Billionaires and emissions

Humanity currently emits around 40 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is 40,000,000,000 tonnes. There are 7.7 billion of us, so that works out at about 5 tonnes per person per year. Of course our emissions are not evenly spread. National averages vary a lot, with high emitters like Bahrain emitting 24 tonnes per person while the people of Burundi emit on average 0.0, or too little to measure. The figures for USA are 15.7, China 7.7, UK 5.7 and India 1.8.

Finding data on carbon emission by the wealth of individuals is very much harder than finding these national averages. One thing is very clear; these individual emissions would be very much more widely spread. The typical billionaire lifestyle involves the use of private jets, super yachts and other aspects of excessive consumption. There are currently 2,153 billionaires in the world, and by my calculations they each emit on average at least 1,000 tonnes per year, and this is almost certainly a very considerable underestimate.

Oxfam figures reveal that these 2,153 billionaires own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. If we compare their emissions with the poorest billion or two of the population, who’ve never been in an aeroplane or owned a car, then it becomes apparent that the emissions of these couple of thousand individuals will be equal to many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of the poorest people.

Climate change is spiralling out of control at exponential speed. It is abundantly clear that we need to reduce emissions from 40 gigatonnes to zero as fast as humanly possible. There is much we can do technologically. Technical change alone will of course not be enough. We will need redistribution of wealth on a massive scale, and the abandonment of consumer driven capitalism and the massive levels of waste and excess that these lifestyles entail.

We will have to do many things that are currently considered impossible. One of the most important will be the rapid elimination of all billionaires, not through genocide but through taxation. The taxation would need to be globally administered and all tax havens and tax loopholes closed.

Humanity faces multiple crises simultaneously: climate, ecological, social and political. They are all intrinsically linked. We can only solve one by solving them all. Any ecologically sustainable future will also inevitably be more equal and fairer. Humanity cannot carry the dead weight of so much excess.

An academic analysis of the damage that excess affluence causes is beginning to emerge. In a sense this echoes what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”. Extreme wealth almost inevitably causes extreme damage. We see this across everything from how it distorts politics to how it breaks social cohesion. It also carries unacceptable levels of carbon emissions.

USA: A Failed State?

Armed men, spurred on by their President, seek to ‘liberate’ the capitol building in Michigan. This is not how civilized countries operate: more like a failed state.

The USA is increasingly looking like a failed state. It could be on the verge of civil war. I sincerely hope not. Their mad, narcissistic President seems actively to be encouraging civil war, with his tweeting to armed white supremacists to ‘liberate’ state capitol buildings, and with tweets such as ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’.

Since the murder of George Floyd protests have erupted across America. Yet another black man murdered by a white police officer. Slavery and colonialism are what America was founded upon. Racial injustice has a long and tortured history. Current police brutality opens old wounds. Healing will require more than just an end to police violence. Deep structural change is urgently needed.

The Covid pandemic reveals interesting contrasts between different systems of social and economic organisation. Covid has resulted in over 40 million job losses in America, and only a few hundred thousand in most European countries, and losing ones job in USA often means losing health insurance and possible destitution. Americans live under extraordinary levels of stress and worry. Inequality levels are extreme. In Europe workers often sit of company boards and have helped mitigate the negative impact of Covid on the labour market. When people are made redundant the welfare system in Europe is generally vastly better than in USA.

While millions of Americans are facing real economic hardship others are sucking countless billions out of the system for their own insane vanity. Any system that allows billionaires to exist is clearly failing to collect the taxes that are required to create social justice. There was something deeply symbolic as Elon Musk’s private SpaceX rocket orbited above the heads of impoverished, angry and brutalised Americans.

Under Trump America has quit the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation. These are the actions of a country imploding in upon itself, unable to fulfil its international obligations. America is heavily indebted and increasingly likely to default. Less a superpower: more a basket case.

Even the American Constitution, which for decades was held up as a beacon of democratic values looks hopelessly flawed. The right to free speech has resulted in a tidal wave of hate speech. The right to bear arms has resulted in far right militias who make USA look increasingly like war torn Somalia or Syria.

