I Blame the Parents

Is it our increasing population that is really to blame for climate change?  Should we be focusing our efforts on reducing the birth rate rather than the emissions of those already alive?  This is a difficult one for me, with a young family of three, but I will remain objective and see where it leads – please bring me up short if I stray.

An expert in the field of forecasting long term trends, who happens to be an employee of a large oil company, suggested during a public debate that 40% of future increases in greenhouse gas emissions are expected to result from a growing population, with the other 60% from lifestyles.  On those rough figures, it would seem that the answer is a bit of both.

Logically, there wouldn’t be a problem if the human population was a lot lower – emissions would go down proportionally and more so with fewer people developed nations.  The problem would also largely go away if everyone adopted simpler, less destructive lifestyles.  A large population would still have a significant impact, though.

So what should we do?  I feel the need to look at a few numbers.

What would happen if we went to the extreme and banned all new births?  No one is suggesting we do – I’m just taking it to an extreme.  I’ll concentrate on the western world, in fact the UK, as I’ve got some numbers to help me.  Cautionary note – take these numbers as back of the fag packet calculations – I’m doing them to get a picture, nothing more.   They ought to be in the right ball-park.

According to the book “How Bad are Bananas?” by Mike Berners-Lee, the average child born now is expected to be responsible for 373 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in their lifetime.  According to UK government projections, there are expected to be 1,100 births per 1,000 women from 2014 to 2030 [no, must have misinterpreted the ONS site – less than half that – thanks to Stewart for pointing out in comments below – other figures below have been corrected accordingly].  Over that period, there will be about 67 million people in the UK on average, so about 33.5 million women.  So about 15 million births.  By my rough calculations they would be responsible for about 4 billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifetimes, of which 1.3 billion tonnes will be emitted by the end of 2030.  That’s of a total of 10.8 billion tonnes for which the UK is expected to be responsible over the same period.

So we could reduce our total emissions by 13% if we stopped all births over that period.  Of course we wouldn’t stop all births, that would be crazy.Emissions per year kids from 2014

So how about reducing the birth rate so the average number of children per family was 2?  It’s only slightly over 2 at the moment, so that would have very little effect.  Roughly speaking, reducing the number of children to one per family would save about 7% of UK emissions.

These numbers all assume that the UK will decarbonise the energy sector by 80% by 2050, according to its international agreements.  They also assume that children are as responsible for as much carbon dioxide as adults.

So, from a carbon emissions standpoint, it is worth trying to reduce the birth rate.

But it certainly wouldn’t solve climate change.  And it would reduce emissions anywhere near quickly enough.  The only way to do that is to stop using as much fuel and energy now, by our lifestyle choices.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Have you Been Misled?

What you think you know about climate change could be bollocks.  You might hear the voices of those with a vested interest in the status quo say that climate change is a swindle, a hoax, made up by the political left and scientists looking for grant money and propagated by the gullible environmentalists.  Rubbish, of course.  No, the real misinformation is about how much time we have to get the carbon out of our system.  In reality, you’ve got time to solve the problem, but not to wait for “them” to give you a hand.increase-profit

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre spelled this out in no uncertain terms in the Cabot Institute Annual Lecture of 2012 “Real Clothes for the Emperor” in Bristol.

The scientists that turn the jargon-ridden scientific papers into something useful for policy makers, business and public alike have been overly optimistic.  They’ve fallen into that all-too-human trap of wanting to please.  It’s not the science that has been misrepresented, but the part of the system most difficult to predict – the reaction of humanity.

I’ve seen the same happen in business profit projections or forecasts of project spending when the proverbial shit is hitting the proverbial fan.  Not wanting to be the unfortunate harbinger of bad news, managers account for all of the myriad of initiatives that have been conjured up to improve the situation and ignore the potential downsides.  They may still end up with a little bad news, but it looks manageable, under control.

