Category Archives: Ecology

Sustainable UK – what might it look like?

Thing is, there are two, I kind of want to call them ‘attractors’ working here.

Population keeps increasing, oil (and gas etc) supply dwindles as demand increases, there isn’t enough land to use solar/biomass to keep present standard of living.

The other one is that the oil (and gas etc) lasts long enough to totally fuck things up through climate change instead.

We seem to be headed into one or other of those attractors, and it does seem completely inevitable as long as market forces and economic growth continue to take total precendence over any other human considerations whatsoever.

Most of the post-oil solutions that we hear about aren’t too plausible either when you look at them in detail. For example if you work out exactly how much arable land you need for biofuels and compare it to what’s available, and to what’s required for the people we already have to eat food.

There is a sort of steady drip drip in the media of partial solutions that does tend to make it sound like answers are near at hand. This is accompanied by a steady drip drip of PR effort designed to convince us that there isn’t actually a problem. So people don’t know what to think unless they go do the research for themselves.

It’s subject to assumptions. For example, Pimentel (in ‘Food, Energy and Society’) offers the following assumptions for ‘business as usual’

0.5 ha/cap for food production.
1.5 ha/cap for energy systems.
1.0 ha/cap for pasture/biodiversity etc.

On those assumptions, and assuming soil erosion etc is effectively dealt with using known methods, we get 2 billion sustainable global population with ‘EU-average energy use’. Unfortunately we already have 6 billion and rising, so there are obviously some tricky issues to be figured out here.

What does this mean for the UK?

Given that the policy of the leaders of the US and hence the UK appears to be to continue business as usual, at gunpoint where necessary, albeit with some cosmetic programmes here in the UK, I’d really like to understand what that is likely to mean for all of us.

An increasing weight of evidence has been emerging over the last few years, since the Shell announcements, that the production peak for conventional oil is pretty much imminent. Given rising demand and the failure to implement programmes which could control demand, presumably this means a rising trend in oil prices, and energy prices generally. As far as I’m aware this always causes a recession, and if prolonged, is likely to result in an economic depression of unprecedented dimensions.

The UK is particularly vulnerable, because due to ‘free-market’ policies we’ve been following since Thatcher, we’ve trashed our coal mining infrastructure, burned through most of our oil; we’ve also, since WW2, trashed a whole lot of our arable land and our population has grown to about 6x what it was before the industrial revolution.

It appears to me that any transition to renewable energy is urgent, and best accomplished right now, while we’re still relatively well-off in terms of these resources. While we have it, we should be using it to make the transition. If we wait until we’re in a depression, then the transition becomes much harder.

This is pretty clearly not the likely outcome though. So what are we in for?

I’d be very interested in having a more substantial discussion of the likely implications of this situation for people living in the UK, over the next few decades. Assuming that we carry on with business as usual.

We can do Pimentel’s calculation above for the UK. Here are some very rough numbers.

CIA world factbook says there are (I’ve converted from square miles to ha)

24.4million ha of land in the UK and 6.4 million hectares of it is arable land.

Pimentel says that on the assumptions given in his book, you need per cap:

1.5 ha for energy systems (to get EU average levels of energy supply)
1 ha pasture, biodiversity, etc. (because we’re assuming no petrochemicals)
0.5ha for growing food

If we just look at growing food and assuming (as an approximation) you can only do this on arable land, that means that in the absence of oil (as a limiting case) we have a sustainable population of about 12 million, so 1/5 of the numbers we presently have. This is pretty close to the 10m of the census of 1800, before the industrial revolution got started.

We can also be fairly sure that the remaining non-arable land isn’t all usable or available for pasture, biodiversity or energy systems such as bio-fuels. So we can conclude from this that with our present population, whatever the real sustainable figure is, it probably isn’t the 60million we have right now.

We aren’t going to be totally without oil in the forseeable future though, so this is definitely a limiting case, rather than an immediate problem. It does however give you a pretty good feel for how bad things could potentially get.

The gap between these numbers and present day reality is largely plugged by oil and gas, in a variety of different ways. Fuels, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Those are all going to become much more expensive and much less available, producing economic hardship on a very large scale over the coming decades. Once we’re in a major economic depression, as a result of global oil shortages, something I think is likely within a decade or so, then we’re in a much worse position to make any investments in sustainable alternatives.

With our current political system, only pro-capitalist parties can get elected, so if we’re assuming ‘business as usual’ then we’re assuming this is happening in a capitalist context, with major unemployment due to economic depression.