And yet for all its many failures America still has some hope. It has many great people. They deserve better. There is currently a struggle going on for the soul of America. Will it follow Trump down the road of ever greater inequality and division, or will it find a path to a better place?

Covid Comparisons

Death rates from Covid 19 have been highly variable. The worst four countries all have populist leaders.

This is one of the Financial Times’ excellent Coronavirus graphics. The red line was added by Tim Walker, who tweeted ‘If this chart shows nothing else, it shows that popularism and respect for human life are incompatible.’ I agree. Now, nearly six months into the pandemic, I want to take stock and compare the best and worst responses to the pandemic. Today the FT reports the global figures, 5.16 million confirmed cases and 331,300 known deaths. The real numbers are no doubt much higher. What is really becoming clear are the staggering differences between the low death rates in countries with compassionate and competent governments and the high death rates in countries lead by incompetent populists.

The populists, principally Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Johnson have behaved abysmally. Many people have died, and will continue to die unnecessarily as a result of their incompetence. George Monbiot wrote a good article about why the UK failed to follow its own preparedness planning. But it is not these stories of stupidity I want to focus on.

The countries that have acted with intelligence, compassion and competence are a large and diverse group. New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea are often cited as those countries that responded best, and have kept death rates very low. South Korea and Taiwan both experienced the SARS epidemic a few years back and really learnt important lessons. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I rate as the best leader in the World and she embodies that mix of compassion and competence that the World desperately needs more of. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany have all demonstrated leadership and competence, but that is what we’d expect from them, wouldn’t we? Afua Hirsch draws our attention to some remarkable stories of success from Africa, focusing on Ghana and Senegal.

However if you read just one story of success let it be this, from the state of Kerala in India. I, like most people outside Kerala had never heard of KK Shailaja the health minister of Kerala until a week or so ago. Now I’d love her to be our health minister. But it is not just about personalities, it’s about the political systems that make them possible. Kerala has long had a particularly practical breed of highly competent communists forming their state governments. Health, education, equality and life expectancy are all better in Kerala than elsewhere in India, thanks to them. Contrast that with the idiotic ideological inflexibilities Monbiot portrays in UK governance.

The Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the World in 1918-19 is still being debated. In years to come this Covid 19 pandemic will be analysed. There is still much we do not know, about the disease itself, about a future vaccine and about how and when this pandemic will end. However one thing is becoming clearer every day. Good governance saves lives.

New video

I was due to give a talk on the politics of the Climate Emergency in the Cathedral. It was cancelled due to Covid 19. We have now made a video version of me showing slides and John Daniels asking me a few questions at the end. I do hope to do more such online talks. Please watch it and let me have any feedback.

My talk is the third one down on this page of the Cathedral website: here

Coal Collapses: Renewables Rise

UK electricity 1920 – 2020

Coal is collapsing. The above graph shows how coal use grew up until the 1980’s, then slowly and erratically declined until about 2012, and then plummeted over the last eight years. In 2019 it made up less than 2% of UK electricity supply: in 2020 it will be less than that, and soon it will dwindle to nothing. As of today, 13th May 2020, the UK has gone for 33 days without using any coal to generate electricity, for the first time since the 1880’s. Countries across Europe are permanently shutting down their last coal fired power stations. Belgium was the first to do so, in 2016, followed last month by Austria, then days later, Sweden. Over the next few years many countries, including UK, will permanently shut their last coal fired power stations.

A few years ago there was a lot of nonsense talked about Peak Oil and how demand would outstrip supply causing energy prices to skyrocket. Energy prices have been falling for years, and this process is made more acute by the Covid 19 pandemic further suppressing demand. Oil prices actually went negative recently, for the first time ever, with people being paid to take it from the overflowing oil field facilities.

As the above graph shows UK electricity demand has been falling for nearly two decades, as is the case in many mature economies. Low prices, coupled with the disinvestment campaign, have made it increasingly hard for coal companies to expand, even in Australia which historically had a very profitable coal sector. Most fossil fuel extraction is now unprofitable.

