This is Anthony Day with an extra edition of the Sustainable Futures Report. It’s Wednesday 20th May.
The Guardian recently published a letter from an international group of scientists. I want to share it with you and I’ve asked one of the signatories help us understand the message. The letter goes like this:
“Last month, the Guardian quoted Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, saying if we put post-pandemic bailout money in the wrong place “we will lock ourselves in a dirtier energy system, making it much more difficult to reach our climate targets” (‘Coronavirus profiteers’ condemned as polluters gain bailout billions, 17 April).
“We beg to differ. It is game over for preventing dangerous climate change now that governments are planning the cheapest and quickest return to consumption. Riding on the wave of cheap oil and fossil-fuel bailouts is incompatible with keeping the average global temperature rise below 2C, let alone 1.5C.
“Even if the world agreed to maintain all the pandemic-enforced restrictions on travel and consumption, the emissions saved would amount to almost nothing, compared with what’s needed to achieve the Paris agreement’s climate targets. Yet whether it’s to discourage mass fatalism, or prevent the very worst of what the future threatens, those of us with this knowledge still cling to “yes we can”. In this story, it is always five to midnight; it is always the last chance to prevent disaster. In contrast, collective action on climate can only grow out of complete honesty. It is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all.”
Dr Wolfgang Knorr Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Prof Eric Rignot University of California, Irvine, Prof Rik Leemans Wageningen University and Research, Prof Andy Morse School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Prof Dennis Baldocchi Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, Prof Thomas Hickler Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, Prof Francis E Putz Department of Biology, University of Florida, Prof Maarten Krol Wageningen University, Dr Alberte Bondeau Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et d’Ecologie, Aix-Marseille Université, CNRS, Prof Wolfgang Cramer Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et d’Ecologie, Aix-Marseille Université, CNRS, Prof Paul Palmer University of Edinburgh, Dr James G Dyke Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter
The letter was sent by Dr Wolfgang Knorr Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, and co-signed by another 11 academic colleagues from California to Marseille and from Edinburgh to Exeter.
Does it really mean what I think it means? Is the outlook so terrible? I’ve been able to catch up with one of the signatories, Dr James G Dyke Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter. He also writes a column for the i newspaper.
Anthony: James, welcome, and thank you very much for talking to The Sustainable Futures Report.
James: Thank you for having me.
Anthony: Now, that Guardian letter, the thing that leapt out at me was the phrase -- "it's game over for preventing dangerous climate change." And then at the end it says -- "it's time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change."
Now, I think a lot of people would agree that we've been failing to respond for years. But, where do we go from here?
James: Well, that's a very good question, isn't it? I suppose the letter was motivated, well, at least it was motivated in my part, to try to get us beyond the idea that, yes, we can, we just need to work a bit harder, we just need to wish a little bit more, we need to make one last collective heave and we're going to get there.
And I think we need to acknowledge now, at least when it comes to limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius preindustrial periods, that we have failed to do that. In order for us to have been able to have a good chance of doing that we would have had to have taken much more strident and effective action about 10 years ago, and maybe even 20 years ago. We didn't for various reasons that we don't need to rehash, so we've lost that. The best case scenario that people hope, is that we will overshoot the budget for 1.5, and we'll also overshoot the budget for two degrees Celsius. But then, through a range of negative emissions approaches, or technologies we'll somehow get warming back to within 2 degrees, or maybe even 1.5.
This, I think now needs to be the focus of our discussion, because there are really, really important assumptions baked into that. And if we're wrong about those assumptions, then things could go quite badly off the rails by the middle and the end of this century.
Anthony: Right, these negative emissions technologies, this is global climate engineering, isn't it? It's things like putting stuff into the atmosphere to dim the sun. It's things like seeding the oceans with chemicals to make it absorb more CO2. And they're all completely unproven and, well, high risk aren't they? Or is that not what you're talking about?
James: Well, there's two types of approach that you've just talked about there. The first one is what we call negative emissions technologies, or sometimes they might come under the banner of even natural climate solutions. That is a big bundle, a big kind of collection of approaches and technologies which will somehow remove carbon from the Earth's atmosphere.
