IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: Energy and environmental policy

Connecting with Nature: social and economic opportunities for sustainability

📥  Energy and environmental policy, European politics, US politics

Professor Ricardo García Mira is Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruña in Spain, and Visiting Professor at the IPR.

The UN established World Environment Day in 1972 and it was first celebrated in the city of Spokane in 1974, in the State of Washington, with the theme “Only One Earth”. A few days ago we celebrated it again, and the central theme this year has been "Connecting people to Nature - In the cities and on land, from the poles to the equator", which invites us to go outside and appreciate Nature's beauty and grandeur, while advocating for sustainable urban strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, improve health and well-being, foster social cohesion, and engage in the conservation of places we inhabit and share.



This is precisely the theme that brought me to Dublin last week, to participate in the kick-off of the Connecting Nature project, an innovative European action that seeks to shape the design and implementation of nature-based solutions in cities by engaging city councils, civil society organisations, businesses and academics in co-producing strategies to meet the challenges of sustainability. The understanding of the fact that we are part of Nature and that we depend on it stands at the heart of these efforts, and is something that seems to elude President Donald Trump, who announced the US' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change - signed by close to 200 countries - just three days before World Earth Day 2017. We all know the signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, and its launching at the Marrakesh Summit during COP22, was preceded by many tensions and a lack of commitment from different countries, making it a significant breakthrough that involved intense efforts and high costs. The implications of this downturn are beginning to be announced. The head of the United Nations Environment Agency said last week that if the United States continued to decline its commitment for a transition to a green economy, it would end up losing the best jobs in the renewable energy sector to Europe and China, as the latter has become increasingly competitive. Many of China's advances, he stated, had come from joint efforts carried out with the United States in recent years, which had also generated a healthy competitive dynamic to assume leadership in the sector of clean energy and the fight against climate change.

Dr García Mira (centre) and colleagues at the Connecting Nature Kick Off Meeting

Professor García Mira (centre) and colleagues at the Connecting Nature Kick Off Meeting

No government can stop progress, nor is it possible today to halt the development of a market that is inevitably assuming the culture of decarbonisation. And if Europe remains united in its transformation towards renewable energy sources, the market - and consequently employment - will move towards clean and low-carbon industry. Reducing dependence on carbon is already a goal towards which more and more regions and cities of Europe are moving, as they launch their roadmaps towards green employment and urban regeneration through nature-based solutions. New global cooperation platforms and networks are being created to experiment with sustainable options and to establish a new reference framework for sustainable social and economic development. Anyone choosing to remain an outsider will only stand to lose significant economic opportunities, as the world moves towards a new paradigm, in sync with Nature.


Trump’s First 100 Days Have Triggered Political Activism in Corporate America

📥  Business and the labour market, Energy and environmental policy, US politics

Professor Andrew Crane is Professor of Business and Society and Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath.

President Trump’s first 100 days have not been good for the planet. While the question of whether he will fulfil his campaign promise of rolling back the US’s commitment on the Paris climate deal is still to be settled, he has stuffed his cabinet with climate change sceptics. Most notably, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head up the US Environmental Protection Agency met with a storm of criticism. This was hardly surprising given his ties with the energy industry, his denial of man-made climate change, and a long history of fighting the very agency he has been appointed to lead.

corporate protest


Trump and his cabinet have not been slow in rolling back environmental regulation introduced during the Obama presidency. As part of an effort to revive the coal industry, an executive order last month started unravelling Obama’s clean power plan (CPP). As The New York Times reported, the order effectively ceded the US’s leadership in addressing climate change and turned “denials of climate change into national policy”.

While such developments were hardly unexpected, what has been interesting has been the corporate response. Last November, nearly 400 US companies including Nike, Levi Strauss and Starbucks demanded that he leave in place low-emissions policies. In the wake of the CPP announcements in March many companies again took a public stand against the policy reversal. For example, Mars Inc. expressed disappointment at the policy change while tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Microsoft signed a joint statement supporting the CPP.

It is rare to hear companies, and US companies in particular, arguing to keep regulation. They are also usually unwilling to take explicit political stands in the public eye, preferring to use lobbying and more covert forms of political influence to sway governments to act in their interests. But the corporate response to the climate rollback seems to be part of a broader change of heart among senior executives to take public positions against what they see as undesirable policy shifts.

This change was first noticeable following Trump’s immigration ban back in January that saw wholesale restrictions banning refugees and others from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. As Business Insider reports, “Before the day was over, Facebook's CEO had published a post denouncing the order. By the end of the weekend, Starbucks' CEO had outlined plans to hire 10,000 refugees. And, within a week, Uber's CEO had quit Trump's economic team as thousands deleted their accounts with the ride-hailing app.”

The response by corporate America to the immigration ban was significant and widespread. Rather than the usual caution about taking a political stand on a hot button issue, companies as diverse as Coca Cola, Google, and Ford came out against the policy. The tech industry’s response gained a lot of attention, not only because high-profile companies and their leaders, such as Sergey Brin at Google, actively spoke out against the executive order, but also because regular tech industry employees staged walkouts and protests rarely seen before in the industry. For many in tech, The Atlantic reported, this was the first time they had taken part in political activism in their lives.

bi-graphicshow companies reacted to trump


So what does all this mean? There are a number of ways of looking at this, but the big change for me is that US companies are starting to acknowledge a meaningful role for themselves as explicit political actors. In the past, few company executives would ever admit that their actions were in any way political. “We don’t do politics” was the mantra, despite the billions of dollars spent on lobbying and trying to buy influence in Washington. However, as companies have more openly started addressing issues traditionally thought of as government responsibilities – protecting human rights, providing public goods, enforcing social and environmental standards, and the like – the cloak has gradually slipped.

Scholars of corporate responsibility such as myself have been analysing these developments over the past couple of decades, labelling these new corporate behaviours variously as “corporate citizenship”, “political CSR”, or “private governance”. So the response by corporate America to Trump’s first 100 days is not so much a sudden change in their core corporate responsibility behaviours, more a newfound willingness to start acknowledging what has been increasingly apparent all along: corporations do indeed play an explicitly political role.

Acknowledging something is the first step to dealing with it. And the role of business in politics is something that we certainly do need to address as a matter of urgency. Most business leaders may not be completely comfortable yet with admitting their political role, but many do want to start thinking more seriously about their impact on the world, as Mark Zuckerberg’s recent 6,000 word manifesto exemplifies. Further radical announcements from the Trump administration are likely to incite yet more corporate political activism. So while we may not be able to thank President Trump for his impact on the planet, he may yet be responsible for a breakthrough moment in companies’ understandings of their changing role in society.

This post first appeared on the Bath Business and Society blog.


Expecting the unexpected: what resilience should mean to policymakers

📥  Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Housing

Dr Kemi Adeyeye is Senior Lecturer in Architecture in the University of Bath's Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering. This post draws on material first presented in a recent published paper.

Evidence, and perhaps the experience of seemingly perpetual rain on one’s face, suggests that the weather is one thing that is increasingly variable and difficult to predict. The impact of this goes beyond deciding whether to take an umbrella, or wear an extra layer of clothing, when you go out in the morning. Like other shocks, temperamental weather can and does affect various aspects of economic, environmental and social life. In an ideal world, both policy and the built environment would be developed with a level of inbuilt resilience (that is, the capacity to cope with and absorb shocks), a recognition of the need to adapt, change and reorganise, and measures to mitigate the impact of future shocks.



Indeed, most human and physical systems are designed to cope with ‘extremes’ – but often within the range of what is ‘expected’. ‘Unprecedented’ is now a common term used by politicians, the media and some experts to describe current weather events that are extreme, but not within the expected range of extremity. One unprecedented event soon supersedes the next, however, and the next one after that – so to what extent are these events really unprecedented? And to what extent can the impact and consequence of weather events such as flooding be considered a surprise? For scientific answers to these questions, I encourage the reader to review the work of my colleague Dr Thomas Kjeldsen. In this piece, however, I will spend some time considering the concept of anticipation, before concluding with what resilience should really mean to urban planners and policymakers.