That was one of the reasons I wanted to get out of permanent employment as a project manager.  I’d taken a more pragmatic and realistically honest approach, which had then got watered down and politically finessed before reaching the upper management, who were all to ready to subtly point the finger, or allow those below them to do so.

So I can see how it has happened with the projections for climate change.  Kevin Anderson looked at the forecasts in a cross section of scientific summary reports and showed where the heroic assumptions have come in.

Their assumptions about the now are bad enough.  They often start with a level of emissions lower than reality.

Then it gets really silly when you look at the future.  Most reports upon which policy makers rely assume that global emissions will peak in 2014 to 2016, where in reality the rate they’re going up is going up.  Then they assume that emissions will go down at an incredible rate.  So fast in fact that if you make realistic assumptions about the rate of decrease of emissions in the developing world, then the developed world would have to abruptly, suddenly stop all greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

The lesson?  We cannot rely on “them” to replace our electricity supplies with emission-free alternatives quickly enough – it just isn’t feasible.  We cannot rely on “them” to invent a way of making our cars or planes move without damaging the future.

The only way that we can get out of this mess is if those people who possess the solution prioritise the future for our children above their own luxury.  That’s the 1-5% of the global population responsible for the majority of emissions, the people who earn £30K or more or fly once a year.  That may well mean you.

To enact the solution might look like making sacrifices, like stopping flying or travelling less.  In my experience life is a whole lot better when you make the change.  I’ve got so much more time for my family, Britain is beautiful and the company of friends life-giving.  Let’s enjoy real Life.

The next couple of posts will discuss how that might come about.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

A Confession

This is a very personal post.  I am bearing my soul to you: letting you in on a secret.  I have an addiction.  I’ve been in denial and am now in a place that I can write about it.  I still don’t really believe it.
Tongue in Cheek
The good news is that my addiction is manageable, and nowhere near as bad as it can get.  The bad news is that it is potentially terminal, and particularly harmful to those closest to me.

The acronym I have found and used that helps me realise that I have a problem is CAGE.  It stands for Cut Angry Guilty Eye-opener.  It is a reminder of four questions – if you answer Yes to two of the four, then there is a chance you are addicted.

Yes – I do feel as though I need to Cut down.  Thankfully, no – I don’t get Angry if someone points out the problem.  Yes – I do sometimes feel Guilty.  No – I don’t show symptoms of an Eye-opening addiction behaviour, such as driving round the corner when a walk would be only slightly longer.

What?  Driving round the corner?  What’s he on about?

The addiction I have is to carbon use.  I’m almost certain that you have the addiction too, even though we both know that our mental and physical health is suffering and the long term damage is unspeakable.  If you don’t accept this, there is a strong possibility that you are in denial.  If you get angry at the accusation (or for example if someone tells you not to fly abroad for a holiday or to switch off your lights or car) then see the “A” in CAGE.

I can’t seem to kick the habit.  I still get on the computer or phone regularly – I can’t seem to stop myself.  There is no way I seem to be able to make a meal or sandwich without including meat or cheese if there is some available.  It’s an awful temptation to get in the car  to take the kids swimming rather than learn how to ride a bike properly.

I’ve found a very useful website that can help, to diagnose, help with understanding and provide tips on how to break the habit.

Sorry to have to break it to you like this.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

So who has the solution?

So who does have the solution to climate change? The answer is surprising.

Rather than try to find the person or people to blame and vilify about what we have done and continue to do to exacerbate the problem, might it be more fruitful to look for the group of people who are most able to get us out of the hole?

If we’re thinking about a technological solution, then it could be any one or more of a number of scientists, inventors or entrepreneurs.  How about a solar greenhouse?  Or farming practices that capture carbon dioxide?  Trouble is that the world is a big place with a lot of people in it – and it takes time for new technologies to roll-out, especially on an industrial scale as would need to be the case.
Your Country Needs You
Technology will probably be part of the solution, but probably not quick or comprehensive enough (too little, too late).  So who else?

