Reflections on COP28’s Global Stocktake and emissions reductions

COP28 national flags at night in Dubai.

With carbon emission of around 25tCO2 per capita (global average around 4.5tCO2eq per capita) and energy demand of around 150MWh per capita (global average around 20MWh per capita), both among the 5 highest in the world, the UAE is on a per capita basis one of the largest contributor to climate change. And the host of COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties, the main decision-making body of the UNFCCC. This makes uncomfortable reading, especially given the lack of progress in tackling human-made climate change. Then again, it probably does not matter where COPs are held as it is the agreements which countries commit to, and their success in fulfilling these commitments, which ultimately count. The number of fossil fuel business representatives makes equally uncomfortable reading. But maybe the number of fossil fuel lobbyists is a sign that they are taking COPs more seriously and rightly recognize strong action on climate change as a challenge to business as usual. Their desire to have their voices heard is testament to their recognition of the importance the UNFCCC’s process and progress on climate policy more generally.

The event itself, meanwhile, was discombobulating. Dubai’s geography of nowhere which robs you of any sense of scale and place is replicated in its Expo2020 site where COP was held. Huge distances between everything and the closed doors behind which languished side events and pavilions, mainly of countries but also of non-governmental organisations, multinational development banks, even universities, were the polar opposite of a bazaar where exchange was facilitated at previous COPs and in the space of 100 meters you might come across the International Labour Organisation, the World Bank, Egypt, Japan, Zambia, and Portugal. Thus, COP28 was sapped of interaction where browsing is enabled, chance facilitated, and happenstance happened. Instead, it felt strangely disjointed, more like an in-person zoom conference in the desert.

But the food was good, if expensive, the streets eerily safe and clean, the organization well executed, the venue shiny and spotless, public transport clean and efficient, water plentiful, and the sun reliable. It is hard to imagine impoverished countries not choosing a similar development trajectory if they were provided the opportunity. According to some calculations, African countries are sat on $10trn worth of hydrocarbons capable of pursuing such a development trajectory while pushing global warming to 6-7 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But which alternative development trajectory are we supporting which keeps these hydrocarbons in the ground while improving living standards and increasing opportunities? Access to climate finance is essential, while debt relief is the elephant in the room (I wonder how this analogy will read if we tacitly enable their extinction through poverty?). Calculations suggest that sentencing debt costs the 58 countries that make up the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) over £100bn/a. This sum would go a long way towards greening development and keeping hydrocarbons in the ground.

Instead, the Global Stocktake, the COP28 agreement, ‘calls on parties’ to ‘tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030’. This is important as we need something to replace fossil fuels the Stocktake agrees to ‘transition away from’ and coal especially which it agrees to ‘phase-down’. While it will be virtually impossible to eliminate fossil fuels entirely from our economies, this language emphasizes the need to reduce their stranglehold on our energy systems. With emphasis placed on renewables and energy efficiency, this provides a plausible, just, and equitable transition pathway. While the statement that ‘abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage’ should be accelerated leaves a loophole for abated fossil fuel technologies, it emphasizes its use ‘in hard-to-abate’ sectors such as steel and cement. This loophole is to bring on board countries with very high fossil fuel dependence, not just for power generation but as the foundation of their entire economic prosperity.

Regarding transport, the document emphasizes the ‘reduction of emission from road transport on a range of pathways, including through development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero and low-emission vehicles’. This reference to infrastructure is highly relevant as it refers to mass transit systems which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are far more efficient than electric vehicles for example. Finally, ‘phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible’ should act as a financial driver of this transition. According to the International Monetary Fund, such subsidies amount to $7tn per year, or 7.1% of GDP. This implies that governments around the world effectively subsidise every tonne of CO2 emitted to the amount of $125. If we used this money to subsidise renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as abatement in hard-to-treat sectors and eventually removals to account for historical emissions, 1.5 degrees is still alive, and African countries for example could be placed on a clean development trajectory towards prosperity and opportunity.

Despite tentative progress, however, parties failed to agree on the modalities of Article 6. Article 6 is the last building block of the Paris Agreement which has yet to be agreed on, with a rulebook in place that all parties agree on. Apparently, a bloc led by the US favours a light-touch approach akin to voluntary carbon markets. Unsurprisingly given their discreditation in recent months, a bloc involving the EU an African and Latin American states favours stronger checks and balances to avoid the creation of junk credits and discreditation of all market mechanism. A lot is at stake. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the predecessor of Article 6, over £200bn was channelled into Chinese wind energy. For all its flaws, the CDM in this particular case supported the development of a renewable energy industry in a country which barely had a wind turbine installed when it came into force. Market mechanisms are powerful instruments which are difficult to guide but their potential to incentivize climate finance is evident.

To deliver the objectives of the Global Stocktake and the Paris Agreement, we need mechanisms to avoid free-riding which occurs when countries benefit from ambitious net zero emission mitigation activities in other countries without contributing to the cost. If market mechanisms are operationalised through climate clubs, this issue of free-riding can be overcome. This enables  ambition to be raised and collective action to be supported. Yet significant efforts are required to ensure that poor countries can benefit while excludable benefits are sufficient to ensure integrity and support higher ambition in climate change mitigation. The stakes are high and the Global Stocktake is a small but significant step in this direction. But a lot more climate diplomacy is necessary, alongside a collaborative spirit, to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuel is actions and that this transition is just.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Colin Nolden, University of Bristol Law School.

Colin Nolden
Colin Nolden

 

The cracks are where the light gets in – studying vulnerabilities in Elite Incumbent Resistance at COP26

Elites are often rightly blamed for resisting bold action needed to tackle climate change. But what if elite alliances are more fragile than commonly assumed? What if we consider Elite Incumbent Resistance – to transitions in food, energy and finance – not as a homogenous bloc of resistance towards sustainability transitions, but instead as made up of temporary, fragile alliances held together in ways that might be amenable to disruption?

