From Paris to Parliament: Is there a climate for action?

The Paris Agreement reached at the COP21 late last year was a big success, and the UK played an important, constructive role in that. But the UK is going backwards in policy terms with respect to greenhouse gas emissions.

That was the general message I took away from an event I attended last week in Parliament on behalf of the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute. In truth, this wasn’t a big surprise to me. But what did strike me was the unanimity of the panellists who spoke: an MP, a scientist, an economist, a financial advisor, and an activist.* They were all more or less in agreement about the following:

  1. Paris was a big deal. There are certainly all kinds of things to be worried and dissatisfied about, and it would have been better to have had an agreement like this 20 years ago. (If you add up all the commitments national governments have made, we’re nowhere near keeping climate change under 2˚.) But it really does give us a much better shot than we had beforehand. In an important sense, to quote the scientist, December 2015 was when humanity really decided that climate change was “a problem we agreed to do something about”.
  2. Above all, Paris did two crucial things. First, it established a mechanism for making countries accountable to each other, and for making governments more accountable domestically. Second, it provided firms and investors with a clear steer: the world economy is going to decarbonise in this century. The private sector will appreciate the implications: some power stations will have to be decommissioned early; governments will sooner or later have to introduce policies favourable to renewables and unfavourable to fossil fuels; “climate risk” is going to be a huge issue for the financial services sector.
  3. And the private sector is not the problem. In a lot of ways, big companies are ahead of the government, and many are looking to governments to get with the programme and establish sensible, long-term targets and regulations. I found it striking that even an activist from Friends of the Earth and the former leader of the UK Green Party seemed to feel this way.
  4. Cutting carbon isn’t bad for the economy. Again, I wouldn’t have been surprised by a couple of the panellists saying this. But for all five to agree was impressive. They made the point in different ways. The scientist for example talked about employment growth in the clean energy sector, while the activist noted that greenhouse gas emissions have come way down in the UK in the last 25 years even as total economic activity has grown.
  5. Both of the UK’s major political parties–i.e., the Conservative Party included–have been positive forces shaping the global climate regime, and UK governments led by both parties have advised other countries on how to get their emissions down. This message too was striking to me.

All of the above just confirmed things I’ve thought for a while: That decarbonising is completely economically doable, and the reasons we’re not doing it fast enough are just political. And that at this point (in some contrast perhaps to 10 or 20 years ago) the private sector isn’t much of a problem politically.

What remains perplexing to me then is why the current government is not just doing so little, but actually going backwards–another more-or-less consensus view among the panellists. For example, revenues from environmental taxes have been flat or declining for years as a proportion of all tax revenues–directly contrary to what mainstream economics recommends. In the housing sector, the government has weakened energy-efficiency standards and killed off its flagship scheme to encourage better insulation. Subsidies for renewables have been cut (though the economic case for such subsidies is more equivocal). And this year’s Energy Bill is strangely silent on climate change.

So… What’s with the current government? I’m sure some of them are climate sceptics, but I wouldn’t expect a majority are (and I don’t think David Cameron is). Are they overestimating the economic costs of taking action on climate change? Maybe. But my best guess is that green issues just aren’t a big concern for them personally, and they don’t see the British public as too interested or supportive. As such, climate change is just constantly slipping down the agenda.

We may soon know more. The panellists noted that a number of big decisions are coming up in the UK within the next year, and in a sense this country will provide the first test of the Paris Agreement. Notably, there are questions about the climate implications of the Energy Bill, next month we will find out about funding for renewables post-2020, and we will see a new Carbon Plan by the end of the year. Let’s hope for some more positive news on those fronts.

* The panellists were Caroline Lucas (MP, former leader of the Green Party); Sir David King (formerly the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, and now Special Representative for Climate Change); Prof Michael Jacobs (various think tank and academic affiliations); Kirsty Hamilton (various finance affiliations); and Simon Bullock (Friends of the Earth). The event was a seminar of the All Party Climate Change Group (APPCCG) and Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG).