Assumptions are obviously being made to arrive at Prof. Pimentel’s figures. You can find them articulated in great detail in his book ‘Food, Energy and Society.’ What he’s assuming, roughly, is business as usual, only with sustainable energy and agriculture. So he’s not for example assuming big changes in population distribution. This is quite important. In practice, a fairly large amount of the energy used by the average family is spent in putting food on the table, far more than on running cars or heating their homes for example.

The relatively massive energy use in food production arises because of the process that puts food on the table. Pimentel offers a figure of 10 units of oil energy to put 1 unit of food energy on an average US table. This breaks down as petrochemicals used as fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, transport of fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, harvesting, transport of cereals, vegetables and fruit, transport of animals, transport and disposal of wastes, food processing, packaging, transport to supermarkets etc. See for example what’s in your bag of supermarket salad? for a discussion of just some of these process stages in a bit more detail.

If I eat a tomato grown organically 3m from where I’m sitting right now, then clearly these costs don’t apply. I don’t want to spend my whole life growing food however. So in order to minimise these kinds of costs, but maximise the efficiency of food production and hence radically reduce the energy needs of our way of life, I would suggest that one should cooperate with others to grow food close to where one lives. Eco-villages with a population in the 2-500 range are optimal and experience with these models seems to imply an average of say 8 hrs per cap per week spent growing food.

You can do a fair bit better than Pimentel’s assumed 1.5 ha for food, pasture, biodiversity etc, and also reduce his 1.5 ha for energy. You need about 0.25 ha per cap for this system to produce a complete and balanced diet, but you still need some space for energy systems, to heat your home etc. But around 0.5 ha or somewhere around one acre per human, is enough to provide for a decent way of life.

Assuming that acre is decent arable land, that still only implies a sustainable UK population of around 12m though, while we have 60m citizens at present. If you assume only half of it needs to be arable, you get 24m, but in practice, you mostly don’t get land that’s half arable and half marginal and that matters if were talking about something as localised as an eco-village.

I think that you still need to find some way to recover land that presently isn’t viable, in order to sustain our present population in the absence of oil, but assuming big changes in our way of life.

I think it’s in the realms of the possible, but not with ‘business as usual’ assumptions, or population distribution.

Let’s break down where the oil inputs to agriculture go and analyse them a bit. I suggest we separate two cases.

1) The difference between agricultural efficiency using pesticides etc and by standard organic methods. Typically organic gives about 20% less yield (see e.g. this 21 year study ), but is much more efficient in its use of say nitrogen inputs. Nor does it damage the soil, which petrochemical agriculture does. Given that erosion is also a major food security issue, this is pretty important.

2) All the other stuff. This includes fuels for farm equipment, which is mostly replaceable by work animals given sufficient land for pasture. It’s mostly a matter of fuel for food distribution and packaging and waste disposal though.

The solutions to the latter case would appear to me to be localisation of food production so that you don’t need to use lots of oil for fuel, packaging etc.

So we need to look at the localisation model to see how much extra labour would be required. If a vast amount of extra labour is required, that’s presumably where it comes from, as we can get fairly comparable yields from conventional organic vs chemical farms without the need to greatly increase the labour inputs.

The furthest extreme is everybody just grows their own. Even on that basis, organic smallholders who seek self-sufficiency (rather than those farming commercially) generally seem to manage to produce their food with a fairly reasonable *average* day, although this means pretty heavy labour at some times of year, with relatively light labour the rest of the time. You can get a pretty good feel for what’s involved from Borsodi

It makes more sense to share the labour over a locality though. With an eco-village of 400 people, the figure I’ve seen quoted is 20% of working time spent on growing food, which I believe is based on Swedish eco-village results (I’ll check this)

Now to be sure, the resultant way of life is not at all that promoted by the corporate ‘lifestyle’ industry, but it’s about as comfortable as that of village life circa 1910, plus a few low energy impact forms of modern technology. It’s interestingly, rather similar in some important ways to what Kropotkin describes in ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’ although he’s coming at it from a rather different direction and isn’t aware of some of the resource issues.

I would argue that if we keep using unsustainable methods to provide food and energy, no matter how cleverly we do it, we just defer the problems. I think that unsustainable energy sources will probably be needed to enable a sane transition to sustainability, given any believeable projections of global population, food and energy supply vs demand etc over the next century.

I don’t think we have any acceptable choice besides making such a transition, but I think that the political influence of capitalists, religious fanatics and other nuisances will make that transition more difficult than it needs to be and may even succeed in making it disastrous for billions of us.

What needs to be done is pretty clear to me though, global population has to be reduced over time (ideally by family planning rather than by the Four Horsemen), unsustainable energy use needs to be phased out, while we still have sufficient of it to boot-strap the transition to sustainable energy use.