We could look at who has the power to decide how much of the different greenhouse gases to emit.  Of course, that includes everybody, to a greater or lesser extent.  If you walk over to the light switch and switch it on or off, you are creating or stopping some emissions.  So we can all reduce the emissions for which we are responsible.

But let’s look at those who have the greatest sway on the level of emissions.

It is the way of the world that power is always concentrated among a tiny minority.  By applying the 80-20 rule three times, scientist Kevin Anderson showed that 40-60% of emissions are the responsibility of 1-5% of the global population. These super-rich have the keys to the solution for climate change.

But just who are these super-rich?

Turns out that in western terms, super-rich doesn’t seem that wealthy.  If you earn £30K or more per annum or fly once per year, it’s you.

It’s you.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


To some it might seem a little crazy that I’ve jacked in the permanent job, don’t fly and forego the convenience of the supermarket to buy more local food.  When I tut while someone’s car idles as the driver runs back to their house for their purse, I have to remind myself that I did not always think like this, and it has taken years for my attitudes to change.  Yours may change too, given time.Crazy

Not very many years ago, I wanted to fly around the world and visit every corner.  I flew to the south of Spain for a golfing break, for goodness sake.  I flew to Canada for a snow-boarding holiday.  I flew all over the place.

When I first learned to drive, I used to tear around the lanes of Anglesey as fast as I could.  Seems ridiculous now.  After a few points on my licence for overtaking on chevrons, my attitude changed.  I then made a point of driving at the speed limit.  I’d leave a 30 mile and hour area to de-restricted and would accelerate as fast as I could to get to 60.  I’d make a point of driving at a constant 80 on the motorways (everyone did – they were talking about changing the limit in any case).  Idiot.

I don’t think there was any particular moment when I suddenly became aware of the carbon emissions I was causing.  Over time, I have changed my habits, one by one – it’s kind of crept up on me.  I haven’t flown for years.  I drive at 60-65 max.  I take the slower, direct route rather than nip onto the A41 and zoom down the dual carriageway to get to Hemel Hempstead.

I’m sure my attitudes and habits on other things will change over time as well.  Vegetarianism, here we come.

It has been a slow accumulation of knowledge and understanding that has lead me here, such as reading a lot of New Scientist articles, being part of Eco-teams and finding out lots of useful titbits (such as the 10 second rule for switching off your car engine).

My point is that I should not get angry with others when they do what I used to do – they’ve just not yet been on the journey so they are aware of what they are doing.  And my point to you, the reader, is that you are likely to go on that journey as well.

Talking to a friend Steve about this yesterday, he commented that his habits are slowly changing.  “Baby steps”, he described it as.  He now will choose the UK tomatoes rather than those from Holland, for example.

Some of you will probably be reading what I do now and think I am a bit of a lunatic.  I hope you will remember to look back at this in 10 years and compare with your attitudes at that time.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Pleased about climate change?

Thank you very much to Juliet, who gave me some very useful feedback in the follow-up to the last post I put up.  It was the one that featured the video of David Mitchell on his soap box, having a go at people who publicly push climate change as an issue (that would include me) and those that deny it’s a problem alike.Balanced Stones - smaller

Have a look at the video if you haven’t already, and again if you have.  You don’t have to, it just might set a bit of context to the rest of this blog.  I’d really appreciate some feedback on what I’m about to say, so it would be great if you could think about that as you read.  I’ll keep it short so you have more time to feedback.  If you aren’t able to comment directly below, then using Facebook, Twitter or email are all fine – I may post some of it back here in the comments.

There are lots of useful messages in Mr Mitchell’s video, such as that whatever you do, mitigating against climate change isn’t going to sound as sexy as driving to the arctic and blowing up an iceberg.  It’s just something we need to do, like the washing up.