A group of interdisciplinary researchers brought together by the British Academy’s Virtual Sandpit on Just Transition, set out to explore this question by piloting a new approach to studying the COP26 Climate Summit.

Starting Points

This thought experiment emerged from a critique of existing International Political Economy literature on climate negotiations which tends to focus on intense resistance to transitions to sustainable societies from elite groups benefiting from the status quo. This approach tends to homogenise incumbent elite-alliances, making them appear more robust than they really are. We were curious about what would happen if we instead focused on the vulnerabilities inherent in any alliances and how they are maintained and undone in climate negotiations. 

As tools to help us think this through, we firstly turned to  Laclau and Mouffe’s work on hegemony and socialist strategy. This is an old text but still relevant as it shows how all alliances are built on what they call relations of ‘equivalence’, which means, in simple terms, coming to a compromise about what key words  (‘sustainable growth’ anyone?) mean. These equivalences, however, are always temporary and can, in theory, be unsettled. 

Secondly, we drew on performance theory to highlight the importance of physical, visual and material performances, like UNFCCC COPs, for creating and maintaining the impression of elite unity and competence in managing global public goods like the climate. 

Thirdly, Science and technology studies helped us to consider how to spot opportunities to facilitate rapid transitions by identifying how changing material circumstances bridge differences between previously opposed groups.  Equally, the multiple-level perspective, drew our attention to how changing conditions at regime, landscape and local levels might have the opportunity to both disrupt existing alliances and bring seemingly opposed groups together through shared interests.  

With these theories, we set out to explore whether we could find cracks in elite forums at COP, explore whether there were strains in these performances and if we could identify potentially new alliances that might come out of opening up these cracks. 

What happens next is described in the rest of this blog and illustrated with cartoons we developed to capture the essence of what we came to think of as the highly vulnerable performances of elite power at COP26. 

Performing the COP

What struck us about COP26 was that it was not a coherent space managed and led by a single elite. Instead, it had a multiple, fragmented nature. COP is perhaps best thought of as a bewildering circus of loosely connected activities masquerading as a single event.  

This is not surprising. A COP meeting gathers multiple groups with contradictory aims: simultaneously a forum of intergovernmental negotiations, a trade fair for corporate partners and a site of civil society participation and protests. 

What is also noticeable, however, is that this fragmentation is hierarchically organised through complex procedures of inclusion and exclusion (Blue Zones, Green Zones, Access Cards, T shirts) with different levels of access accorded to different groups depending on their symbolic importance for validating the COP performance of an inclusive and diverse forum (recognised and acceptable scientists, a selection of key green activists and representatives of youth indigenous peoples). This is stage managed in such a way as to produce a performance that reassures a public watching via television and social media that there is a coherent plan for averting climate disaster. 

Cartoon of a clown made of two children standing on top of each other, standing at the entrance to a circus talking to two other children saying "of course we're a real-life legitimate, trustworthy, responsible, ticket-taking adult".

The hierarchical format of the COP, most clearly expressed through the separation between the Green and Blue Zones, maintains the impression of there being a central heart of power,  where decisions are made and the global response is organised. Such an impression produces the performance of the COP as the key forum for climate action, to which interested parties must desire access, and in which those with access must desire ever greater access to the ever elusive and ever more exclusive circle of decision-making. Despite this, the event was characterised in fact by a pluralisation of decision-making activities – by side dinners for particular industries, by one to one meetings, bilateral agreements, and encounters between civil society, academic, policy, media and industry groups. 

From this perspective, the ultimate discursive illusion of the COP is that there is a central seat of power, of the governing and corporate elites that come together in a single place to take decisive actions to avert climate change disaster. The selective inclusion of groups like youth, indigenous peoples and green civil society organisations in particular, served to bolster this illusion – creating an impression of participation while reducing them to symbolic speeches and side-events. We call this co-option because, in reality, such groups and individuals appear to have had almost no influence on the outcomes of COP, the Glasgow Climate Pact or the agreement of the Paris Rulebook.  

A circus master standing on a stand talking to people saying "everyone has a role here! your role is to stand 3 miles away, quietly".

Intra-elite cracks and potential for new alliances

Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe, we mapped out the discursive nodal points that created the equivalences that allowed the highly fractured parties in the discussions to sustain the perception of elite consensus on addressing the climate crisis. Unsurprisingly, they were vague. All organised around the major overarching nodal point – the climate model itself. The key nodal points of the official COP26 were  ‘keeping one degree alive’ and ‘achieving net-zero’, with vague references to  ‘technological solutions’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ as means of achieving this. These were reiterated in a variety of different formulations across all aspects of the COP – from the public-facing leaders’ stages to online materials to banners and marketing materials throughout the events. A second critical overarching nodal point was the false universalism that diffused responsibility from specific actors and instead presented this as a shared global challenge – the repeated marketing phrases ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘we have to turn anger into action’. This papered over the intra-elite cracks that would emerge between the winners and losers of any genuinely decisive action. 

Cartoon of balloons with environmental slogans on being popped with a person saying "your plan was more than just hot air though, right?"

Given the intentional ambiguity of these discursive nodal points, there is unsurprisingly growing debate about what they actually mean, and signs of intra-elite cracks emerging around them. This creates opportunities for civil society groups and others wanting to build alternative strategies to combat the climate emergency. 

An example of such a crack is evident in the concept of ‘nature-based solutions’ and what it can mean to different incumbent elite factions. The fossil fuel industry is happy to endorse this phrase, provided that it allows offsets from carbon emissions through reforestation to reach ‘net-zero’. Such an interpretation of nature-based solutions would in practice mean doubling down on current practices which have led to the displacement of indigenous peoples and peasants to make room for offsetting plantations.  On the other hand, the insurance industry, which routinely underwrites extractive projects, has grown increasingly aware of its exposure to climate change. We can see an emerging rift between them and their long time fossil fuel partners as they begin to demand that nature-based solutions involve the preservation of biodiverse nature. 

