Priming the Pump at Durban

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Another year, another COP, another step closer to the brink. It must seem to the casual observer that the UN climate negotiations are an exercise designed explicitly to create gridlock and failure. Judging by many of the blogs, comments and tweets I’ve been reading since bleary-eyed delegates stumbled out of the Durban ICC on Sunday, the most recent episode has provoked some strong but mixed reactions: politicians claiming a triumph of multilateralism, NGOs decrying the lack of progress on issues of substance. Both views hold some merit. As someone who was present in Durban for the regulation fortnight – but missed the 36 hours of injury-time – I’d like to weigh in with my personal reflections.

Before that, a confession: I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for prime numbers. I find their indivisibility immensely satisfying, suggestive of an eternal significance which shows up in unexpected places. For instance, I could never quite put my finger on why the game of rugby is such a dire spectacle, until I realised: there are 15 players on each side! The prime numbered 11-a-side codes of football and cricket are self-evidently superior. In a similar vein, when a football club wins five European Cups (as my Liverpool did in 2005) it gets to keep the trophy in perpetuity and UEFA commissions a new one, to be tossed around cheaply among subsequent winners of the tournament… until that magical prime number is reached once more.

Back to climate change. A brief review of previous UNFCCC COPs reveals a curious pattern in which significant moments of progress are marked by prime numbers. At COP3 in Kyoto, negotiators hammered out the eponymous Protocol, which to date remains the only legally-binding international climate treaty ever brokered (although as I write this, news filters through that Canada has withdrawn due to its failure to meet commitments – a bit like skiving off your final exams the day before because you didn’t show up at any lectures). In Marrakech, COP7 reached an agreement on how to implement the Kyoto Protocol among 193 of the 194 signatories of the UNFCCC, the sole absentee being the nation that is by far the largest historic contributor of GHGs to the atmosphere. Montreal’s climate summit in 2005 was significant for being the first meeting of the Parties to Kyoto, namely COP11/MOP1 – two prime numbers in one conference! Two years later, in another prime double-header, it was at COP13/CMP3 in Bali where the intransigent US was famously shamed by Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who issued the challenge to either lead, or “get out of the way”. The US backed down, opening the way for the Bali Roadmap that was intended to deliver a “Kyoto 2” in Copenhagen.

I won’t lay the blame for COP15’s failure to deliver entirely at the door of composite numbering. At least the signature text of the summit went as far as to declare – for the first time at a UNFCCC conference – what was meant by the Convention’s ultimate objective to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. By introducing the 2°C threshold – with deep emissions cuts guided by science and on the basis of equity – the Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was not entirely useless, setting the tone for the Cancun Agreements issued at the low-key COP16. As for the rest of the even-numbered COPs, they were undoubtedly necessary staging posts on the way to the prime events, but honestly, who remembers what happened at COP14 in Poznan? Anyone? How about COP12 in Nairobi? Like the World Cup group stages, there’d be no knock-out phase without them, but barring the occasional seven-goal thriller they’re generally pretty tedious affairs.

So what of COP17? Despite hosts South Africa receiving widespread and deserved praise for saving the talks from total collapse, many have correctly asserted that the Durban Platform contains nothing of substance that helps steer the world from its catastrophic business-as-usual 4°C trajectory. No international legal framework has been agreed (yet), national voluntary pledges made in the wake of Copenhagen have not been tightened, business leaders may still claim paralysis owing to a lack of regulatory certainty. On the flip side, the most complex political negotiations ever attempted remain intact, with all 194 Parties – including the world’s largest absolute emitter, the world’s fastest growing emitter, the world’s largest per capita emitter, and the world’s largest historical emitter – committed to negotiating by 2015 a legally-binding deal to cut emissions that will enter into force by 2020. Perhaps it will take the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (PDF), due towards the end of 2014, to provide the fresh impetus to the negotiations.

Meanwhile, national governments continue to enact domestic laws to penalise GHG emissions, irrespective of the perceived failure of the international negotiations. The UK’s landmark Climate Change Act set the ball rolling in 2008, but now even carbon-intensive emerging economies like South Africa are on the verge of introducing carbon taxes, hot on the heels of Australia’s recent legislation. From a business perspective, surely the drums are now beating loud enough for companies to start planning for success rather than failure in humanity’s collective efforts to address climate change. If we think mitigation for 2°C is expensive and complex, just wait until we start adapting for 4°C. As one observer wrote in the aftermath of Durban, “It’s not a choice between a climate change deal and economic development; it’s really a choice of both or neither.”

Durban may not have been the emphatic breakthrough that most of us wished for, but I’m convinced future historians will judge it to have been an historic COP: the one at which the pump was primed.

Fracking Irresponsible Development

A year ago, I asked a middle manager at a multi-national liquid fuels company why its sustainability report didn’t contain any discussion of peak oil.  He shot back with a withering “I think we’ve got beyond that.”  I believe he was right, though not in the way he intended.  

Amidst all the outcry and outrage provoked by the prospect of fracking natural gas from the Karoo, insufficient thought has been given to how the fossil fuel resource is intended to be used.  What’s the real motivation behind Big Oil’s attempts to get its hands on those methane molecules?

Energy, of course!  You know, the Energy Dilemma?  The world needs more energy with less CO2, so “we are producing more cleaner-burning natural gas and using advanced technologies to develop new resources” – it says it right there in Shell’s 2010 Sustainability Report.