Anticipating change

Studies show that, as human beings, we are ontologically programmed to engage in ideations that allow the anticipation of space, time, causality and subjective probability. This is referred to as our evolutionary potential[1] – i.e. our ability to promote preparedness and maximise the probability of proactive change through historical memory, knowledge, expertise and experience. Anticipation is innately formed through memory and experience rather than the unknown. To this end, we are prone to engage in mental time travel, reliving past experiences as the basis for imagining the future. However, we should also be aware of the fact that experiences are carried forward in time through memory (individual or collective), which means that such practices can affect welfare. That is, the effectiveness of memory and/or experience to engender actions and preparedness for resilience can vary depending on how we remember, with a consequent impact on the actual outcomes of shocks. The problem with relying too much on memory is that we soon forget – another useful evolutionary skill to help to cope with trauma.

Anticipation can be both forward- and backward-looking. Using the term ‘unprecedented’ suggests that the extent of our anticipation remains backward-looking, and this supports the prevalent reactionary approach to resilience – whereby capacity is only expanded after it has been overwhelmed by an extreme event. But we need both; forward-looking anticipation, particularly in the context of climate change, needs to be underpinned by past learning. Now, I am sure that scenario planning is taking place across the policy realms at present, building on our current tools and codes to explain and take action when the unexpected event happens. However, this approach does not always translate into dynamic planning for potential future uncertainties – when a comprehensive, flexible response may be required for the next unprecedented scenario.

Rising above the flood

Take flooding. There are some good social and economic reasons for current and future developments on or near water. There is also little choice in some instances. For example, most of the Netherlands lie several meters below sea level. As mentioned later, their planning and building developments have therefore advanced to effectively manage the associated risks. For others, flooding can be cyclical, but also sudden. This introduces general and specific issues to the equation to do with quality of life; economic, environmental and social vulnerability; security; physical, urban and building resilience; and so on.

These are factors that should not be ignored. The OECD forecasts that without effective change, the total global population exposed to flooding could triple to around 150 million by the 2070s due to continuous sea-level rise and increased storminess, subsidence, population growth and urbanisation. Further, asset exposure could grow dramatically, reaching US $35 trillion in the same period – roughly 9% of projected annual GDP. The NHS budget for instance is at present around 7% of UK GDP. Unlike the NHS, however, inaction on resilience is a bill that is best avoided. Exposure to risks does not necessarily translate into impact when resilience is “designed in” through coping and adaptive mechanisms.

So how can we design systems that are resilient and able to contend with unpredictable challenges, such as environmental change? Staying with the theme of flooding, we can learn from approaches that have worked at other times and in other places to better anticipate the future. We can learn not to be so set in our ways, but to dare to be flexible and embrace new ways of working. This is particularly important in the UK context, where our planning rules are entrenched in tradition and our design and building practices can be slow to evolve. Although innovative practices have started in some areas, changes remain piecemeal, and inconsistently applied across the country. Unlike global exemplars of building codes and standards, resilience requirements are still not explicit in the UK Building Regulations – so we are therefore missing out on a more consistent, widespread implementation, in addition to losing the opportunity to promote resilience alongside current sustainability standards, especially in housing developments.

Facing the future

Better integration of good governance, planning, infrastructure and architectural design would be a good first step towards closing the gap between where we are today and our future potential. On governance, there need to be visionary, non-ambiguous and tangible planning policies and regulatory requirements for resilience – particularly in the built environment. Formal building and planning policies, as they stand, could do more to promote forward-looking design and planning solutions, or to facilitate the development of resilience and adaptive capacity against natural events.

But new laws and regulations will not be enough. More should also be done to better equip individuals and communities for the task of planning and acting in their own best interests, or even actively participating in or influencing policy processes. It should also be possible to improve individual and collective anticipation by the positive utilisation of experiences of and effective responses to past climatic extremes – “memory”. Actions taken to improve agency by making better use of wider communication networks to provide access to information, raise awareness and improve action for resilience would also be a positive step.

Building resilience

Examples as old as the Indus Civilisation[3] and as contemporary as the Waterwijk in Ypenburg show that good governance and social measures are not enough on their own. Effective planning, good infrastructure and innovative architecture should be combined to reduce physical and social vulnerabilities. This underpins the argument for an integrated design approach to resilience (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Combined: Integrated resilience map showing applicability and impact [Read more]. The chart (after: Roberts 2013 ) presents combined case study findings along two axes, in four quadrants. The x-axis shows the contributions of important stakeholders including governance representatives; professionals such as architects, engineers and planners; and the people. The y-axis shows the physical outputs through planning, building and infrastructure solutions. The content of the map presents the physical and social solutions, highlighting impact (the size of the circles), and the range, based on the 6 applicability measures presented in the conceptual framework. In many instances the applicability measures overlap, and the map therefore shows the most relevant measure for the particular case.

Figure 1. Combined integrated resilience map showing applicability and impact
The chart (after: Roberts 2013 ) presents combined case study findings along two axes, in four quadrants. The x-axis shows the contributions of important stakeholders including governance representatives; professionals such as architects, engineers and planners; and the people. The y-axis shows the physical outputs through planning, building and infrastructure solutions. The content of the map presents the physical and social solutions, highlighting impact (the size of the circles), and the range, based on the 6 applicability measures presented in the conceptual framework. In many instances the applicability measures overlap, and the map therefore shows the most relevant measure for the particular case.

Policymakers and planners of the built environment who plan to adhere to such an approach should aim to achieve three major goals. Firstly, to deliver solutions that emphasise social place-making and capacity building – building communities whilst placing water at the forefront of communal consciousness, for example. Secondly, to implement resilient infrastructural solutions that are flexible but future-proof. Thirdly, to encourage solutions that are not all about hiding water in underground drainage networks, but rather integrate water into the social fabric of a community through planning, engineering and architectural design.

Collaborative working between policymakers and diverse stakeholders – including building professionals – is key to achieving this. Planners should work positively with architects and engineers to deliver the most effective solution possible within the individual context. Innovative architectural ideas and solutions should be encouraged and, further, the needs of the public should be fully integrated within the decision-making process. For this to happen, government departments will need to talk and work more effectively together at the national, regional and local levels. There also need to be better mechanisms to include knowledge agents and the public in solution-forming conversations; technologies such as smart web-tools, and innovative apps can help to facilitate this process.


[1] Read: Sahlins, M. D., and E. R. Service, editors. 1960. Evolution and culture. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
[2] Roberts, C. (2013), Planning for Adaptation and Resilience, In: McGregor, A., Roberts, C., & Cousins, F. (Eds.). Two degrees: The built environment and our changing climate. Routledge.
[3] Part 1 of Dr Sona Datta’s BBC documentary series on the Treasures of the Indus may still be available on BBC Iplayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030wckr/p030w89h


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 1 - The Ever-Heavier Footprint

📥  Energy and environmental policy, Food and agriculture, Science and research policy

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the first in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February.

A few years ago, I met a well-known Indian tycoon. Knowing that I had the title of Astronomer Royal, he asked: ‘do you do the queen’s horoscopes?’ I responded, with a straight face: ‘If she wanted one, I’m the person she’d ask’. He then seemed eager to hear my predictions. I told him that stocks would fluctuate, there’d be new tensions in the Middle East, and so forth. He paid rapt attention to these ‘insights’. But I then came clean. I said I was just an astronomer – not an astrologer. He then lost all interest in my predictions. And rightly so; scientists are rotten forecasters – almost as bad as economists.

shutterstock_106497899 [Converted]


Nor do politicians and lawyers have a sure touch. One rather surprising futurologist was Lord Birkenhead, crony of Churchill and Lord Chancellor in the 1920s. He wrote a book entitled ‘The World in 2030’. He’d read Wells and Bernal – he envisaged babies incubated in flasks, flying cars and suchlike fantasies. In contrast, he foresaw social stagnation.

Here’s a quotation: “In 2030 women will still, by their wit and charms, inspire the most able men towards heights that they could never themselves achieve.”

I’m going to make forecasts, but – mindful of these precedents – very tentatively.