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Malcolm Fairbrother, from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol

Why we must Bridge the Gap

Much of the climate change of the past century has been caused by our burning of fossil fuels. And without a change in that fossil fuel use, continued climate change in the next century could have devastating impacts on our society. It is likely to bring increased risk and hazards associated with extreme weather events. Refugee crises could be caused by rising sea levels or droughts that make some nations uninhabitable. Climate change will also make our world a more uncertain place to live, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall patterns, the magnitude of sea level rise or the response of global fisheries to ocean acidification.  This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  Or to grapple with the other great challenge facing humanity – securing food, water and energy for 7 billion people (and growing).  Because of this, most nations have agreed that global warming should be held below 2°C.

Flooding on Whiteladies Road, Bristol. Image credit Jim Freer

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt in the South West of England.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and UK fisheries remain worryingly uncertain. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world; moreover, it will only become harder to protect our lowlands from not only flooding but also salt water incursions as sea level rises.  The proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station will have an installation, operating and decommissioning lifetime of over 100 years; what added risks will it face from the combination of more severe weather, storm surges and rising sea level?  Climate change affects us all – globally, nationally and locally in the 2015 European Green Capital.

That requires reductions in emissions over the next decade.  And it then requires cessation of all fossil fuel emissions in the subsequent decades.  The former has been the subject of most negotiations, including the recent discussions in Lima and likely those in Paris at the end of this year. The latter has yet to be addressed by any international treaty. And that is of deep concern because it is the cessation of all fossil fuel emissions that is most difficult but most necessary to achieve.  Carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 1000s of years, such that slower emissions will only delay climate change.  That can be useful – if we must adapt to a changing world, having more time to do so will be beneficial. However, it is absolutely clear that emissions must stop if we are to meet our target of 2°C.  In fact, according to most climate models as well as the geological history of climate, emissions must stop if we are to keep total warming below 5°C.

In short, we cannot use the majority of our coal, gas and petroleum assets for energy.  They must stay buried.

Can we ‘geoengineer’ our way to alternative solution?  Not according to recent research. Last November, a Royal Society Meeting showcased the results of three UK Research Council Funded investigations of geoengineering feasibility and consequences. They collectively illustrated that geoengineering a response to climate change was at best complicated and at worst a recipe for disaster and widespread global conflict.  The most prominent geoengineering solution is to offset the greenhouse gas induced rise in global temperatures via the injection of stratospheric particles that reflect some of the solar energy arriving at Earth.  However, on the most basic level, a world with elevated CO2 levels and reflective particles in the atmosphere  is not the same as a world with 280 ppm of CO2 and a pristine atmosphere. To achieve the same average global temperature, some regions will be cooler and others warmer.  Rainfall patterns will differ: regional patterns of flood and drought will differ. Even if it could be done, who are the arbitrators of a geoengineered world?  The potential for conflict is profound.

In short, the deus ex machina of geoengineering our climate is neither a feasible nor a just option.  And again, the conclusion is that we cannot use most of our fossil fuels.

One might argue that we can adapt to climate change: why risk our economy now when we can adapt to the consequences of climate change later? Many assessments suggest that this is not the best economic approach, but I understand the gamble: be cautious with a fragile economy now and deal with consequences later.  This argument, however, ignores the vast inequity associated with climate change.  It is the future generations that will bear the cost of our inaction.  Moreover, it appears that the most vulnerable to climate change are the poorest – and those who consume the least fossil fuels.  Those of us who burn are not those who will pay.  Arguably then, we in the UK have a particular obligation to the poor of the world and of our own country, as well as to our children and grandchildren, to soon cease the use of our fossil fuels.

Energy is at the foundation of modern society and it has been the basis for magnificent human achievement over the past 150 years, but it is clear that obtaining energy by burning fossil fuels is warming our planet and acidifying our oceans.  The consequences for our climate, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, is profound; even more worrying are the catastrophic risks that climate change poses for the food and water resources on which society depends.  It is now time for us to mature beyond the 19th and 20th century fossil-fuel derived energy to a renewable energy system of the 21st century that is sustainable for us and our planet.