But let’s examine that statement carefully.  There’s nothing factually incorrect in what Shell says.  Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, and Shell (and many of its Big Oil brethren) is producing more of it year after year.  However, there’s something about the choice of language that might be opportunist at best, disingenuous at worst.

First, it’s hard to take at face value the notion that Shell’s steady drift into natural gas is the result of a deliberate strategic decision to turn away from dirtier fossil fuels.  Consider that the company’s relative growth in gas has occurred over the same period of time that it was investing heavily in the Albertan tar sands.  Far easier to swallow is the idea that Shell has simply not been very successful at finding conventional oil resources – recall the reserves scandal of 2004 – so that over time its portfolio has diversified in both directions: simultaneously growing in cleaner-burning natural gas and filthy bituminous hydrocarbon deposits.  The next time you meet a Shell executive, ask the question: when was the last time your company (or any other oil major, for that matter) walked away from economically-recoverable conventional oil resources because of a strategic decision to focus on natural gas?  They would have a job explaining that one to their shareholders who focus on replacement of reserves as a key indicator of company performance.  

Second – here is the crunch – what do Shell (and Sasol) have in mind for all that Karoo shale gas?  The clue lies in Qatar.  It’s based on an elegant piece of chemical process engineering whereby carbon atoms are stitched together to synthesise the longer hydrocarbon chains that comprise petrol and diesel.  The really neat thing is that, technically, you can use anything containing carbon, including cleaner-burning natural gas, filthy dirty lumps of coal, wood chips, my mother’s bathroom curtains, or even the finest Persian carpet.  The choice of feedstock informs the economics of the process – rug-to-liquids being at the high end of the cost spectrum – as well as the energy required in the conversion steps.  So flexible is this technology platform Shell gave it the label XTL, where X = any source of carbon atoms.  When X = natural gas, it’s called GTL.  Which brings us back to the Karoo.

Why does this matter?  Because in the context of our global Energy Dilemma, what’s important is maximising the energy services – heating, cooling, lighting, mobility, communications – delivered to society while minimising the associated CO2 emissions.  This is where the term “cleaner-burning” appears disingenuous.  True enough, GTL diesel fuel burns with lower sulphur dioxide, lower nitrous oxides, and lower particulate matter than conventional oil-based diesel (based on current fuel quality standards).  This is directionally beneficial in terms of improving urban air quality.  However, exactly the same is true of coal-to-liquids diesel, or rug-to-liquids diesel; the “cleaner-burning” character of natural gas has precisely nothing to do with it.

In terms of CO2 – the most important form of pollution wrapped up in this Energy Dilemma – GTL is essentially no better than regular fuel.  Which is to say: it’s considerably worse, because by far the most rational use of natural gas in addressing the more-energy-with-less-CO2 conundrum is using it to displace carbon-intensive coal to generate lower-CO2 electricity.  In parallel, by investing in electromobility, we simultaneously do away with those nasty tailpipe emissions at a stroke.  If instead we allow natural gas molecules to enter the liquid transport fuel supply via GTL plants, we pointlessly fritter away all the carbon advantage inherent in the resource.  From a climate change mitigation perspective any decision to follow the GTL path is nothing less than irresponsible.

Then again, the potential use of natural gas as a lower carbon bridging fuel in the struggle against rising CO2 emissions was never the driving force behind Big Oil’s attempts to open up the Karoo.  They are not in the electricity business, they are in the liquid transport fuels business.  All forms of energy are not the same.  For them, the Energy Dilemma is about securing more hydrocarbon resources and leveraging their enormous chemistry sets to create synthetic petrol and diesel that will be set on fire in desperately inefficient motor vehicles.  I think we’ve got beyond that.  

Our Moon Shot

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and consultancy SustainAbility

On Monday 5th October, I was introduced to a new and slightly disorientating experience: I attended the UK Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.  It was disorientating for three reasons.  First, there were generous swathes of BLUE – a colour I usually associate with unpleasant football stadia – all over the place.  Second, the majority of delegates were speaking a dialect of my mother tongue that might be described as Hugh-Grantglish.  Third, as I scanned the agenda – the Conservative Party Conference agenda! – I picked out several plenary sessions and fringe events that suggested “sustainable development”.  A whole day dedicated to Green Growth.  In the UK, on the surface at least, it seems blue is the new green.

One such sustainability-related seminar that I managed to attend was titled “Keeping The Lights On: Energy in the 2010s”.  As a series of panellists fixated on our various energy supply options, I found myself wondering why we were sitting in this conference room – drenched in sunlight via a huge pyramidal glass ceiling – with all of the lights on.  Ah, but they were all energy efficient light bulbs!  During the Q&A session, I suggested that one of the better ways to safeguard the UK’s ability to keep the lights on might be knowing when to switch them off.  Or alternatively, to put the “conserve” back into Conservative, rather than Labour-ing under the fallacy that we can close the energy gap by increasing supply.  

Switching the lights off

Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change Charles Hendry presented a view of what the next decade holds in store as the UK faces the prospect of retiring several GW of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating capacity.  His answer?  A mix of new nukes (with no government subsidy), coal/CCS and offshore wind (the UK holds 40% of Europe’s offshore wind resource, yet currently sits an embarrassing 25th out of 27 Member States in terms of percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, ahead of mighty Malta and Luxembourg).  And given the long lead times involved – particularly for nukes and coal/CCS, neither of which will make significant contributions before 2018 – we will also need to further increase our dependency on imported natural gas.  It’s not the most inspiring picture, but it’s certainly pragmatic.

