Friday, February 12, 2016

Unpacking the Paris Agreement

Published as a podcast at on Friday 12th February


Unpacking the Paris Agreement - Is it enough to limit dangerous climate change? That’s the question that was posed at an event at Leeds University last week. At a meeting of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society this week Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University broadened the debate to talk about Climate Change and the risk of conflict. President Obama’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement has been prejudiced by the US Supreme Court, and after you’ve listened to this, search out The Bottom Line on BBC Radio iPlayer. It covered the UK energy debate in some detail, although a lot of it will be familiar to regular listeners to this podcast.

Supreme Court slows Clean Power Plan

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in favour of 29 states pursuing litigation against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to regulate greenhouse emissions from power plants. It stated that until the bill was introduced, there was no federal limit to the amount of pollution plants could emit. The ruling has caused some surprise because the Supreme Court acted without a lower court’s initial ruling. The Court was divided 5-4 in its ruling and U.S. media are discussing about “liberal” and “conservative” judges, and hinting at partisanship. The result is that a major part of the president’s carbon reduction commitment is now on hold. If Donald Trump makes it to the White House - “Climate Change? I call it weather” - he could do for the Paris Agreement what George W Bush did for the Kyoto Agreement.


Unpacking the Paris Agreement at Leeds University was sponsored by the Royal Meteorological Society, the Priestley International Centre for Climate Change and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, and it was chaired by Kate Lock. On the panel were Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change, Andy Gouldson, Professor of Environmental Policy, John Barrett, Professor of Energy and Climate Policy and Harriet Thew, Postgraduate Researcher and Teaching Assistant

Piers Forster is an IPCC lead author. (That’s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) You may remember him from the episode “Can we trust the IPCC?”, which appeared on this podcast on 10th November 2014, when he explained about all the background negotiations that go on in finalising the text of an IPCC report. He started off the meeting with a show of hands which revealed that the majority of the audience was pessimistic about the outcome of COP21. But he’s an optimist and so is Andy Hilton.

The atmosphere in Paris, they said, was so much better than in Copenhagen - more governments came together than ever before - there was a greater sense of cooperation - the rich nations were working with the poor nations - the agreement provided for ratcheting up the targets and auditing performance. An ultimate target of limiting temperature rises to 1.5℃, not the expected 2℃ was clearly stated. The INDCs, each nation’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to emissions reduction, would reduce potential global warming to a 2.7℃ temperature increase. Less than hoped for, but countries could under-promise and over-deliver. Andy suggested that public opinion could bring change. He cited the example of toxic emissions in the US. Once they had been publicly shared, public opinion made the operators clean up. The Paris Agreement provides for 5-yearly reviews with the expectation that targets will be tightened each time. It provides for each nation’s performance to be audited.
The agreement might not have been perfect but it was the best deal possible. “12th December 2015 will go down in history”, they said, “as the day the world changed”. 

Harriet Thew was more cautious. COP21 was the third UN climate change conference that she had attended and she didn't detect a very different atmosphere. On the other hand there were many more closed sessions than at previous conferences, and lessons had been clearly learnt to avoid over-promises. There was a wide range of external groups, making their points despite the restrictions of the state of emergency. After the agreement she perceived a whole spectrum of emotions. Extreme optimism from Christiana Figueras and Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations, while others were highly critical claiming that there had been no justice for vulnerable nations and that the finance needed to help them would not be available. They underlined their point by printing a replica of the agreement on a toilet roll. Was it a disappointment that world leaders had signed a bad agreement or was it a triumph that they had all signed something?