The low tech and arguably the most popular one is planting trees. As we plant trees, as they grow, they sequester carbon in their tissues and then depending what you do with a tree, if you keep the tree around long enough, then you can lock that carbon up long enough, and therefore you've reduced the amount of carbon in the earth's atmosphere. So that's one.
Anthony: That is though fraught with difficulties, isn't it? Everybody thinks, ah right, I'll fly to New York and I'll plant a tree, end of, I've solved it. And, there's so many different difficulties. One is you can emit the carbon in half a day, a tree will take 20 years to absorb it, and we haven't got 20 years. And is there enough land for the trees?
James: These are some of the problems behind proposals that essentially argue that we should be planting trillions of trees. And if we do that, then it's pretty much we've done the job. Well, we haven't, right. So there's lots of problems with planting trillions of trees, but they are sometimes proposed as the more agreeable end of these kind of negative emissions technology approaches, because they're a well established technology, trees have been around for hundreds of millions of years, people like trees, there's lots of good things to do with trees. There's lots of good reasons why we might want to reforest areas. Afforestation is generally a good thing because it can reintroduce natural habitats.
So there's lots of ways they can be a good thing. When you get up to the scale of tree planting required in order to have a significant impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations, then you're talking about the vast deployment at an industrial scale of trees, many of which would not be suited to those particular kind of locations. It's going to have all sorts of other potentially very negative impacts.
So in and of itself, planting trees can't be the sufficient solution to climate. But then people argue, well, then there are other things that we can do. We can take carbon directly out of the earth's atmosphere, we can suck it out of the earth's atmosphere, compress it and then store it underground. And those two ideas come together in something called BECCS.
Now most people have never heard of BECCS, which is something of a scandal, because the only way that we're ever going to limit warming to no more than two degrees Celsius is with the significant deployment of BECCS, because BECCS is bioenergy, carbon capture, sequestration and storage, let's say. And the idea here is that at the moment we burn coal to generate electricity, and that burning of coal produces carbon dioxide. Well, rather than burn coal, we'll burn trees. So already we're seeing power stations, most famously the Drax Power Station, which is being converted from being able to burn coal to now burning biomass, which is basically trees.
So what we'll do, we'll grow the trees, we'll cut them down, we'll burn those trees in a power station. And then the exhaust gases which have got all the carbon dioxide in, we'll put scrubbers at the top of the chimneys, which will suck out that carbon dioxide, we'll compress the carbon dioxide, we'll pipe it to a disused oil or gas field, and then we'll pump it down deep into the earth's crust where it will stay for thousands of years.
Anthony: Yeah, well. I'm sorry to be devil's advocate again, but first of all, the technology has not yet being implemented, even at Drax at a commercial scale. It will take energy to actually scrub the CO2 out, and certainly take a lot of energy to compress it and pump it down that pipeline into the North Sea and the caverns underneath. And people are turning around saying, and of course, that will knock actually the overall efficiency of the plant back to where it was in the 1920s.
So, okay, well, if we can live with that and the higher prices, the key question is, how soon are we going to actually have that technology in place?
James: Yeah, So the assumption is we'll have it in place when we need it.
Anthony: We need it now don't we?
James: Well, no, we don't. In terms of a policy context, we don't need it now. Because I suppose this is also another important part of the letter, for me is that things like BECCS, things like negative emissions technologies, they allow policy makers to say that they're taking effective action on the climate. Because they can say -- we are reducing emissions at a sufficient rate that by the time you get to the middle of this century we'll have much lower emissions. And then with these things like BECCS and tree planting and maybe even direct air capture of carbon dioxide, we'll be able to have negative emissions. So we're trying to get to net zero. So the bigger the amount of carbon that you would expect or hope to take out the atmosphere at some point in the future means you don't have to take such strident efforts to decarbonise now.
Anthony: Yes, but that's a hostage to fortune, because you can never be sure that you are going to be able to take that much out in the future. And you've got no incentive surely to do anything about it, because by the time you get to the future, those people in control now will not be in control, they'll be retired won't they?
