Grantham Institute - COP21

The Road from COP21 - Stepping stones between the COP’s

Speakers:

Sir David King, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Climate Change Envoy, and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government
Josue Tanaka, Managing Director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)
Jeff Seabright, Chief Sustainability Officer of Unilever
Neil Thorns, Chair of the Climate Coalition
The event was chaired by Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-director of the Grantham Institute.

Stepping stones?

This event, hosted by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, is one of the necessary incremental conversations that we shall be seeing connecting the UNFCCC COP’s over the next 5 years to 2020. They are necessary because we are globally in a position where we have everything to lose, and so much to gain, by staying focussed on the task of ensuring the planet is not just liveable, but, compared with the present, greatly improved in terms of the human impact on the natural world.

So a panel of expert speakers presented to us the post-Paris narrative as they see it evolving before us. COP21 in Paris was certainly a special event with so many complex political narratives in play, that conflicts in determining outcomes was a certainty. But this leaves us with a big “what next?”

Sir David King pointed out that the momentum behind the ‘Paris Agreement’ had been building long before Paris and must not stop with Paris. “End of the beginning” was the quote used last night. So what is it that we are trying to achieve?

 

Stay below 2ºC and hope we make 1.5ºC

These temperature “targets” are (as I have mentioned in this short film about the COP21) like icons of our generation. How they are related to the science and to the politics is so complicated that seeing them bandied around always leaves me feeling as if this view of climate change is oversimplified.

James Hansen, in a press conference in Paris, made it very clear that he preferred to talk in terms atmospheric concentrations of carbon as opposed to these temperature figures. The reason is simple. We can directly link those concentrations to scientific data and see that the task before us is, in plain English, to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and find away to reduce the current levels to around 350 parts per million (itself a very difficult task and probably not enough).

When framed in terms of atmospheric concentrations, there tends to be less wriggle room for politics so I guess that is why it is not done that way. So, let us return to the discussion in hand.

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s)

INDC’s represent a core part of the post-Paris narrative. These are pledges from around 160 countries, outlining action they plan to take on climate change to ensure we stay below 2ºC global mean temperature rise. As has been calculated by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), if all these INDC’s were achieved they would supposedly deliver an outcome in temperature rise of 2.7ºC.

2.7ºC is way above what is regarded as safe and will irrevocably change life on Earth for the worse. Take into consideration that all countries will not achieve these political goals and you’ll see that the realistic projection lies between 3-3.5ºC. This is a disaster for us in the UK but it is a death sentence for billions of others around the world.

Even 1.5ºC is not safe for all and we are not even legally challenged to stay below that degree of warming. So currently we see a huge shortfall in proposed action versus desired outcome.

Ratchet up

The term ratchet up is becoming a buzz word used to bridge the gap between what the INDC’s can deliver and where we need to be. It ties in with narrative of ambition and momentum. The INDC’s are the political contribution to the problem of tackling global climate change. There are still 2 much more important players who have not yet shown their cards: civil society (yes, that is you and me!) and the banking / investment community.

Bottom up

I was pleased to hear from the panel, the emphasis placed on the nature of action taking place, as being “from the bottom up”. It feels like we are socially conditioned to believe that we are powerless as individuals in this noisy complex world, however, it is exactly the opposite that is true.

For years now, many of us have thought that if the President of the US just knew how bad the climate was then he would take action and fix it. Well, he does, and he can’t! Politics is powerful but is also highly susceptible to outside forces. One is big business lobbying and another is the people represented outside the halls of power. It doesn’t matter if we live in a western democracy or not, those governing, rightfully fear and respond to the populace.

In this period of transformation of our societies, our energy systems, our consumption patterns and much more, it comes down to each one of us that can, to examine the narrative of our time and find a way to express it in our own language and lives. Climate change is the defining narrative of our time and is already starting to impact everything else. We have no choice but to start filling the gap that politics cannot fill.

What about investors? Well, funnily enough, they are humans too. We tend to view the banking and investment communities as being “otherworldly” and perhaps that is why they have, in recent years, gotten us into so much trouble. But again, civil society must recognise that these people are playing with our pension funds, our ISA’s and our future security. We can and should start asking questions about what they are doing to ensure that clean energy projects, clean water, resilient infrastructure and resilient agricultural practices are being brought online.

If we as individuals start talking about where our money goes and asking questions of those who manage it, it is likely that it will flow in the right direction faster. This is what ratchet up really refers to. It is the intervention of civil society (yes, us) in order to drive change where ever it is needed. If we care about the future then we must take our personal intervention seriously.

Civil society - BAU is not possible

Of course, simply telling investors to finance a better future is not the whole battle. Panelist, Neil Thorns stated clearly that how we live our lives is a question we in the developed world must ask ourselves. Our emissions per person must be reduced. ‘Business as usual’ (BAU) is not possible if we are to be around in a hundred years time.

This involves every aspect of our lives in terms of consumption. We must consume less in the years to come. It seems that society at large is in a process of decarbonising the processes by which we live. Until that is completed, we need to learn to reduce everything we consume that has an impact on the world.

Is 1.5ºC or even 2ºC scientifically possible?

This question that came out of the audience was very interesting and was answered by Sir David King. It’s fair to say that it is the one question that caused the mask of optimism to slip a little. King states that to achieve 2ºC it will involve a lot of luck and that really, he doesn’t know if it is doable. I would say that this is the answer of an honest man.

The science, as we are working to in the Paris Agreement, really represents one scenario that a plan of action is being appended to. There are many others and the realistic ones are not optimistic. However, this scenario does allow us to work to a plan and do everything we can to try and build a resilient and fairer world. We are not starting from zero, it feels more like absolute zero.

The real issue is the current burden of greenhouse gases that coupled with still rising emissions, mean we are likely to keep moving towards +3ºC in the decades ahead. What we do now will have a huge impact, unless we cross a tipping point that could make the warming self-sustaining, or accelerate ice-sheet melt raising sea-levels faster, etcetera.

So how do we either lower the greenhouse gases or buy more time to stave off tipping points?

Geoengineering in the back pocket

I must admit to being surprised to hear King bring up geoengineering. One member of the audience pointed out that it was interesting that he mentioned geoengineering before ‘carbon capture & storage’ (CCS). However, these are the schemes that are being proposed, to intervene in order to alter either global or regional climate.

Geoengineering is a broad term and could involve replanting of forests to help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or, less popularly, pumping thousands of tonnes of particles into the stratosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption that would cool the planet, thus buying us time to change society by reducing the impacts of warming.

King went on to advocate research into Stephen Salter’s ‘cloud brightening’ technology and, oddly in my view, suggest that the UN put a moratorium on sulphate injections into the atmosphere, saying:  “…pushing sulphates into the upper atmosphere is a big mistake, we don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.” Perhaps this sentence should be: “As we don’t know what the unintended consequences of pushing sulphates into the upper atmosphere will be, we need to do more research to find out whether it could be a big mistake.”

I am certainly not an advocate of stratospheric sulphate injection but as former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams said when I interviewed him about this, “I’d like to know what it is I am saying no to!”.

The Youtube stream of the event is available to watch here:

 



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