Our way of life has to change to make this happen. It won’t be business as usual, but it needn’t be some hellish dystopia either. It depends how we do it. The problem I forsee is that we’ll wait too long to take the necessity seriously and end up trying to make the transition to a lower energy society after the demand for energy has overtaken the supply permanently, with predictably dire economic results. At that point everything gets much harder.

√•If we mess it up badly enough, instead of reducing energy demand through appropriate technology, improving food security through sustainable forms of agriculture and reducing demand for both food and energy by managing global population down over the course of a few generations; we all just pretend that there isn’t any problem until those Four Horsemen arrive to solve these problems for us the hard way. This appears to be the solution favoured by certain factions within those countries most able to do something about it.


‘Market Forces will save us’

Some people want to rely on the panacea capabilities of ‘markets.’ Is this a reasonable hope?

Global markets will clearly do something in response to climate change, significant changes in the availability of oil resources, soil erosion and so on. I think you’d have to be working from some kind of quasi-religious certainty to be sure that the response of the markets will necessarily be both entirely beneficial and sufficient to this problem, as some seem to do.

The question from my point of view is not whether the sacred power of markets will make everything turn out for the best automatically. I think that unlikely for a variety of reasons, in much the same way as I think Resurrection and Virgin Birth unlikely. Free market theology aside though, I think that markets will clearly play a significant role in responding to oil and gas depletion, but I think it’s unlikely to be a uniformly positive one. Similarly, as is probably clear from my review of the Stern Report below, I don’t think much of their response to the early signals of climate change.

Political-military rather than strictly economic responses may also occur. Some might argue that they are already occurring, say in Iraq.

The petroleum energy requirements of industrial agriculture suggest that where industrial agriculture is practiced, the demand for petroleum energy is both high and inelastic, with worrying implications for food security as global reserves become sigificantly depleted.

Right now we are in a steady state where we and billions like us mostly live on food grown using high oil-input agriculture. That looks to me very like a system that might fail catastrophically given the appropriate conditions. Those conditions might not be met, but I think the science says that such conditions could exist.

It seems likely, given that it takes ten units of oil energy to put one unit of food energy on our tables, that we’d see catastrophic global food security problems if the supply were to fail suddenly and drastically. So as a limiting case, industrial agriculture would fail catastrophically, if oil supplies were cut off totally and suddenly.

In the real world, energy supplies will probably not be cut off so suddenly and totally, but then the question arises, just how drastic would the onset of oil scarcity have to be, before a catastrophic failure of industrial agriculture is likely to occur?

That wars are apparently already being fought over these resources, suggests to me that extreme conditions might occur.

I think that when people suggest that this is a matter that can be handled by the working of markets, they’re in effect assuming a steady-state case, and that may be right. It doesn’t mean that catastrophic cases can’t arise. Nor does it mean that the ‘civilised’ rules of the markets game can’t get suspended in favour of the use of force to simply appropriate these indispensable resources.

Markets may do something useful about global food security, but they may also do things that are counterproductive.

My problem isn’t with the idea that markets might have a useful contribution to make, they may; it’s with anyone that appears to suggest, that markets are in and of themselves, reliably and certainly the answer to the problem of depletion, where the resource being depleted plays such a fundamental role in the functioning of our societies.

It takes ten units of oil energy to put one unit of food energy on our tables. This isn’t just about people driving slightly smaller cars.

I have a big problem with any doctrine that makes light of the fundamental questions raised by oil/gas depletion or suggests that it’ll be solved by some form of continuing business as usual.

I think some more fundamental approaches may be required, and some of those would significantly benefit from public policy support. For example, fundamental structural adjustments are needed, I suspect, for agriculture to do its job in a world of depleted oil. These adjustments would tend to involve radical decentralisation of our food systems, bringing grower and consumer physically closer to reduce fuel costs. They also involve moving away from input-based agriculture towards one that recycles nutrients, especially Phosphorous.

These changes are at present ones that the agri-chem commercial interests and their representatives in government are likely to passionately oppose. Can you imagine for example, Lord Sainsbury giving his wholehearted support to a food security policy that takes us away from massively centralised supermarket chains (like the ones that made him a billionaire?) Or can you imagine what the very influential oil and chemical giants would make of an approach to nutrient managment that was largely decentralised and not profitable, leaving them out of the loop, despite being more sustainable?

One plausible approach I’ve seen suggested, from a sustainability point of view is Folke Gunther’s ‘Re-ruralisation’. A progressive rearrangement of our population distribution over decades into sustainable eco-villages. Interview about this approach with Dr Gunther here

For the sake of discussion only, let’s imagine that the case for the ruralisation approach advocated in the article I linked is the optimal way, from a greatest good for the greatest number of people point of view, for achieving sustainability.