At COP we saw some examples of civil society groups seeking to re-articulate and open up the contestation in terms such as ‘nature-based solutions’ and ‘we are all in this together’ as a way of disrupting intra elite relationships. For example, we saw joint activities between the insurance giant Aviva, civil society group Global Canopy and representatives of Amazonian Indigenous peoples speaking of their partnership in identifying companies contributing to deforestation and divesting from them. Such activities take these key terms and make visible the differences in how they might be interpreted in ways that can either enable the preservation of climate destroying practices or empower current custodians of biodiverse nature. Such events successfully undermine the performance of consensus in events such as COP and outline routes towards rearticulating these key terms in ways that allow new alliances to form between marginalised and elite groups. 

Reflections

Our team started out with hunches that there were cracks in elite incumbent resistance to serious actions to tackle climate change. What we came away with after using these theoretical tools to make sense of the COP was less a sense of cracks in alliances, and instead a sense of profound fragmentation, disconnection between hugely varied actors and a desperate struggle to create the impression of coherence and the successful performance of control. We were left wondering whether the search for ever greater access to inner sanctums of elite power that seemed to be ever more elusive would be a wise strategy for actors wishing to shift the debate. Instead, starting from an assumption of heterogeneity and disorganisation, of failed performances and illusory central points of power would suggest there are opportunities in thinking horizontally, organising in multiple sites, pluralising and making visible the heterogeneity of decision-making moments. At the same time, rather than simply naming the over-familiar discursive nodal points as ‘blah blah blah’ – recognising them precisely as a key means of organising alliances, the challenge may be to occupy, interpret and reinterpret these terms. If we are all in it together – let’s make it all of us, if we are looking for nature-based solutions – let’s have a conversation about the different meanings of nature and what we are looking for a solution to. 

In other words – our sense is that it no longer makes sense to only search for cracks in elite incumbent resistance. But instead – there is merit in starting from the assumption that it is a miracle that alliances are made at all, and working creatively and persuasively to make visible the divides that sit both beneath the performance of events like COP, and the disagreements that sit within the language of consensus. From that, new alliances might be made. 

References

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: University Press.

Bachram H. (2004) Climate fraud and carbon colonialism: the new trade in greenhouse gases, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 15:4: 5-20.

Barry, A. (2002) The anti-political economy, Economy and Society, 31:2: 268-284.

Callon, M, Lascoumes, P and Barthe, Y (2001). Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. Boston Mass: MIT Press.

Ford, A. and Newell, P. (2021) Regime resistance and accommodation: Toward a neo-Gramscian perspective on energy transitions, Energy Research & Social Science, 79.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY:Doubleday.

Golnaraghi, M et. al. (2021) Climate Change Risk Assessment for the Insurance Industry: A holistic decision-making framework and key considerations for both sides of the balance sheet, The Geneva Association: https://www.genevaassociation.org/sites/default/files/research-topics-document-type/pdf_public/climate_risk_web_final_250221.pdf Last accessed on 06.10.2022.

Krauss, A.D. (2021) ‘Chapter 16 – Effect of climate change on the insurance sector’, in ed. Letcher T.M., The Impacts of Climate Change: A Comprehensive Study of Physical, Biophysical, Social, and Political Issues, Bath, UK: Laurel House, Stratton on the Fosse: 397-436.

 Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics. NY: Verso.

Marres N. The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science. 2007; 37(5): 759-780.

Newell, P. (2021). Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newell, P., & Mulvaney, D. (2013). The political economy of the ‘just transition’. The Geographical Journal, 170(2): 132–140.

Oxfam (2021) ‘Net zero’ carbon targets are dangerous distractions from the priority of cutting emissions says new Oxfam report. Press Releases, 03.08.2021: https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/net-zero-carbon-targets-are-dangerous-distractions-priority-cutting-emissions-says Last accessed on 06.10.2022.

Paterson, M (2001) Risky Business: Insurance Companies in Global Warming Politics, Global Environmental Politics, 1(4): 18–42.

Swilling M. & Annecke E. (2012). Just transitions: explorations of sustainability in an unfair world. Claremont, South Africa, UCT Press.

Turnheim, B. and Sovacool B.K. (2020) Forever stuck in old ways? Pluralising incumbencies in sustainability transitions, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. 35: 180-184.

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The authors of this blog have worked on this as “the Carbon Elites Collective”, which includes Aslak-Antti Oksanen (Bristol, SPAIS), Keri Facer (Bristol, School of Education), Peter Newell (University of Sussex), Pablo Suarez (The Red Cross/Red Crescent), María Estrada Fuentes (Royal Holloway), Jeremy Brice (University of Manchester), Antonia Layard  (University of Oxford) and Kendra Allenby (freelance cartoonist).

Intense downpours in the UK will increase due to climate change – new study

A flash flood in London in October 2019.
D MacDonald/Shutterstock

Elizabeth Kendon, University of Bristol

In July 2021, Kew in London experienced a month’s rain in just three hours. Across the city, tube lines were suspended and stations closed as London experienced its wettest day in decades and flash floods broke out. Just under two weeks later, it happened again: intense downpours led to widespread disruption, including the flooding of two London hospitals.

Colleagues and I have created a new set of 100-year climate projections to more accurately assess the likelihood of heavy rain downpours like these over the coming years and decades. The short answer is climate change means these extreme downpours will happen more often in the UK – and be even more intense.

To generate these projections, we used the Met Office operational weather forecast model, but run on long climate timescales. This provided very detailed climate projections – for every 2.2km grid box over the UK, for every hour, for 100 years from 1981 to 2080. These are much more detailed than traditional climate projections and needed to be run as a series of 20-year simulations that were then stitched together. Even on the Met Office supercomputer, these still took about six months to run.

We ran 12 such 100-year projections. We are not interested in the weather on a given day but rather how the occurrence of local weather extremes varies year by year. By starting the model runs in the past, it is also possible to verify the output against observations to assess the model’s performance.

