attempt to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.

Anderson lists the real romantic illusions:

  • A belief in naive and ephemeral text-book economics that dominates our society and governments
  • An unshakable confidence in technical utopia
  • The (deliberate) neglect of time – this is not a problem to be solved in 2030 but it is a problem to be solved this afternoon, or this evening, and tomorrow
  • Faith in Machiavellian mathematics, whether that’s discount rates or elasticity of demand in economics
  • Implicit assumption that Nature follows our rules

Zero-carbon in our time

Anderson then asks, “So what is the mitigation challenge?” He illustrates the question with a picture of then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 holding up the Munich Agreement.

“The Paris Agreement commits us to ‘zero-carbon in our time’”, Anderson says. The Paris Agreement commits us to take action to,

hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C

… to undertake rapid reductions in accordance with the best science

… on the basis of equity

“No country in the world, including the UK, takes any notice of the equity dimension at the moment,” Anderson adds.

He points out that 2°C is a global average, and that 2°C is not safe, which is why poorer parts of the world ask for 1.5°C.

“At 2°C, many people will die. They will be poor. They will be a long way from here. They’ll have almost no role in actually causing the problem. And they’ll typically be non-white. But they will die. And we’ve known that for the last 25 years. And we’ve known everything we need to about climate change to act. So we have deliberately carried on our lifestyles knowing that’s the case.”

28 years of abject failure

Anderson’s next question is “What is our response so far to climate change?”

The first IPCC report came out in 1990. In 2016, emissions were 60% higher than in 1990. CO2 emissions are still rising. In 2017 emissions went up by 2%.

“So what we’ve had is 27 to 28 years of abject failure on climate change,” Anderson comments. “We have actively chosen to fail. And why we’ve failed? We’ve had a litany of technocratic frauds.”

Anderson lists the technocratic frauds:

  • Offsetting … paying the poor to diet for us
  • Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) … state sanctioned offsetting, so we could build airports and expand shale gas
  • Emissions trading (ETS) … so many permits made available that the price of carbon was virtually zero so it had no impact. But we could pretend we were doing something
  • Negative emission technologies … all of these scams have failed and we’re relying on speculative negative emission technologies to suck CO2 out of the air in the future
  • Geo-engineering … a sticking plaster on gangrene

“We have not tried mitigation!” Anderson comments. “We’ve not tried to reduce our emissions in 27 to 28 years.”

The carbon budget

Anderson moves on to what real mitigation might be. He starts by pointing out that the Paris Agreement is “not a safe threshold for many parts of the world”. And that delivering on the Paris Agreement is “far more challenging than most scientists and politicians will admit, at least when you put a microphone in front of them.” Anderson says, “They’re all too scared of countering the orthodoxy.”

Anderson reckons that real mitigation for 2°C is just about possible, but adds, “I don’t think it is possible for 1.5°C. I’m not going to discuss that today, but I think we’ve lost the chance of 1.5°C.”

The long term targets that politicians love, 2030, 2050, and so on, have no scientific basis, he says. Yet this is a language that scientists have repeatedly used.

“The only thing that matters in terms of temperature,” Anderson says, “is the carbon budget. That’s the build-up of CO2. So, how you got here tonight, having the lights on, and the projector on, means we’re burning oil, and coal, and gas and so forth, and that CO2 will be in the atmosphere for centuries, some of it will be there for thousands of years, changing the climate. So we are changing the climate with this event tonight.”

Before the Paris Agreement, we were heading for between 4°C and 6°C of warming. With Paris we’re probably aiming for between 3°C and 4°C, if you add all the promises that countries made in the Paris Agreement.

Reducing demand, increasing equity

To stay “well below 2°C”, the carbon budget remaining from 2017 is is about 800 billion tonnes CO2. We put into the atmosphere about 40 billion tonnes every year. So we’ve got about 20 years of current emissions. We’re talking about something like zero carbon by about 2050-ish. That’s at a global level.

“Now my argument has been repeatedly that to move from here to here you cannot do that with low carbon supply. You can’t build your way out of the problem with power stations, wind, nuclear, solar, whatever it might be. You can’t do that fast enough. So in the short term, you have to reduce demand dramatically.

“There are virtually no scenarios at a global level, even in the UK, that do that. So it’s a romantic illusion. We can’t possibly question demand, because growth goes on forever. Infinite. To most economists anyway. So that’s the first romantic illusion.”