Given the starting conditions, how do we get to a point in the UK where that strategy is being applied effectively?

I don’t think the magic power of The Market is going to do it, in fact I’d be surprised if market advocates didn’t try to argue that it can’t be a correct strategy because The Market won’t do it.

I can’t see any of the people who profit from centralisation giving support to decentralisation, in fact I’d expect them to be hostile.

Both the farmer and the consumer are getting a better deal at the expense of a bunch of people in the middle, who are mostly involved in the distribution, industrial processing aspects of our current food system, and those oil companies who sell them energy. Also being disadvantaged by ruralisation are property developers, estate agents and others.

So, could this scenario be brought about by market forces alone?

My guess is not.

Where is the uncertainty in climate change?

Industrial Mordor

It occurs to me that it might be useful to summarise just where, to the best of my knowledge at least, the scientific uncertainty is, given that PR organisations being paid to misinform the public by large corporations and loony right-wing millionaires, often like to exploit it.

First thing to say is that some things are well established. The science predicting the ‘greenhouse effect’ has been around a long time and is not in doubt (I’m going to take the phrase ‘among qualified scientists writing in relevant and respected peer reviewed journals … ‘ etc. as read here to save repeating it every paragraph) That we humans have significantly changed the quantities of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is not in doubt. We also understand pretty well the additional amount of solar energy these gasses (see this diagram ) trap in the climate system. We know that the Earth’s surface temperature has warmed significantly since we started burning fossil fuels and destroying forests etc.

When we put all these things together, by building mathematical models of what the science says should happen and what the data says did happen, they correspond closely enough that we can now conclude with reasonable certainty that the steady increase in average temperature is mainly due to greenhouse gases we caused to be emitted. Here are some graphs showing the predictions of the models against the data for real temperature changes.

In order to test this conclusion, more and more detailed models have been built and their more detailed predictions have been tested against real data.Increasingly, they show that the models accurately predict the data. So increasingly, science concludes that human-induced warming is for real. As we are continuing to increase the levels of greenhouse gasses to the point where the models predict very alarming things There are grounds for grave concern and hence increasingly strong calls from the scientific community for action.

Now if you follow that ‘very alarming’ link above, you’ll see the uncertainty ranges within the various different climate models shown as I-shaped bars. Each one shows the predictions for a different set of assumptions about the next 100 years. You can find details here basically they are different assumptions about how the global economy and population develop to 2100.

There are some consequences that are fairly straightforward to predict, for a given rise in temperature. For example, that 0.5-1.5m rise in sea level is pretty straightforward to predict and hence can be considered high-probability. Other changes are triggered at some hard to determine threshold though. For example the irreversable melting of major ice sheets and the switching off of the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation are predicted to happen at some point if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, but we’re not really sure a) what that point is and b) how much more emissions will rise given that we don’t yet know the outcome of the struggle between those who want to mitigate the effects now and those who want to keep emitting (and who are currently paying PR companies to lie about all this stuff so they can)

This brings us to the realm of value judgements, another area of uncertainty. In general, the PR people push some combination of three propaganda lines.

1) The science doesn’t prove this is happening (it does, see links above)
2) It’ll be fine anyway, we like warm weather (150million refugees is nice?)
3) It’ll be too expensive to fix (define “too expensive” you corporate leech)

The thing is, the science does prove this is happening, but it’s harder to show exactly what the effects will be. Some of them are regional for a start. So it’s not just a matter of uniform warming. It’s also a matter of changes in weather patterns and knock on effects like the extinction of species providing valuable ecosystem services or the wider spread of disease causing species.

So there is a sort of cascade of uncertainty. The basic climate models have some uncertainty in them but we pretty much understand how much. They can’t predict local weather in detail though, because limitations in computing power mean they have to work in units rather larger than Belgium and you need to model much smaller units to get an accurate idea of what effect a given mountain or forest has on local weather conditions. Once you get down to knock-on effects, like where and when crop failures will occur, or just when Wales becomes malarial, the uncertainty is also magnified by the inherent uncertainty of predicting behaviour in complex natural systems.

In addition, we have some potential problems with very grave impacts where the problem occurs at some undetermined threshold. One might use smoking as a metaphor here. We know it can cause cancer, but we can’t say with confidence just exactly how many cigarettes one needs to smoke to get it.

There are well established techniques for dealing with these kinds of uncertainty in science though, and they’ve been used as far as possible, but in the end, value judgements must be made and the uncertainty becomes polticial. The people you find regurgitating Exxon-sponsored disinformation online may be propaganda-spewing drones with damaged critical faculties, but it’s extremely unlikely that the CEO of Exxon is such a credulous dimwit.