Renewables are on the rise. Prices are falling and performance is improving. Storage and interconnection technologies are making it ever cheaper and easier to rely on renewables for all our electricity needs. As heating and transportation systems are electrified electricity demand will rise, but this rise can be dealt with in a 100% renewables scenario.

As countries emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic they will need to make choices about the kind of future they want. Old coal, oil and other obsolete sectors of the economy will be lobbying for bailouts. We can have clean air, better health, less road accidents, more social justice and a whole raft of other benefits by opting for a Green New Deal. At the heart of any Green New Deal is the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Of course we need huge other changes to create a more socially just and less polluting future, but let’s celebrate the progress that has been made. One indicator is our individual carbon emissions stemming from electricity use. In UK these have fallen from 2.6 tonnes per person in 2010 to below one tonne in 2019. This is very good news and has been due to the decline in coal, made possible by falling demand and the rise of renewables.

A Global Health Service?

A couple of weeks ago Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times what has been one of the clearest and most insightful articles I’ve read on the coronavirus pandemic and the longer term effects it will have on society. In this crisis decisions are being taken and policies enacted in a matter of hours that in normal times would take years of deliberation or would never even be considered possible. Harari shows how temporary emergency legislation has a habit of becoming entrenched and shaping long term policies. He identifies two key choices, one ‘between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.’ Harari powerfully advocates the benefits of citizen empowerment and global solidarity.

My belief in these principles of citizen empowerment and global solidarity are what underpin this blog. My concern for many decades has been about the climate and ecological emergency, and about inequality, poverty and human suffering. All these areas of concern, like the current pandemic, should be addressed in a spirit of global solidarity, with a globally empowered citizenship. So what might this mean in practice?

Pandemics, like climate change, terrorism or tax dodging require a degree of international coordination which in these weird days of Brexit and Trump has not been on the agenda. It is time to reverse that. Between 1966 and 1980 humanity cooperated and eradicated smallpox. Perhaps this has been humanity’s greatest achievement to date. Let us now cooperate with renewed vigour.

Perhaps now is the time to bring in a Global Health Service, free at point of use to all 7.7 billion of us alive today, and funded so as to provide excellent levels of care to all. We could also bring in excellent free education systems for all people of all ages in all countries. And of course we need a global green new deal providing renewable energy, good housing, clean safe water and sanitation, peace and prosperity as well as health and education. It’s all part of a package. It all goes together.

In a recent talk I presented these ideas and suggested how it all could be funded. Taxes on extreme wealth and internationally earned income, on carbon and other pollutants, on advertising, on resource extraction and on many other things could be levied globally. Business has long been globalized: it is time taxation, governance and service provision caught up. While there is a crying need for radically better global cooperation there is also a similar need for decentralisation. Local government needs massively more investment. We have for far too long concentrated power and resources at the level of the nation state.

Mark Z Jacobson and his team at Stanford have calculated the transition to a global zero carbon, 100% renewables based economy to be about $73 trillion, spread over 30 years. This may sound a lot but is cheap in comparison with dealing with the consequences of not taking action. My proposal here is for something bigger and more costly, adding generous health and education services to the global green new deal. With so many of the world’s big problems the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action.

Improving Cities

Helsinki: Declining Deaths on the roads, due to good policies

Cities around the world are beginning to implement policies that are creating a modal shift away from cars and towards walking, cycling and public transport. Multiple benefits can flow from such policies. Death and injury from traffic accidents can be reduced, or eliminated entirely. Air quality can be improved leading to declines in respiratory illness. Carbon emissions can be reduced. People can enjoy spending time on the streets, so strengthening social cohesion and acting to reduce crime. There are also tangible economic benefits as people eat, drink and shop on the city streets. Time can also be saved as traffic volumes decrease and as services are re-localized. Maybe most important of all, people enjoy hearing bird song, human conversation and children playing, rather than the continuous roar of traffic: there are improvements to mental health.