John Barrett made three concise points: timing, technology and demand. 
  • Greenhouse gases accumulate over time and persist in the atmosphere, so there is inertia in the system. This means that if we stop emissions now, the emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to have an effect for years to come. Remember that video I mentioned to you a while ago by Alice Bows-Larkin? It was a TED talk.  The point was that the longer we delay cutting carbon emissions the harder it will be to get them down to a manageable level. The longer we leave it, the more carbon emissions will persist in the atmosphere affecting the climate. 
  • John’s second point was that we were over-reliant on technology. Piers Forster had already suggested that we would have to rely on technologies which have not yet been developed. We need to massively decarbonise our electricity supply for example. Carbon capture and storage is an essential technology for this, but it has never been proven to work on a commercial scale.
  • John’s third point was energy demand. He said that we lacked the ability, in the UK at least, to reduce demand. He showed a graph which demonstrated how energy demand had remained constant in the UK for 40 years. However, taking into account the embedded energy in imported goods, UK energy consumption had been steadily rising for years.


In the Q & A session the points which most engaged both the panel and the audience were about UK policies. The U.K.'s Climate Change Act is ground-breaking and its carbon budgets and Climate Change Committee are world-class. However, the present government, with its doctrinaire  belief in shrinking the state, has rapidly dismantled and backtracked on policies since the election. The state could enable research and create the conditions for technological development but it is no longer doing that. It has a laissez-faire approach. It was suggested that officials at DECC and DEFRA were preparing to defend those policies which remain and hoping to hold on until there is a change of government. There’s more than four years to wait! 

The private sector may enter the renewables market when they get to cost parity with other energies, but they are not there yet. There is therefore a clear question over whether renewables industries can survive in the UK. In the face of uncertainties about government policy renewables will be seen as risky, and investors will demand a higher return, making it more difficult for markets to deliver the technologies required. The state needs to support the community towards a low carbon future. A key issue is the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS), essential to the government's commitment to coal and gas. But at the time of the Autumn Statement last year the government announced to the London Stock Exchange that £1bn prize fund for the first company to develop commercial-scale carbon capture and storage was withdrawn. Subsequently Drax Power withdrew from the White Rose CCS pilot plant. With its concentration of power stations, steelworks and chemical plants, Yorkshire was the ideal location for utilising CCS. Not any more, although Andy Hilton suggested that the government was regretting its decision and would reverse it within 6 months. We’ll see.

Government Action

According to the panel the government should restore the feed-in tariff for solar panels for a few more years until cost parity is achieved. Of course that parity could also be accelerated by cutting direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels. Heathrow expansion should be cancelled and the carbon floor price should no longer be frozen. The energy market should be managed to achieve its objectives as a provider of heat, light and power, rather than focussing solely on price reduction. Civil society can hold governments account, but the panel admitted that they were unlikely to see people marching on Downing Street in support of feed-in tariffs.

Should we have individual carbon budgets as they do in Switzerland? 60% of household emissions are indirect, in other words they are created by producing the goods and services that consumers buy. The other 40% relates mainly to heating and the use of cars, which consumers control. This could be a regressive tax, penalising poorer people living in badly-insulated homes.

There were questions about geo-engineering. This involves changing climate patterns by launching mirrors into space, sowing the seas with iron filings to stimulate carbon-absorbing plankton, creating artificial clouds to reflect sunlight or other ingenious - and highly expensive - strategies. The problem with that is that no-one can predict the side effects, so the risks are really too great. 

Should we give up meat and dairy products? Global emissions from livestock farming account for 15% of the total, equivalent to the emissions from all forms of transport. According to a graduate student in the audience, a meat free diet would limit global warming by 0.25°C. A healthy diet–not specified–would produce a 0.2°C reduction.

Awareness of climate change in the UK is poor, because we are generally unaffected by it. The good thing about the recent floods - a bad thing themselves - was that they did make people start to think that climate change might be important. Education is needed - at all levels. The Paris Agreement specifically mentioned it. It should start in primary schools, where children are already forming their ideas and beliefs.

What next?

And finally, what did the panel think we should do next?

  • Piers Forster: We should cut our vehicle emissions by giving up our cars
  • Andy Gouldson: We should write to our MPs and demand that the government meets its carbon budgets by investing in Carbon Capture and Storage
  • Harriet Thew: We should urge the government to implement Article 12 of the Paris Agreement about Climate Change Education in Schools
  • John Bartlett: We should be positive about the Paris Agreement. Don’t reject it because it’s not perfect.