James: They'll be retired, and it'll be a problem for our kids and our grandkids to solve. And I think the assumption is that if they don't solve it, they're going to be locked into potentially very rapid warming beyond three, four, even five degree Celsius. So they'll have to figure it out, right. Because if they don't figure it out, they're facing climate break down. So by definition....
Anthony: Why don't we do it now? I mean, isn't this a bit like the COVID crisis where it's argued that the British government left it too late to take the actions? Surely the same must apply to this? If we do it early and quickly, we can contain the problem and get it under control. If we just sit around and leave it to future generations, well, they're going to have an awful task to meet aren't they?
James: Well, the analogy with COVID-19 is a good one, because the arguments against early and effective lockdowns of our societies were predominately economic -- it's too expensive to do that, and that we would harm the economy much, much more than the economy would be harmed by having, let's say, a longer process of the pandemic, allowing us to undertake herd immunity. You're not allowed to talk about herd immunity anymore, but that's still the main policy of the United Kingdom government and many other governments, it's not to contain and suppress the pandemic, it's to essentially try to manage the pandemic in such a way that you don't overwhelm the NHS, that you don't produce too much harm on the economy?
Well, exactly the same reasoning applies when it comes to action on the climate. We could, if we wanted to, undertake rapid decarbonisation now, we've been able to do that for decades. The argument is always if we carbonise too fast, we will harm the economy. So if you look at timescales over 10, 20, 50 or maybe even 100 years, the optimal thing, the best thing for the economy is to undertake decarbonisation at a modest amount. At the same time, spin up these negative emissions approaches, so by the time we need them around the middle of this century, they won't be too expensive, the technologies will be sufficiently mature such that we can deploy them at scale and therefore avoid doing harm on the economy by undertaking too rapid climate mitigation in the early part of this century.
So, I'd argue the reasoning is essentially the same. It's being motivated by an approach which tries to produce the least harm on national governments and then writ large and global climate change the global economy.
Anthony: Okay, but then if you compare the way that countries have dealt with COVID-19, this country arguably delayed the lock down and we have around 40,000 deaths, places like New Zealand and Australia locked down very quickly and Australia has around 100 deaths, New Zealand has less than 100 deaths. So therefore they nipped in the bud if you like, they got the problem early and stopped it becoming a big problem.
Every day that Drax and all the other power stations operate, they add to the sum of CO2 in the atmosphere and there is a finite limit, as many people say, to the amount of CO2 we can put in the atmosphere, which is implied in the Guardian letter, because we will not achieve the Paris agreement levels if we don't stop it. And you're saying we don't need to stop it now? But surely we do?
James: No, I think we absolutely do have to stop it. The argument given by, well, pretty much everyone who signed up to the idea of limiting warming to no more than two degrees is that we don't have to undertake radical emissions reductions now. The assumption is that we'll just deploy BECCS, right. So, pretty much all governments are signed up to this idea that we don't have to undertake really rapid emissions reductions now because BECCS and other negative emissions approaches are going to allow us to get to net zero.
So the UK target is net zero by 2050. It's not produce any carbon by 2050, but it's every tonne of carbon that we produce by the middle of this century, we're going to have to take out of the atmosphere somehow, through a whole spectrum of technology. But most important of them being this BECCS -- bioenergy, carbon capture and sequestration.
Anthony: Well, that actually doesn't take anything out of the atmosphere, that stops it going into the atmosphere. There is a difference, isn't there?
James: Well, okay, it's negative emissions in the context that if you plant sufficient trees which absorb the carbon and then you burn them, so the trees grow, they absorb the carbon, you burn them and you make electricity. And then if you capture the carbon, then over timescales of 10, 20 or 30 years, that whole system works out as negative emissions, actually reduces atmospheric concentrations of carbon.
Anthony: No, surely it stops it increasing, it doesn't actually reduce it? It takes back what has been emitted, the trees will take back what has been emitted, and you can leave on one side the emissions from actually building the plant and operating it and harvesting and all that sort of thing. So it'll take it back, but it doesn't actually reduce it.