The gem of an insight that Juliet gave to me was in drawing my attention to the first sentence in the video.  David pointed out that those people who raise the issue of climate change often (always?) seem to be just a little bit pleased about it.  Juliet took that further and likened “us” to the hairshirt brigade – delighting in forcing people to ride their bikes rather than use the car and the like.  It was a particularly useful piece of feedback as it came from someone who described themselves as part of the “wider audience” rather than the converted choir, on the sympathetic end of the spectrum, but not ready to join up [to Transition Town Berkhamsted].

Thinking about it from the other side of the fence at the time, I thought that there might be some who do see climate change as an opportunity.  It could be political, to move people to the left, or it could be idealistic, to return to a more natural lifestyle.

I’d be very interested to hear from any of you whether you can identify with these thoughts, and whether I myself come across as being pleased about climate change*?  And if I or others do, how could we avoid doing so?  What is it about how I / we put things across that creates this impression?

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

* I’m not, of course.  My next post will be about what I feel about it, and its impact on my life at the moment.

It’s happening, it’s us and it’s bad

Peppa PigThe planet is warming and the climate changing, we are doing it, it is bad and we can sort it out.  I’m worried about this because the people who are going to feel the brunt of this are the same people I have to coerce into getting ready for school in the morning rather than play nurses or watch Peppa Pig.

We know the planet is warming by looking at the combination of surface and ocean temperatures.  If you just look at the surface temperatures it looks as though there are confusing pauses in the warming, but that’s just because the weather is what transfers heat in the oceans to the surface, and weather comes and goes.

A lot of people think that the warming is natural, as we’ve been in and out of ice ages in the past.  Or maybe it is changes in the intensity of the sun.  Unfortunately the earth was cooling for 7000 years before we got in on the act.  It’s not changes in the intensity of the sun, which has been going up and down with its 11 year cycle and been cooling – if it was the sun there would be less warming at night.

In fact, the only explanation out there that fits the observed data is that there are more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have come from you and me.  The physics tells us that some heat will be reflected back to Earth if there are more greenhouse gases and the science bods have directly measured that the heat that is escaping is at the wavelengths of the greenhouse gases.

We know the greenhouse gases, the main one being carbon dioxide, have resulted from us because the extra carbon dioxide is the sort you get from burning fossil fuels rather than that naturally abundant in the atmosphere.

Excluding impacts of increased war or exoduses or ocean turning more acid, and considering impacts out to the year 2200 only, Cambridge University in the UK suggest that each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted costs $100 down the line (including discounting the value of the future).  Given we are emitting 35.6 billion tonnes per year, that means that we are causing $3.6 trillion damage per year.  That’s not considering the impacts on the natural world and the mass extinctions we are already perpetrating.

And all we need to do is switch things off, buy less manufactured stuff, spend more time at home and get behind energy sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide for the remaining energy needed to keep us going until nuclear fusion comes along.  It’s not hard, and at the same time it is very hard indeed.

Please do let me know what you think.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Some Numbers – A 4⁰C World

In my last post I said I’d look into information available quantifying the effects of the level of climate change currently expected.  I have to admit that I’ve spent a very frustrating morning trying to find facts and figures about the effects and have not managed to find a great deal, particularly relating to the effects of the 4 to 6 ⁰C increases that are forecast on current trends (of change and our response to date and planned).

Anyone reading who has another or better source of up to date facts and figures about what we are letting ourselves in for, please do comment at the bottom of this post.

Generally what I’ve found is that when looking at the higher end of the forecast increases in temperatures, commentary in the scientific papers falls back on statements to the effect of “it will be really bad” and comparing with the coldest temperatures during the last ice age (5-6 ⁰C lower than current temperatures).

I think the lack of quantification available is genuine.  But I think some numbers would be better than none:

 “Uncertainty is an argument for a more, not less, demanding goal [on reducing greenhouse gas emissions], because of the size of the adverse climate-change impacts in the worst-case scenarios.” – Stern, 2006

And taking that a step further, lack of figures on the impacts is an argument for a more, not less, demanding goal, because the figures that we do have, particularly for lower increases, are bad enough.