If you believe, they put a man on the Moon…

But who needs pragmatism from our political leaders?  Whatever happened to vision and ambition?  During the closing plenary at the Carbon Show in London the next day, I argued that it wasn’t always like this – certainly not on 26th May 1961

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. 

When John F Kennedy spoke those words, he didn’t present a pragmatic proposal for how his vision might be accomplished by leveraging the power of competitive deregulated markets.  In fact, at the time you’d have been very hard-pressed to argue it was a realistic ambition.  But it was certainly inspirational, it captured the imagination of a country, and it led to arguably the greatest human achievement ever.  Why have we grown content to settle for realism, when all evidence indicates that something absolutely extraordinary needs to happen?  

Imagine a contemporary politician taking JFK’s place for that 1961 speech: “I believe that, in the long-term, this nation should probably put a man on another celestial body.  But as politicians we need to be careful not to pick winners – perhaps it’s the Moon, or maybe Mars is the right destination – the truth is we don’t know.  In any case, there’s plenty to be done in the short-term: we need to gain altitude cost-effectively, and that means we’ve got to harvest the low-hanging fruit by climbing Mount Everest.  We’re confident we can do it because some Kiwi and a Nepalese bloke managed it a few years back.”  Doesn’t it just make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?!

A Giant Leap For Mankind?

JFK chose a different way to shape history.  He followed up his 1961 call to action with these words at Rice University in September the following year: 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

According to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, to stand an evens chance of staying below the critical 2°C theshold, we’ll need to engineer a zero carbon energy system by 2050, with all the interim steps this implies.  It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it’s what the science tells us is necessary if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Are we ready to accept this challenge clear in the knowledge that it will be hard, or will we continue to postpone?  Make no mistake: decarbonising the global economy in 40 years is our Moon Shot.  Conservation >> Efficiency >> Decarbonisation, all on a scale for which history has no precedent.  

Before Apollo 11 and Niel Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind came Apollos 1 thru 10 – as mankind’s baby steps grew into confident strides – all of them laser focused on achieving the ultimate ambition.  So it is with our Moon Shot: we won’t manage this in one “giant leap”, no doubt we’ll trip along the way, but we will learn with every step we dare to take towards our zero carbon economy by 2050.  

The Blue Planet

In considering whether this daunting challenge is one we should be willing to embrace, we might pause to recall the words of astronaut Thomas Stafford – from the Apollo 10 mission that preceded Armstrong’s lunar landing by two months – as he recalled looking down on his home: 

The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear.  There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth.  You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.

Put like that, our dear old planet sounds worth looking after, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it’s fitting that blue is the new green – we all live on a Pale Blue Dot, after all.

Ready, Steady, COP!

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I have just shaken off the biggest hangover of my entire life.  It lasted for about 9 months, triggered by spending 3.5 days living a feral existence, sleeping rough outside a Gentleman’s convenience, with no change of clothes, no shower and – as the BBC’s World Service broadcast to my mother’s chagrin – not even a toothbrush.  As the end drew near, I even caught myself foraging in bins behind the kitchen for an out-of-date pre-packaged salad (bliss!).  Juxtapose this tragic image with the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel, Zapatero and Rudd swishing past me in a melée of advisors and journalists, and you could be forgiven for assuming that my hangover was chemically-induced.  Alas, no.  It was an apparently normal reaction to the debacle that was COP 15.  

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

They tried to make me go to rehab…

At Chatham House last week, I found myself in the company of numerous COP veterans girding their loins, preparing to once again contemplate the UNFCCC process.  Everyone I spoke to had also experienced the post-COP tremors, and decided – consciously or sub-consciously – in favour of maintaining their grip on sanity by taking a break from the circus.  As with everything else in life, a football analogy is never far away.  The vast majority of match-going supporters reach the end of every season thoroughly exhausted, looking forward to a well-earned rest to lick the wounds inflicted by another disappointing season.  Yet magically, as July turns to August, that familiar but inexplicable sense of optimism triumphs over common sense, and we simply can’t wait to get back on that emotional roller-coaster!

So it is with the UNFCCC, now heading for its 16th Conference of the Parties to be held in Cancun towards the end of this year.  We listened with renewed intensity as an impressive array of speakers and panellists from the worlds of politics, business, academia, and civil society outlined their hopes, fears, and realistic expectations for COP 16 and beyond.  And here’s the rub: if Copenhagen did nothing else, it injected a healthy dose of realism into those who yearned for a global, comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty for the post-2012 era.  Plenty of clichés were trotted out – Rome wasn’t built in a day, we lost the battle not the war, focus on the doable – but I was left with a sense that this was more than empty rhetoric: there was a tangible appetite among the Chatham House delegates to roll up sleeves and get stuck into what remains an unprecedented political, economic, social, and environmental challenge.

Sweet Sixteen?

Admittedly, the broader context for COP 16 is not good: the euphoria of Obamania has well and truly subsided and the US remains unable to enact any meaningful climate legislation – what can we expect from BRICS in response?  European governments are slashing public expenditure to a degree unseen for generations – the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change is under budgetary pressure despite not having been in existence when the government’s spending baseline was set.  Citizens everywhere are understandably more concerned about covering rents and mortgages than paying more for someone else to reduce their carbon footprint.

