Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ever Closer to Paris

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This week, the heat is on for Exxon but may be off for the Swiss. When is a keystone not a Keystone? I look in detail at why climate change is important and what countries are likely to do about it at the Paris conference. And what citizens at large will do about it if they don’t. Why has a minister got a ruddy complexion? What’s a trilemma? And what’s Jeremy Leggett doing in that locked room?

Hello. This is Anthony Day and this is the sustainable futures show. It's exactly a year since I started publishing the sustainable futures show regularly every week. There are now some 50 episodes in the archive going back over the last 12 months and about the same number which were issued irregularly going right back to 2007. The Christmas edition on 25 December will review some of the highlights of previous episodes. If you want to find any of them now, just go to and do a keyword search.

Sustainable Futures. I’ve said before that in my book a sustainable business is a business that will be here this year, next year and in 10, 20 or more years from now. It needs to manage change. Change in its environment. Change in its stakeholder expectations. Change in the market. Change in the supply chain. Change in the world.

To manage change successfully you first have to see it coming. Every week, the sustainable futures show brings you news, facts and opinions about changes in the sustainable world. My aim is to bring you everything that's important and interesting to help you manage change.

Investigating Exxon

The heat is on for Exxon. According to the New York Times, The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.

Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal producer, has also been under investigation over whether it properly disclosed financial risks related to climate change. That investigation has not so far resulted in any charges or other legal action. Investigations, which could theoretically lead to charges of fraud, are based on asset valuations. If reserves of oil and gas and coal cannot be extracted and used, then they have no value. They are stranded assets. The fossil fuel companies refuse to accept that any of their assets are stranded and therefore stand by their asset valuation. It's quite possible that all this will lead to litigation, but the likely outcome will be fat fees for lawyers and years and years of legal disputes. It's extremely unlikely to have any short-term effect on reducing greenhouse gases or climate change.

Keystone XL

A keystone is literally the last piece of stone to be slotted into a masonry arch. It locks all the other pieces firmly together. It's key, because without a keystone the arch collapses. Maybe it's by reason of its importance that the planned pipeline from Canada to Texas was named Keystone XL. The plan was to pipe crude oil from the Canadian tar sands across the United States to be refined in Texas, but this week president Obama announced that it was not viable, did not create jobs, was not vital for US energy and national security, and was too dangerous for our environment. It would not be built. Cue joyful demonstrations from environmentalists. Actually it's not as simple as that. Keystone XL is phase IV of a pipeline system which has already been in operation since January 2014, and does indeed transport oil from Canada to Texas. Phase IV, a 1200-mile pipeline which will not now be built, would have taken a more direct route and had a much larger capacity. Oil, probably less of it, will now be sent by rail instead. The oil industry is not happy, but it's probably glad to avoid such an enormous investment in this time of very low oil prices. Oil from tar sands is some of the dirtiest oil and most difficult and expensive to produce, so anything which depresses demand and keeps it in the ground is to be welcomed. 

Closing in on Paris

The big change on the horizon is of course COP21, the United Nations climate change conference taking place in Paris in December. But why is climate change important to you, your business, your family, your future? Because if climate change is allowed to continue it’s going to damage the world we live in and make life difficult; ultimately impossible. And if governments take firm action to tackle climate change it’s going to change our world and, in the short term, may also make life difficult. But at least we’ll have a sustainable future.

What if we don’t tackle climate change? 

The predictions are for more unusual weather. 

This November in the UK we are experiencing the warmest November days ever, and what’s wrong with that? Well this week the Met Office announced that 2015 would be the first year when average global temperatures reached 1℃ higher than the average before the start of the Industrial Revolution. Doesn’t sound a lot, but a rise of 2℃ is generally believed to be the threshold of catastrophic climate change. So we're halfway there.
In Europe rainfall has been unusually low. This has caused a shortage of heating oil in Switzerland. How can that possibly be connected? Well, heating oil is delivered to Switzerland by barges sailing along the River Rhine. Lack of rainfall means that the river level is the lowest it has been for four years. Some barges can no longer sail the river, and those that can are half empty so that they do not ride too low in the water. As a result there’s a shortage of heating oil and the Swiss may freeze this winter - if it ever gets cold! The trouble is that it isn't getting as cold as it used to, and that has serious consequences for the skiing industry. 
The popular wisdom is that climate change will have its earliest and most serious effects in the developing nations. Not exclusively, it seems.