At this level of detail – the “k-scale” – it is possible to more accurately assess how the most extreme downpours will change. This is because k-scale simulations better represent the small-scale atmospheric processes, such as convection, that can lead to destructive flash flooding.

The fire service attending to a vehicle stuck in floodwater.
Flash flooding can be destructive.
Ceri Breeze/Shutterstock

More emissions, more rain

Our results are now published in Nature Communications. We found that under a high emissions scenario downpours in the UK exceeding 20mm per hour could be four times as frequent by the year 2080 compared with the 1980s. This level of rainfall can potentially produce serious damage through flash flooding, with thresholds like 20mm/hr used by planners to estimate the risk of flooding when water overwhelms the usual drainage channels. Previous less detailed climate models project a much lower increase of around two and a half times over the same period.

We note that these changes are assuming that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates. This is therefore a plausible but upper estimate. If global carbon emissions follow a lower emissions scenario, extreme rain will still increase in the UK – though at a slower rate. However, the changes are not inevitable, and if we emit less carbon in the coming decades, extreme downpours will be less frequent.

The increases are significantly greater in certain regions. For example, extreme rainfall in north-west Scotland could be almost ten times more common, while it’s closer to three times more frequent in the south of the UK. The greater future increases in the number of extreme rainfall events in the higher resolution model compared with more traditional lower resolution climate models shows the importance of having k-scale projections to enable society to adapt to climate change.

As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, at a rate of 7% more moisture for every degree of warming. On a simple level, this explains why in many regions of the world projections show an increase in precipitation as a consequence of human-induced climate change. This new study has shown that, in the UK, the intensity of downpours could increase by about 5% in the south and up to about 15% in the north for every degree of regional warming.

Group of girls with an umbrella walking through a city.
The projected increase in the intensity of rainfall is significantly greater in certain regions.
NotarYES/Shutterstock

However, it is far from a simple picture of more extreme events, decade by decade, as a steadily increasing trend. Instead, we expect periods of rapid change – with records being broken, some by a considerable margin – and periods when there is a pause, with no new records set.

This is simply a reflection of the complex interplay between natural variability and the underlying climate change signal. An analogy for this is waves coming up a beach on an incoming tide. The tide is the long-term rising trend, but there are periods when there are larger waves, followed by lulls.

Despite the underlying trend, the time between record-breaking events at the local scale can be surprisingly long – even several decades.

Our research marks the first time that such a high-resolution data set has spanned over a century. As well as being a valuable asset for planners and policymakers to prepare for the future, it can also be used by climate attribution scientists to examine current extreme rainfall events to see how much more likely they will have been because of human greenhouse gas emissions. The research highlights the importance of meeting carbon emissions targets and also planning for increasingly prevalent extreme rainfall events, which to varying degrees of intensity, look highly likely in all greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

The tendency for extreme years to cluster poses challenges for communities trying to adapt to intense downpours and risks infrastructure being unprepared, since climate information based on several decades of past observations may not be representative of the following decades.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Elizabeth Kendon, Professor of Climate Science, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lizzie Kendon
Professor Lizzie Kendon

Labour’s Great British Energy is a good start – here’s how to make it work for everyone

In a packed auditorium in Liverpool, Labour leader Keir Starmer stood at a plinth emblazoned with the words “A Fairer, Greener Future”. It was the key theme of this year’s party conference and is evident in Starmer’s landmark policy announcement: the creation of a new publicly-owned energy company, Great British Energy.

The company would effectively be a start-up to grow British renewables. So while Great British Energy is not nationalisation of the electricity sector (or of any one energy company), it would represent a new and different sort of organisation positioned to fund new projects while working to remove the hurdles faced by new wind and solar projects.

This follows calls from various organisations for a new way of generating and providing electricity. For many, the scale of action needed to both reach net zero and address energy poverty is incompatible with the current model of doing things, which focuses on paying shareholders and avoiding riskier investments.

Like EDF in France or Vattenfall in Sweden, Great British Energy would be state-owned. But it would be independent, making its own investment decisions and working closely with private energy companies.

Being backed by the government, the new company can take on riskier investments. This might be in bigger projects or in new, innovative technologies such as tidal energy. Rather than paying shareholders, the profit that this company makes can then be reinvested in new projects, or for cutting bills or insulating homes.

Great British Energy is one part of a broader approach that Labour has put forward, including measures on energy efficiency and an £8 billion national wealth fund to help decarbonise industry.

The public supports public energy

Despite some concerns about how these policies might be sold on the doorstep, there is public support. Polling in May 2022 showed that 60% of UK voters support bringing energy companies into public ownership – and such patterns of support have remained relatively constant.

Popular campaigns have called for nationalising the sector. Others have highlighted how the current system prioritises shareholders over addressing energy poverty.

Offshore wind farm viewed from a beach
Renewable energy has become a national security issue for the UK.
Colin Ward/Shutterstock

When Labour raised a similar policy in the 2019 election, it was treated as foolish by much of the media. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its aggressive use of disruptions to its natural gas exports to Europe as a political weapon have changed energy politics in Europe.

Those calling for the expansion of renewable energy used to highlight how they were greener and cheaper than fossil fuels. Events in 2022 have now made renewables the basis for energy security too.

Who makes decisions, and who benefits from them?

While this policy pledges a different type of energy company, being state-owned does not make any organisation inherently “good”. For instance, EDF in France has been caught spying on Greenpeace. Elsewhere, Vattenfall has sold off its coal power stations rather than replacing them with renewables, merely shifting emissions on to somebody else’s balance sheet.

Addressing these issues requires a reflection on who is making decisions. The proposed national wealth fund would include co-investments with private companies. But who would be involved in directing these investments and who might benefit from them?

Hydrogen energy was mentioned in several speeches at Labour’s conference, and the industry’s lobbyists were reported to have been active and hosted meetings. However, recent work has shown that any move to use hydrogen for home heating is likely unviable.

Elsewhere at the conference, climate campaigners accusing Drax, the biggest emitter in the UK, of environmental racism were reportedly removed from a meeting on net zero and green jobs.