On the other side, Climategate paradoxically helped strengthen the scientific case for human-induced climate change: complacency in the field of climate science has rightly given way to the highest standards of rigour and discipline, and the outlook remains bleak.  A hard core of climate dissenters persist, but their numbers are vanishingly small.  “Natural” disasters this summer in RussiaPakistan and China – within days of one another – dominated the world’s media.  As ever, it is difficult to attribute a single extreme weather event to climate change, but the rising frequency and severity are persuasive indicators that we are on an alarming trajectory.  It is still possible to keep the rise in average temperatures below the 2°C threshold, but only just.

China continues to invest in renewable energy at a breathtaking pace.  We all know the legend of the “coal-fired power station every week”, but are we equally aware that China builds as much wind capacity each year as the entire UK?  Indications that China is already contemplating domestic CO2 cap-and-trade legislation should be an object of shame for the US, Canada, Australia, and a source of optimism for those convinced that a price on carbon is the best way to mobilise the clean energy revolution.

Success is a journey, not a destination

Realistically, then, what can be achieved in Cancun?  With last week’s Climate Change 2010 conference operating under Chatham House’s eponymous “rule”, I’m not able to attribute quotes directly to sources, but what I can do is distil what I heard into a few key deliverables against which we might judge COP 16 as a success, or failure.  

  1. Overarching need is to re-establish trust among Parties through transparency on financing, and transparency on actions/progress
  2. Agree a long-term global goal under the UNFCCC – building on the Copenhagen Accord’s 2°C threshold – and a establish a process to review progress
  3. Formalise mitigation pledges submitted in the aftermath of COP 15 and give clear direction on measures needed to realise them
  4. Put in place mechanism for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of mitigation actions
  5. Agree a framework for adaptation and establish a new global finance fund to ensure oversight of financial flows
  6. Create infrastructure needed to deliver funds to the point of action on adaptation and mitigation, and establish a global registry
  7. Establish a robust framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD)

Ultimately, Cancun will be judged a success according to progress in each of the above areas, and not on the delivery or otherwise of a single, comprehensive, legally-binding global treaty (or perhaps worse: the “promise” of such a treaty at South Africa’s COP 17 next year, thereby raising expectations and pressure to pre-COP 15 levels).  As for carbon markets collapsing if we don’t get a treaty in place for 1st Jan 2013, this is patent nonsense.  The EU’s emissions trading scheme (EU-ETS) is the key to carbon market continuity – it will continue in a strengthened form regardless what happens under the auspices of the UNFCCC.  

Me, I’m going to take a year off from COP attendance.  I can’t face the UN accreditation process, draconian entry procedures and secondary pass system, the fact that most non-governmental observers will be kept well away from the action, presumably to save government delegates from the awful sight of rough sleepers in the conference centre.  And anyway, we’ve got Aston Villa that week, and I think this could yet be our season.  

When Modal Shift Goes Bad

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

London, Tuesday 7th September

08:20 – I arrive at my local bus stop on Haverstock Hill in north London, and wonder why there are some twenty people waiting there instead of the usual three or four.

08:27 – We watch as the 168 bus approaches over the brow of the hill and, without hesitating, continues past us at great speed.  Annoyed, I realise the bus is totally packed, the lower deck full of standing commuters.

08:32 – Of course, today is the day of the London Underground strike!  Over a 24 hour period, roughly 3 million tube journeys will be forced above ground.

08:38 – The next bus arrives – there are SPARE SEATS!  We fight our way on board, every man, woman and child for themselves.

09:08 – My usual 20 minute ride has already taken 30, and we are not yet half way.  Frustrated by glacial progress, I alight just north of Euston station, and decide to walk.  (Note to self: given the rate Greenland is slipping into the Arctic Ocean, need to stop using “glacial” as an adjective meaning “extremely slow”.)

09:10 – Roads jammed solid with stationary cars, buses, taxis, trucks all burning petroleum, belching poisonous fumes.  The acrid air tastes like Leipzig, circa 1988.  Thousands of cyclists struggle manfully along narrow “cycle lanes”, thin strips of tarmac demarcated from the motorised traffic by a flaking stripe of white paint.

09:11 – Hopelessly inappropriate for urban commuting, Range Rovers and other “sports utility vehicles” appear unable – or unwilling? – to stay out of the cycle lanes, causing cyclists to mount pavements in order to progress.

09:12 – I notice that not only are the roads chocca, so are the pavements!  And not only with occasional cyclists – others like me are bailing out of their immobilised motor vehicles and taking matters into their own hands (or rather, feet).  Hurrying along, scarcely avoiding several head-on collisions with grumpy Londoners, I am suddenly transported from pre-unification East Germany to modern-day Beijing.

09:15 – I spot a Modec electric delivery truck.  Stationary, silent, consuming no energy, emitting nothing but the exhalations of the driver (hey, that’s CO2, don’t you know!).  It does nothing whatsoever to relieve the congestion, but if only all these stationary vehicles were electric, I might be able to breathe!

09:19 – One minute short of an hour, my quest is complete as I arrive at SustainAbility’s office in central London.