What are you going to do?

Climate Change and the Risk of Conflict 

This was the title of a presentation to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society by Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. He believes that the 100 years from 1945 to 2045 could be the most significant century in human history for two reasons. First, 1945 marked the introduction of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. This went on to the Cold War with proliferation of nuclear warheads. Although we have survived, more by luck than wisdom, and the numbers of nuclear weapons have now diminished, there is still a significant threat. And new biological weapons are potentially just as deadly. Secondly we are approaching the limits of global resources and an environmental disaster.

He went on to tell us how he had worked with senior members of the military and of the security agencies. These were people of great ability charged with protecting the state. They had no responsibility for addressing the underlying causes of threats to the state and their success in protecting the security of the nation leads politicians to underestimate the true scale of problems. Problems most frequently reported by relief agencies in developing countries are problems of climate change. Problems from floods or droughts which devastate agriculture and lead to starvation. Starvation which leads to migration. He cited a controversial film made by the BBC in 1990 called The March. You can find it on YouTube.  It’s the story of refugees fleeing starvation and attempting to reach Europe. The migration problem that we have today is far smaller and driven by war, not by climate change. 

Climate Change

There is no doubt that climate change is a reality. In northern Europe spring comes three weeks earlier than it did 40 years ago and winter comes later. Globally, weather events are more violent. In some areas rainfall patterns over land are declining. As a result agriculture is affected and many farmers cannot survive. Climate change is accelerating after a relatively stable period of six or seven years. 2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015 proved to be hotter still. The scenario in the film, as refugees flee from famine, could be played out in reality. In the film, Europe had no clear plan to handle migrants. And today our government is more concerned to keep migrants out than to address the causes of migration. 


Another problem facing the world is growing inequality. 80% of the world’s population does not share in global economic growth. The divide between rich and poor is rapidly becoming wider in both developing and developed nations. In China, for example, 150 million people enjoy a lifestyle equivalent to the British middle classes. The other 90% do not. In the professor’s view the world economic system is no longer fit for purpose. He told us about Tunisia. This is a country moving towards democracy with an educated population but serious inequality. More people leave this country than any other in order to join the Taliban, Isis or similar groups. The reason is frustration at unfulfilled aspirations. As people become more educated and yet see themselves excluded from a fair share of the world's wealth they will either try to move to other countries or resort to violence. 


Then there’s the issue of resources as the world’s population grows and life-style expectations increase. The book, Limits to Growth, was published in the Seventies. I’ve mentioned its sequel, The 30-year Update, in previous episodes. Now New Scientist magazine has produced a 40-year review. The methodology was sound. On present trends we will have serious resource problems in the 2020s.

Despite all this Paul Rogers sees grounds for cautious optimism. Renewable technologies are developing rapidly. The Paris Climate Change conference has raised the profile of the climate change issue. While progress was blocked for 8 years by the Bush administration and by energy-dependent Russia, Canada and Australia, the governments have changed in all those countries, except Russia. (But see comments about Donald Trump, above.) We have the ability to solve the problems, but at the moment we do not have the political will. As a member of the audience said: things will not change until the effluent hits the affluent. When a serious and urgent problem is clearly presented then governments will act. At least 10,000 people died in the London Smog of 1952. The government brought in the Clean Air Act. When the British Antarctic Survey discovered the hole in the Ozone Layer the world rapidly signed the Montreal Convention to ban the gases that were causing the damage.

I can’t help thinking that if it had been the Thames Barrier in London that failed on Boxing Day, and not the Foss Barrier in York, government reactions would have been very different.

Professor Rogers said that it’s all about aspirations. Reducing inequality and taking action to address these problems is simply a matter of enlightened self-interest for those who have the power.

Didn't somebody say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance? I think you could argue that the price of survival is much the same.

And that’s it for another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Don’t forget, booking is open for the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange via Updates on Twitter @sbpe16.

Next time I'll bring you news from the London Oil Forum and from the re:gen centre in Bradford.

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