Behind the PR, some calculations are being made and primarily I think, the last of the three points above is the one that counts. A value judgement has been made, by many political and business leaders that their interests will be better served by continuing economic growth and business as usual, no matter what the consequences for e.g. people in places like Bangladesh and especially, for people in Africa where the effects are likely to be severe even under some of the more moderate scenarios.

Mitigating action centres on limiting the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Usually this is expressed as parts per million of CO2, the main greenhouse gas at present. In pre-industrial times, the level was stable in the range 180-300ppm, it’s now heading for 430ppm CO2 equivalent and rising fast.

One of the papers from the recent Met Office conference Parry (pdf!) suggests the following relationship between stabilisation levels and dangerous consequences.

Indications are:
– Stabilisation at 750ppm does not avoid most dangerous effects and very possibly triggers runaway climate change
– Stabilisation at 550ppm probably does avoid most, but at considerable human cost (this is the target suggested in the Stern Review)
– Stabilisation at 400ppm avoids dangerous effects.

The problem here is that we’re almost at 450ppm already and even the actions to stablise around 550ppm are being violently resisted by any number of wealthy interests. This is primarily because they imply significant costs (~1-3% of GDP) and distruption to the business models of some major companies. It’s also probably not unconnected to the high probability that the worst of the suffering associated with scenarios in the over-500ppm range are likely to be experienced by people in third-world countries who a) get the worst of the effects anyway in many cases and b) are much less able to mobilise economic and technical resources to mitigate the damage effects. (Although the Stern Report argues for using the IMF to make them accept adaptation on credit)

Between 550 and 750ppm though, the science increasingly strongly suggests that things start to get very bad for all of us. This is the level where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland starting an irreversable disintegration and adding several metres to sea levels becomes a significant probability and numerous major cities are under threat from rising seas. Where billions experience water shortage (pdf!), food shortage (pdf!) and disease (pdf!) because weather effects, changes in rainfall patterns and so on are likely to get so extreme that they’re highly damaging to ecological systems on a global scale. This is the level where our remaining tropical forests are likely to become a net carbon source (pdf!) rather than a carbon sink and various other threshold effects and postive feedback loops may come into play leading to a significant likelihood of rapidly accelerating climate change, taking us into apocalyptic territory. Some of these effects, for example ~20m sea-level rises, even if emissions then stablised, are irreversable over thousands of years.

Even if we somehow stabilised at 450ppm right now, various other factors like population growth, soil erosion and so on are very likely to cause significant food shortages through much of the developing world this century. On the higher emission scenarios though, if business as usual (unconstrained CO2 emissions, unconstrained deforestation and so on, taking us beyond 750ppm) continues to 2100, we’re probably facing mass starvation for hundreds of millions in the third world and significant shortages even in much of the developed world, along with wars over water and hundreds of millions of starving refugees trying to escape to less damaged environments. As far as I can tell from the science, this is the world that corporate interests are foisting on us to protect their “prosperity”

The Heidelberg Appeal – A case study in climate change disinformation

Rock Ferry Oil Terminal

The Heidelberg Appeal was the brainchild of PR wizard Michel Salomon and was associated with his PR front-group the International Centre for Scientific Ecology An organisation which had the grand-daddy of all professional science deniers, Dr Fred Singer on its board. Salomon is now associated with SEPP, one of Singer’s other front groups (there is a fairly rapid turnover of these groups, as they get recognised for what they are, new ones need to be created to preserve the illusion) – a group part-funded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon.

The clever trick about the Heidelberg Appeal was to make it sufficiently vague and to include wording about ecology that many reasonable scientists endorsed, including the 49 of their 72 Nobel Laureates who also signed the World Scientists Warning to Humanity at approximately the same time. The nature of the second document makes it very doubtful that the 49 laureates who signed both would have had much respect for the uses to which the Heidelberg Appeal was then put by the PR people who originally circulated and promoted it. Here is a collection of documents demonstrating the agendas of the PR people behind the Heidelberg AppealDesigner Front Group is a particularly juicy specimen. Salomon appears to have been initially funded by the tobacco industry, who were early pioneers of many of these techniques while they were trying to dispute the science that showed their products were carcinogenic.