The predictions are for more extreme weather. 

This is certainly affecting the developing world. In 1984 the world was horrified by scenes of starvation from Ethiopia. In 2015 the same thing seems to be happening again. The rains have failed. They planted sorghum. It failed. They planted peas. They failed. The population now relies on emergency handouts from reserves. The United Nations has warned that more than 15 million people in Ethiopia will be in need of food aid by the beginning of 2016. 

The predictions are for sea-level rise. 

As the ice-caps melt and the oceans warm up, the volume of water increases and sea-levels rise. They rise by only millimetres per year so the rise alone will take years to have an effect. Except that every millimetre rise represents millions of tonnes of extra water, and driven by the more violent storms that we see and expect, this water could  overwhelm flood defences and cause widespread damage. There are very few major cities in the world which are not on the coast or on tidal rivers.

These are reasons why climate change is important to us all, and why the nations are coming together in Paris to do something about it. 

What exactly are they trying to do at COP21? 

At the end of last month the parties issued an agreed draft document, following the meeting in Bonn. This is so far only  a framework for negotiation. It’s to provide a context for the implementation of each country’s commitments. Each country has issued  an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). The EU has made a combined commitment and the document says: “The EU and its Member States are committed to a binding target of an at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990”

“Legislative proposals to implement the 2030 climate and energy framework, are to be submitted by the European Commission to the Council and European Parliament in 2015-2016.

"This is in line with the EU objective to reduce its emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990. Furthermore, it is consistent with the need for at least halving global emissions by 2050 compared to 1990."

I then went on to look at the submission by the United States.

“The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.

“This target is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”

So the EU is cutting by 40% over 1990 levels by 2030, but the US is cutting by up to 28% of 2005 levels by 2025. Difficult to compare. I looked into the basic figures. The US emissions in millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent were 6,250 in 2005 and a reduction of 28% brings that down to 4,500 in 2025. Emissions in 1990 were 5,400 hence the 2025 target is 17% below the 1990 level. Sorry about all these figures. To summarise, the EU is aiming for a 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2030, the US is aiming for a 17% reduction on 1990 levels by 2025.

As far as actual performance is concerned, the INDC - Intended Nationally Determined Contribution - of the US indicates that they are well on their way to their 2020 target of a 17% reduction (That’s 17% of their 2005 level). That does mean of course that after reducing by that 17% in the 15 years between 2005 and 2020 they are going to have to reduce by a further 11% in only 5 years between 2020 and 2025. And the last few are always the most difficult.

Turning to the EU, I’ve been reading “Trends and projections in Europe 2015 — Tracking progress towards Europe's climate and energy targets”, a report produced by the European Environment Agency. How likely is it that Europe will achieve their targets in their INDC? According to the report, not very likely. With existing measures a reduction of 27% is likely by 2030. To achieve 40% by then needs a reduction of 1.4% every year from now on. To achieve 80% by 2050, which the EU, US and everyone else claim is the aim, an annual reduction of 4.6% will be needed each year from 2030 to 2050. This in a world committed to economic growth and facing an explosive growth in global middle classes, with all the consumption that that implies.

Britain in the (bad) News

It’s not clear how the emissions reductions targets will be shared out between the member states of the EU. Britain has certainly not had a good press on emissions targets this week. The BBC compiled a report which listed the changes that the government has made to environmental legislation since it took sole power after the election last May. The government’s stated aim was to cut costs for Britain’s hard-working families. Of the 16 measures analysed, 6 were expected to reduce bills, three to have no impact and seven to increase bills. All of them except one would lead to increased GHG emissions.