Astronomers think in billions of years. But even in that perspective this century is special. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries – humans for a few thousand centuries. But this century is special: it’s the first when one species, ours, has the planet’s future in its hands. We’re deep in an era that’s called the Anthropocene. We could irreversibly degrade the biosphere, we could trigger the transition from biological to electronic intelligences, or misdirected technology – bio or cyber – could cause a catastrophic setback to civilisation.

Twelve years ago I wrote a book on this theme which I entitled Our Final Century? My publisher deleted the question-mark. The American publishers changed the title to 'Our Final Hour'. (Americans seek instant gratification – and the converse).

I didn’t think we’d wipe ourselves out. But I did think we’d be lucky to avoid devastating setbacks – and we’ve had one lucky escape already.

At any time in the Cold War era – when armament levels escalated beyond all reason – the superpowers could have stumbled towards armageddon through muddle and miscalculation.

Nuclear weapons are based on 20th century science. I’ll focus later in my argument on 21st century sciences – bio, cyber, and AI – which offer huge potential benefits, but also expose us to novel vulnerabilities

But before that let’s focus on the long-term threats that stem not from conscious decisions, bur from humanity’s ever-heavier collective ‘footprint’. Even with a cloudy crystal ball there are some things we can predict. For instance, it’s almost inevitable that by mid-century, the world will be more crowded.

Fifty years ago, world population was about 3 billion. It now exceeds 7 billion. But the growth is slowing. Indeed, the number of births per year, worldwide, peaked a few years ago and is going down. Nonetheless world population is forecast to rise to around 9 billion by 2050. That’s partly because most people in the developing world are young. They are yet to have children, and they will live longer. The age histogram in the developing world will become more like it is in Europe.

Experts predict continuing urbanisation – 70 percent of people in cities by 2050. Even by 2030 Lagos, São Paulo and Delhi will have populations above 30 million. To prevent megacities becoming turbulent dystopias will surely be a major challenge to governance.

Population growth seems currently under-discussed. That is maybe because doom-laden forecasts in the 1970s, by the Club of Rome, Paul Erlich and others, have proved off the mark. Up until now, food production has more than kept pace – famines stem from wars or maldistribution, not overall shortage. And it’s deemed by some a taboo subject – tainted by association with eugenics in the 1920s and 30s, with Indian policies under Indira Gandhi, and more recently with China's hard-line one-child policy.

Can 9 billion people be fed? My layman’s impression from reading the work of experts is that the answer’s yes. Improved agriculture – low-till, water-conserving, and perhaps involving GM crops – together with better engineering to reduce waste, improve irrigation, and so forth, could sustainably feed that number by mid-century. The buzz-phrase is ‘sustainable intensification’.

But there will need to be lifestyle changes. The world couldn't sustain even its present population if everyone lived like Americans do today– using as much energy per person and eating as much beef.

Population trends beyond 2050 are harder to predict. They will depend on what people now in their teens and 20s decide about the number and spacing of their children. Enhanced education and the empowerment of women – surely a benign priority in itself – could reduce fertility rates where they’re now highest. And the demographic transition hasn’t reached parts of India and Sub-Saharan Africa.

If families in Africa remain large, then according to the UN that continent’s population could double again by 2100 to 4 billion, thereby raising the global population to 11 billion. Nigeria alone would by then have as big a population as Europe and North America combined, and almost half of all the world’s children would be in Africa.

Optimists remind us that each extra mouth brings also two hands and a brain. Nonetheless, the higher the population becomes, the greater will be all pressures on resources – especially if the developing world narrows its gap with the developed world in its per capita consumption – and the harder it will be for Africa to escape the ‘poverty trap’. So we must surely hope that the global figure declines rather than rises after 2050.

Moreover, if humanity’s collective impact on nature pushes too hard against what Johan Rockstrom calls ‘planetary boundaries’, the resultant ‘ecological shock’ could irreversibly impoverish our biosphere. Extinction rates are rising; we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. Biodiversity is a crucial component of human wellbeing. We're clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction; there are plants in the rainforest whose gene pool might be useful to us. But for many environmentalists, preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right, over and above what it means to us humans. To quote the great ecologist E O Wilson, ‘mass extinction is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for’.

The world’s getting more crowded. And there’s a second firm prediction: it will gradually get warmer. In contrast to population issues, climate change is certainly not under-discussed.

The famous Keeling curve shows how the concentration of CO2 in the air is rising, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. It’s still unclear how much the climatic effects of rising CO2 are amplified by associated changes in water vapour and clouds. The fifth IPCC report presents a spread of projections.

But despite the uncertainties there are two messages that most would agree on:

  1. Regional disruptions to weather patterns within the next 20-30 years will aggravate pressures on food and water, and engender migration.
  2. Under ‘business as usual’ scenarios we can’t rule out, later in the century, really catastrophic warming, and tipping pints triggering long-term trends like the melting of Greenland’s icecap.

But even those who accept both these statements have diverse views on the policy response. It’s important to realise that these divergences stem less from differences about the science than from differences in economics and ethics – in particular, in how much obligation we should feel towards future generations.

Economists who apply a standard discount rate (as, for instance, Bjorn Lomberg’s Copenhagen Consensus does) are in effect writing off what happens beyond 2050 – so unsurprisingly they downplay the priority of addressing climate change in comparison with shorter-term efforts to help the world’s poor.

But if you care about those who’ll live into the 22nd century and beyond, then, as economists like Stern and Weizman argue, you deem it worth paying an insurance premium now, to protect those generations against the worst-case scenarios.

So, even those who agree that there’s a significant risk of climate catastrophe a century hence will differ in how urgently they advocate action today. Their assessment will depend on expectations of future growth, and optimism about technological fixes. But, above all, it will depend on an ethical issue – in optimising people’s life-chances, should we discriminate on grounds of date of birth?

(As a parenthesis, I’d note that there’s one policy context where a discount rate of essentially zero is applied – radioactive waste disposal, where the depositories are required to prevent leakage for 10,000 years. This is somewhat ironic, when we can’t plan the rest of energy policy even 30 years ahead)

Consider this analogy. Suppose astronomers had tracked an asteroid, and calculated that it would hit the Earth in 2080, 65 years from now – not with certainty, but with (say) 10 per cent probability. Would we relax, saying that it’s a problem that can be set on one side for 50 years – people will then be richer, and it may turn out then that it’s going to miss the Earth anyway? I don’t think we would. There would surely be a consensus that we should start straight away and do our damnedest to find ways to deflect it, or mitigate its effects.

What will actually happen on the climate-policy front? The pledges made at the Paris conference are a positive step.

But even if they’re honoured, CO2 concentrations will rise steadily throughout the next 20 years. By then, we'll know with far more confidence – from a longer timebase of data, and from better modelling – just how strong the feedback from water vapour and clouds actually is. If the so-called ‘climate sensitivity’ is low, we’ll relax. But if it’s large, and climate consequently seems on an irreversible trajectory into dangerous territory, there may then be a pressure for 'panic measures'. This could involve a 'plan B' – being fatalistic about continuing dependence on fossil fuels, but combatting its effects by either a massive investment in carbon capture and storage, or else by geoengineering.

It’s feasible to inject enough aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the world’s climate – indeed, what is scary is that this might be within the resources of a single nation, or even a single corporation. There could be unintended side-effects; moreover, the warming would return with a vengeance if the countermeasures were ever discontinued – and other consequences of rising CO2 (especially the deleterious effects of ocean acidification) would be unchecked.

Geoengineering would be a political nightmare: not all nations would want to adjust the thermostat the same way. Very elaborate climatic modelling would be needed in order to calculate the regional impacts of an artificial intervention. (The only beneficiaries would be lawyers. They’d have a bonanza if nations could litigate over bad weather!).

I think it’s prudent to explore geoengineering techniques enough to clarify which options make sense, and perhaps damp down undue optimism about a technical 'quick fix' for our climate.

Many still hope that our civilisation can segue smoothly towards a low-carbon future. But politicians won't gain much resonance by advocating a bare-bones approach that entails unwelcome lifestyle changes – especially if the benefits are far away and decades into the future. But three measures that could mitigate climate change seem politically realistic.