I mean, if you have carbon dioxide harvesting systems, which some people have developed that will physically take it out of the atmosphere and that will reduce what's in the atmosphere. We're going to need some of that if we are actually going to be able to offset the inevitable emissions, which will come from some sort of uses which we can't avoid.
James: I mean, this is a really important point, because it will only reduce the amount of concentrations in the atmosphere if you plant new trees. So at the moment, what they're doing with Drax is they're actually clear cutting established forests. So they're just taking... So that's carbon neutral. They're just burning trees, which previously grew in some natural ecosystems let's say, so you're basically just releasing carbon that was previously absorbed.
The idea of BECCS is that the total number of trees on earth will significantly increase. So if we plant a trillion trees let's say, those new trillion trees over the next 10, 20 years will absorb a certain amount of carbon. So that carbon is being sequestered by trees that otherwise wouldn't have existed. So what we need to see for BECCS to work is a significant increase in the total amount of tree coverage on Earth.
So when you're looking for, well how much land is that? We really need to look about the entire surface area of India covered with trees, and we need to find that new land space all over the earth and then do nothing else but grow trees continuously for about 100 years. And if you do that, then over 10 to 30 year timescales, you can see the system is not just net zero, but actually negative. But there's a lot of assumptions also in there because.... Well, there are a lot of assumptions in there, some of which you've already covered.
Anthony: Yes. Okay. So when you say BECCS and you're talking about carbon storage and sequestration, are you talking about storage and sequestration in new trees or in other systems as well, in parallel?
James: Okay, yeah. So, one way to look at it is as the tree grows it stores the carbon, but only temporarily. What we then do, we chop it down and then when we burn it that produces carbon dioxide and waste gases. Then that gets scrubbed out and captured from the chimney, then that gas gets compressed and then put down underground where it's going to have to stay for thousands of years.
Anthony: Right, so that actually will reduce it. Yes, okay, I'm with you.
James: And of course, once it's there, if that was to bubble out, or if there'd be some kind of geological process, which would release that carbon dioxide, then you would be obviously straight back to where you were previously. And in fact, maybe even worse. So there are risks associated with that, because you would have areas in the earth's crust where you are storing maybe many, many years worth of carbon dioxide. And if that was to be suddenly released, then the climate forced then would be much, much larger than the progressive emissions over 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Anthony: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Right, well, I have to say that you're being much more positive than I expected from this headline -- 'Game Over." I mean, I'm sure you're aware of the work of people like Jem Bendell at the University of Cumbria and Guy McPherson in the States. And they, I would say, well, I call them catastrophists, because they seem to have accepted the fact that we're approaching the end. Guy McPherson's phrase is "near term human extinction." I hope you're more optimistic than that.
James: Yes, I mean, it's a very obviously, unsurprisingly, it's a controversial idea that there is an imminent and unavoidable collapse of human civilisation and that there is even a significant risk that homo sapiens could become extinct within, I don't know, decades, or maybe centuries.
Anthony: Well, he's saying, within 10 years or even 18 months.
James: So I've done my best to look at the evidence for that, and I don't think the evidence is in. In order for that to happen, you have to assume worst case scenarios in pretty much all cases, in all different systems, all at the same time perhaps. I mean, there are certainly no models by which we could see that happening, there's no theory by which we would say, because this interaction with that, that's going to collapse, which is going to lead on to this. But, that's okay, because we don't have a complete understanding of the complex earth system and how human societies interact with it and actually are part of it.
But, when I've done my best to take that sober assessment of the evidence, just on the basis of the assessment of the climate science, I don't think it's there, I don't think you can make that very firm conclusion which some people do, that we are facing unavoidable collapse because there are unavoidable tipping points for example. I mean, where tipping elements are in the climate system is being continually evaluated and there is massive uncertainty. One thing we need to remember is that we're talking about trying to limit warming to no more than two degree Celsius. How much carbon have you got to emit? That's still only what we consider to be a roughly two in three chance of limiting warming. This is fundamentally probabilistic, because there are so many uncertainties.