Salomon’s associate Fred Singer was also responsible for the Leipzig Declaration a similar use of the third party scam, which also succeded in the purpose of getting lots of favourable press and in misleading members of the general public into thinking that numerous qualified scientists had serious doubts about climate change. This document was produced several years after the Heidelberg Appeal and it appears that real scientists had become wary of PR scams by then, because its signatories are quite as dodgy as those who signed Seitz’s fake NAS petition

Seitz appears to have become involved in science denial in the late 70’s when he was paid to lend his scientific reputation (in electronics) to pioneering cancer disinformation campaigns run by major tobacco companies. Seitz, along with Singer and Balunias (one of the authors of that article attacking Mann’s research that caused the editors of Climate Science to resign) are also members of numerous similar industry funded PR front groups identified in this useful little page from the Union of Concerned Scientists. For example, Soon and Balunias are employed, along with Seitz by the Exxon funded Marshall Institute who are also currently involved in a UK campaign, with the Scientific Alliance PR front group, to cast doubts on climate science.

This then is the core of the anti-science propaganda technique, pioneered by cancer merchants but now adopted by the energy lobby. Get something superficially plausible into the popular press, endorsed by the same tiny group of PR-friendly scientists and media pundits associated with almost all of these PR front groups, which causes the public to believe incorrectly that there is significant doubt among qualified scientists about some science your clients find inconvenient. Then just keep doing it shamelessly whatever the vast majority of scientists, writing in peer-reviewed journals that the general public doesn’t read, are saying.

That way the public gets this vague sense that the science is unproven or somehow doubtful, unless they check what the vast majority of qualified scientists are saying in peer-reviewed journals. Which most of them probably don’t. They just vaguely remember hearing there were scientists who had doubts about climate change.

[Update] The Union of Concerned Scientists has just published a report which confirms the case I’m making above and adds a great deal of substantive detail on how this approach has been funded over the last few years, including tables showing how $16m of Exxon’s money has been disbursed to the same small group of professional climate change sceptics mentioned above.

2007 – Will Brown do anything useful about climate change, or just try to make money off it?

Mersey View

A big piece of the Arctic broke off the other day. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to review the situation with regard to climate change and to do a bit of speculation about what the next year may bring. The big event towards the end of last year was the publication of the Stern Review, produced at the behest of the British government. It’s probably a fair indicator of what Gordon Brown’s policies on climate change mitigation are likely to be, and since Blair is likely to finally leave office (not alas via a short boat-ride from Parliament to Traitors’ Gate, as he so richly deserves) those are the policies that are most immediately relevant in the UK.

Stern Review

Here’s the URL for the Stern Review site at the Treasury.

Stern is proposing policy aimed at stabilising emissions at around a 550 ppm CO2 equivalent, a figure which on most projections I’ve seen indicates some serious risks. Particularly to people in the developing world. (According to the Hadley Centre model, 550ppm has about a 70% probability of taking us to +3C)

What he’s saying is in effect ‘450 is not achieveable without giving up growth, so let’s just forget about it.’

He’s then saying (and here I’m paraphrasing something he explicitly says) If we can reduce emissions by 1-3% per year, while growth continues at rates that can satisfy investors and if some optimistic assumptions about the biosphere’s ability to regulate atmospheric greenhouse gasses are and remain true while we experience the effects of the emissions that have already happened, then stabilisation at 550 ppm may be feasible.

I say ‘remain true’, because one of the unpleasant things that the models say is quite likely around 550ppm is that several key carbon sinks stop working so it’s by no means certain that his assumptions about the rate at which the biosphere can self-regulate greenhouse gases will apply if we’re going to approach 550ppm. That in turn calls into serious question his assumption that by reducing emissions growth by 1-3% per annum will do the trick, even if that is possible while growth increases at a rate acceptable to investors, which I personally beg leave to doubt.

At 550ppm, we’re also in with a strong chance of seeing melting ice sheets, sea level rises of several metres and possibly runaway feedback caused by things like methane release due to melting permafrost and such.

He’s talking about maybe stabilising at 550ppm, if a whole lot of things come together for his approach. Meanwhile a lot of people in the poor South are in very bad trouble, which is why he mostly discusses adaptation (ie learning to live with sea level rises, fresh water shortages, ecosystem collapses etc) in connection with the developing world. It also looks like part of the growth he’s so keen on is going to come from lending them the money to adapt, so they can buy seeds with adapted genetics (presumably for growing under 2m of seawater) from Monsanto etc. Ch 12 and 26 make that bit fairly clear.

What he seems to be trying to do is make a case that by doing a little bit of regulatory fiddling here, at little bit of taxing there and a tiny bit of pump-priming where there is no alternative, that reducing carbon emissions globally can be turned into an attractive investment opportunity. I can see that if this were to be the case, they’d be able to keep economic growth and maybe there would be some impact on carbon emissions too.

If you’re still promoting economic growth in the developed world though, which is his primary objective, how can this possibly result in lowering carbon emissions sufficiently to level out at some reasonable target figure?

This bit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. For that to happen, economic growth would have to somehow be separated from the strong correlation with energy use which has historically existed, so that the one could carry on growing while the other levelled out and started to fall to the point where it could be sustained by solar flows rather than fossil fuel stocks.