First, all countries could improve energy-efficiency, insulate buildings better, and so forth—and thereby actually save money.

Second, we could target cuts to methane, black carbon and CFC emissions. These are subsidiary contributors to long-term warming. But unlike CO2, they cause local pollution too – in Chinese cities, for instance – so there’s a stronger incentive to reduce them.

But third, nations should expand R&D into all forms of low-carbon energy generation (renewables, 4th generation nuclear, fusion, and the rest), and into other technologies where parallel progress is crucial – especially storage (batteries, compressed air, pumped storage, flywheels, etc) and smart grids. That’s why an encouraging outcome of Paris was an initiative called ‘Mission Innovation’. It was launched by President Obama and the Indian Prime Minister Modi, and endorsed by the G7 nations, plus India, China and 11 other nations. It’s hoped they’ll pledge to double their publicly funded R&D into clean energy by 2020 and to coordinate efforts. There’s been a parallel pledge by Bill Gates and other private philanthropists.

This target is a modest one. Presently, only 2 per cent of publicly funded R&D is devoted to these challenges. Why shouldn’t the percentage be comparable to spending on medical or defence research?

The faster these ‘clean’ technologies advance, the sooner will their prices fall so they become affordable to developing countries – where more generating capacity will be needed, where the health of the poorest billions is jeopardised by smokey stoves burning wood or dung, and where there would otherwise be pressure to build coal-fired power stations.

It would be hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for young engineers than devising clean energy systems for the world.

All renewables have their niches – wind, tides, waves and hydro here in the UK, for instance. But an attractive scenario for Europe might be large-scale solar energy, coupled with a transcontinental DC smart grid network (north-south to transmit power from Spain or even Morocco to the less sunny north, and east-west to smooth over peak demand in different time-zones) with efficient storage as well.

Of course the unique difficulty of motivating CO2 reductions is that the impact of any action not only lies decades ahead, but is globally diffused. In contrast, for most politicians the immediate trumps the long term; the local trumps the global. So climate issues, which gained prominence during the Paris conference, will slip down the agenda again unless there’s continuing public concern.

For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.



Trump, COP22 and the Tipping Point for Climate Change Mitigation

📥  Energy and environmental policy, US politics

Professor Ricardo García Mira is Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruña in Spain, and Visiting Professor at the IPR.

Last October the requirement that enabled the Paris Agreement (adopted in December 2015 by 195 countries) to come into force was met; 55 countries who together account for a minimum of 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions formally accepted the Agreement, which came into force a month later. By the close of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP22) held in Marrakech last month, 111 countries had already ratified the Agreement, accounting between them for over three-quarters of global emissions. The Agreement has been one of the quickest to come into force as an international treaty for a global agreement.

The uncertainty generated when delegates became aware, partway through COP22, that Donald Trump had won the US election and would be the next President of the United States did not stop over 200 different countries from signing the Marrakech Action Proclamation with the highest level of political commitment to combatting climate change and reducing its impact. The Proclamation will not be immediately binding on the parties, but will serve as a guide for designing political action towards the drawing up of a regulatory text that will enable the practical application of the Paris Agreement.

A moment of transition

Despite the uncertainties hovering over Marrakech due to Trump’s election victory and his previous criticisms of climate change, the assembled heads of state fixed a deadline of 2018 for the application of the rules in the Agreement. COP22 also led to a better understanding of the numerous questions involved in designing a framework within which the commitments of the Paris Agreement could be fulfilled, defining the areas of convergence and divergence between countries, and adopting a work plan (The Paris Rulebook). The Rulebook covers a wide range of topics, including mitigation, adaptation, finance and transparency, together with a delineation of tools including a new ‘global inventory’ process, market mechanisms and guidelines for the application and fulfilment of commitments based on which definitive decisions will be taken in 2018, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s group of experts, will advance its new report on the effects of climate change and increasing temperatures.

The Prime Minister of Morocco declared that it was an extraordinary occasion, and that there is now no going back on this moment of transition towards an earnest and unified struggle against climate change. Other cities, states and NGOs in Africa, China, Europe and Latin America, among others, declared their concurrence with these sentiments through their heads of government and ministers – including US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The plans in the Paris Agreement include aid for developing states from developed countries to promote the implementation of policies for adapting to climate change and the assignation of specific mitigation funds to eradicate sources of greenhouse gas.

Professor García Mira at COP22

Professor García Mira at COP22

COP22, which brought together over 500 politicians, business people, NGOs and civilians in Marrakech, urged Trump to act for the benefit of the planet, and called for his collaboration. Trump’s leadership, however, is not so critical if we take into account the fact that the struggle against climate change is already being configured as a matter of social responsibility all over the planet, and has already started to generate elements of social identity and socio-political involvement around it. Added to this is the commitment and organisation of municipalities, cities and regions of the world into forums and associations which reinforce this social identification on a local level. Furthermore, China and the European Union are already fighting for the leading position in the struggle against climate change, just in case the United States resigns from this mission. China, for example, has not budged from its commitment to the Paris Agreement, and will keep on fighting against global warming. Political commitment to this cause is real.

Matters still to resolve

Adaptation to and mitigation of the impacts of climate change will require additional funds, especially for developing countries. Hence, despite a high level of consensus between countries, there are certain matters which will need resolving over the next two years; we must reach an agreement to define the climate change adaptation fund, for example, which has been suspended again and will require further negotiations. Another outstanding issue is the Green Climate Fund, which will require more financing.

Climate change exists and is very serious, and people are the main cause. This is stated in the 5th IPCC Report. It is therefore urgent to drastically reduce CO2 emission so that we do not exceed the 2 degrees centigrade threshold, which would be a serious threat to the planet’s stability. The central challenge lies in establishing a real commitment to a green economy, and assessing the positive and negative aspects of applying techniques like geoengineering and bioengineering, which could help establish one.

Finally, scientists as a whole must bear responsibility for the way in which we deal with and supply knowledge to decision-makers in the struggle against climate change. Like the mass media, we also must resist the pressure of powerful lobbying by both large companies and governments that use the results from our reports to pursue their own interests. Furthermore, we can all see – and should greet with concern – the ready flow of money to deniers and sceptics of climate change that facilitates them in discrediting the results of painstaking scientific work.

Commitments underway

Some initiatives towards addressing these challenges are already underway, including Cross-border Cooperation in the Mediterranean (a 5+5 Water Initiative), and others related to energy. The International Civil Aviation Organization is creating a device to reduce CO2 emissions from planes. 48 countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum undertook to maintain their systems in such a way that global temperature increase will be no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade, and to promote measures to achieve a 100% renewable electricity supply, in the short or medium term. Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, among others, have announced their target of reducing CO2 by 80% in 2050. The European Union has made a similar statement, although some countries have not evidenced a clear strategy in other aspects, such as phasing out coal.

Trump’s electoral victory did not, therefore, prevent some of the most vulnerable countries from undertaking serious commitments to reduce emissions, transform their traditional energy systems into renewable energy production, and move towards eco-friendly systems in energy management.

Over the next two years, the technical agreements reached in Marrakech will lead to policies, protocols and financial and transparency procedures which, in turn, will provide the framework for moving from commitment to implementation between now and 2050. Signatories will be committed to drawing up the necessary regulatory architecture to implement political action; complying with the ordinances laid out in the Agreement all over the planet; and driving efficient adaptation to climate change, promoting more sustainable lifestyles which depend less on carbon. In their national industries, they will be expected to establish an eco-friendly framework in energy management, including the residential sector; to promote a sustainable mobility and transport policy; and to fix specific reduction targets for each of the main sectors in greenhouse gas emission, in the short, medium and long term (2020, 2030 and 2050). Their commitments to finance and transparency will include promoting and implementing national policies tending towards the reduction of CO2 emission in all sectors of the economy, and the tools for complying with them; guaranteeing an information management system that is free and which can be publicly accessed; and undertaking appropriate financing to be able to reach these targets.