09:20 – I pause briefly to wonder: is this what it’s like, every day of the year, to live in Atlanta, GA?  I rarely use the tube – opting instead for buses and bicycles – but God am I grateful to the 28 million people who do.

Adaptation = Survival

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Riding home recently on a “Boris Bike“ – so named after London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, credited with conceiving the new bicycle sharing scheme – I witnessed a phenomenal collision between two riders that resulted in one of them flying several feet through the air at head height.  Spectacular! Moments earlier, I had felt a prescient discomfort as I rode behind the perpetrator of the accident that was about to happen.  Just as I am ultra-wary when I see motorists maneuvering half a ton of steel while speaking on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and crooked neck, as I approached this chap in his late 30s – wobbling around on his Boris Bike like a 3 year old – I decided to give him a very wide berth as I overtook.  He was apparently enjoying himself as his front wheel invited him to randomly explore the full width of the road ahead.  On hearing the surprisingly loud collision behind me, I turned in time to see a Lycra-clad helmet-wearing cyclist launch from his mangled racer in a graceful arc towards the road surface.  Ouch!

Apart from feeling immense sympathy for the poor victim, my thoughts turned to what can happen to us when our environment suddenly changes.  If this seems an unlikely mental leap, I should explain that I’m currently engrossed in a fabulous book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez that explores, among other things, how human beings respond to unexpectedly changing circumstances.  Gonzalez recounts the tale of MP William Huskisson, run over and killed by George Stephenson’s famous Rocket steam locomotive on its maiden journey along the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830.  Until that moment, it is conceivable that Huskisson’s only experience of locomotion had been the humble – and relatively slow – horse and cart.  Perhaps he was so taken aback by the dawning railway age that his survival instincts failed to prepare him for this sudden change in his environment.

In the case of my cycling anecdote, the appearance of thousands of Boris Bikes on London’s roads in the last few weeks has introduced a rather exciting random element to navigating the city streets: numerous spirited folk who probably haven’t been in the saddle for their entire adult lives.  I’m expecting a string of early casualties, both cycling novices and other road users coming into contact with them.  Paris went through a similar experience when it implemented its own bike share scheme three years ago.

In the future, adapting to our changing environment will be – as it has always been – critical to our survival.  This of course means adaptation to the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, water scarcity, migration, etc.  But it also means adapting to the technologies and systems we develop in an effort to mitigate those impacts.

Take electric vehicles.  It’s now almost universally accepted that their high energy efficiency and compatibility with the full range of sustainable carbon-free energy sources make EVs an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle.  But already one of the unique selling points of electric vehicles – that they’re incredibly quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – has been portrayed as a grave danger for pedestrians, in particular the blind and partially sighted.  In response, Nissan is fitting a synthesiser to its forthcoming LEAF EV, to warn bystanders of its impending arrival.

I have to question whether implementing technology fixes atop technology fixes might be distracting us from the larger challenges facing us: we need to redesign our urban landscapes so that low-impact mobility modes that already exist (walking, cycling, and mass-transit) are preferred by the majority because they’re safer, cheaper, nicer, and more convenient than higher-impact alternatives.  At the same time, we will inevitably need to behave differently in order to thrive within our changed environment.  And along the way, we need to be prepared for a few bumps in the road. 

The Five Stages of Climate Change Denial

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

On July 29th I attended yet another “Global Summit on Sustainability”, this time jointly hosted by the UK-based World Council for Corporate Governance (WCFCG) and the Indian Institute of Directors (IOD) at the National Liberal Club in London.  Our very own co-founder John Elkington adroitly side-stepped the kind of technology failure that would torpedo a lesser public speaker by discarding his prepared speech and instead delivering a riveting keynote off-the-cuff.  It culminated in the warning that inter-generational equity is becoming an increasingly significant sustainability driver, with a potentially explosive sense of outrage rising among young people, directed toward the baby boomer generation judged to have acted so irresponsibly with their legacy.

John was followed by Lord Anthony Giddens, Emeritus Professor at the LSE and author of the excellent book The Politics of Climate Change.  Whereas John had emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges we face – The Sustainability Survey which we conducted with GlobeScan in 2009 highlighted twelve separate (but related) threats deemed by global sustainability experts to be “urgent” – Giddens zeroed in on what he called the defining issues of the 21st century: climate change and energy security.

Climate change is different from the other urgent threats (like water shortages, poverty, biodiversity loss, food security, economic instability, etc.) in that it is a cumulative phenomenon that cannot easily be reversed.  The Earth’s climate system may change – indeed, may have already changed – irrevocably, while we are mostly too busy to notice.  Furthermore, climate change is historically unique because, as Giddens stated, no other civilisation in world history has been remotely this close to “changing the very nature of nature”.

According to Giddens, June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month in which the global surface temperature exceeded the 20th century average, as evidenced in The Met Office graphs.  Still, incredibly, we hear loud dissenting voices.  But the nature of the dissent is definitely changing, and here I offer what we might call the 5 stages of climate change denial – please feel free to challenge or build upon these.  I do believe it’s essential to identify where people stand in the debate, in order to know on which level to engage.  Also, watch carefully as those with powerful vested interests – hell-bent on obfuscation and delayed action – flit effortlessly from one stage of denial to another (often apparently without realising the internal inconsistency in their arguments):

1) Climate change isn’t happening

This point of view has all but completely disappeared in the face of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence to the contrary.  These are the “flat Earthers” of the climate change debate, and it can be difficult to know whether to feel anger or extreme sympathy towards them.