A national energy company must also wrestle with where new renewable energy projects, which tend to demand large tracts of land, will be built and who might suffer from the impacts. Compensation payments in the UK have rewarded unfair patterns of land ownership and the monopolisation of land by the rich and the powerful.

In the UK, a small number of landowners stand to gain financially from the expansion of onshore wind, while offshore wind power is permitted by the crown estate which owns the seabed.

Wind turbines in field
Wind and solar farms can use lots of land.
Traceyaphotos2/Shutterstock

Those living nearby often receive limited compensation. In Scotland, communities living near onshore wind turbines get 0.6% of the value of electricity generated.

This does very little to address regional issues of inequality or exclusion. Community-owned projects have a better track record, providing up to 34 times the financial benefits of those built by private energy companies.

Great British Energy is a policy that many voters will support. While there remain questions about the forms it might take and how it might change the energy sector, it represents an opportunity to generate and use energy differently – as long as it is part of a broader, just energy transition.

These policies are coming at a time of spirallling energy costs and energy poverty for millions, and any national energy company must make addressing this a priority. Labour’s energy efficiency plans show that the party is intent on doing so. The cheapest electricity is the electricity that we don’t use, after all.

It is also politically savvy: some of the areas worst affected by energy prices are in marginal seats. A national energy company playing a central role in funding and directing renewable schemes would allow them to be better targeted, would allow funding for unprofitable projects, and any financial returns could be used to further support families and communities.

But there is still room for Labour to be more ambitious. Great British Energy could be the first step towards an inclusive energy transition, but we must think about what comes next.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Ed Atkins, Senior Lecturer, School of Geographical Sciences, University of BristolThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ed Atkins

 

 

Why parents shouldn’t be saddled with environmental guilt for having children

 

The environmental cost of childbearing is central to climate ethics debates.
MJTH/Shutterstock

Whether residents of high-income countries are morally obliged to have fewer children is a growing debate in climate ethics. Due to the high anticipated carbon impact of future population growth, some climate ethicists express support for non-coercive population engineering policies such as reduced child tax credits.

This debate has attracted widespread public attention, making family planning a key issue in climate change prevention.

Much of the debate is underpinned by one influential US study published in 2009 from Oregon State University. The premise of the study is that a person is responsible for the carbon emissions of their descendants, weighted by their relatedness. A grandparent is responsible for one quarter of each of their grandchildren’s emissions, and so on.

By having a child, a cycle of continued procreation over many generations is started. The emissions of future generations are included in the carbon legacy of their ancestors.

The carbon impact of children

Based on this logic, the authors found that having one child adds 9,441 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of each parent. This equates to more than five times their own lifetime carbon emissions. The potential savings from reduced reproduction are therefore dramatic.

This result is usually taken at face value in both academic debates and popular discussions, while its details and assumptions are rarely scrutinised. Yet the result is contingent on the assumption that all future generations will indefinitely emit at 2005 levels, an assumption that now appears to be wide of the mark.

For example, from 2005–2019, before they were artificially suppressed by the COVID pandemic, US per-capita emissions fell by 21%. And they are likely to fall further in the future.

Large public investments are accelerating the transition towards carbon neutrality. The recent US Inflation Reduction Act allocated US$369 (£319) billion towards fighting climate change.

Net zero has also become a legally binding target in many countries. The European Climate Law, for example, targets net zero carbon emissions across the EU by 2050.

Reconsidering the carbon impact of children

Considering these efforts, the central assumptions underpinning the study need revisiting.

Using the same reasoning that yielded large carbon impact figures for procreation, we instead suggest that having a child today could be far less environmentally harmful than is widely considered.

If high per-capita emitting countries achieve net zero by 2050, then a child born in one of these countries in 2022 would generate emissions only until they are 28 years old. After 2050, they and their descendants would cease to cause any additional emissions. Adding up their lifetime emissions therefore yields a much lower carbon legacy.

A man standing outside a red car while dropping two children at school.
Children will likely cause far fewer emissions than their country’s per-capita rate.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Assuming emissions decrease linearly to zero until 2050, and that the child does not reproduce in that time, a child born in 2022 will add seven years of carbon emissions to each parent’s lifetime carbon footprint. This is because in the 28 years to 2050, a linear decrease can be modelled as half the total amount on average (14 years) with each parent responsible for half of their child’s footprint (seven years). Subsequent generations add zero emissions to this amount.

The difference between this potential scenario and the accepted “constant emissions” scenario is stark. Yet even this much lower result may still overestimate the carbon impact of having a child.

This figure assumes that a child will cause additional emissions at the per-capita rate of their country of residence. However, children typically engage in fewer high-emission activities than an adult. They share a household with their parents, and will not drive their own car or commute to work for much of the period before 2050.

Particularly in the immediate future, where per-capita emissions are at their highest, a child will likely cause far fewer emissions than their country’s per-person average.

Net zero commitments must be fulfilled

The pursuit of net zero can greatly reduce the climate impact of childbearing in countries with high per-capita carbon emissions. However, this remains dependent on the fulfilment of this commitment.

Progress towards net zero is stuttering, with current climate policy in many countries lagging behind their pledges.

Despite having a net zero strategy, the UK’s progress towards carbon neutrality has been limited. UK emissions rose 4% in 2021 as the economy began to recover from the pandemic – and many other high per-capita emitting countries are in a similar situation. Prime Minister Liz Truss’s cabinet appointments have also raised doubt over the UK’s commitment to climate targets.

So delivering emphatic reductions to the carbon impact of procreation remains distant, despite our reassessment of the 2008 study.