Many cities exemplify this process. The above graph shows road traffic deaths in Helsinki, which have declined dramatically over recent decades. The Belgian city of Ghent has achieved dramatic results by splitting the city into zones and limiting car connectivity between them while increasing access for public transport, walking and cycling. Birmingham is planning to copy some of the lessons from Ghent. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is planning to reduce, by 60,000, on-street car parking spaces, and to re-localize services in order to create the 15 minute city. In many cities (notably Berlin) electric cargo bikes are beginning to replace diesel delivery vans. It’s good to see the Co-Op are trialling this at one of their London stores. One innovation that is proving popular in France and Holland is the pedal powered school bus. Even here in Hereford we have Pedicabs and the Beryl bike share scheme.

Many of these changes can be implemented cheaply and quickly. Much more cheaply, more quickly, and with many more benefits than can ever accrue from road building. As governments and local councils lead on these kinds of changes they can also help in the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles. With the right mix of new policy and new technology cities may yet become safer, cleaner, less polluted and happier places to live. It is good to see many politicians at last beginning to understand this and to act to bring about these changes.

Politics: Populism & Protest

Writing in the London Review of Books Ferdinand Mount surveys the political landscape the UK is now in post Brexit. Apparently his article is being much discussed by Tory grandees. It certainly mentions all the figures of historical and economic thought to whom many Conservative MP’s look for inspiration. Under the influence of the ‘terrible simplifiers’ all checks and balances to the ‘elected dictatorship’ of Boris Johnson’s regime are now under attack, from the BBC to the Supreme Court, from local governance to the House of Lords. He cites Edward Luttwak prophetic predictions on the re-emergence of more fascistic forms of governance in these times of capitalism run rampant. Johnson is following a cohort of demigods from Trump to Putin, Orban to Bolsonaro down this most dangerous of paths.

Across much of the world the forces of centrist moderation, or of organised labour, are exhausted and spent. They represent no challenge to these emergent fascists. Ferdinand Mount’s prescription seems to be to battle to save what is left of the old checks and balances to moderate the excesses of these populist demigods. However he fails to mention the elephant in the room.

Other forces are at play. Rampant capitalism is running up against the laws of physics, of biology and of chemistry. These scientific realities are immutable. Humanity is easily expendable. Our dependence on a well functioning biosphere is absolute. Without forests and phytoplankton we would suffocate, without bees and worms we would starve, without nurturing nature and human community we would all go insane. Pure unpolluted air, fresh clean water, supportive human communities are fundamental to life in a way that gold, jewels, oil and coal simply are not. Capitalism, socialism or any of the old economic ideologies failed to understand this simple reality.

Greta Thunberg and the school strikes movement, Extinction Rebellion, and countless indigenous, environmental and community groups embody this different understanding of the World, that is both ancient and emergent. The nation state and national politics are not for them the main focus of attention. The World is one. We either all thrive or we all collapse as one single species. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is one simple calibration of planetary health. For most of human history it jogged along at about 285ppm. When I was born in 1955 the figure stood at 314 and it is now 413ppm. Humanity’s future is on a knife edge. Our survival must inevitably involve many rapid political changes, nearly all of which are beyond the scope of current political discourse. But the Overton Window is shifting. What is now beyond the pale could soon be mainstream orthodoxy: global free movement of people, global governance with globally redistributive taxation and a global health care system free at point of use may be a few of the changes. The end of throw-away consumer capitalism and the whole fossil fuel economy are necessary first steps. There is much to be done and not long to do it. This is the simple reality. It is a reality based on scientific understanding of the way people and planet must coexist. The old centrist politics failed to grasp the scale of the changes required, and the current crop of neo-fascist populists don’t give a damn.

I like many millions of people am now increasingly committed to non-violent direct action as the most vital and necessary act of political expression. Yes, I vote, and yes, I am an activist within a political party, but party politics in this country and in nearly all countries has failed to deliver the changes required to ensure humanity can flourish in the future. In the past all meaningful progress in human history has come from below. The streets now, perhaps more than ever, are where real politics is alive, exciting and transformative.

