Posted by: David Hone

The Other End of the Spectrum: Radical Emission Reductions

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Emissions Reduction

With Warsaw now a fading memory and the meager outcome still cause for concern that there really isn’t enough substance to build a robust global agreement upon, I signed up for The Radical Emission Reduction Conference at the Royal Society. This was held in London and put on by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Given the academic reputation of the Tyndall Centre and of course the credentials of the Royal Society, I was hoping for a useful discussion on rapid deployment of technologies such as CCS, how the world might breathe new life into nuclear and other such topics, but this was far from the content of the sessions that I was able to attend.

Rather, this was a room of catastrophists (as in “catastrophic global warming”), with the prevailing view, at least to my ears, that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems, with the latter moving to one of state control and regulated consumerism. There would be no room for “ruthless individualism” in such a world.  The posters that dotted the lecture theatre lobby area covered topics as diverse as vegan diets to an eventual return to low technology hunter-gatherer societies (but thankfully there was one CCS poster in the middle of all this).

Much to my surprise I was not really at an emission reduction conference (despite the label saying I was), but a political ideology conference. Although I have been involved in the climate change issue for over a decade, I had not heard this set of views on the issue voiced so consistently in one place. This was a room where there was a round of applause when one audience member asked how LNG and coal exporters in Australia might be “annihilated” following their (supposed) support for the repeal of the carbon tax in that country. A few of the key points coming from both the speakers and audience in the sessions I was able to stay for were;

  • The human impact of development is a function of three variables; population, technology and affluence (another version of the Kaya Identity), which therefore argued for affluence to be reduced, given that population couldn’t be and technology was in a progression of its own.
  • The recent World Trade Agreement in Bali was anti-climate in that the removal of further trade barriers would simply offer more opportunity for consumerism and therefore more emissions. This was cited as a “neo-liberal elitist trade agenda”.
  • The current energy system is “a lousy way of powering our economy”.
  • A climate movement is rapidly evolving and could be likened to the global anti-apartheid movement that developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This includes the current fossil fuel divestment advocates.
  • Markets would not and could not deliver the necessary changes to the current energy system, even with the introduction of carbon pricing.
  • Small and renewable is good. Even large scale renewable projects run by major utilities are seemingly unacceptable – local community generated renewable electricity is the only answer.

Another feature of the discussion was the view that like apartheid or the Berlin Wall, the change from the current state of the energy system to a zero emissions one (there is no 40% or 50% or even 80% reduction talk here) can happen overnight and be triggered in a similar way, i.e. a popular but peaceful uprising, hence the talk of a rapidly evolving “climate movement”.

The above is a flavour of the sentiment and there was plenty more, all articulated with great passion and deep concern. This is all very well and of course this group have every right to express their view, but for me the event highlighted one of the real problems associated with climate change; that it is an issue with a chasm between the two ends of the spectrum and the rest of us are left in the middle watching the exchange. Problematically, the chasm is a deeply rooted political one which questions the very role of government and the economic structure of society. Could anything be more difficult to arbitrate? Thinking back to Warsaw and although the UNFCCC is a more contained (and constrained) stage, elements of this divide play out there as well, which perhaps speaks to why there has been such limited progress.

None of this need be the case, which is probably why I felt a level of discomfort in the conference and why the UNFCCC process feels frustrating. Carbon pricing can make the difference, but we need to see it evolve and mature without the systematic attack it has endured to date (from all sides). Technology does have a key role to play, but it will take time for deployment on the scale necessary and both ends of that spectrum are essential – CCS on one side and zero carbon fossil fuel alternatives on the other. Finance is important, but big energy projects have attracted capital for decades so we shouldn’t position a required change in this as the critical enabler for success. Finally, patience is a virtue, like it or not this is now a project for the whole of the 21st century.

Photo Credit: Radical Emission Reduction/shutterstock

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David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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December 14, 2013

This Old Man says:

Regrettably, it is an idealogical clash. But it didn't start in 1992 with the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or even in 1867 with the publication of Das Kapital. It started when the Bank of England, the Dutch East India Company and other private entities discovered they could use wealth to convert governments into their puppets to enhance their profits and further expand their wealth and power. It came to the shores of America when a gentleman named Tom Scott who ran the Pennsylvania Railroad bribed and bullied that State's legislature into letting him create the world's first holding company, which then proceeded to take over or destroy every railroad in the country until he had the America's first transnational corporation. About the same time John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil took over the USA's oil industry, eventually itself becoming a holding company until it was broken up under the Sherman Act in 1911. Not that the corporate culture of the resulting "seven sisters" changed a bit, as shown when SOCAL teamed up with GM, Firestone & Phillips to eliminate light rail in Los Angeles and many other cities. Not that the Sherman Act has constituted more than a formality since the Reagan era anyway.

Properly understood, people don't control corporatations, corporations control people. They may use the carrot (for their management or political lackies) or the stick (for their employees or political opponents), but they have learned that deceptive "public relations" is the most cost-effective way to control the rest of us. Which is where we got all the "small government" and "fiscal responsibility" crap that's out there today. It's also where we got climate change and, even worse, the inability to do anything meaningful about it even after its awful consequences became widely known. But I contend the clash is between corporations versus real people, the ideology of profiteering versus ideology of living and caring, and the motivations of soleless immortal automatons versus living mortal beings.

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December 14, 2013

Robert Perry says:

Can't argue with that. Our society is currently upside down: Corporations/Business, then Government (run by business), then the People (who have been brainwashed into apathy). Balance will be restored only when the majority exerts its political will.

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December 12, 2013

Robert Perry says:

Thanks for the post on this conference, which I had not heard of and will investigate.

Have you read the latest study, "Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature" dated December 6th from James Hansen and a panel of 17 other experts concerning the widely-accepted 2 deg. C ceiling? Their research has concluded that targetting such a limit would be disastrous and that a 1 deg. C target is required in order to preclude long-term warming effects (i.e., large scale emissions from natural methane deposits. among others). Given that we are now at a 0.8 deg. C level, that leaves only a 0.2 deg. C window to implement wide-scale carbon and methane reductions, hopefully in tandem with a campaign to sequester existing carbon deposits in the oceans and the atmosphere.

I'm not sure that "patience is a virtue" under this scenario, and would rather see a higher sense of urgency moving forward toward elimination of the highest emitters (coal and oil) and implementation of zero-carbon alternatives (renewables combined with H2 storage/transmission technologies).

The debate sparked by this study should be interesting and hopefully will lead to a consensus on an effective climate change solution.

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