As a society, it is in our power to put ourselves on a credible net zero path. This also means rejecting the popular tendency to assume that climate change should be addressed by individual lifestyle adjustments, rather than by institutional and structural change. Should net zero be achieved, it would be possible to have children without being saddled with environmental guilt.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Dr Martin Sticker, Lecturer in Ethics, University of Bristol and Felix Pinkert, Tenure-track Assistant Professor, Universität WienThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the aviation industry must look beyond carbon to get serious about climate change

 

Flying is responsible for around 5% of human-induced climate change.
Wichudapa/Shutterstock

Commercial aviation has become a cornerstone of our economy and society. It allows us to rapidly transport goods and people across the globe, facilitates over a third of all global trade by value, and supports 87.7 million jobs worldwide. However, the 80-tonne flying machines we see hurtling through our skies at near supersonic speeds also carry some serious environmental baggage.

My team’s recent review paper highlights some promising solutions the aviation industry could put in place now to reduce the harm flying does to our planet. Simply changing the routes we fly could hold the key to drastic reductions in climate impact.

Modern aeroplanes burn kerosene to generate the forward propulsion needed to overcome drag and produce lift. Kerosene is a fossil fuel with excellent energy density, providing lots of energy per kilogram burnt. But when it is burnt, harmful chemicals are released: mainly carbon dioxide (CO₂), nitrogen oxides (NOₓ), water vapour and particulate matter (tiny particles of soot, dirt and liquids).

Aviation is widely known for its carbon footprint, with the industry contributing 2.5% to the global CO₂ burden. While some may argue that this pales in comparison with other sectors, carbon is only responsible for a third of aviation’s full climate impact. Non-CO₂ emissions (mainly NOₓ and ice trails made from aircraft water vapour) make up the remaining two-thirds.

Taking all aircraft emissions into account, flying is responsible for around 5% of human-induced climate change. Given that 89% of the population has never flown, passenger demand is doubling every 20 years, and other sectors are decarbonising much faster, this number is predicted to skyrocket.

Aircraft contrails don’t last long but have a huge impact.
Daniel Ciucci/Unsplash

It’s not just carbon

Aircraft spend most of their time flying at cruise altitude (33,000 to 42,000 ft) where the air is thin, to minimise drag.

At these altitudes, aircraft NOₓ reacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to produce ozone and destroy methane, two very potent greenhouse gases. This aviation-induced ozone is not to be confused with the natural ozone layer, which occurs much higher up and protects the Earth from harmful UV rays. Unfortunately, aircraft NOₓ emissions cause more warming due to ozone production than they do cooling due to methane reduction. This leads to a net warming effect that makes up 16% of aviation’s total climate impact.

Also, when temperatures dip below -40℃ and the air is humid, aircraft water vapour condenses on particles in the exhaust and freezes. This forms an ice cloud known as a contrail. Contrails may be made of ice, but they warm the climate as they trap heat emitted from the Earth’s surface. Despite only lasting a few hours, contrails are responsible for 51% of the aviation industry’s climate warming. This means they warm the planet more than all aircraft carbon emissions that have accumulated since the dawn of powered flight.

Unlike carbon, non-CO₂ emissions cause warming through interactions with the surrounding air. Their climate impact changes depending on atmospheric conditions at the time and location of release.

Cutting non-CO₂ climate impact

Two of the most promising short-term options are climate-optimal routing and formation flight.

Left: Climate optimal routing. Right: Formation flight concept.

Climate-optimal routing involves re-routing aircraft to avoid regions of the atmosphere that are particularly climate-sensitive – for example, where particularly humid air causes long-lived and damaging contrails to form. Research shows that for a small increase in flight distance (usually no more than 1-2% of the journey), the net climate impact of a flight can be reduced by around 20%.

Flight operators can also reduce the impact of their aircraft by flying in formation, with one aircraft flying 1-2 km behind the other. The follower aircraft “surfs” the lead aircraft’s wake, leading to a 5% reduction in both CO₂ and other harmful emissions.

But flying in formation can reduce non-CO₂ warming too. When aircraft exhaust plumes overlap, the emissions within them accumulate. When NOₓ reaches a certain concentration, the rate of ozone production decreases and the warming effect slows.

And when contrails form, they grow by absorbing the surrounding water vapour. In formation flight, the aircraft’s contrails compete for water vapour, making them smaller. Summing all three reductions, formation flight could slash climate impact by up to 24%.

Decarbonising aviation will take time

The aviation industry has fixated on tackling carbon emissions. However, current plans for the industry to reach net zero by 2050 rely on an ambitious 3,000-4,000 times increase in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production, problematic carbon offsetting schemes, and the introduction of hydrogen- and electric-powered aircraft. All of these could take several decades to make a difference, so it’s crucial the industry cuts its environmental footprint in the meantime.

Climate-optimal routing and formation flight are two key examples of how we could make change happen faster, compared with a purely carbon-focused approach. But there is currently no political or financial incentive to change tack. It is time governments and the aviation industry start listening to the science, and take aircraft non-CO₂ emissions seriously.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Kieran Tait, PhD Candidate in Aerospace Engineering, University of BristolThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kieran Tait

 

 

Teaching sustainability in computer science?

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol ran a discussion panel on if and how should (environmental) sustainability be taught to the Engineering students. Here are my 2 pence on teaching sustainability to Computer Science students.

Why should our students engage with Environmental Sustainability in their formal education?

Well because the ICT/Software impacts and drives every activity in the present society – from the day to day business to entertainment, education, and policy. This impact is felt in two ways:

  1. through production and use of ICT equipment and software, and
  2. through changing the way that the society itself operates.

I will only mention some brief points about the impact of production and use of ICT:

  • Energy Consumption of the ICT systems seems to be growing unstoppably, e.g.,
    • In 2018 the data centres were accountable for  about 1 % of the global electricity use
    • The energy consumption of the ICT is projected (in worst case) to account for 20% of the world electricity consumption in 2030 [1].
  • Materials, including rare earth metals are also increasingly depleted for use of ICT hardware production. Even worth, as much of the hardware is quickly outdates and distracted, it creates the problem of e-waste.
  • Waste form ICT hardware is either put into landfill or damped at the developing countries.

So yes, to point out a few issues that we, as computer scientists and engineers we need to learn to think about:  how about teaching and learning about how to minimise energy and material consumption, how to design modular and long-living hardware and software solutions, how to make our software maintainable and hardware bio-degradable?