Anderson points out that at the same time as reducing demand, we do have to put in place the planning and start constructing the zero carbon energy supply that needs to be completed in about three decades.

The Paris Agreement also has an equity dimension. The poor parts of the world can have a little bit longer to make this transition. This equity dimension has been there since the Kyoto Protocol. “Of course, we’ve only ever paid lip service to this,” Anderson says. “It’s another romantic illusion. Do we really care about the poor elsewhere? I would argue probably not.”

Euphoria in Paris

“So why is it we saw so many people euphoric in Paris, chinking their champagne glasses with the stars that flew over there in their private jets? I think it’s partly because they received, and of course have wanted to receive, a very different story, given to them by academics. Particularly by a group of modellers called integrated assessment modellers, who are primarily economists, with some guidance from engineers and scientists as well.

“These modellers basically do their analysis and can offer carbon budgets that are twice as big as those that come out of the science. With much less mitigation, so much lower reduction rates. The median level of the models that they produce say we’ve got 1,600 billion tonnes, remember it was 800 before? …

“If you were a policy maker, which would you rather sell to your electorate?”

As Anderson notes, the same applies to academics flying to “another absolutely essential conference with their friends”, or if you’re flying to go on holiday.

From different working groups in the IPCC we have two figures for the Carbon Budget from 2017. The scientists say 800 billion tonnes CO2, the economists say about 1,600 billion tonnes CO2.

Anderson mentions two films. The first is Dr. Strangelove. “It’s just wonderful,” he says. “It’s primarily about how we have completely naive views of utopian technology. Which is what we do on climate change.”

The second film is Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. “Both wonderful films in their different ways.” Merchants of Doubt, of course, is actually about climate change.

Negative Emission Technologies – BECCS

“We’ve employed some magicians to pull rabbits out of hats,” Anderson says. The models have conjured up “Negative Emission Technologies” (NETs). “While it sounds like you can buy them off the shelf, these things don’t exist,” Anderson adds.

Nevertheless, these are going to suck out hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. Actually, the next generation will have to suck out the CO2. “We’re passing responsibility onto our children.”

Anderson points out that we’re talking about astronomical quantities. It’s supposed to start almost immediately and continue to the end of the century, and beyond.

The negative emission technology that dominates the models is BECCS – biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. This involves growing trees and plants, that will absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. Then the plants will be harvested, loaded onto ships, transported all around the world. That bit is missing in all the models.

Then the ships will be unloaded, put on trains, taken to power stations, then burned. The CO2 will be captured, almost liquified, pumped somewhere, through long pipelines deep underground and stored there for a few thousand years, probably under the sea. “That’s our plan for the rest of the century,” Anderson says.

“This has never worked at scale. There are no examples of this working anywhere at the scale of a power station. There are massive technical and economic unknowns. We don’t even know how carbon capture and storage works. We’ve not got one power station that reliably works with carbon capture and storage. The only one we have is in Canada. It’s 110 MW, about 1/40th size of Drax power station and it’s proved really problematic over the last two years. It’s only captured 40% of the CO2 they thought it would capture.”

Anderson reckons the problems could be solved but with a huge efficiency penalty. And there’s limited biomass availability. Aviation wants it. Shipping wants it. The chemical industry wants it. We’ve already got 5-7% in our cars. We’ve got to feed 9 billion people. Biomass is the new silver bullet.

Anderson explains just how ridiculous BECCS is. Every year, we put 40 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. About half is captured by oceans and plants. The other half just builds up in the atmosphere, hence our CO2 concentration keeps going up.

BECCS technology does not exist. But the models assume that we’re going to build the technology to absorb between 10 and 20 billion tonnes CO2 every year. “That’s like bolting on another planet,” Anderson says.

“Virtually every single model that advises governments does this. Not just our government, but all governments. Because if you don’t do this, it’s a bit challenging for people like us and we won’t vote the politicians back in. That’s the belief.”

Of course, this all supports ongoing fossil-fuel use to 2100 and beyond. “It also masks the need for social change,” Anderson says. “We’re all pleased about that, because the last thing we want is people like us to have to change our lives.”

Going back to Richard Feynman, Anderson asks, “Are we trying to fool nature?” and replies, “I think we are completely trying to fool nature. And we know deep down that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Anderson says that he thinks we should research negative emissions technologies. “Yes to researching NETS,” he says. “But no to assuming they work. Let’s research them, develop them, and maybe even deploy them. But let’s not assume they work.”