So even if we did do everything that we need to reduce emissions to no more than two degrees, there's still a one in three chance that it would warn beyond two degrees. And currently we're on track to warm beyond three degrees. So then there's a significant chance that even if we think we'd limit it at three degrees, we would still warm beyond four, or even five. So we have to be mindful of, there is significant uncertainty.
Now, I think in that space of uncertainty, some people kind of conclude or assume the worst case scenario. They say, well, it's impossible for us to do this, I can't see how that's going to happen, we don't really understand the interactions between this, it's possible that these things could go much, much worse than we think or we certainly hope for.
Obviously you can do that, but I'm interested in what evidence is there that would allow you to conclude that within, let's say, five or 10 years, there will be a collapse of civilisation? My own assumptions are, or working hypothesis, is that civilisation is actually maybe an awful lot more resilient than we think it is. But that's not necessarily a good thing, because what civilisation will do in order to maintain itself is further destroy much of the biosphere, and maybe even further impoverish a significant fraction of humanity.
So we might see civilisation not collapsing, you know, in 50 or 100 years we would still see continual technological progression let's say, but the quality of life of people and the quality and the state of the biosphere and the quality of life of other species in the biosphere may be something which we could consider to be awful, like terrible. Something horrible has happened, but civilisation is still persisting.
Anthony: Okay. Yes, it's an irony that it's the developing nations which appear to be most vulnerable to the geographic effects of climate change, and we can deny it if we want to, well, we do. We do deny an awful lot of things that happen in far off countries, of which we know little. Yeah, we'll probably preserve our way of life, but, at the cost of people far away.
But what do you think we now should do? What's the call to actions? Because, I didn't find much of a call to action in this Guardian letter, because, it says it's time to acknowledge our collective failure, but yeah okay, we'll acknowledge it. But what we do about it?
James: Yeah, so that the letter wasn't intended at all to talk about climate solutions, I think because in some instances we might be too quick to grab at these solutions, because we're trying to fit to the wrong problem. If you got the wrong solution to the wrong problem, then obviously you're not going to fix the problem.
So just to go back to the idea of negative missions, everyone is scrabbling around at the idea. The solution to climate change is to basically take carbon out the earth's atmosphere. And why is that? Because the assumption is we can't decarbonise. Why is that? Because the assumption is we can't undertake too much damage to the economy.
Well, then why is that? Because that's all about assumptions of how the economy is meant to work. Well, how is the economy meant to work? What is it for? What are the benefits of the goods and services that an economy produces?
So to go back to what the COVID-19 crisis is showing us, it's giving us an opportunity to reflect upon -- well, what is an economy for? Because at the moment we've got millions of people essentially being paid by the government to not go to work. They're being paid not to go to work in order to reduce the rates of transmission.
But then that makes you think about well, once the pandemic is over, what should these people be doing anyway? What is the role of government in the functioning of the economy? It now seems commonplace, or it seems a common assumption that people shouldn't go hungry, that people should have enough food, enough money to cover the rent, enough money to get their food and the things that they need in order to have a good quality of life. If that's really what the economy is for, then that opens up the opportunity to have a quite interesting and important discussion about how are the goods and services redistributed essentially around both the national economy and the global economy?
Because vulnerability to climate change is strongly affected by essentially how much money you've got, whether you're a rich person in a rich country, or a poor person in a poorer country. If we're really motivated to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change, then we would do an awful lot more to ensure that those most vulnerable to it had the resources or the facilities to be able to, not insulate themselves, but to reduce the impacts of climate change. And we'd do that at the same time as reducing our own impacts on the climate, which is basically, burn fewer fossil fuels.
So those much, much deeper, systemic kind of discussions, whatever I try to raise them in the past, it's like, we don't have time for that, or, no one's going to listen to that. The way in which the economy is absolutely embedded in, you can't begin to imagine doing things differently.