But, even more importantly, Software Engineers must learn about the impact that their software solutions have within their situated environments.

Let’s look at the problem of traffic congestion: we all know that when too many vehicles are trying to get through a given road, they create a traffic jam; as the vehicles use (fossil) fuels while sitting in a traffic jam, they ends up generating excessive CO2. So what can a software engineer do to help? How about we some ride sharing software solutions, like Uber or Lyft?

Figure 1: Ride sharing software to reduce CO2 emissions.

We know that, as shown in Figure 1, this software will reduce the need for car ownership and as lesser number of people own and drive their cars, it will also reduce traffic congestion problem!

We already teach our students how to develop such applications. They already learn about platform development for data collection, and data analytics, distributed systems development and could computing and user interface design: all that they need to develop a ride sharing application is well covered in the current Computer Science curriculum.

But what happens once this application goes out to be used by people? It turns out that car ownership does decrease, so great. But, as studies into ride sharing show, these also increase the distance travelled by the shared cars. Even worse, as ride sharers become accustomed to the Uber/Lyft services, which are convenient and cheap compared to “normal” taxies, they start to substitute the journeys previously taken by public transport (i.e., bus or train) for ride sharing services.

In short, traffic congestion and respective CO2 emissions do not improve at all, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Longer term environmental impact from use of ride sharing.

I suggest this is because, while the software developers for the ride sharing solutions may have wished to reduce environmental impact, they did not know  how to account for such an impact. As and education providers, we do not teach our Software Engineering students about:

  • Systems Thinking,
  • Environmental Life Cycle Assessment,
  • Responsible Innovation and Software Impact Assessment, about
  • Human Behaviour and Rationality, or
  • Sustainable Living.

What should be offered to students within our faculty with regards to Environmental Sustainability?

Well, all of the above. Unless we teach our students to account for the human behaviour and longer term software use, software impact assessment and responsible decision making in what, how, and why is integrated into software solutions, we are not likely to see such solutions having any positive impact in addressing the challenges of the environmental degradation and climate change.

So how can we integrate Sustainability into our programs?

I suggest that each module taught to our students must cover content of how it relates to sustainability and sustainable development. So each module needs to be reviewed. As stated in the Karlskrona Manifesto for Sustainability Design [2,3]:

There is a perception that sustainability is a distinct discipline of research and practice with a few defined connections to software.

Whereas sustainability is a pervasive concern that translates into discipline- specific questions in each area.

So, we really do need to teach students about which questions does sustainability translate in each of our modules, and how to address these questions, some examples of these are shown in Fig 3.

Figure 3: Additional issues to consider in Computer Science Curricula.

References

[1] https://ictfootprint.eu/en/news/decreasing-ict-energy-consumption-%E2%80%93-power-data-centres-and-people%E2%80%99s-will-ictfootprinteu-webinar 

[2] The Karlskrona Manifesto for Sustainability Design, url: https://www.sustainabilitydesign.org/karlskrona-manifesto/

[3] Becker, C., Chitchyan, R., Duboc, L., Easterbrook, S., Penzenstadler, B., Seyff, N., Venters, C. C. (2015). Sustainability design and software: The Karlskrona manifesto. ICSE’15: 37th International Conference on Software Engineering. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/ICSE.2015.179

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Ruzanna Chitchyan, from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol.

Countries may be under-reporting their greenhouse gas emissions – that’s why accurate monitoring is crucial

Luciann Photography / Pexels

Pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are very welcome – but accurate monitoring across the globe is crucial if we are to meet targets and combat the devastating consequences of global warming.

During COP26 in Glasgow, many countries have set out their targets to reach net-zero by the middle of this century.

But a serious note of caution was raised in a report in the Washington Post. It revealed that many countries may be under-reporting their emissions, with a gap between actual emissions into the atmosphere and what is being reported to the UN.

This is clearly a problem: if we are uncertain about what we are emitting now, we will not know for certain that we have achieved our emission reduction targets in the future.

Quantifying emissions

Currently, countries must follow international guidelines when it comes to reporting emissions. These reports are based on “bottom-up” methods, in which national emissions are tallied up by combining measures of socioeconomic activity with estimates on the intensity of emissions involved in those activities. For example, if you know how many cows you have in your country and how much methane a typical cow produces, you can estimate the total methane emitted from all the cows.

There are internationally agreed guidelines that specify how this kind of accountancy should be done, and there is a system of cross-checking to ensure that the process is being followed appropriately.

But, according to the Washington Post article, there appear to be some unexpected differences in emissions being reported between similar countries.

The reporting expectations between countries are also considerably different. Developed countries must report detailed, comprehensive reports each year. But, acknowledging the administrative burden of this process, developing countries can currently report much more infrequently.

Plus, there are some noteable gaps in terms of what needs to be reported. For example, the potent greenhouse gases that were responsible for the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer – such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – are not included.

A ‘top-down’ view from the atmosphere

To address these issues, scientists have been developing increasingly sophisticated techniques that use atmospheric greenhouse gas observations to keep track of emissions. This “top-down” view measures what is in the atmosphere, and then uses computer models to work backwards to figure out what must have been emitted upwind of the measurements.

To demonstrate the technique, an international team of scientists converged on Glasgow, to observe how carbon dioxide and methane has changed during the COP26 conference.

While this approach cannot provide the level of detail on emission sectors (such as cows, leaks from pipes, fossil fuels or cars) that the “bottom–up” methods attempt, scientists have demonstrated that it can show whether the overall inventory for a particular gas is accurate or not.

The UK was the first country, now one of three along with Switzerland and Australia, to routinely publish top-down emission estimates in its annual National Inventory Report to the United Nations.

A network of five measurement sites around the UK and Ireland continuously monitors the levels of all the main greenhouse gases in the air using tall towers in rural regions.

Emissions are estimated from the measurements using computer models developed by the Met Office. And the results of this work have been extremely enlightening.