What might real mitigation look like?

Anderson then looks at what happens to mitigation if negative emission technologies are removed from the models.

Non-OECD countries are dominated by China. If they can reach a peak in their CO2 emissions by the early 2020s, which is hugely challenging, and ramp up mitigation (the rates at which they reduce their emissions) to 10% each year by the early 2040s, that would mean a fully decarbonised energy system sometime in the 2050s.

(Anderson notes that there are no historical examples of this, “but then we’ve never really tried”. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to about 5% reduction in emissions every year.)

From that, we can calculate the carbon budget for the poor parts of the world, and work out what’s left for the wealthy parts of the world. Anderson focusses on wealthier countries in his presentation, like the UK, much of the EU, the US, Japan, and Australia, and so forth.

“We would need between 13% and 20% reduction in our emissions, starting January 1st of this year. So we’re three weeks in, and so far we’ve failed. And remember, it’s a cumulative problem so every day you fail, it’s much harder the following day.”

The target for rich countries would be at least a 75% reduction in CO2 by 2025.

“So just think of our own lives. Could we reduce our emissions by 75% in the next few years? I think probably the answer is yes. Are we prepared to? I think probably the answer is no.”

That would mean for the rich countries a fully decarbonised energy system by somewhere between 2035 and 2040. “That’s planes, ships, refrigerators, cars, industry, everything,” Anderson says. “Zero carbon.”

That’s for 2°C, which as Anderson notes is very dangerous for many people in the world. “But we’ve known this since 1990. It would have been much easier if we’d started then.”

Possible. Just

Anderson’s next question is whether it’s possible. Based on the work that he and colleagues in the Tyndale Centre and in Sweden have been working on for a few years, Anderson thinks it’s possible. Just.

But he adds that if he were asked to give this talk in five years’ time, or even two or three years’ time, he’d say it’s not possible.

Anderson looks at two things, focussing on energy. He acknowledges that “agriculture and so forth is important, but my focus is on energy”. Technology on the demand side and the supply side, and the behavioural side and the equity issue.

There are lots of low-carbon energy options: geothermal in Iceland, offshore wind turbines, nuclear power stations (Anderson’s father used to work at Sizewell A nuclear power station), dams, tidal energy, wave energy, and solar panels. “People may not like some of them, for one reason or another, but they are all in the 5-15 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour,” Anderson says.

Anderson excludes biomass because of the problems with N2O emissions, methane, sustainability implications, but “it may have a role as an indigenous source for some things”, he says.

Carbon capture and storage is not low carbon. The CO2 is captured from a fossil fuel power station, like gas or coal. “Of course the oil companies love, and lots of people like geologists love it as well,” Anderson says. The actual emissions are about 100 to 200 grammes per kilowatt hour, so the emissions are still very high. The emissions are not from the capture side, but from the extraction of the coal or gas from the ground, which is a high emissions activity.

“CCS will not be and never can be made very low carbon. So I think we have to recognise we cannot keep burning fossil fuels. Despite the fact that a lot of scientists rely on it in their analysis.”

All of those technologies are electricity based. Electricity is currently only 20% of the electricity that we consume. This means that we need a massive programme of electrification. In the UK, we need a grid that is three to five times as big as it is today and we have to do that in the next 20 years.

Consumption, not population is the issue

There are massive demand opportunities. These are not really in any of the models. “They pretty much never touch demand,” Anderson says.

Anderson recommends that governments should establish stringent efficiency standards that tighten year on year. That would give a long-term market signal. He estimates that wealthy nations could reduce energy demand by 40 to 70% in 10 to 15 years using efficiency standards. “That’s not going to solve the problem,” Anderson says, “but it’s going to help you quite a long way to it.”

“But technology, supply and demand will not deliver Paris. It will not deliver 2°C. It cannot deliver in the time-frames that we have. So a reliance on technology and economics is insufficient. It’s a prerequisite, but it’s insufficient.”

At the global level, we find a massive asymmetry in emissions and energy use. Globally, about 50% of all CO2 comes from about 10% of the population.

“If the top 10% of emitters reduce their carbon footprint to the level of the average European, it’s not too onerous, it’s not going to be enough, but you can imagine doing that, that’s a one-third cut in global emissions.”

