Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are today at 413.66 parts per million (ppm). A healthy biosphere would ideally be at around 285 ppm, which is roughly what it has fluctuated around for the past 10,000 years, or the entire duration of human civilization. Climate scientists often talk of 350 ppm as a safe upper limit. The Paris Climate Agreement was signed five years ago in an attempt to reduce emissions, but it has failed. Emissions need to drop to zero and then we need to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. Most governments talk of reducing emissions, and in some sectors of the economy they may succeed, but no country is yet at zero emissions, let alone the required net negative emissions.
we look at the graph above it shows the extent of our challenge. Historically
increases in wealth have only come about with rising emissions. The countries
with the smallest carbon footprints are all very poor whereas all the richest
countries have higher carbon footprints.
seems to me entirely possible to have prosperity for all 7.8 billion of us
human beings, and to do so in a way which is carbon negative. To achieve that
everything needs to change. This is not just about how we generate and use
energy, or about how we farm or about ending our throwaway culture. Yes, all
those things need to change, but so too does the distribution of power and
A recent report by Oxfam stated that the carbon emissions of the richest 1% are more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. Richer countries, and especially richer individuals, have a huge moral responsibility to reduce emissions.
Many millions of people are active campaigners for climate action and climate justice. We have been on demonstrations, lobbied MP’s and tried to live more sustainable lifestyles. Some people have even set up innovative companies to try and change the technological basis of our society. The global school strikes movement deserve particular praise for keeping the issue in the media spotlight.
For my part I am currently writing a book about the scale of change required, and once every month or two I give a talk on Zoom, the next one being on 6th January. These things have kept me rather pre-occupied during the last few months and so these blogs have been rather less frequent than they used to be: apologies for that. If you want to be added onto the talks and discussions list, which includes my talks, and lots of other interesting things from The Left Bank programme, you can fill out this MailChimp form.
Belgium has just formed a new government. It is a coalition of seven parties, including both the Belgian Green Parties Ecolo and Groen. One long term policy of most European Green Parties is to phase out nuclear power. The chart above has been produced by the Belgian Federal Planning Bureau and predicts a big rise in the use of fossil gas. This quite naturally is drawing considerable criticism as just when Belgium, like all countries, should be rapidly decarbonising, it threatens to increase emissions.
I think the graph is wrong. It predicts solar increasing from 5% to 6% between
2015 and 2050, and wind from 8% to 32% over the same period. This to me seems a
massive underestimate of both. Solar and wind have been getting steadily cheaper,
more efficient and with higher capacity factors for many years, and this trend
is predicted to continue. The chart, and much of the debate on Twitter and
elsewhere assumes the choice is between nuclear and gas, both of which are
already costly, each have environmental downsides and future costs look high.
Belgium is already ramping up its offshore wind farms and has plans for more. Better insulated buildings, more efficient appliances, more walking, cycling, home-working and public transport should all act to decrease overall energy demand. So too will the transition from a throwaway linear economy to a circular economy. Gradually pretty well all new buildings everywhere will have solar panels installed.
trends that do not appear on this chart are of significance. The first is distributed
local energy storage. Many houses will have batteries, in electric cars and larger
static ones. Green hydrogen will also be produced at scale. All these will
facilitate the greater take up of wind and solar, so together they will make up
more than the 38% predicted in the graph. They may make up 70%, possibly 90%,
of Belgian electricity demand by 2050.
The second trend is long distance renewable energy trading. Belgium, like Germany, will probably be a net energy importer, being densely populated, quite highly industrialized and with relatively poor wind and solar resources. Denmark is already planning to export wind power to Holland, Germany and Poland to help them decarbonize. Scotland, Norway and Iceland all look well positioned to be net energy exporters, with their huge wind, hydro and geothermal resources and relatively low energy demand. However the biggest renewable energy exporters are likely to be from the sunniest countries.
Africa is one huge area where solar will be developed at scale. Morocco’s
Ouarzazate solar park is one of the most exciting energy infrastructure
projects anywhere on Earth. Many more large solar parks will be built,
utilizing both concentrating solar thermal and solar photo-voltaic systems, and
will also have on site energy storage with batteries for very short duration of
a few minutes to a few hours, solar thermal heat stores for up to 24 hours, and
on-site electrolysis for hydrogen production and so energy storage over weeks, months
or even years. Energy will be exported via high voltage direct-current cable
and as hydrogen using tankers or pipelines.
Germany is investigating purchasing green hydrogen from Australia, and Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes is planning to connect a cable from Australia to Singapore to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity. The long distance trade in renewable energy is a relatively new phenomenon, and consequently often overlooked by energy planners. It will be a huge global industry very quickly: the economics look good, and it will be vital for global decarbonisation.