Marrakech as a tipping point

Implementing these policies effectively will also require combining them in such a way that they are more efficient in terms of mitigation, given the transversal nature of the way the struggle against climate change should be deployed. Far from being dulled by Trump’s victory, Marrakech can be seen as a “tipping point”, a marker of the moment when the idea of the struggle against climate change became an irreversible social trend, spreading out over the whole planet as if it were a forest fire.


In search of the green economy

📥  Economics, Energy and environmental policy

Professor Ricardo García Mira is Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruña in Spain, and Visiting Professor at the IPR.

On 12 December 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the Paris Agreement – a first-of-its-kind deal that bound member states to measures for climate neutrality in this century.

Some steps have already been taken as part of what we might call the institutional response to this challenge of sustainability; promoting environmental education programmes, holding awareness campaigns and providing means for accessing information are all positive measures. But are people taking on the challenge implied by living in a more sustainable way to fight against climate change? What changes should we introduce into our economic models to encourage them, and with what impact on our own lives? And are we taking involvement and cooperation seriously?



Experts say that human responses to the environment are inconsistent with growing ecological awareness and the general acknowledgement of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. The best way to deal with this situation is not clear, but what is clear is that people, as individuals, need to undertake sustainable lifestyles. This is a challenge, because changing to a new lifestyle requires drastic changes in our daily conduct.

Although there is little general awareness of how serious and urgent environmental change is, there have been some attempts to head towards more sustainable lifestyles, and a good number of organisations are working in that direction. These are sustainable initiatives, starting up social innovation projects which, on numerous occasions, have taken the lead over governments as far as identifying the problem is concerned. They involve part of the population in the initiative, respond to the challenge of climate change with small-scale impacts, and ultimately facilitate the survival of sustainable economies in fields related to mobility, nutrition, construction, the use of energy and the reduction or rationalisation of consumerism, to mention but a few. The analysis of different initiatives for sustainable lifestyles in Europe today shows us that, even though there is no collective response to taking on climate change, there is evidence that it is possible to move towards a more sustainable economy in Europe.

The good life

The challenge of real change in behaviour and lifestyles depends on overcoming the deep-rooted conceptions that we still hold about what success, self-fulfilment and consumption are. Attaining a sustainable lifestyle demands an economic model that is truly different from the current, unsustainable models. Using a bicycle instead of a luxury car or living in a smaller house requires us to investigate the complex interactions between psychological, economic, social and technological factors that promote or hinder the adoption of sustainable lifestyles and the transition to an environmentally responsible social economy. A macroeconomic focus on the study of lifestyles should contemplate the way these sustainable but small lifestyle initiatives can be scaled up to a national and even global level, and what needs changing in our economy so that it can become ecological and sustainable.

If we take climate change seriously we will no doubt have to reduce our general level of consumption, but we do not have to see this as a sacrifice. Research results are showing that Europeans are feeling a greater and greater sensation of dissatisfaction with current consumer-based lifestyles and the accelerated rhythm of modern life. In fact, research shows that we experience a greater sensation of welfare when we enjoy more time for ourselves and when we can spend it with others in meaningful activities; in general, we are happier when we withdraw from everything that is related to a materialist understanding of what the good life means.

Culture is an important factor in this problem too. In our concept of what the good life means, we make consumerism the equivalent of the good life and happiness, and our economy is based on this concept. However, people are realising more and more that the way we live is, in many ways, unsustainable – not just from the perspective of the environment, but also because we feel more and more distant and alone, or that our lives lack meaning. Because of this, we must try to develop and assess a global model that can explain changes in lifestyle, while simultaneously testing the efficiency of different routes of transition to a greener and more environmentally sustainable economy.

Possible economies

The University of A Coruña, in partnership with the University of Bath, endeavours to unravel the multifactorial problem of using economic policy to influence behaviour in the GLAMURS (Green Lifestyles, Alternative Models and Scaling towards Regional Sustainability) project. The overall purpose of GLAMURS is the study of the different economic and behavioural models experts have defined as the most conducive to the development of specific policies and combinations of policies to guarantee sustainable development. Our results will furnish recommendations not only for the European Commission and other levels of policymaking, but also for professionals who work in sustainable initiatives and for people interested in living a more sustainable life.

Three possible economies are being analysed by this consortium of eleven European universities in the context of climate change. The first point of analysis starts with the evaluation of a lifestyle based on what has been called the “green economy”, focused on the ecoefficiency of an economic and production system which orients its action towards producing and consuming in a more responsible manner within a model that respects the responsible and efficient use and management of environmental resources.

Secondly, the model of “degrowth” is analysed; it is possibly the least popular model as it requires a reduction in consumption, which today is associated with social and economic status. According to this approach, it is not necessary to grow continuously. Human beings can live and efficiently distribute their resources by reducing production and consumption, which would alleviate environmental impact and make lifestyle more sustainable and closer to nature.

Finally, a third focal point is based on “growth anchored in the community”, the idea of generating the necessary level of self-sufficiency in a community to become sustainable in terms of emissions, production and the consumption of resources. This model can be adapted to the characteristics and needs of various communities, which in a participative way would responsibly manage their own resources.

Individual behaviour, then, interacts with and is dependent upon other systems in society, such as political, economic and cultural systems. Part of our research includes an analysis of how people use their time, and also the role that identity and social rules on responsible environmental behaviour play therein. Identities, based on feelings of belonging to specific social groups, are also developed through observing our own behaviour, and constitute that part of what makes us unique – in addition to being a driving force for behaviour when we define ourselves as the kind of person who acts in favour of the environment. It is also important for people to be aware of the situations in which their choices are sustainable, how taking choices in awareness contributes to the construction of a personal identity which includes seeing ourselves as in favour of the environment, which in turn leads to more sustainable lifestyle choices.


Hinkley Point C and Its Implications for Energy Policy

📥  Energy and environmental policy, UK politics

Professor Geoffrey Hammond is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the interdisciplinary International Centre for the Environment at the University of Bath.

Britain faces major challenges in the period out to 2050. Socio-technical solutions will be required on both the demand and supply side of any future UK energy system. Reduction in the energy demand for heat, power and transport will be a significant element of any energy strategy aimed at limiting global warming to <2°C under whatever pathways we take towards our mid-century goals.

Improvements in energy efficiency can be obtained from better thermal insulation of the building fabric, smart appliances and controls, alongside the adoption of efficient heating systems, such as heat pumps, community energy schemes, and the like. In addition, lifestyle or workplace changes may well be needed – but these will be partially offset by so-called ‘rebound effects’. Decarbonising the supply side is likely to see the continued adoption of offshore wind and rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays. It will inevitably need the uptake of carbon capture and storage (CCS) coupled to gas-fired power plants for a cost-efficient transition, together with sustainable bioenergy and biofuels, and possibly hydrogen as a fuel and energy storage media in the long-term. Unfortunately, there are constraints over the use of bioenergy resources, including uncertainties over the availability of sustainably-sourced biomass in the UK, land use challenges, and competition with food supply.



The energy infrastructure in Britain will also need renewal in order to make it more resilient (to climate change impacts, for example) and to potentially accommodate greater decentralised or distributed generation, including greater use of both large and small energy storage devices. Significant generation, transmission and distribution network reinforcements (operating with much lower utilisation factors) will be needed to meet future changes in demand and generation patterns. However, smart power innovations (a combination of interconnectors, storage and ‘demand flexibility’) could generate £8bn per year in savings. The electricity grid is arguably the most vulnerable part of the power system, reinforcing the case for UK network renewal and reconfiguration by the middle of the 21st Century. Innovation, systems integration, and ‘whole systems’ thinking to identify sustainable energy options (sometimes termed ‘optionality’ in industry) will therefore be critically important in the transition towards a low-carbon future.