We must bridge the gap.


Your planet needs you!

We are under attack. Our assailants threaten to kill millions of people, destroy our homes and wipe out our crops. Who are these fiends?


The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focusses on how we can stop runaway climate change before it’s too late.  Despite our “best efforts”, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at an alarming rate. The IPCC estimates that without any additional effort to reduce emissions, we’re looking at a rise in temperature of between 3.7 and 4.8°C by 2100, although variability in the effects of climate change mean the rise could be as high as 7.8°C. Anything over 2°C means we risk runaway climate change with catastrophic effects felt around the world.

A call to action

The UK energy secretary Ed Davey responded to yesterday’s IPCC press conference by stating,

“we need a worldwide, large-scale change to our energy system if we are to limit the effects of climate change”

and called for an international effort to reduce carbon emissions by 2015.

The question is, are politicians willing to put in the effort needed to reduce emissions by 40-70% in the next couple of decades? It’s hard to put a price on the cost of mitigation, but as Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC team, stated “Climate policy is not a free lunch”. His colleague Professor Jim Skea was more optimistic, saying that,

“it is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living”.

That’s the kind of thing that politicians like to hear.

Change doesn’t happen unless something dramatic happens to force us to act. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events doesn’t seem to be working, so what would? As the IPCC brief states, “Emissions by any agent (e.g. Individual, community, company, country) affect other agents”. We need to invoke some Blitz mentality; we ARE facing a deadly enemy and we ALL need to do our part to stop it.

How to mitigate climate change

The IPCC used 10,000 scientific references to ensure that their models are properly founded in science and all the uncertainty that entails. The IPCC defined mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”, and look at a range of scenarios to find the most effective and efficient methods.

The report particularly favoured low carbon energy sources as a major way to reduce emissions, using natural gas as a transition fuel into renewable energies. Encouragingly, renewable energy comprised over half of all new electricity-generating developments globally, with wind, hydro- and solar power leading the way. The costs of renewable energies are falling, making them viable for large scale deployment in many areas, and Professor Skea enthused that

Renewables are going to be ubiquitous no matter which part of the world you look at”.

Cities will play a big part in reducing CO2 emissions too; a combination of better urban planning to incorporate public transport and compact walkable city centres will be vital. The report also recommended high speed rail networks between cities to reduce short haul air travel and its associated high emissions.

Replanting forests will be an important way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Plants take in CO2 for use in photosynthesis, but can also be used to remove pollutants from the air and soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and providing important habitats for other plants and animals.

It is important for all nations that mitigation does not mean a halt to economic development. Dr. Youba Sokona, IPCC team co-chair, said, “The core task of climate change mitigation is decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from the growth of economics and population”. This will be the main challenge for governments around the world, but the overwhelming message from the IPCC is that mitigation is affordable, whilst doing nothing is not.

Social justice

There has been an undercurrent of unease alongside the IPCC report; the sticky question of who, exactly, is going to pay for this mitigation? A few days before its release, pressure from unspecified developed nations led to the removal of a section in the IPCC report stating that developing countries should receive billions of dollars a year in aid to ensure that they grow their economies in a sustainable way.

The argument centres on whether developing nations should have the right to exploit fossil fuels to expand their economies, as developed countries were able to do. Dr. Chukwumerije Okereke, one of the lead authors of the report, said that this “is holding them down from developing”, believing that “this is reinforcing historical patterns of injustice and domination”. I would argue that with the impacts of climate change predicted to affect those in developing countries most drastically, perhaps we should adopt the mentality that we are all in this together and help each other to overcome the problem.

Act now

The take home message from the IPCC is that if we act now, we can probably prevent hitting the 2°C temperature increase that would have disastrous consequences for us all. The mitigation strategies suggested are affordable and certainly cheaper than dealing with the consequences of climate change. Will politicians and all the rest of us do our parts to drastically reduce carbon emissions? Only time will tell. A lot of hope rests on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is hoped to yield a global agreement on climate to avoid passing the 2°C safety threshold.

Cross your fingers and turn off your lights.


This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol


You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose