LAST weekend, the G20 leaders agreed to increase economic growth by an extra 2 per cent or more. It’s a strange promise – if it was in their power to increase growth by that much, I’m sure they would have been doing it anyway.
It’s also strange because of the troubling relationship between economic growth, as we know it, and carbon dioxide emissions.
So with those conundrums in mind, here’s an edited version of an interview I did early this year with climate scientist Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. I interviewed him for a newspaper article that was scrapped before I’d even finished my research, so I never got to write it up.
Anderson wrote a blog late last year stating that if we’re to keep a good chance of staying within 2 degrees warming, rich countries need to cut emissions by up to 10 per cent per year. Reductions of that magnitude are likely to require economic contraction, or degrowth – at least temporarily.
I asked him about that blog:
KA: It caused quite a stir. Almost everyday I get someone responding. I think it’s opened a dialogue which I think was being held back before. It came out of the climate change data and the maths are so blatantly obvious that people cannot argue against the simple numbers: the industrialised countries require degrowth strategies for 2 degrees C. There’s no way out of that.
“We have an inevitably radical future”
My own judgement now is that a lot of people don’t like the conclusions, but don’t necessarily disagree with the analysis. That is not a good enough reason not to have it as part of the debate.
This ties into an already existing language and literature, whether it’s from ecological economics or Herman Daly with his steady state economics and so forth, there have been a lot of people talking about these things for decades. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get ripped to shreds by people for even discussing it. That still happens, but nevertheless, I think there is now sufficient momentum to allow it to actually become part of the discussion – although very much a minority part of it.
MG: Your carve up of the carbon budget requires rich countries to cut emissions deeply – by 8 to 10 per cent per year.
KA: The important thing about those reduction rates is that they work if we start doing it immediately. Ideally we should have started some little time ago. It’s a few years out of date, but we know that we’re always further along the line than we were when the data ended. Every year we fail, that percentage rate goes up.
MG: And of the rich countries, Australia would be at the upper end of that scale, given its high per capita emissions?
KA: I think you can make quite a good set of reasoned arguments as to why some of the high emitting countries on aggregate – the US, Qatar, Australia – would have to do more than the others. Australia would be at that end, at least.
MG: One reason the rich countries need to cut emissions so fast is that you assume China will peak later – in 2025 – than most of the other modelling does, including that by the Climate Change Authority here in Australia. Is that unrealistic? Do we need China to do more to cut emissions than you’re suggesting?
KA: Realistic is a word we use that applies to the thinking of the last century. We hear that all the time: ‘This is clearly impossible.’ Well, oh fine, we’re in an impossible world now. Can we deal with 3, 4 or 5 degrees C? Well almost certainly not in any reasonable fashion. Can we mitigate for 2 degrees C? Well if we have the same mindset, then certainly not, either. In that sense, I would argue the future is impossible. It’s unrealistic.
We should have done something about that earlier. But we are where we are now and we have to think differently. The argument I often make is that we have an inevitably radical future. Now, whether it’s radical because we’re doing radical mitigation and we have some control over the levels of climate change we are going to see, or whether it’s radical because we just carry on doing what we do now and we have to reap the repercussions of rapidly changing climate, both of them are radical futures. Both are unrealistic with the current mindset.
On China – I think it’s more realistic to say the wealthy parts of the world should be looking to radically reduce their emissions rather than to expect China to peak before 2025. You have to bear in mind that a lot of the emissions attributed to China and others of the industrialising countries are actually the responsibility of the west, from a consumption perspective – and I’m sure this goes for Australia, because it also imports a lot of manufactured goods.
Really, China should be permitted even longer to peak, but we cannot apply a fair and equitable system because we’ve got to the point where it is inevitably unfair and inequitable.
The historical legacy is such that Australia, the EU, the US, we still owe a huge amount because of what we’ve done. Although China’s emissions are heading in our direction now, if you look at the cumulative emissions per capita they’re much, much lower than the west, and that feeds into development and so forth. So it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to just look at instantaneous per capita emissions and then say China should be peaking earlier. They are clearly still a poor country in terms of development. Their GDP per capita is still much lower and their purchasing power parity is much lower than Australia or the EU.
MG: The world’s governments have agreed to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees. In Australia, we continue to claim that’s our aim, but we also promise very limited emissions reductions. How do we make sense of that contradiction?
KA: That same gap is occurring everywhere. The EU here has just agreed a 40 per cent reduction target by 2030. It then claims that is consistent with a 2-degree trending for the EU, which it isn’t at all. What’s required is nearer 80 per cent. We probably have more appropriate rhetoric here than you have. But the action isn’t any better.
MG: Do we have an idea of what would be necessary to reduce emissions so rapidly? What’s life like for a human in that society?
KA: It’s inevitably a woolly discussion about what that sort of future would look like. But I think you can start to hone it down a little bit in terms of the internal equity within countries. One of the arguments I’ve made repeatedly is that even within nations, the differential in our emissions is absolutely enormous.
So we are not necessarily saying everyone in the UK or Australia has to reduce at that rate. Those people who are the major emitters, they are the ones that need to make the lion’s share of the change. It may well even be, even within a country that is having rapid reductions in emissions, that some of the poorest people may still see no change or even perhaps a rise in their emissions.
The scare tactic is to say that this will apply to everyone, so even if they’re in fuel poverty, they’re going to have to cut back or see dramatic increase in the price of their fuel. As academics in the UK, we’re getting paid three or four times the low salary. It is people like us who have to make the radical changes, not the poorest 20 per cent of our societies.
MG: What kind of policy measures might be necessary to reduce emissions by up to 10 per cent a year?
KA: I think it’s unlikely you can deliver these rates of change with a price mechanism. I would go so far as to say there is no evidence to suggest it’s in any way possible with price, because the price would have to be so high. For those of us who are the main emitters, we are effectively inelastic to the price of energy. The poorer people in our own communities and the poor people globally are highly elastic to it and if the price of energy goes up significantly because of a carbon price, they will be in even more dire positions than they are today. In countries like the UK won’t be able to heat their houses or drive at all.
“We can do things that are seen to be radically different”
I think the price route is going to be re-thought. The argument we’re making is that we need a regulatory framework, maybe complemented with prices as well. From a UK perspective, that sounds like a throwback, but we have to think about regulations differently. They’re about standards, not about picking winners. It isn’t the role of policymakers to say which technology; they usually get that wrong anyway. They set the standards and say you can use whatever technology you want as long as it meets these standards.
The work we’ve done at the Tyndal Centre here with some of my colleagues has been very much at a sectoral level, without looking necessarily at the whole economy. But it does suggest there is huge potential for emissions reductions.
In the UK, 80 to 90 per cent of all kilometres are travelled by cars that are 8 years or under old. So within 8 years you can change virtually the whole fleet. That’s a very quick turnaround time. So what can you change it to? Using existing cars, in the UK there are now around 300 models available with emissions below 100 grams of CO2 per kilometre. The average car in the UK is something like 168. If you had a standard that said no car beyond 2015 that was more than 100, then you would have about a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in car emissions within about ten years. With no new technologies, no new infrastructure and no additional price in the system.
You’d get a much bigger saving in places like the US and Australia because you start with cars that are much more inefficient. That’s an example where we could carry on doing exactly what we’re doing, with existing technologies, existing skill sets, and see radical reductions in emissions. You can do it with refrigerators too. Within 8 years you could change out most of the fridges in UK homes and radically reduce our emissions from refrigeration. There are no price premiums on these things.
There are lots of reasons we’re not doing it. In the UK, it’s this old concept of choice: we cannot interfere with the market. As long as we put a label on it, people can choose what they want. And that mindset means that we cannot set standards, we cannot use a regulatory framework to drive down emissions even using existing technologies.
MG: But is efficiency enough to get the kinds of emissions reductions we need?
KA: No, nothing like it. But the demand side is really important and generally gets missed because people talk about wind turbines or tidal schemes or solar or nuclear power. They always talk about these big schemes, but they will take a long time – decadal penetration rates really.
All I’m saying here is the demand technologies penetrate the systems much, much quicker and can deliver huge savings, but only if we can overcome the rebound effect. What policies we can put in place to ensure any savings we make are not just squandered by us then using the money for more consumption? That’s really important. I think those policies will vary depending on the cultural framing of each country.
It wasn’t that long ago that we bathed once a week in the UK. We then started to shower two or three times every week. We now have power showers and people use power showers often twice a day now. We moved towards showers partly for energy reasons many years ago and actually our showers now use far more energy than our baths ever used. We’ve normalised the idea we have to shower once or twice a day, which means we have to buy more clothes, we have to wash our clothes more often, so you get a whole suite of things that build up. These practices are things that are normalised and we say we can’t change them. We need to actively think about the practice we’re embedding in our societies, particularly for poorer parts of the world who can avoid locking themselves into some of the more stupid things we’ve got ourselves locked into.
MG: We don’t seem to be anywhere near having that kind of public conversation. There are all sorts of issues with degrowth we aren’t delving into, right? Like what would happen to our debt-based financial system?
KA: I wonder if we use those things as an excuse for not having bigger discussions. We’re looking at climate change now against the backdrop in which many industrialised countries are having to do things quite differently anyway, because of the economic situation we find ourselves in.
Unfortunately, we tried to resolve what were the biggest banking issues since the 1930s with the same sets of tools that brought about the problem in the first place. We could have retrofitted every single property and to a very high level for the money we gave back to the banks. That would have helped with employment; it would have helped with reinvesting the money back into the economy; it would have helped with resilience to the changing climate; it would have helped fuel poverty. There’s virtually nothing that doesn’t get a tick on that. And yet what we did is we gave the money to the banks.
We are having to think differently in the environment we’re in today, even about our established organisations, so why not think a bit more differently about how we actually deal with these issues? When people say these things are impossible, it at least gives us a chance to turn around and say, ‘Well they weren’t impossible when we had to deal with it from a banking point of view’.
We can do things that are seen to be radically different. I think the agenda is moving. It is moving on to allow us to think about things that were previously just dismissed out of hand. Where people would once say this isn’t possible, I think now the analysis is being undertaken to say: ‘Well, what could be achieved?’