So back to Belgium and their new coalition: my advice to them is hold fire on any new investments in fossil gas, even if that means a slower ramping down of existing older gas and nuclear power stations. Invest in demand reduction through changes to buildings, transport, work patterns, circular economy etc. Invest in renewables, energy storage, and interconnection and longer distance sourcing of green hydrogen.
think it is about nine weeks since I posted a blog, so apologies to regular readers.
That is I think the longest gap I’ve had in over ten years of blogging. I have
been rather engrossed in thinking about a book I’ve wanted to write, and have
had several attempts at. Just starting again: daunting and exciting.
I was recently asked to write an article for our local Quaker newsletter. This is what I wrote.
does it mean to be alive now, in the summer of 2020, and to be a Quaker living
humans are at a critical time for our species: perhaps the most dangerous time
since we first evolved about two million years ago. During that time we’ve had
many challenges. We survived the last Ice Age. For the last ten or eleven
thousand years we’ve thrived and multiplied during the benign climate of the
Holocene era. That era is now over: we have entered the Anthropocene, the era
in which we, our one single species, is now shaping the planet’s climate, the
acidity and warmth of the oceans and causing the decline and extinction of
countless other species. Over the eleven thousand years of the Holocene
atmospheric carbon dioxide was relatively stable, fluctuating around 285 parts
per million. The burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has
pushed this figure up to 416 ppm, and it is still rising. We need to stabilize
that figure and then get it back down to 350 ppm or less, and do so as quickly
as humanly possible. That in itself necessitates changing almost everything we
associate with our contemporary way of life.
climate change is far from our only problem. Our democracies are under threat.
Huge and powerful forces are funding campaigns that create hatred and anger
directed towards the poor and vulnerable, foreigners and refugees. Inequality
has grown more extreme. An Oxfam report recently stated that there are 2,153
billionaires in the world and that they own more than the 4.6 billion poorest
people. Old problems like poverty and war persist.
as a species now have the most extraordinary tools at our disposal. We have
sufficient money, resources and technology to feed, clothe and provide a
comfortable way of life for all 7.7 billion of us. But that comfortable way of
life would have to be quite different from how we live now. As Mahatma Gandhi
said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s
greed’. In the current context we have to say the world has not enough for
rich and powerful shape our politics, our media and the impact we as a species
are having upon ourselves and the planet. Their greed seems limitless. Their
desire to keep making profits from doing business as usual seems to blind them
to seeing how things could be different, and how they could be happier while
being less wealthy. For humanity to have a future we will need to redeploy
resources on a truly massive scale, away from fossil fuels and towards
renewables, away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak.
British government is failing us. They care not a jot for the poor and
vulnerable, and their attempts at energy transition are confused and misguided.
Many of us make personal decisions to stop flying, or not to own a car, or to
reduce our overall consumption and waste by simply buying less stuff. However
the impact of individual lifestyle choices is limited. We can only choose from
the options available, and most people are not prepared to give up on things if
others are still enjoying them. In the Second World War people accepted
rationing because it was seen to be fair. Then we came together as a national
community in the face of a common enemy. Now we have to come together as a
global community to face a common crisis.
we accept some rationing, of things like flights, fuel or clothing? Would we accept
very much higher rates of taxation on wealth, higher incomes and inheritance,
on fossil fuels, plastics and pesticides? Would we accept the loss of our white
course a sustainable and better future is not all about giving things up. Money
instead could be invested in wellbeing. There is so much that needs doing. We could
provide useful work for billions of people deploying renewable energy and
developing a hydrogen economy, in farming in ways that increased biodiversity
and sequestered carbon into the soil, and in caring for one another so much
better through better health and social care, better education and training.
All this needs active government and intergovernmental action supporting global
Probably all of us in Hereford Quakers make lifestyle choices at least partly conscious of the social and ecological impacts of our decisions. Most of us also try to influence things for the better through signing petitions, writing to our MP and campaigning actively within political parties and pressure groups, by helping charities and being good citizens. Some of us no doubt see prayer as an active part of the process of change. Many of us are aware that we have tried all of these for decades and still so many aspects of the global situation continue to get worse. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. We have to reduce carbon emissions to zero as fast as humanly possible, yet our governments are sill aligned so closely to the fossil fuel industries. This is why so many children are on school strike, why so many of us support the actions of Extinction Rebellion and others who are taking to the streets in protest.
Sometimes climate change can feel like a distant problem that does not much effect a place like Hereford. However in an ice free world sea level would rise to a point where Hereford Quaker meeting house would be under the ocean. That I find a useful image to think about while contemplating if and when we shall all meet again in that special space, when at last we emerge from lockdown.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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’.
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.
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
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?
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.
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 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 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.
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?
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.
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.