Successive UK Governments since the 1990s have argued that new nuclear power plants have an important role to play in our energy mix. The decision by the UK Government to instigate a pause and review before signing off on the contract for the construction of the Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station may well be sensible, or even courageous in terms of the diplomatic implications. All energy technologies have unwanted side-effects, including the likes of shale gas extraction (via hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking') and renewables. They vary only in their magnitude and the extent to which they impact on different human communities and natural ecosystems. Fossil fuels give rise to significant quantities of carbon dioxide emissions that are likely to lead to yet further global warming. Wind generators, in contrast, are low carbon but require costly back-up capacity (most likely from natural gas combined cycle power plants) at high concentrations when wind speeds are low. Indeed, even building energy-saving measures on the demand side can have adverse social consequences – the switch of the burden of financing from the large energy utilities to potentially poor consumers, for example, for the installation of modern condensing boilers, thermal insulation, heating controls, or micro-generators.

The real nuclear power ‘balance sheet’ has therefore both credit and debit sides. On the positive front, it represents a low- or near-zero-carbon source of electricity that is available on a large-scale. However, there are potential risks in terms of nuclear plant safety; actual failures in the case of the Windscale fire at the military plutonium facility in Cumbria (1957), the Three Mile Island partial ‘meltdown’ in Pennsylvania that was contained (1979), and Chernobyl meltdown – that was not – in what is now the Ukraine (1986). In the vicinity of Three Mile Island over 630,000 local people self-evacuated the area following the accident. Closer to home, the Irish Government and NGOs have long been concerned about the cumulative impact of low-level radioactive emissions, principally from the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing and medium-term storage facility, into the Irish Sea.

Perhaps the most dramatic side-effect of power generation was demonstrated by the nuclear power reactor failure at the Fukushima Daiichi site on the North East coast of Japan in March 2011. That was caused by a tsunami wave of sea water some 14 metres high, and triggered by a magnitude 8.2 earthquake. The plant was built to withstand a wave of only about 6 metres. This was arguably a so-called ‘Black Swan’ event – one that is very unlikely to occur but, when it does, the impact is extremely severe. They may be instigated by natural causes as at Fukushima, although the failure to allow for or respond to them results from human frailties. That has induced major changes in energy policy around the world, particularly the potential shut-down of the programme in Germany and the shift in Japanese public sentiment that has been calling for their nuclear power programme to be abandoned.

The case is often made in the UK for nuclear power generation on the grounds of climate change mitigation. But even a doubling of Britain’s nuclear capacity over the next 30 years would only yield about an 8% cut in CO2 emissions. The Hinkley Point C station would also provide 7% of our electricity under favourable baseload conditions. Nuclear power plant safety and radioactive emissions from a European pressurised reactor, such as that planned for Hinkley, are unlikely to present any significant concern in a UK context because of our tight regulatory regime. Nevertheless, the subsequent treatment of nuclear waste and the high life-cycle costs, when 'back-end' (decommissioning and waste disposal/storage) costs are taken into account, are important downsides. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have argued that nuclear power is one of the least cost-competitive means of carbon abatement. An energy-efficiency strategy, for example, displaces between 2.5 and 20 times more CO2 emissions than nuclear power per dollar (euro or pound) invested. They will fall disproportionately on different sections of British society.

It has been speculated in the press that the new UK Government’s pause of the Hinkley Point C decision is primarily due to a long-term concern by the Prime Minister (Theresa May) on security concerns regarding the involvement of the Chinese. The state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation was due to fund a third of the cost of this European pressurised reactor, with the French energy utility eDF covering the bulk of the investment. It is currently estimated by the French to cost £80bn to build over 10 years, although the UK National Audit Office believes that this could cost British consumers over £30bn per annum to run in terms of top-up payments. Apparently the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, rejected the idea of a "special share" in the Somerset-based Hinkley Point C nuclear power project in order to provide extra protection against potential Chinese national security threats. No European pressurised reactor design has actually been commissioned anywhere in Europe, and those elsewhere are some 10 years behind schedule and way over projected construction costs. Taking time to consider the various negative consequences of this proposal is therefore likely to be time (and money) well spent.


Michael Jacobs on high pressure for low emissions - how civil society created the Paris climate agreement

📥  Energy and environmental policy

Michael Jacobs,  visiting fellow at IPPR, and visiting professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, writes the story of how civil society mobilised to secure the Paris climate agreement. This article is cross posted from Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.

The international climate change agreement reached in Paris in December 2015 was, as many observers have noted, an extraordinary diplomatic achievement, uniting 195 countries around a highly ambitious agenda to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As others have said, it sends a powerful economic signal, telling the world’s businesses and investors that the global economy is set to become increasingly low-carbon, and that major new global markets will now be created for renewable energy, and for low-carbon products and new technologies.

What fewer people have noticed is that it was also a remarkable display of the political power of civil society. The Paris agreement was forged over two gruelling weeks of negotiations between governments. But it was crafted into being over the previous five years by a broad coalition of forces from global civil society.

To understand this, we need to understand the astonishing nature of the agreement reached. The Paris deal requires governments to do something none of them wants to do. Governments hate making commitments that they do not know they can meet, and for which the cost is unknown. But this is precisely what the agreement does. It sets the goal of ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions peak as soon as possible, and then commits to phasing them out altogether in the second half of the century. This is not quite a death sentence for fossil fuels, since it may be possible to capture some emissions in natural systems or underground. But it comes close, requiring their almost complete replacement by renewable energy (and possibly nuclear power), even while global energy demand continues to grow. At the same time it requires a complete end to deforestation within the next decade or so, even while agricultural production must rise to feed a growing human population. And it means a fundamental redesign of the world’s cities to reduce energy and transport emissions, even while the world continues to urbanise.

All of this is necessary if the rise in global temperature is to be held to ‘well below 2°C’, or even to 1.5°C as the agreement stipulates. But right now we do not know precisely how achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions will be technologically possible, and we certainly have no idea of the cost. 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels despite the advances in renewables in the last decade.

It is therefore extraordinary that governments have set themselves this radical goal. But they have done more than this. The agreement requires governments, every five years, to set progressively more ambitious targets to reduce emissions. These targets must be based on a scientific ‘stock-take’, also conducted every five years, that will show how far current plans fall short of the 2°C and 1.5°C targets. The Paris agreement therefore guarantees that governments will come under huge pressure to strengthen their targets on a regular basis. To what degree individual governments respond to such pressure remains their prerogative, but it will almost certainly drive them into policies they are reluctant to adopt, such as taxing carbon, reducing subsidies for fossil fuels and phasing out the use of coal. This will antagonise powerful vested interests, and risks stoking political opposition.

Governments hate pressure of this kind. So why on earth have they agreed to subject themselves to it?


The answer is that they have effectively been forced to. Following the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics and others came together to define an acceptable outcome to the Paris conference and then applied huge pressure on governments to agree to it. Some of this activity was formally co-ordinated; much of it came from individual organisations and coalitions. But the combined effect was to generate a political momentum that proved strong enough, in the end, to overcome all resistance. Civil society effectively identified the landing ground for the agreement, then encircled and squeezed the world’s governments until, by the end of the Paris conference, they were standing on it. Four key forces made up this effective alliance.

The scientific community

The first was the scientific community. Five years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reviews and summarises evidence from the world’s climate scientists, was in trouble. Relentless attacks from climate sceptics and a number of apparent scandals – the ‘climategate’ emails, dodgy data on melting Himalayan glaciers, allegations surrounding its chairman – had undermined its credibility. But the scientists fought back, subjecting their work to even more rigorous peer-review and hiring professional communications expertise for the first time. The result was the IPCC’s landmark Fifth Assessment Report, published over several months in 2013–2014. The report was not just another painstakingly sober – and sobering – account of the latest evidence on the impacts of climate change and the costs and benefits of acting on it. It also contained two powerful central insights.

First, the IPCC report introduced the concept of a ‘carbon budget’: the total amount of carbon dioxide the earth’s atmosphere can absorb before the 2°C temperature goal is breached. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, that amounts to around 800 billion tonnes of CO2. Of this, approximately 530 billion tonnes has already been used up, which leaves another 270 billion tonnes available to the world and its future economic growth. At present emission rates, even without growth, that would be used up in less than 30 years. So cutting emissions cannot wait.

The other insight was that these emissions have to be reduced until they reach zero. The IPCC’s models are clear: the physics of global warming means that to halt the world’s temperature rise, the world will have to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions altogether. If we want to hold it to under 2°C, net zero carbon emissions will have to be reached by 2060–2075, and all greenhouse gases emissions halted before the end of the century.