2) Climate change is happening, but it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycles

Harder for the layman to refute when presented with the largely obvious fact that our home planet has cycled through several ice ages over the millenia, but a huge body of scientific evidence points to a human signature in the types of changes we are currently experiencing.

3) Climate change is happening, it may well be due to human activity, but it’s generally beneficial

“So what if sub-Saharan Africa fries and Bangladesh goes under?  The frozen wastes of Siberia will become the new bread-basket of the world!”  It’s incredible to think that otherwise reasonable people are advocating a planetary-scale experiment – with human civilisation at the centre – in which we would knowingly create conditions that have not existed since hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens first walked the Earth.  (Modern humans are understood to have appeared around 150,000-200,000 years ago, while atmospheric GHG concentrations are now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.)

4) Climate change is happening, it’s probably due to human activity, but it’s not going to be as bad as the computer models suggest

This is a relatively new one, and it’s quite sophisticated because it is really difficult to refute.  The basic argument is that computer-based projections of the climate sensitivity to growing GHG concentrations have been over-stated, and that we can continue to dig stuff out of the ground and set it on fire with impunity.  This point of view was expressed by Pat Michaels in last week’s Financial Times.

5) Climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, it’s a really bad thing, but there’s very little we can do about it and there are lots of other bad things we should attack first

Bjoern Lomborg has virtually trade-marked this position.  It’s very clever because it casts those who would advocate for monumental efforts to embrace a truly sustainable model of human development as well-meaning but ultimately misguided.  However, it falls over because unless we do successfully tackle climate change, the future of human civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and an unimaginably difficult existence awaits billions.

Big Oil’s electric shock

This article first appeared on the website of Better Place

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model.  There’s nothing particularly sinister about this.  By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat.  And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify.

I’m thoroughly heartened when I read statements from Big Oil about the “many barriers” that must be overcome before electrons can make a significant dent in a mobility sector dominated by petroleum.  Heartened because as recently as two years ago I would have been hard pressed to find any commentary at all from the oil majors about transport electrification.  Back then, the tune was all about the prospects for second generation biofuels and the supposed holy grail that is hydrogen.  But today, barely an eyebrow is raised when senior executives from the likes of ExxonMobil or Shell claim that electric cars hold genuine future promise, but not before we decarbonise the power supply.  In other words: “You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

The decarbonised grid storyline is becoming the new conventional wisdom.  And like much conventional wisdom, when examined closely it turns out to be patent nonsense, though on the surface it appears reasonable.  We begin to understand why it is flawed when we examine what I call the Four Truths that we can hold to be self-evident.  They hold whenever we elect to set fire to carbon-based fuels in order to benefit from motorised kilometres:

(1) Large is better than small

Megawatt (MW) scale plants are able to run hotter, therefore more efficiently, than the kilowatt (kW) scale engines that power motor cars.  This truth has its roots firmly in the basic laws of thermodynamics, which are not subject to revision.

(2) Constant load is better than variable load

Combustion facilities have an optimal operating efficiency that is achievable more or less continuously in a power plant.  In vehicles, the engine speed is seldom constant, as it is dictated by the variable driving conditions.

(3) Stationary is better than mobile

In practical terms it is far easier to manage, collect, and process combustion emissions from stationary plants than from mobile vehicle tailpipes.

(4) Few is better than many

The greater the number of emissions sources, the harder it becomes to do anything about them.

Notice that truths (1) and (2) relate to energy efficiency, while (3) and (4) are all about emissions control – this is why (1) and (4) are not merely different ways of expressing the same point.  And what should we conclude from these truths?  It is better to burn fuel – be it coal, crude oil, natural gas, or biomass – in hundreds of large, stationary power plants running at constant speed rather than millions of small, mobile internal combustion engines running variably.  Put differently, all else being equal electricity beats liquid fuels on energy efficiency and emissions control.

The real killer for Big Oil is that for years we’ve been led to believe that petroleum was too valuable to turn into electricity.  It’s true only if your core business is shackled to the liquid transport fuel paradigm.  From an energy efficiency, energy security and environmental perspective, crude oil is far too valuable to waste in automobiles.  The same goes for coal, natural gas, and biomass.  Biofuels – the tenuous lifeline of the liquid fuel company – break against the rocks here.  Far better to convert the biomass into heat and electricity to displace dirty coal.

So back to the conventional wisdom.  Let’s imagine a world in which 100% of our primary energy comes from fossil fuels.  Electric mobility wins, hands down.  But of course, we don’t live in such a world.  The world we live in has a steadily decarbonising electricity supply, while oil majors are forced to exploit ever-more exotic and energy-intensive forms of black gold.  They’ll have a helluva job making diesel or gasoline from wind turbines and solar panels.

The Future of Oil

This article, co-authored with John Elkington, first appeared in China Dialogue and was repeated on the Guardian Environment Network

The race for the world’s remaining oil reserves could get very nasty.  Recently, Nigerian militants announced their determination to oppose the efforts of a major Chinese energy group to secure six billion barrels of crude reserves, comparing the potential new investors to “locusts”.  The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) told journalists that the record of Chinese companies in other African nations suggested “an entry into the oil industry in Nigeria will be a disaster for the oil-bearing communities”.  

