Prof Kevin Anderson and the idea of carbon rationing

Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University, and former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, visited Dublin earlier this month (March 2016). He managed to pack in a lot during his time here – he spoke at Dublin City University, the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Institute for European Affairs. In each speech, his theme was the same: we have systematically over-estimated the effectiveness of our responses to climate change and under-estimated the rate at which the climate is actually changing.

We have been deluding ourselves about climate change, says Prof Anderson, because we cannot face up to the radical changes needed to deal with the problem. We say to ourselves: “Oh, the Emissions Trading Scheme will do it.” Or “Carbon capture and storage – that will solve everything.” Or even: “Planting more trees, converting our power stations to biomass – that will do it.”

Even the climate change agreement signed in Paris in December 2015 plays into this “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario – it pretends that the measures it sets out will be enough to keep dangerous climate change at bay. It keeps alive the idea that continued economic growth is compatible with a safe climate.

Nature cannot be fooled
Prof Anderson uses a quote from an inquiry into the Challenger space shuttle disaster: “nature cannot be fooled” – and applies it to climate governance. The climate does not read the texts of international agreements, the climate does not trade CO2 emissions, and it does not abide by the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

“The position on climate change mitigation has not changed since the first IPCC report in 1990. So we’ve had a quarter of a century of complete and utter inaction and abject failure on climate change,” he said during his DCU talk.

This seems a little harsh. There have been advances in the promotion of wind and solar energy and huge efforts have been made at a global climate change agreement. But largely, Prof Anderson is right. We have failed to stop, or even mildly influence, climate change in 25 years of trying. In fact, as he points out, that 2015 emissions will be 60pc higher than they were in 1990 – a damning statistic that show that, not only have we failed to curb emissions, we have carried on emitting recklessly.

Prof Anderson considers the carbon budget – the amount of CO2 we are “allowed” emit and still keep warming below 2C. The figure is 1,000 gigatons, and we emitted 511 gt by 2011.

He notes that the problems with the Paris Agreement are (i) there is not reference to fossil fuels or decarbonisation in the text (because of lobbying by the Saudis); (ii) aviation and shipping (which together account for more CO2 emissions than UK and Germany combined) are not included in the CO2 calculations covered by the agreement; (iii) there is no review of the CO2 pledges until 2020, which is too far off; (iv) there is a reliance on “highly speculative” carbon reduction technologies.

Communicating on climate change
Prof Anderson’s talks were challenging. Things we – the climate concerned community – thought were “wins” are actually meaningless in climate terms. Emissions reduction policies are doomed and we have failed to make the case for deep societal change.

Yet the communications and framing research shows that “doomster” and apocalyptic messages about climate change just make things worse. People throw their hands up and become resigned to climate change as inevitable.

So although the “tell-it-like-it-is” has attractions, not least of which is that it is true and congruent, it also has consequences. It appears that, when it comes to climate change, you can’t shock people into action. What happens is that you shock them into inaction.

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The idea of a personal carbon allowance
In response to a question from Duncan Stewart of Ecoeye (at 49mins into the video above) about what needs to be done to get people to act in response to climate change, Prof Anderson suggests that each individual have a “personal carbon ration”.

This is an interesting idea – a ration of CO2 that we can decide how to spend. We might blow it all on a flight, or husband it carefully. Or perhaps even sell it on.

There are communications problems with this. Firstly, don’t call it a ration. Don’t make it seem negative as if you’re depriving people of something. Make it sound positive, like you’re giving them the opportunity to save the world. Rationing has connotations of the post-war period in the UK, of queues and drabness and lack of opportunity.

But helping people to emit less is also an opportunity for innovtion, creativity and community spirit. Maybe a “carbon wallet”? Or a carbon “treasury”?

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Ireland’s White Paper on Energy: an analysis

Ordinary householders may not give much thought to the government’s energy strategy, or to the global problem of climate change. Yet these two issues are inextricably linked and will affect how much people pay for fuel and what energy-saving measures they will be expected to take around their homes.