The economic community

The IPCC’s report put the scientific evidence on climate change right back on the political agenda. But it was a second set of forces that really changed the argument. Back in 2006, the UK government’s Stern report had convincingly shown that the costs of future climate change were far greater than the current costs of preventing it. But since the financial crash in 2008–2009, cutting emissions had fallen down the priority lists of the world’s finance ministries. The old orthodoxy that environmental policy was an unaffordable cost to the economy reasserted itself. A new argument was required.

Enter the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an initiative hatched by a number of economists, research institutes and the Swedish, Norwegian and UK governments to re-examine the evidence on climate change and economic growth. Chaired by the former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, and comprising more than 20 leading figures from politics, business and finance, the Commission’s report, Better Growth, Better Climate, set out a powerful new argument. Cutting emissions was not just compatible with economic growth: it could generate better growth, with lower air pollution, more liveable and economically efficient cities, more sustainable use of land and greater energy security. Published in September 2014, the report drew on longstanding academic work on ‘green growth’ and the practical evidence of international organisations such as the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme. Its message quickly reverberated around the world: by the time Calderón’s presentation received a standing ovation at the Lima climate conference in December 2014, it had become the dominant discourse of climate action, repeated by governments and businesses alike. The heads of the mainstream economic organisations quickly took it up: some of the strongest advocates of low-carbon growth soon included Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, Jim Kim of the World Bank and Ángel Gurría of the OECD.

At the same time, a quite separate economic story was being told by a tiny NGO in London called Carbon Tracker. Founded by former investment managers Mark Campanale and Nick Robins, Carbon Tracker took up the IPCC’s idea of the global carbon budget and turned it into a startling proposition. If the world was to stay within the 2°C limit, 80 per cent of the world’s remaining oil, gas and coal reserves were now effectively ‘unburnable’ and would have to be left in the ground. If governments acted on their own commitments, it would leave many of the world’s fossil fuel companies with ‘stranded assets’, unable to continue planned production and with heavily devalued share prices. The world’s stock markets and pension funds were effectively sitting on a ‘carbon bubble’.

Carbon Tracker’s analysis spread like wildfire. Some of the biggest shareholding institutions sat up. The insurance sector had already begun to understand the risk that heightened climate impacts could have both on its products (as insurance claims from extreme weather events rocketed) and on its investments. Within just four years of Carbon Tracker’s first report, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, was warning of the financial risks of climate change, and the global Financial Stability Board was starting to draw up guidelines on how companies and asset holders should ‘stress test’ their investments against different climate scenarios and publicly disclose their risks.

The businesses

As these narratives of science and economics gathered pace, a critical new player began to amplify them. The traditional stance of business organisations had been to oppose stronger climate policy. However, over the last decade a number of leading global corporations, exemplified by the consumer goods giant Unilever, had begun to argue in public that strong climate policy was in the interests of business. On the one hand the ways in which climate change threatens water and food production in supply chains around the world had become increasingly clear. On the other, the growth of green and renewable energy policy has created a global market in low-carbon and environmental goods and services now worth US$5.5 trillion and growing at 3 per cent a year. This has generated whole new industries – such as wind and solar power – dependent on strong climate policy.

For Unilever and other global giants such as Nike, IKEA and Bank of America, it was not enough for businesses to take advantage of the new markets: they should be advocating for policy change. The result was the creation of a new global network, We Mean Business, that brought together seven global business and investor organisations to lobby in favour of climate policy and for a new international agreement. By September 2014 over 1,000 global companies were calling on governments to introduce ‘carbon pricing’ through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes. By May 2015 organisations representing over 6.5 million businesses were urging an ambitious climate agreement in Paris.

The NGOs

Meanwhile, environmental NGOs had shifted their campaign tactics in the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference. While some NGOs downgraded climate campaigning altogether, others focussed their attention on a different battle: the fight against fossil fuels.

The initial focus was coal. Beginning in the US and western Europe, broad-based coalitions with the aim of stopping the building of new coal-fired power stations rapidly spread across the world, as protests over air pollution, land rights and corruption – and the attractions of renewable energy – aligned with climate concerns. Local groups joined forces with sophisticated national campaigns, at great personal risk to protestors in some countries. But the results have been remarkable: since 2010 new coal generation has been virtually abandoned in the US and western Europe, and almost 900 projected plants have been cancelled worldwide. Global coal demand has now tipped into decline, with the movement in the US and Europe now pressing to phase out its use altogether.

Greenpeace turned its attention to protecting the Arctic, and in particular to Shell’s plans to drill for oil there. Combining its usual methods of spectacular direct action with the mass campaigning of over 7 million supporters around the world, the campaign achieved a landmark victory just a few months before Paris, when Shell announced its withdrawal from the Arctic.

What made the NGO revival after Copenhagen different was its global nature. As it became clearer in many developing countries that climate change was already occurring, it increasingly became a focus for a huge range of civil society organisations struggling for development, women’s rights, the rights of indigenous people and other social and economic issues. The global labour movement, too, took it up. The International Trade Union Confederation shifted its campaign strategy away from simply defending jobs under threat and towards arguments for industrial and community support policies to enable a ‘just transition’ from a high-carbon to low-carbon economy. In many countries city mayors and state governors also became critical advocates and exponents of change.

At the same time, two much newer NGOs entered the fray. 350.org, founded by the American writer and activist Bill McKibben, fired up a largely student and youth membership with two highly imaginative and focused campaigns. Picking up Carbon Tracker’s concept of ‘unburnable carbon’, and drawing inspiration from the anti-apartheid disinvestment campaigns of the 1980s, 350.org called upon universities and other institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies. The campaign expanded to include supporters among pension funds and other financial institutions. These argued not that fossil fuel companies were immoral, simply that in a climate-constrained world they were not sound financial assets. At the same time 350.org mounted a nationwide campaign in the US against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring oil from the carbon-heavy Canadian tar sands through the US to the Gulf of Mexico. Bringing together a huge range of opponents – one colourful protest featured Nebraskan ranchers alongside native Americans in a ‘cowboys and Indians’ alliance – the campaign reached a triumphant conclusion in November this year, when President Obama announced that the pipeline was incompatible with the US’s climate policies and would not be approved.

Meanwhile the online campaigning organisation Avaaz was steadily building a global supporter base. Deploying an imaginative combination of online petitions and email campaigns with street protests and paid-for advertisements in newspapers around the world, Avaaz acquired new supporters at the rate of a million a month. Entirely self-financed from small donations, it had reached 42 million global supporters by the time of the Paris conference.


These four emerging forces in civil society – science, economics, business and NGOs – first came together in an organised way around the climate summit in New York in September 2014. Organised by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the summit was unusual in that it brought together not just heads of government but leaders from business and finance, city mayors and state governors, heads of international organisations and NGOs. While the heads of state made speeches accepting the IPCC’s science and the new economics of low-carbon growth, hundreds of new commitments to climate action were made by this new community of ‘non-state actors’ – from stopping deforestation in commodity supply chains to investing in renewable energy; from disinvesting in fossil fuels to making cities more sustainable; from reducing emissions in agriculture to helping developing countries build resilience to climate disasters.

But it was outside the conference hall that the summit really took off. For months a small number of activists had seen the event as a perfect opportunity to mobilise large numbers of climate supporters around the world in big street marches. But the major NGOs were not convinced: what decisions would be made in New York?

So a remarkable thing happened. The idea for a climate march was taken up by the newcomers 350.org and Avaaz, working with community organisations in New York. In the end the big NGOs came on board, and the People’s Climate March on 23 September 2014 became the largest in the history of climate campaigning, and one of the largest ever – 400,000 people in New York, and many more in countless parallel marches in cities around the world. It put climate change onto the front pages of almost every newspaper, and made sure that the leaders gathering at the summit knew they were being watched. Some even joined it.

The climate summit marked the long build-up of political momentum towards the Paris conference. In June 2015 the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, galvanised support from faith-based organisations, particularly in the developing world; he was joined in his calls for climate action by leaders from almost every other faith.


Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a fifth civil society force was exerting its influence: the thinktanks and academics drawing up designs for the agreement to be secured in Paris. Organisations such as the World Resources Institute (WRI) and C2ES in Washington DC, the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation in Beijing and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in Paris conducted quiet consultations with governments and civil society organisations to gather ideas and build support for a new international regime. A gradual consensus coalesced around the concepts of a five-yearly stock-take and cycle of commitments, parity between mitigation and adaptation, the importance of ‘climate justice’, finance for developing countries, and the definition of an accounting and monitoring regime.

The most remarkable of these efforts was the idea that the agreement should have at its heart the long-term goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the second half of the century. This was the idea of London-based lawyer and longstanding negotiator Farhana Yamin. She argued that, since ‘net zero emissions’ was what the IPCC said was required to hold global warming to under 2°C, it should be the goal of the agreement. When Yamin set out the proposition in early 2013, few people in the climate movement thought it was remotely achievable – it might be true, but it was surely far too radical for governments to adopt. But Yamin was undeterred. She set up a small NGO, Track 0, to campaign for it, and used her extensive global networks to win support. It rapidly became clear that Yamin had hit on the concept that could unify the entire civil society movement, now growing in strength. The scientists supported it; the economists and business organisations recognised that it would send the clearest signal to investors about the future direction of the global economy; and the NGOs saw it as the end of fossil fuels. When German chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that she too would support it, a brilliantly orchestrated campaign, supported by a 3-million-strong Avaaz petition, produced a remarkable outcome: agreement at the G7 meeting of industrialised country leaders in Bavaria in June 2015 that they should phase out greenhouse gas emissions altogether by the end of the century.

Gathering all these forces together, the climate movement made a bold decision. The Paris conference had to become another make-or-break moment, at which maximum pressure must be applied to governments. Many warned against raising expectations: hadn’t we done this before Copenhagen, and then been catastrophically defeated? The world could not afford another failure. But others realised that that risk had to be taken – if ambition wasn’t high enough, a sufficiently strong agreement would be impossible. The Paris conference would not solve the problem, but it had to be a big deal.


In the run-up to the conference, the dominant dynamic in the UN negotiations was the relationship between the US and China. Determined to leave a new international agreement as part of his legacy, President Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry prioritised the establishment of a climate relationship with the Chinese government. A joint statement between the two heads of state in November 2014 was followed by a second in September 2015. This raised many people’s hopes that a new agreement could indeed be signed: if the two largest polluters and global powers were aligned, the chances were surely good. But it also led many to fear that the agreement would be weak, for neither the US nor China would want to be constrained by the goals and rules of a binding international treaty.

But in Paris something else happened. The US and China continued to talk, but a much more powerful force emerged as the dominant voice in the negotiations. This was that of the countries most vulnerable to climate change – the low-lying islands and others who are already experiencing severe impacts from rising temperatures and extreme weather events. The structure of the UN climate negotiations, which requires decisions by consensus, gives small countries unusual power if they act together. A new grouping of 43 countries, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, made itself heard alongside the more traditional groupings of small island states, least developed countries and African countries. Together they set the negotiating agenda: they would not sign an agreement unless it had the target of holding global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C; included the long-term goal of net zero emissions; recognised that developing countries needed support for the loss and damage they were already experiencing from climate change; and committed developed countries to scaling up finance from a floor of $100 billion per year in 2020.

Supported on the outside by a broad coalition of NGOs coordinated by the international Climate Action Network, and a looser group of organisations led by WRI’s climate director Jennifer Morgan, the vulnerable countries reached agreement first with the Latin Americans and European Union and then, remarkably, with the US. A common agenda was agreed, including a commitment to the five-year cycles and to a single ‘transparency’ system of measurement, reporting and verification which would apply to all countries. This new ‘high ambition alliance’ challenged other countries to join them. To see one of the tiniest nations on earth, the Marshall Islands, alongside other small countries such as St Lucia and the Gambia, co-ordinating the agreement of the EU and US – and eventually Canada, Brazil and others – to a radical common platform was a remarkable sight. As one Filipino negotiator said, ‘it was the ants moving the elephants’.

The final piece of the jigsaw that created the Paris agreement was the expert management of the conference by the French government, led by foreign minister Laurent Fabius and his climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana. Together with the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, they handled the two-week negotiations superbly, ensuring that all countries felt listened to and that the agreement gave everyone something of what they wanted. The key decision occurred on the Thursday of the second week, when the French issued a bold draft of the final agreement. It was high risk: it could have been rejected. But it was brilliant politics. By anchoring the text in the principles of equity, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and sustainable development, and ensuring continued differentiation between developed and developing countries (though not a on a fixed and binary model, which the US and EU could not accept) they achieved the seemingly impossible – an agreement that met the demands of the ‘high ambition alliance’, but also gave China, India, Saudi Arabia and others what they sought. In the end, it ensured that everyone acceded to a high ambition agreement.


So Paris was a triumph for multilateral diplomacy. But it would not have happened without the huge mobilisation of civil society in the five years beforehand. By orchestrating the narratives of science and economics to demand strong climate action, and organising the business community, NGOs and many others in support of a strong agreement, it was civil society that pressured governments into the positions that made the final negotiations possible.

That’s why the vast majority of environmental NGOs have welcomed the agreement. And it’s why the reaction of the few that did not – those such as Friends of the Earth, who called the Paris outcome a ‘sham’ – is so short-sighted. Of course in an ideal world governments would have committed to higher ambitions now. But in the world we live in, this was more or less as good as it could have been, and far stronger than most people realistically thought possible. Moreover, it owed a great deal to civil society pressure. If you cannot recognise victory when it comes, how can your supporters ever feel that campaigning is worth it? Rejection of the agreement sends a terrible message to campaigners and activists. It says to them – whatever you do, whatever you achieve, you’ve always failed.

More importantly, the agreement casts new light on the relationship between civil society, governments and capitalism. In her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein argues that climate change is the inevitable consequence of capitalism, and that the former will only be combatted if the latter is overthrown. This thesis, intended as a clarion call for campaigners, was always a recipe for despair. If it depends on capitalism being overthrown, reversing climate change in the little time we have available will surely be impossible. But the real problem is that the causality in this argument is the wrong way round. We do not have to overthrow capitalism to tackle global warming. On the contrary, by tackling climate change, we can change capitalism.

This is what the Paris agreement will set in train. In order to achieve the targets they have set, governments will have to introduce policies that regulate businesses and shape markets. They will have to tax carbon and incentivise innovation. They will need industrial policies and public expenditure. They will find themselves penalising fossil fuel industries and encouraging energy efficiency. They will have to create cities that work for people, and land-use systems that sustain the forests, soil and water. And in doing these things they will ensure that capitalism can no longer destroy the climate system, because global society will no longer allow that to happen.

This is, of course, why those on the free-market right so hate the climate agenda. They know that dealing with it involves managing and shaping capitalism in order to achieve social and environmental goals. But equally, it is why everyone else, from social democrats to greens, liberals and Christian democrats, can welcome the Paris agreement as a signifier that our economic system is not out of our control.

So has the agreement saved the world? Of course not. No international negotiation can do that. As many people have pointed out, the agreement is just a framework of goals and rules. Now governments have to act on it – and at every step there will be battles with powerful forces that continue to pursue a high-carbon economy. Achieving a temperature rise limit of 2°C, let alone 1.5°C, will be an immensely difficult process requiring transformative economic change that will challenge our political system. It will take immense, continuing efforts by civil society to force governments down the path to zero emissions that they have now laid out.

But in building this agreement, civil society has cleverly written itself into it. Lying at the heart of the agreement are the five-yearly ‘global moments’, when governments will have to face up to the inadequacy of their current efforts and commit to doing more. At each of these moments it will be up to the combined forces of civil society – in every country – to pressure them into doing so. As ever throughout history, economic and social change will come from below, from a coalition of social movements and enlightened businesses, campaigners and visionaries. It was how the Paris agreement was constructed over the last five years. And it is how the agreement just may be able to save the planet over the next 50.