Anyway, on to what I have managed to unearth.

My main source is a paper published in January 2011 by the Royal Society.  I’ll put links to the sources directly in the text below.  To start, a 4 ⁰ C increase is estimated to be reached during 2070s.

Looking at water, it looks as though dry regions are to get dryer and wet regions are to get wetter.  I found it difficult to interpret the graphs, but it appears to show a 30-70% decrease in the water available per capita, dependent on population growth and temperature change (the latter dominates in a 4 ⁰C world).  The regions under the greatest water stress at the moment are the US, Mediterranean Europe, India and China, plus parts of Africa – and these are the areas that are expected to feel the brunt of increases in water stress in the coming decades.  This is leading to increases in grain prices as water is used directly rather than for agriculture.

Looking at monetised costs, in Africa alone in 2030 for adapting to climate change are estimated at $60 billion per annum.  This still leaves residual effects that cannot be avoided.

Costs for global sea-level rises for a 4 ⁰C world are expected to reach $37-407bn per annum (I’ve adjusted to show present value), with the range depending on whether 4 ⁰C leads to 50 cm or 2 m of rises, which in turn depends on the unknown extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet in those conditions.

The Stern Report of 2006 costs of mitigating climate change are -2% to +5% of GDP (the lower part of the range relating to more prompt and efficient mitigation action), with an average of 1% of GDP.  Global consumption would decrease by 20% otherwise.  Then the net benefits of one year’s action to mitigate climate change would be of the order of $2.5 trillion.  So we should do so, you would think?

The UK parliament is currently discussing the Energy Bill.  It falls short in that it doesn’t commit to a target on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so I urge you to take action to promote amendments to the bill to introduce an end target and interim targets.  In developed nations, we need to largely decarbonise by 2030 for 37% chance of not exceeding 2 ⁰C (assuming developing nations peak their emissions by around 2025), according to the Royal Society.

The proposed changes to the bill not only give us a chance of mitigating climate change, they also make sound economic sense in the medium term.  It is estimated that there would be a £23bn saving in the UK if we went for de-carbonisation rather than for emerging fossil fuel deposits.  Gas prices (not renewables) were responsible for 62% of the increase in energy prices since 2004.

Again, if anyone reading has a different or better source of information about the quantification of the effects of a changing climate, then please do share by commenting below.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Is Carbon Capture & Storage the Silver Bullet?

Can Carbon Capture and Storage technology (or CCS for short) allow us to deal with climate change without damaging oil company share prices? Many hope that CCS will allow us to mitigate against climate risk without first going through a major global economic transition with the demise of the big oil and coal companies.

CCS, as I’m sure you know, is the process of extracting the carbon dioxide at the point that fossil fuels are turned into energy, and taking that carbon dioxide and storing it safely away under ground for long enough for it to decompose.

As described previously, if we burn the declared resources upon which the big fossil fuel companies share prices rest we will emit 5 times as much CO2 than we can afford to in order to avoid an average global temperature increase of 2° Celsius. And the oil companies are still looking for more – e.g. shale gas, searching the Arctic and so on.

Carbon capture and storage is seen by many as the way through that.

All of the individual elements of the technology exist and are in use. In fact, there are already 8 fully integrated schemes in operation with a commercially viable capability and another 64 in the pipeline (Global CCS Institute, Jan 2013 survey). We are already capturing 20 megatons of CO2 per annum.

Come on, this sounds great. Could it really do the trick? Let’s do some sums.

At the moment, we emit 33 gigatons of CO2 each year. In their scenarios, Shell forecast that will continue to increase to over 40 gigatons per annum by 2040, and will decrease thereafter.

The Global CCS Institute survey reports that they expect us to be able to capture more than 120 megatons of CO2 per annum by 2020. Oh dear, that was megatons wasn’t it? That means we will be capturing about 1 in every 300 tons of CO2 by 2020. A drop in the ever rising ocean.