In a recent study, we showed that the reported downward trend in the UK’s methane emissions over the last decade is mirrored in the atmospheric data. But a large reported drop before 2010 is not, suggesting the methane emissions were over-estimated earlier in the record.

In another, we found that the UK had been over-estimating emissions of a potent greenhouse gas used in car air conditioners for many years. These studies are discussed with the UK inventory team and used to improve future inventories.

While there is currently no requirement for countries to use top-down methods as part of their reporting, the most recent guidelines and a new World Meteorological Organisation initiative advocate their use as best practice.

If we are to move from only three countries evaluating their emissions in this way, to a global system, there are a number of challenges that we would need to overcome.

Satellites may provide part of the solution. For carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases, observations from space have been available for more than a decade. The technology has improved dramatically in this time, to the extent that imaging of some individual methane plumes is now possible from orbit.

In 2018, India, which does not have a national monitoring network, used these techniques to include a snapshot of its methane emissions in its report to the UN.

But satellites are unlikely to provide enough information alone.

To move towards a global emissions monitoring system, space-based and surface-based measurements will be required together. The cost to establish ground-based systems such as the UK’s will be somewhere between one million and tens of millions of dollars per country per year.

But that level of funding seems achievable when we consider that billions have been pledged for climate protection initiatives. So, if the outcome is more accurate emissions reporting, and a better understanding of how well we are meeting our emissions targets, such expenditure seems like excellent value for money.

It will be up to the UN and global leaders to ensure that the international systems of measurement and top-down emissions evaluation can be scaled-up to meet the demands of a monitoring system that is fit for purpose. Without robust emissions data from multiple sources, the accuracy of future claims of emission reductions may be called into question.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Professor Matt Rigby, Reader in Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Time for policymakers to make policies (and to learn from those who are)

From a social scientist’s point of view, the recent IPCC report and the reception it has received are a bit odd. The report certainly reflects a huge amount of work, its message is vital, and it’s great so many people are hearing it. But not much in the report updates how we think about climate change. We’ve known for a while that people are changing the climate, and that how much more the climate changes will depend on the decisions we make.

What decisions? The Summary for Policymakers— the scientists’ memo to the people who will make the really important choices—doesn’t say. The words “fossil fuel”, “oil”, and “coal” never even appear. Nor “regulation”, “ban”, “subsidy”, or “tax”. The last five pages of the 42-page Summary are entitled “Limiting Future Climate Change”; but while “policymakers” appear, “policies” do not.

This is not the fault of the authors; Working Group I’s remit does not include policy recommendations. Even Working Group III (focused on mitigation) is not allowed to advocate for specific choices. Yet every IPCC contributor knows the most important question is which emission pathway we take, and that will depend on what policies we choose.

Which is why it’s so odd that big policy issues and announcements get comparatively little airtime (and research funding). For example, in June, the European Union codified in law the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030 (relative to 1990), and last month the European Commission presented a set of ambitious proposals for hitting that target. As a continent, Europe is already leading the world in emission reductions (albeit starting from a high level, with large cumulative historical emissions), and showing the rest of the world how to organize high-income societies in low-carbon ways. But the Commission’s proposals—called “Fit for 55”—have gone largely under the radar, not only outside of the EU but even within it.

The proposals are worth examining. At least according to the Commission, they will make the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions consistent with its commitments under the Paris Agreement. (Independent assessments generally agree that while a 55% reduction by 2030 won’t hit the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚ target, it would be a proportionate contribution to the goal of limiting global heating to no more than 2˚.) And they will build on the EU’s prior reduction of its territorial emissions by 24% between 1990 and 2019.

A change of -24% over that period, and -18% for consumption emissions, is in one sense disappointing, given that climate scientists were warning about the need for action even before 1990. But this achievement, inadequate though it may be, far exceeds those of other high per-capita emitters, like the U.S. (+14%), Canada (+21%), or Australia (+54%).

The most notable reductions have been in the areas of electricity generation and heavy industry—sectors covered by the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). Emissions from buildings have not declined as much, and those from transportation (land, air, and marine) have risen. Several of the Fit for 55 proposals therefore focus on these sectors. Maritime transport is to be incorporated into the ETS; free permits for aviation are to be eliminated; and a new, separate ETS for fuels used in buildings and land transport is to be established. Sales of new cars and trucks with internal combustion engines will end as of 2035, and increased taxes will apply to fuels for transport, heat, and electricity.

The Commission also proposes to cut emissions under the ETS by 4.2% each year (rather than 2.2% currently); expand the share of electricity sourced from renewables; and set a stricter (lower) target for the total amount of energy the EU will use by 2030—for the sake of greater energy efficiency.

All of this is going to be hugely contentious, and it will take a year or two at least for the Commission, the member-states, and the European Parliament to negotiate a final version. Corporate lobbying will shape the outcome, as will public opinion (paywall).

Two of the most interesting proposals are meant to head off opposition from industry and voters. A carbon border adjustment mechanism will put a price on greenhouse gases emitted by the production abroad of selected imports into the EU (provisionally cement, fertiliser, iron, steel, electricity, and aluminium). This will protect European producers from competitors subject to weaker rules. A social climate fund, paid for out of the new ETS, will compensate low-income consumers and small businesses for the increased costs of fossil fuels—thereby preventing any rise in fuel poverty.

No country is doing enough to mitigate emissions. But Fit for 55 represents the broadest, most detailed emissions reductions plan in the world—and, in some form, it will be implemented. Decision-makers everywhere should be studying, and making, policies like this.

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This guest blog is by friend of Cabot Insitute for the Environment and PLOS Climate Academic Editor Malcolm Fairbrother. Malcolm is a Professor of Sociology at Umeå University (Sweden), the Institute for Futures Studies (Stockholm), and University of Graz (Austria). Twitter: @malcolmfair. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Malcolm Fairbrother. View the original blog.

Top image credit: Cold Dawn, Warm World by Mark McNestry, CC BY 2.0