Tag Archives: Mark Maslin

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 September 2020

2019 was an extraordinary year for UK activism on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 rebellion, the school strikes and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts all helped to radically shift public opinion. June 2019 polling from YouGov found “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before.”

“The sudden surge in concern is undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion… and activism from Greta Thunberg during the same period”, Matthew Smith, YouGov’s lead data journalist, explained.

More concretely, the House of Commons declared a climate emergency in May 2019. Introducing the motion, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the recent climate activism had been “a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say ‘We hear you’”.

The motion – one of the first in the world – showed the will of parliament but didn’t legally compel the government to act.

Then, in June 2019, following a recommendation from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Tory government committed the country to reducing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This move made the UK the first major economy in the world to pass a law to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

Be in no doubt: parliament declaring a climate emergency and the government implementing a 2050 net zero target are huge wins for the UK environmental movement. However, speaking to the Morning Star in June 2019, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read called the CCC report which recommended the 2050 net zero target, “essentially dead on arrival”. And in September 2019 Ed Miliband said “2050 isn’t the radical position and now it’s seen as a conservative ‘small c’ position.”

So what are the problems with the 2050 net zero target?

First, the CCC’s 2050 target is derived from the October 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C – the maximum increase in temperature the 189 signatories of the 2016 UN Paris climate agreement pledged to limit global warming to.

However, as many climate experts have noted, the IPCC tends to be conservative in its predictions. “This is simply due to its structure”, Dr Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam University noted in 2014. “The IPCC report will contain only things that a whole group of scientists have agreed upon on a kind of consensus process. This kind of agreement tends to be the lowest common denominator.” He noted that sea level rise in the last two decades “has overtaken the speed of the upper range of previous projections of sea level of the IPCC”. Writing in Business Green in May 2019, Will Dawson from Forum For The Future, explained the ramifications of this: “The CCC is therefore using scenarios that are likely far too optimistic. Emissions have to be cut much faster than they assumed to keep to 1.5C.”

Second, the CCC admits the 2050 target, “if replicated across the world”, would deliver only a greater than 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C – reckless odds when you are talking about the fate of hundreds of millions of people.

Indeed, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently stated “The problem is the framing the CCC has for net zero is already far removed from what is needed to meet our Paris commitments.” Anderson has co-authored new research, published in the peer-reviewed Climate Policy journal, highlighting this disconnect. The Guardian summarised the article’s key finding: “The UK’s planned reductions in emissions, even if it hits net zero by 2050, would be two or three times greater than its fair share of emissions under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement.”

Finally, the CCC report on 2050 is based on various questionable political assumptions. For example, the CCC admits the target date is partly informed by what is “feasible” and “politically acceptable” – and what is “credibly deliverable alongside other government objectives”.

The CCC also has a very conservative view about the possibility of large-scale behavioural change, with Chris Stark, the CCC’s Chief Executive, stating the 2050 target “is technically possible with known technologies and without major changes to consumer behaviours.” The report recommends a hardly radical “20% reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy” (to be “replaced by an increase in consumption of pork, poultry, and plant-based products”), and predicts a 60% growth in demand for air travel by 2050. They advise the government to curtail this surge rather than cut demand overall.

In short, the 2050 target date is not simply following the science but is underpinned by conservative assumptions about the likelihood of change, and intangible and changeable factors like public opinion and government priorities.

Worryingly, like a Russian doll the serious problems with the 2050 target sit within an even more concerning national and international policy context.

In its June 2020 progress report the CCC confirmed the steps the UK government has taken “do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge and we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.” A new report from the Institute for Government is similarly critical of the government’s lack of action. “There is… little evidence that the government, and the politicians who waved the new target through with little debate, have confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead”, it notes.

Internationally, one of the most frightening facts I have ever read was effectively hidden in paragraph 13 of 19 of a page 27 report in the Guardian in July. “According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco [out of 189 signatories] is acting consistently with the [2016] Paris agreement’s goals, with the global temperature rise on course to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met.”

Meanwhile the mercury keeps rising. Earlier this month the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation warned the world could exceed the key threshold of 1.5C by 2024, climate experts Pep Canadell and Rob Jackson noted on The Conversation website.

According to a leaked January 2020 report from US multinational investment bank JP Morgan, the earth is on track for a temperature increase of 3.5C by 2100. “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory”, the paper notes. “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive”.

We need, then, to massively increase the level of ambition and action of the UK’s response to the climate crisis. Professor Anderson argues the scale and timeframe of the transformation required needs to be larger and faster than Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War Two.

A positive step would be the adoption of an earlier net zero target date. Both Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, back a net zero target of 2030. Under Corbyn’s leadership a Green New Deal with a target date of 2030 was approved at the 2019 annual Labour Party conference (though didn’t fully make it into the party’s December 2019 general election manifesto). Impressively, in July Ed Miliband, now the Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, confirmed he backs the 2030 target date.