This is Anthony Day with the sustainable futures show.
Still to come. The red-faced Minister. Local climate activists, from AAA to AAB and screaming from a locked room.

Minister Embarrassed 

Amber Rudd, minister of energy and climate change, was accused this week of misleading parliament about the nation’s emissions levels. "The Government does not have the “right policies” to meet its renewable energy target," she admitted. Speaking before a Parliamentary Committee, she confirmed that the Government was set to miss the EU requirement of 15 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption coming from renewables by 2020. A letter leaked to The Ecologist shows that she misled Parliament by promising the UK was 'on course' to deliver on its renewable energy targets - when in fact there is a delivery shortfall in 2020 of almost 25%.

This stands in stark contrast to her public position. On 17th September she told the House of Commons: "When it became apparent that we were way in excess of [spending limits on renewables], but were still meeting our renewables targets, it was right to limit the amount of money we were spending.” That was her justification for the dramatic cuts - up to 87% - to the subsidies for wind and solar. Her plan to fill the gap which she now recognises, relies on more biofuels, buying in green power and 'credits' from abroad - everything but wind and solar. But she now warns, that this impending failure to meet EU renewables targets puts the UK at a double risk - of legal action taken in the UK, which the government would probably lose; and of enormous fines imposed by the European Court of Justice:
"The absence of a credible plan to meet the target carries the risk of successful judicial review, and failing to meet the overall target in 2020 could lead to on-going fines imposed by the EU Court of Justice until the UK reaches the target level.”

But by misleading the House of Commons in her earlier statement, she is now certain to face demands for her resignation. And she’s the person we’ll be sending to represent the United Kingdom at the Paris conference. 

Climate Action

I went to a meeting last night of my local climate action group. There is a lot of energy, enthusiasm and some anger about the climate talks in Paris. There’s determination to make sure that something is done, but there’s fear that everything will be stitched up into business as usual by the big corporates using their influence. The meeting was rather unfocused; an overly-complex explanation of climate change, an academic with far, far more information than she could possibly get into 10 minutes and a speaker who said “UM” 135 times in his 10 minutes slot - I counted them - who failed to hold my attention. There were strong and effective presentations about the mass demonstration in London on 29th November to urge the politicians to take effective action. Many local people will be going. This could be bigger than the anti-war march in February 2003. It will be interesting to see how the police handle it and whether people will be “kettled”, penned up and prevented from leaving as has happened with more recent demonstrations. There will be another demonstration in Paris at the end of the conference, on 12th December. Many people will be going from the UK. Again, it will be interesting to see how it’s handled. And whether it makes any difference!

World Energy Council

News just in from the World Energy Council. The UK's AAA rating was cut to AAB by the World Energy Council in its annual "trilemma index", which measures countries' ability to offer secure, affordable and sustainable energy supplies. The UK fell down on the accessibility and affordability of energy supply across the population. The index also stated that current government policies may "hinder investments" in wind and solar power.  This follows criticism from the UN's chief environment scientist that I reported last month. Professor Jacquie McGlade said the UK was turning away from renewables, just as they were being embraced by the rest of the world.

That soundproof room...

I mentioned Jeremy Leggett. I’m sure you’ve been downloading his “The Winning of the Carbon War” from It's free. In the latest chapter he says that sometimes he’s “feeling like finding a soundproofed room and having a good scream.” I think we know how you feel, Jeremy.

And finally...

Well, that’s it, that’s another week. Apologies for the bits I’ve missed, the stories I’ve left out. As always, your comments, ideas and suggestions are invaluable. Get in touch and tell me what you want to hear at

I’m off to a conference now.

And it’s got nothing whatever to do with energy, climate change or sustainability.

I'm Anthony Day and there will be another sustainable futures show next week. Find it at