Over the next few months I’ve got three speaking engagements booked, in Presteigne, Hereford and Newtown, Powys. All three will be on various aspects of what needs to be done about climate change. More details on the events page of this blog.

Rage, Resistance & Gratitude

Almost everything this government are doing is wrong. We are leaving the EU, intentionally increasing inequality, doubling down on austerity, investing in over-priced and inappropriate infrastructure and most importantly of all failing to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

I’ve opposed every government over the last fifty years and have never voted for any party that has formed a government. I’ve been on countless protest marches, written letters, lobbied my MP, leafleted for the Green Party and been a member of countless pressure groups. I’ve given talks and led evening classes articulating how we could have a very different future.

Last weekend we had an Extinction Rebellion training weekend: lots of people, energy and determination, love and courage. Tomorrow I’m off to Birmingham for the West Midlands Green Party regional conference, which is a sell-out event. I’m also getting more involved in the Quakers and their Yearly Gathering has the intriguing title ‘Listening, prophecy & reconciliation: allyship in a climate emergency’. In this extraordinary Planetary Emergency we have countless allies in all countries on Earth.

Those still promoting socially and ecologically destructive policies control the media, and have the money and the power, and seem able to hoodwink sufficient numbers of people to vote for them, as is evidenced by Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and so in a way Putin and Xi Jinping. Change is inevitably coming. The future could be dreadful: ecological and social collapse, war, famine and quite possible extinction of our species. We could also be on the verge of something very much better, an era of ever greater ecological restoration and growing global equality, of social and environmental justice. As many of the young climate protestors have written on their banners, ‘Everything Needs to Change’.

To effect that change we need many millions of us active in multiple ways: legal, political, non-violent direct action, entrepreneurial and academic. So this week I want to say ‘Thank-you’ to Client Earth for taking the UK government to court over their mad decision to build a vast new fossil gas power station, going against their own climate guidelines. Thanks too to Caroline Lucas and Ellie Chowns for being politicians to be proud of. Thank-you to Extinction Rebellion, to the School Strikes movement and to the vast number of activists for Ecological and Social Justice in every country on Earth, and thanks too to all the academics and entrepreneurs developing the ideas and technologies that might make rapid decarbonisation possible.

Australia, Bush-fires & Climate

Bushfires are raging across the length and breadth of Australia, twenty-five people and over a billion animals have died. You will no doubt have seen countless images of the destruction. The scale of the fires is unprecedented. Months of hot dry weather have turned the country into a tinder box.

The above graph shows the mean average temperature for Australia for the month of December and charts how it has changed over the last 110 years. Note how the peaks have increased from the 1970’s compared with the previous decades. 2018 was a record hot year, but this was massively surpassed in December 2019. For decades many of us have been warning about global warming. This is what it looks like. This December has been an example of what 2.75 degrees of warming looks like. Ed Hawkins, the eminent professor of Climate Change at Reading University in UK, who made this graph tweeted it with the headline ‘Australia: you have just experienced the future.’

I have blogged numerous times about how Australia has failed to develop its renewable energy potential and what a succession of useless leaders they have had (See here, here, here and here). Their current prime minister, Scott Morrison, plumbs new depths of scientific illiteracy. He is the coal industry’s man.

In a blog in October I quoted the Australian Chief scientist Alan Finkel calling for an extremely rapid roll-out of renewables, from the current 20% of electricity generation up to about 700% to cover the electrification of transport, heating, cooling and industrial processes, and for major exports of electricity and hydrogen. Now Australia desperately needs the politicians capable of driving this through.

Our hearts go out to the people suffering the effects of fire, drought, flooding and other climate change induced misery in Australia and in many other countries. Things will inevitably get very much worse, but with radical global system change, a rapid end to fossil fuel use and consumer driven capitalism, we could yet avert the worst. But the time window available gets ever narrower as the hotter the planet gets the more feedback loops kick-in, making the changes more extreme, more chaotic and more difficult to either adapt to or to mitigate.