If that’s true, we don’t have to aim our policy at 7.5 billion people, we can tailor our policies towards the top 10%. “That makes it much easier,” Anderson notes.

“It’s not about population this, not for 2°C, it’s about consumption. The poor will not be rich enough in the time-frame for 2°C to matter. So it’s about the people already consuming.”

The top 10%

Anderson takes a look at this top 10%, starting with climate scientists:

“We spend our time flying around the world, telling little people beneath us that they should cut their emissions. And quite a few of these climate scientists love to be in first or business class, as do quite a lot of academics. Their pretence of care.”

He moves on to universities:

“We love foreign students, they like to come over here, we can help them culturally and so on, and they bring lots of money of course. But we never think of the fact as well, that’s fine I think it’s a good thing to do, but how do they go backwards and forwards to their home countries? Do we have to rethink the scheduling of universities to reduce how often they go home, so maybe they go home less often but for longer? What happens when they build up relationships? If you’re an Indian coming over here and meeting a Russian, or a Chinese person coming over here and meeting an Icelandic person and relationships build up, you lock in high carbon, high energy futures. We need to think about that in universities. We are supposed to be places of cogency, not ignorance. So let’s think about these issues in advance.”

Policy makers are in the top 10%. Business leaders. Audiences at climate change events. “We know who the 10% are, because we see them when we shave, or when we put our make-up on.”

Anderson talks about frequent fliers:

“If you get on a plane once or twice a year, then we’re definitely in that category. And I often say to students, they say, well I’m not in that category. So I say, why are you at university? You’ve come to university because it’s good fun and you’re going to get a good education. Why do you want a good education? I want a better job. Why do you want a better job? Well I want to get more money. Why do you want more money? So I can get a bigger house, nice car, fly business class, have a higher carbon footprint. So you come to university to get a higher carbon footprint. That’s the way our society is at the moment. That’s why I’m saying this is not a small challenge. Because our whole system is embedded in that way of thinking.”

Equity frames the whole agenda differently, Anderson says. “It’s not about 7.5 billion people. It is for sustainability, but it’s not for climate change. It’s about the people who already emit.”

Academics could be leading by example, Anderson says.

“Anyone can do this, just to start off with. Do it yourself, be vociferous about it, talk to your neighbours, discuss it with people you meet in your sports club, or your bridge clubs or whatever you do. Universities could be doing that. Universities have completely abdicated any responsibility for climate change. There’s lots of lip service, you’ve got the climate change committee and so forth, but no university is showing any leadership on this at the moment.”

If some universities started to set an example, it could snowball, until all universities in the UK were doing it. “It would be very hard for the policy makers to ignore them,” Anderson says.

System change

“We could catalyse system change, which allows government to start putting regulations in that change the system. Individuals are important here. They trigger the catalyst that allows us to regulate. So regulation is ultimately what it comes to.”

We have left climate change so late that it now demands system change. Interpreting Paris through the logic of carbon budgets begs fundamental questions of our norms and paradigms. “It’s going to require a Marshall style reconstruction of our energy system,” Anderson says. “Like the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War.”

Anderson points out that this is a “massive jobs agenda”. It involves making wind turbines and trams instead of cars. “I think you can construct this in a way that makes it very politically appealing,” he says.

“We need to have reparation, not aid, for the poorer parts of the world. We’ve imposed upon them climate change that will get worse and worse, and we’ve asked them not to use fossil fuels, like we have to get in the position we’re in today. So we need reparation, compensation, for the Global South.”

All this needs to start now and be completed in about three decades. We know where to find the solutions. They are not in the utopian reliance on technology and economics. Our choice is between a short-term realpolitik or long-term real-climate.

Anderson gives an upbeat quotation from Robert Unger:

at every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.

Anderson finishes with another reflection on the role of universities:

“Universities are places where should be awash with imagination. We should be thinking what different futures are out there that are prosperous, sustainable and low carbon. That’s not enough. We then have to provide clarity to policy-makers and others, what would you need to do to deliver that? And that’s our job in universities. I think at the moment we’re just touching it, and most of the time we’re probably pretending it’s not a big issue.”


I watched Anderson’s presentation again recently after seeing it in a series of tweets by Michael Flammer. Flammer highlights some of the best bits of the talk. I thought it was worth posting my notes on the entire presentation.

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