Whatever the facts, the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century is likely to be seen by future historians as the beginning of the final chapter of a unique, unrepeatable period in human development.  Even oil companies now see the Age of Oil in irreversible decline – even if that decline spans decades. International oil companies (IOCs) increasingly accept that they must transform themselves completely – or expire – by mid-century.  

Superficially, the so-called “super majors” appear to be in good health. Fortune’s Global 500 list places the “big six” – Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Total, and ConocoPhillips – among the seven largest corporations in the world, as measured by 2008 revenues.  In third place, Wal-Mart stands alone as the only top seven company not dedicated to finding, extracting, processing, distributing and selling the liquid transportation fuels that drive the global economy, although few business models are as dependent on the ready availability of relatively cheap oil. 

Worryingly for such companies, 2008 may prove to have been the high water mark for the global oil industry, with geological, geopolitical and climate-related pressures now creating new market dynamics.  The oil question is now, more than ever, a transport question.  Cheap and reliable supplies of transportation fuel are the very lifeblood of our globalised economy.  So it matters profoundly that we are entering an era in which oil supplies will be neither cheap nor reliable. 

For the likes of Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil, whose rates of liquid hydrocarbon production peaked in 2002, 2005, and 2006 respectively, the current economic paradigm requires them to replace reserves.  Investors primarily value IOCs on this basis, as well as their ability to execute projects on time within budget.  A key problem for the IOCs is that petroleum-rich countries feel increasingly confident in the ability of their own national oil companies to steward their domestic resources.  So generous concessions once offered to IOCs in return for technical and managerial expertise are now deemed unnecessary.

The imperative to satisfy investor expectations fuels an increasingly risky growth strategy, which drives IOCs towards energy-intensive (and potentially climate-destabilising) unconventional oil substitutes, such as tar sands (in Canada), gas-to-liquids (in Qatar), and coal-to-liquids (in China and elsewhere).  These pathways are not chosen as ideals: they are more or less reflexive responses to external market pressures.

Meanwhile, the uncomfortable fact is that our economies are addicted to liquid hydrocarbon transport fuels, the consumption of which creates a catalogue of negative side effects.  And we cannot hope to address this addiction by way of our “dealers” developing even more damaging derivatives of the same drug. 

As if that were not enough, there is the hot topic of “peak oil”, defined as the point at which global oil production reaches a maximum rate, from where it steadily declines.  The basic principle is uncontroversial: production of a finite non-renewable resource cannot expand endlessly, and this has been demonstrated in practice at national level all over the world.  The heated debate centres on the point at which the peak in global oil production is likely to be reached. 

“Early toppers” argue that the peak has already been passed, and that the world will never produce more than 85 million barrels per day.  By contrast, “late toppers” point to the huge scale of unconventional reserves – for example, Alberta’s tar sands resource is vast – that remain untapped, as well as the potential bounty locked away in frontier regions such as the Arctic Ocean, where global warming is opening up new areas for oil and gas exploration. 

Unfortunately, what matters is not the absolute size of these unconventional and frontier resources, but the rate at which they can be developed and brought to market.  By definition, this is the “difficult” oil.  Production rates are determined by a series of significant financial, social, and environmental constraints that raise grave concerns for the viability of a global economic system made possible by liquid transport fuels. 

At the same time, leaders of all the major economies finally acknowledge what scientists have long been warning: to avoid catastrophic climate-change impacts, the global average surface temperature increase must be limited to 2° Celsius compared with the pre-industrial era.  To stand any reasonable chance of avoiding a 2° Celsius rise, our best understanding of the climate change science suggests that global greenhouse-gas emissions must peak within the next five to 10 years, and then decline by more than 80% on 1990 levels by 2050.  Realistically, meeting this requirement will demand that we engineer a transition to a zero-carbon energy system by mid-century. 

So what might a zero-carbon energy system look like?  As well as dramatic improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances, and massive deployment of sustainable renewable energy technologies, we will no longer be allowed to burn fossil fuels without capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide emissions.  This implies that we must restrict our use of fossil fuels to stationary facilities, such as power plants, where carbon capture and storage (CCS) is practical (see “Outlook and obstacles for CCS”).  Strikingly, a zero-carbon energy system will also mean that no liquid hydrocarbon fuels, with the exception of biofuels, can be consumed in mobile applications such as transport. 

This does not make pleasant reading for international oil companies.  Their core business today may be described as: digging geological carbon resources out of the ground, converting those resources into liquid fuels, then marketing those fuels to consumers who set them on fire in internal combustion engines to move around.  By 2050, these activities will all be considered to be strikingly primitive. 

Two degrees is too much

To avoid many of the worst consequences of climate change, the increase in global average surface temperature must remain below 2°C compared with the pre-industrial era.  Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions commensurate with this overarching ambition must be guided by the best available science.  Here I explain why I continue to advocate the 2°C threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change, why I don’t embrace a “ppm” target, and what 2°C means for policy makers and the business community.  This article first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Credible climate change policies and business strategies are driven by the primary objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – ratified by 192 countries, including the US and China – as well as being informed by the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the authoritative voice on the causes, impacts, and mitigation of climate change.  