Energy and climate change are linked because energy-production (everything from power stations to domestic heating systems) accounts for a large proportion of Ireland’s emissions of CO2. And the government is committed to reducing our CO2 as part of an international effort to combat climate change.

Ireland’s energy policy was set out in December 2015 in a document called Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030. This was the long-awaited White Paper on energy policy published by Minister Alex White and his Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The document is available here.

A government’s energy policy has far-reaching effects. The growing industry around the generation of electricity from renewable sources, for instance, wants to know what tariff regime they will be dealing with. Companies who work in energy-saving technologies – insulation, glazing, retrofitting for example – want to know what grant regimes will be put in place to encourage retrofitting.

More generally, the public wants to know what Ireland’s “energy mix” will be. Where will our energy come from? How much will be generated from old coal and peat-burning stations? How much will be from natural gas? Will nuclear power be in the mix? Will wind power be encouraged or restricted?

In the world of policy formation, a Green Paper usually sets out the options available to government. It sets out the context and the range of possibilities from which the government can choose. A White Paper usually builds from the Green Paper and sets out what measures a government intends to implement.

However, Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030 does not include any policy decisions. It concentrates on setting out general aims and outlining the general energy governance and policy environment. As Frank McDonald pointed out in the Irish Times, it is actually more a Green than a White Paper.

Minister White’s document must also be read in the context of Ireland’s commitments under various treaties and agreements to reduce carbon emissions. The first of these is set out in the EU 2020 emissions reduction targets; Ireland must reduce its carbon emissions to 20pc of 2005 levels by 2020. Already, it has been conceded that Ireland will fail to hit this target. (Press eport here and Environmental Protection Agency report here.)

Furthermore, the EU is looking at further binding emissions targets of 40pc (below 2005 levels) by 2030, although Ireland is seeking exemptions from these targets on the basis of its dependence on agriculture, which is in itself a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions.

Lastly, in December 2015, Ireland, as part of the EU bloc, signed the Paris Agreement. This commits Ireland to the long-term goal of keeping global warming to below 20C and to aim for a limit of 1.50. During the negotiations in Paris, the EU put forward their commitment to a 40pc reduction of emissions by 2030 and agreed that emissions would “peak as soon as possible.” (The EU’s role at COP 21 described here.)

So it’s evident that Ireland will come under increasing pressure to reduce its emissions of so-called Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) in the immediate future. This has implications for the energy, housing, transport and agriculture sectors. This is a graph of Ireland’s emissions by sector (source: EPA):

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This is the context in which Minister White must position his White Paper. So what does it have to say about Ireland’s plans to reduce emissions, encourage homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient, and to move Ireland to a less carbon-dependent energy supply?

The document contains 90 “actions” – most of them committing Ireland to making decisions on actions – before 2020. Friends of the Earth Ireland remarked that these actions “don’t match the scale of the ambition or the urgency of the challenge”.

It is set forth in very aspirational language. For instance, it is hoped that communities would become “agents of change” in the energy sector, and the text notes that energy-saving measures can deliver substantial savings (of both cash and CO2. (Although it goes on to say that “this will demand more extensive measures than have generally been implemented so far, including deep retrofit of existing building stocks”.)

Controversial or politically sensitive decisions – such as the closure of the coal-fired power plant at Moneypoint, or the peat-fired ones in West Offaly and Lough Ree – are kicked to touch. A decision on fracking is also postponed, as is any decision on whether the government will move towards – or away from – wind-power. All it has to say about nuclear power is that it is “currently prohibited by legislation”.

And, as for the possibility of introducing a grant system for homeowners to make their houses more energy efficient, or perhaps grant-aiding domestic micro power-generation (photovoltaic cells or domestic-scale windmills), or improving the energy-efficiency of domestic glass, or even introducing a smart grid so that homeowners who do generate electricity can sell it back to the grid, is has only this to say:

 “Ultimately, it will be decisions by individuals that will make homes warmer, businesses more competitive and public services more cost-efficient.”

As many Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (ENGOs) have pointed out, this seems like an abrogation of duty, as if the government is throwing up its hands and saying: We can’t do anything. It’s all up to you.”