We must be able to do better than that, surely? Shell scenarios help again, as one of the scenarios they evaluate (Mountains) describes a future where we go all out for CCS, starting in a realistic time frame. It is a little optimistic possibly on that front as the rate of deployment of that CCS outstrips even the most grandiose historic achievements (Kramer-Haigh, Nature 462, Dec 2009). In this scenario, we capture 30%  of CO2 by 2050, and all by the end of the century. We miss the 2° C target by miles.

If not CCS, maybe this?

If not CCS, maybe this?

So, we need to get a move on now rather than later. Unfortunately, the number of potential projects is going down rather than up (is 72 now and was 75 in October 2012). The UK competition (UK CCS Commercialisation Programme) has been held up at the Department for Energy and Climate Change as they are concerned about getting their numbers right following the UK Department for Transport being burned in the evaluation of the West Coast rail franchise competition. The European Commission’s NER300 competition awarded funding to zero CCS projects (out of an expected 12).

Clearly, this needs regulation and vastly quicker progress if this is to be the silver bullet. Let’s not pin our hopes in it just yet.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

The Future According to Shell

The long-awaited new scenarios from Shell were published yesterday. For 40 years Shell have foregone the typical Western convention of extrapolated forecasts to predict the future impacts of decisions. Instead they have regularly developed a small number of scenarios, where the most unpredictable elements of the future are varied to depict a few possible futures. The last set were in 2008, where two scenarios were created, Scramble and Blueprints – the distinctive difference between the two being that the latter allowed for unilateral, co-ordinated action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. These scenarios were unusual in that for the first time Shell announced a strong preference for one scenario over another*.

This time, Shell have really pushed the boat out and have ordained to attempt to predict the future to the end of the century. They are are great pains to point out that these forecasts are illustrations to help decision making now, not an augur into the unknowable future. The two scenarios they present are named Mountains and Oceans.

Mountains concerns a future where the concentration of power remains with the traditional few. In this world Shell foresee that economic growth will be constrained. They place relatively speedy introduction of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in this scenario, due to a desire to maintain the status quo. This combination of lower growth and introduction of CCS means that the CO2 emissions for the Mountains scenario are relatively low, but still far exceed the trajectory needed for a 2 degree future.

It should be noted that the rate of deployment of CCS in this scenario outstrips the rate of deployment of any large-scale change to the energy industry in the past. This point is not evident from the report, but I am reliably informed that it is the case.

The other scenario is Oceans. Here, there is wider political reform, and the balance of power moves to less traditional places. The turbulence caused by this transition means that the strong policies needed to incentivise and bring in CCS and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are delayed.  In Oceans there is strong economic growth given this market freedom, and the overall emissions of this scenario are higher than in Mountains.

The report highlights that the individual components of each scenario are in some cases interchangeable. It would be possible, they say, for the faster introduction of CCS and other technologies and policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions to occur in Oceans as well as Mountains. They therefore also depict what they call a sensitivity with a more green Oceans outlook – which is still way off the 2 degree trajectory.

They also remark that the scenarios are interconnected; that the seeds of the political upheaval in Oceans lie in the stagnation of Mountains, and vice versa.

Shell - cropped

When discussing the sustainability of these projections, they make two very important points about greenhouse gas emissions. Firstly, they state that it is through leadership and policy making, rather than the markets, that the necessary changes to allow the curbing of emissions to happen can be brought through.

They also state that the projections do not include, as they put it, the climate turbulence that would result from their emissions trajectories. They state that this would severely damage the economy, dramatically lower energy demand and reduce emissions, albeit by a negative route.

They describe a possible future where in the 2020s the effects of climate change are so severe that rich and poor alike demand that the root cause of climate change be addressed, namely to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions within a generation.

Remember, this is Shell talking.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke
* Blueprints, by the way, in case you were wondering