Article 2 of the UNFCCC states as its ultimate objective: “to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  The problem is that the UNFCCC never went so far as to define what “dangerous” meant, and this omission has been a bone of contention ever since.  However, through different means, several researchers have arrived at the figure of 2° Celsius, referring to the maximum acceptable increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature versus the pre industrial era.  

The 2°C threshold has since become the de facto limit advocated by most civil society organisations concerned with climate change, as well as several scientific advisory bodies.  In the mid 1990s it was also adopted by the European Union as official policy and therefore, by extension, by the heads of government of the EU Member States.

The EU’s first mention of the need to stay below 2°C appears in the Spring Council conclusions of 1996.  Referring to the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (SAR) – the most recent scientific assessment at that time – the European Council introduced a link between 2°C and 550 ppm (parts per million) of CO2:

The Council believes that global average temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre industrial level and that therefore concentration levels lower than 550 ppm CO2 should guide global limitation and reduction efforts.

Back in 1996, based on the contemporary science of IPCC SAR, it was believed that stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at below 550 ppm would deliver a below 2°C outcome.  Numerous policy makers and businesses subsequently adopted 550 ppm, and many have since failed to move in step with the advancing science.

In 2003, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) issued a report titled “Climate Protection Strategies for the 21st Century: Kyoto and Beyond”.  In it, the link was explicitly made between temperature increase and tangible climate related impacts, such as: threats to biodiversity; food security; water scarcity; and ice sheet collapse.  The WBGU reaffirmed its earlier conviction that in order to avert dangerous climatic changes “it is essential to comply with a ‘climate guard rail’ defined by a maximum warming of 2°C relative to pre-industrial values”.  To meet this requirement, it recommended a stabilisation target of below 450 ppm CO2, accompanied by substantial reductions in other GHGs.

Two years later in 2005, an International Climate Change Taskforce (ICCT) – comprising leading scientists, public officials, and representatives of business and NGOs from both developed and developing countries – published a report titled “Meeting the Climate Challenge” which said essentially the same thing regarding the dangerous 2°C threshold, but went further than the WBGU by assigning a much stricter GHG limit of 400 ppm CO2-equivalent (CO2e).  Accounting for current levels of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, this figure amounted to roughly 350 ppm CO2.

It is now believed that even this target may be too high; the IPCC AR4 suggested that stabilisation at 400 ppm CO2e could lead to a temperature rise anywhere up to 2.5°C.

Alarmed by the lack of practical progress on climate change, civil society organisations have been cranking up the pressure on the road to COP-15 in Copenhagen.  The campaign group 350.org was established following the publication of a study by NASA climatologist James Hansen and colleagues in 2008, titled “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”  The report’s conclusions?  CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm CO2 – with the greatest uncertainty in the target arising from possible changes in non-CO2 effects.

The initial “350” call was more or less aligned with the recommendation of the ICCT in 2005.  However, the 350.org campaign has morphed during its relatively short lifetime to mean the more challenging 350 ppm CO2e, as the website explains: 

Climate impacts happening more quickly than anticipated have led 350.org to see the 350 ppm target not only in terms of CO2, but CO2e.  On a technical level, this becomes a more ambitious target, incorporating other greenhouse gases.  On a practical level, it signifies the same priorities 350.org has embodied all along.

To complete the picture, in July 2009 following the welcome return of the United States to constructive international dialogue, at the Major Economies Forum on Climate Change in L’Aquila, Italy, leaders of the world’s largest economies – including the EU, US, Japan, China, India, Brazil and Russia – made the following ground-breaking declaration:

We recognise the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C.

Despite falling short of calling for a long-term target for stabilisation or percentage emissions cuts, the political significance of this declaration is huge.  What is clear from the science is that to stand a reasonable chance of staying below 2°C, we will need to engineer a rapid transition to a completely decarbonised energy system by 2050, as well as reversing deforestation and cutting emissions from other land-based sources.

It is for good reasons that the 2°C principle is widely accepted by heads of State, civil society organisations, climate change scientists and policy makers.  But the threshold has not been universally accepted.  To date, we do not know of any business that has a publicly declared ambition to keep global warming below 2°C.  Then again, we are not aware of any business that has taken any public position on what represents “dangerous” climate change.

The really bad news – and perhaps an insight into why businesses are slow to embrace 2°C – is that every time we look at the science it seems the greenhouse gas stabilisation target for avoiding 2°C is lower than before: from 550 ppm CO2 in 1996, to 450 ppm CO2 in 2003, to 400 ppm CO2e in 2005, even as low as 350 ppm CO2e in 2009.

This is precisely the reason why the 2°C concept is so important to understand. “Staying below 2°C” sets the overarching level of ambition, from which we derive stabilisation targets in “parts per million” (based on the best available science), which then inform us about actionable “percentage emissions reductions” (e.g. minus 85% by 2050).  We cannot fall into the trap of conflating 2°C with a particular ppm stabilisation target – recent history has shown this to be folly.

Our atmosphere is already loaded with greenhouse gases to the tune of around 435 ppm CO2e and rising by 2-3 ppm every year, i.e. well beyond what today’s science indicates is the necessary long-term stabilisation level.  So as well as eliminating emissions from fossil fuels, we will likely need to enhance terrestrial carbon sinks – through massive reforestation programmes and advanced soil management practices – as well as considering other ways to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere if we are to stand any chance of avoiding “dangerous climate change”.