I’m sure that by promoting investment in efficiency, alternatives and so on, you can get closer to the most carbon efficient system for a given level of growth. But if you’re still getting a fat return on investment, which seems to be his priority over and above mitigating climate change, the overall trend is still onwards and upwards.

You’ve still got a bunch of destructive positive feedback loops running, albeit slightly damped down in places. So I don’t see how you can still keep the economy growing, without eventually busting whatever limit you set.

In the quotes on the Stern Review web page, Paul Wolfowitz (who despite demonstrating that he is an incompetent moron over Iraq is now President of the World Bank) says how he really approves of the report and how he and his pal Gordon Brown will be getting together next year to put together an energy investment framework for sustainable development that will ‘stimulate private investment.’

I’m sure everybody will feel much better for knowing that .. right?


The problem as I see it with the Stern report is that it condemns several hundred million people in the developing world to experience the effects of severe climate change. This is already happening due to the 430-odd ppm CO2 equivalent already in the atmosphere.

This is why many greens, based on the science, are arguing for a target in the vicinity of 450 ppm CO2e, which Stern dismisses as ‘too expensive’ to achieve, quickly moving on to the many delightful opportunities offered by climate change mitigation and adaptation for profitable capital investment.

This is the reason why I would call continued economic growth into question, not because I believe poverty and economic recession is morally uplifting in some perverse way, but because continuing with an economy that crashes if annual economic growth drops below a certain figure seems to me fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. In this case (there are other arguments than climate change) because there is sod all chance of stabilising at a reasonable figure while continuing to depend on economic growth year on year to stop the economy falling to bits around our ears.

If you take a look at the papers delivered at last year’s Hadley Centre conference, which represents the current state of scientific knowledge on dangerous climate change impacts, e.g. this pdf … it’s pretty clear that:

a) We want to stablise under 2C average temperature rise if we possibly can, otherwise a whole lot of really bad stuff almost certainly happens and some truly awful stuff very probably happens, especially to the poor South.

b) If we aim for 550ppm CO2 equivalent, as Stern proposes, the probability of overshooting +2C is 70-99%. More likely we end up at least +3C, maybe worse because that’s the threshold where several key carbon sinks stop working. See e.g. this pdf

Stern’s report targets a threshold (assuming they could really stabilise at 550ppm CO2 equivalent in the way he proposes) where we have a russian roulette player’s chance of avoiding runaway climate change, and where the impacts on the UK, US and most of at least Northern Europe, are within a range that we can probably handle, given our fairly impressive technical and financial resources. It’d be pretty horrible, but not doomsday by any means.

The impacts at the threshold he’s set of 550ppm are only likely to be massively fatal and otherwise completely disastrous for a few hundred million poor people in the developing world. Of course trying to save them, by aiming for stabilisation at 450ppm say, would probably be impossible while maintaining the reproduction of capital on the scale to which we, or at least the ruling class, have become accustomed.

Which is why a few hundred million poor people are a sad but necessary sacrifice in the minds of our leaders (and a potential investment opportunity, let’s look on the bright side chaps!).

I think he’s aiming for a level of 550ppm CO2 equivalent, that is dealable-with (at a fat profit for some) in the UK, irrespective of the effects elsewhere, and that he thinks is compatible with continued economic growth. If he’d aimed for what the climate scientists are mostly suggesting as ‘safe’ (please take a paragraph or two of qualifications about levels of certainty and what ‘safe’ is meant to mean as read here) which is 400ppm, then the impossibility of continued economic growth would call the whole neo-liberal economic programme, and perhaps capitalism itself, into question.

So I think they’re going to turn on the PR machine, reveal Gordon the Green as our ecological saviour, and try with all their money to marginalise any scientific dissent.

To stabilise at 450 ppm CO2e, without overshooting, global emissions would need to peak in the next 10 years and then fall at more than 5% per year, reaching 70% below current levels by 2050. This is likely to be unachievable with current and foreseeable technologies. Now it’s interesting that he is suggesting that it’s the technology that doesn’t let us achieve this. I think that’s misleading, perhaps deliberately so. It’s certainly possible in theory if not in terms of political reality to get under those limits with current technology. What you can’t do is maintain ‘healthy’ economic growth at the same time.

He’s assuming that what all those scientists are saying is out of the question and so unrealistic, from his perspective and on his unexamined assumptions, as to not be worth considering. If we were to have a debate about whether to aim for something around 450ppm CO2e as a stabilisation target, then the whole idea of a growth-based economy would have to be called into question (not least because we’re probably already at about 430ppm). Maybe we do have no choice about this, but at least let’s be clear about why that’s so.