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill recently tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas and co-sponsored by a group of 11 cross-party MPs is another ray of light, encapsulating many of the concerns about the UK’s lack of ambition set out above. Co-drafted by Professor Anderson and Professor Jackson – and already backed by 52 other MPs – the Bill pushes for a strengthening of the UK’s response the climate crisis, ensuring UK emissions are consistent with limiting average global temperatures to 1.5C.

Asked at Davos in January what she would like to see happen in the next year and a half, climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a typically wise answer: “That we start listening to the science and that we actually start treating the crisis as the crisis it is” because “without treating this as a real crisis we cannot solve it.”

Ian Sinclair tweets @IanSinclair.

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
20 December 2016

In May 2016 researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute published a deeply concerning study for the Middle East. According to the academics, climate change could make large parts of the region uninhabitable. By the year 2100, midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50°C, with heat waves potentially occurring ten times more than today. The expected temperature rises could put “the very existence of its inhabitants in jeopardy”, noted Jos Lelieveld, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The future looks similarly bleak on the global level. In 2013 Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explained that “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

What would a 4°C world look like, I asked Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, earlier this year? “Global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, was his frightening reply. He went on to list a number of likely outcomes: Sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; a 40 percent reduction in staple crop yields; substantial changes in rainfall patterns and massive migration.

In the face of this crisis, Middle East governments have slowly started to turn their attention to the problem of climate change, largely presenting it as an uncontroversial topic that requires technical solutions – a perfect example of fatally flawed “techno-optimism” if ever there was one.

A number of large-scale, press-friendly projects are being built, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. “Designed to be zero-carbon and zero-waste, home to a population of 40,000 people, 50,000 commuters, in an area of six square kilometres” Masdar City is “playing a crucial role in the development of sustainable design and technology”, gushed Susan Lee from the University of Birmingham.

However, though it’s rarely said, these top-down mega projects are unlikely to help in addressing climate change. Take Masdar: in reality, as Grist noted earlier this year, it “is, essentially, the world’s most sustainable ghost town”, with only a small part of the planned city built and the completion date pushed back from 2016 to 2030.

According to Deutsche Welle, critics “see Masdar first and foremost as a clever project to improve Abu Dhabi’s image” when “it remains one of the world’s worst polluters”.

And it’s not just the United Arab Emirates. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet report found Kuwait and Qatar have the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint. “If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets”, the report noted.

“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything”, Canadian author Naomi Klein argues in her seminal 2014 book on climate change. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.” Klein maintains the scale of the problem means radical transformations are required in the political, economic and cultural spheres. In the Middle East this will mean revolutionary change. For example, the Paris climate agreement pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”.

What does this mean for oil producing states? Using industry data, a recent report from US-based thinktank Oil Change International explained that “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming”. Averting runaway climate change, according to the study, means no new fossil fuel extraction and some existing fields and mines closing before being fully exploited. Furthermore, Klein argues it is dangerous to consider environmental problems on their own. Rather they will only be solved together with other problems such as economic inequality, the corporate domination of the political and social world, consumerism and western imperialism. A classroom guide created to accompany Klein’s book even asks students to provide a “feminist ecological critique” of extractivism.

Many of the necessary changes will be difficult for rulers in the Middle East to contemplate. Analysing the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, Professor Robert Looney from the Naval Postgraduate School in California explains that democratic governments are “more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon agreements” and “give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. Concerned about their own survival, authoritarian regimes will invariably prioritise energy security and equity, Looney argues, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest.

A media free of government censorship and corporate influence is a key component of Looney’s findings, as it creates an informed citizenry. And once large numbers of people understand the dire threat of climate change, they will likely push for government action. An independent and critical media also engenders discussion and disagreement. The alternative – sadly commonin the Middle East – is hugely counterproductive and threatening to young people and future generations as it muzzles criticism and serious debate. For example, one critic of Masdar (who described it as a “green Disneyland”) said they wished to remain anonymous “Otherwise, you could get in trouble in Abu Dhabi”.

Another key feature of more democratic societies, is an active and independent civil society. As freed slave Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Progressive and lasting change almost always comes from below – something Klein implicitly understands when she calls for a “grassroots anti-extraction uprising”.

The blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States, the cancellation of Margaret Thatcher’s road expansion plans in Britain (“the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”), the introduction of the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act – all of these environmental victories happened because of long campaigns by activist groups overcoming state-corporate power.

In short, far from being an uncontroversial, technical issue, climate change is actually a real threat to the status quo – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because if we are serious about addressing climate change, then we need to successfully challenge established power – that is the extractive-enriched, growth-obsessed, profit-driven, largely unelected elites whose actions have led us to this existential crisis point.

With some of the region’s governments repeatedly trying to impede international agreements to combat climate change, this is especially true for the Middle East. With time running out, the future of the Middle East and the wellbeing of humanity depends on how quickly we win the revolutionary changes that are so desperately needed.