Well, the last five months have shown us that we need to do things really, really differently if we actually care about the well being of people. And if we could do it now, and we care about the well being of people in 10, 20, 50 years time, certainly our kids and our grandchildren, then we need to do exactly the same kind of deep reflection about the impact and issues that they are going to experience and suffer because of our emissions now.
So in that respect, there is an opportunity to do something now, which means we're actually going to get to the heart of the problem. But if we keep assuming that at some point in the future, technology is going to fix the problem, technology is going to save us, I think all it allows us to do is to continue delude ourselves that we're on top of the problem, when we're not. We've failed, we've done it really badly wrong.
But there is still time for us to avoid the worst of those damages, the worst of the impact. There is still time for us to be able to limit the harm that is going to be coming down the line over the next few decades.
Anthony: Right. So has the time come for the Green New Deal and a Universal Basic Income?
James: I think these are very, very promising particular policy initiatives. I mean, the Green New Deal covers a wide range of things. The idea of "Build Back Better," we've powered off a large section of our globalised industrialised civilisation, it would be monstrous just for us to turn it all back on again once the pandemic is lifted. We're discovering that we can live different lives, that those lives can be good, that we could discover other ways in which to have decent, fulfilling ways in which we can flourishes as individuals, as maybe societies.
It's a brutally hard lesson to have learned over the last five months. We need to rapidly apply that to how we then move forward from the pandemic at the same time as reducing our environmental impact. The idea that there is some unavoidable trade off between economic growth and action of the climate has always been false, it's never been true. We have always had the capability to undertake the massive reengineering of our societies and complete overhaul of our infrastructure, obviously that's going to produce jobs and produce an enormous economic stimulus, open up entirely new areas of industry, new ways for us to prosper. The reason we haven't done it is because there are tremendously powerful vested interests that have everything to lose from that. So it's as much about prizing their hands off our societies, as it is about enabling new areas for it to flourish.
Anthony: Right. James, I'm reluctant to cut you off, but I think we could go on talking for a very long time. What would you like to say in conclusion?
James: In conclusion, I would like to say that the letter sounds very negative, it doesn't offer much hope, but I think it represents an absolutely crucial starting point for us to be able to produce these new ideas, narratives and strategies where we will be able to get hope.
We have to stop deluding ourselves. We have to stop assuming that technology will fix all of humanity's problems, including the problems that technology creates. We have a small still, but small window of opportunity to undertake the deep reflection that we need in order to make the right actions both on the climate and our economies, and therefore put in place the things that are going to be required for a much more stable and just climate and economy for the foreseeable future.
Anthony: James, thank you very much for that. That was great. I shall continue to read your columns in the i newspaper and recommend it to the listeners of The Sustainable Futures Report.
James: Thank you very much.
Many thanks to Dr James G Dyke Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Think we should have a totally different approach? Let me have your thoughts and ideas. Send them as an audio clip if you like, but please no more than two minutes. firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an extra episode of the Sustainable Futures Report, because so much is going on at the moment. There will be another episode as usual on Friday and that one will be about another form of clean energy. I'm planning to issue another additional episode early next week because there are so many stories piling up but I haven't had an opportunity to share them with you. Then on the following Friday, the 29th of May, there will be yet another interview. This time it’s about conflict resolution, which I think is important in the face of so many people denying the importance of the climate emergency. After that I have no specific plans but I'm confident there will be more sustainability and climate change news to share with you.
If you are a regular listener you will know that the Sustainable Futures Report comes to you without advertising, subsidy or sponsorship. The advantage of that of course is total independence. I do get support from my patrons and I would like to take the opportunity to thank them for their contributions which help me cover the costs of hosting this podcast and getting the transcripts prepared. If you'd like to be a patron you can start from as little as $1 a month and there are full details of what you get in return at www.patreon.com/sfr. I'm thinking of revising and upgrading the patron levels and I hope I'll be able to involve you more in setting the objectives for the content of the podcast. There is a new website on the way as well, but that's another story.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was a special edition of the Sustainable Futures Report, and there'll be another one on Friday.
Find the original letter here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/10/after-coronavirus-focus-on-the-climate-emergency