What this report looks like to me is an attempt to re-frame the issues in order to facilitate a profitable investment environment, nicely greenwashed for electoral purposes, while having your media stooges marginalise the critique of environmentalists and deliberately conflate that science-based position with a bunch of primitivist or deep green bollocks.

That’s a lot easier to argue with than the case that letting a few hundred million people in the poor south get fucked over and running right up to and possibly over, the edge of runaway positive feedback loops in order to maintain profits for investors is not acceptable, and that we need to look at changing capitalism in order find a way to behave like a civilised species instead of a bunch of malthusian predators.

Meanwhile, talking of media stooges, here’s Nigel Lawson getting on board. Deliberately conflating the scientists with people who want us all to live under piles of old leaves and eat berries.

“In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of examples of this theme in the Bible, either – particularly but not exclusively in the Old Testament. The main change is that the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains), rather than clerics of the established religions, and the new religion is eco-fundamentalism.”

I think what we’re going to see over the next year or two is a concerted attempt to re-invent nuLabour, and that due to the evident electoral concerns about the environment, this will involve a lot of really dodgy PR promoting, among other attempts to mislead the public, Jolly Green Gordon and his pals at the World Bank as ecological saviours.

That absolutely requires that real scientific dissent to stuff like Stern’s apparent agenda to be marginalised and conflated with eco-moralists and nutters.

The minute you start seriously thinking about the consequences of 450ppm rather than 550ppm (to take the present example) it becomes pretty clear that the former target calls into question the economic status quo in our own country and with it, standards of living and all that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, I would say that 550ppm is not likely to be a picnic for the UK unless you’re comparing to Africa or Bangladesh or Egypt or someplace that’s totally fucked on those sort of numbers. So even within the UK there are some serious questions to be asked about how much our immediate desire for consumer goods or the ruling classes desire for return on their investments can be balanced against the possibility of seriously fucking over our own descendants and probably seeing some pretty bad local consequences in our own lifetimes, including various economic ones that Stern is on about. I think 550ppm poses a serious risk of runaway climate change. I don’t think the science would yet sustain a claim that it’s certain at that level, but that’s the right on the edge of key carbon sinks ceasing to work and very likely past the point where ice sheets start melting.

So I think we might get away with it in the UK (from Stern’s point of view, despite what happens to the South), especially if we didn’t peak too high before we stabilised, but the odds of doing so appear to be about the same as walking away from a round of Russian Roulette.

I think Stern thinks it’s worth that risk and the near certainty of hundreds of millions of people having their way of life destroyed and possibly losing their lives, so that capitalism isn’t called into question, which it seems to me would inevitably happen if people seriously started trying to work out how to stabilise at 400ppm.


Adaptation to climate change, unlike mitigation, is largely a local matter. So perhaps the most pragmatic approach is to focus on figuring that out right now. That is an area where unilateral action within the UK is worth considering. It’s pretty cold-blooded, but on the other hand isn’t in principle incompatible with striving for effective mitigation at the same time.

Given the recent appearance of the Stern Review and the strong indications that Gordon Brown is already talking to people like World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz about a ‘sustainable development investment summit’ next year, I think there are some potential clues we could use to figure out what the government will be trying to achieve.

Where he’s talking about mitigation, ie preventing the problems, he’s largely talking on a global scale, because for obvious reasons you have to. Where he’s talking about adaptation, ie dealing with the problems once they arise, the discussion of local action is much more prominent, although he seems to envisage a lot of that action happening, particularly in the developing world, by means of investment and guidance from the existing international organisations, the World Bank, IMF and so forth.

Where he’s trying to build a positive case for prompt action, what he’s doing is identifying issues of concern to e.g. the UK government and the City and arguing that there is an early adopter advantage to investing in both mitigation and adaptation technologies and programmes. So in terms of the UK, a lot of this stuff would translate into technology and investment policy as well as being used to justify ‘green taxes’ on individuals, in preference to penalising the companies who are profiting from causing ecological damage.

His arguments to convince other nations of the need to join in global action are along the same lines. “It’ll cost you more to let this happen than to invest in preventing it” but I suspect from some of the stuff he’s talking about, insurance markets and so on, that the main audience for that stuff is the City.

Several key papers at last year’s Hadley Centre conference were identifying 550ppm equivalent as the point where runaway positive feedback loops may start happening, so Stern picking that as his target is very worrying. It’s why, given that he says he’s talked a lot with Sir David King and hence can’t be unaware of those results, I’m deducing that he thinks the scientists proposed target of closer to 450ppm equivalent while it may be the sane one, isn’t feasible under any assumptions that a chief government economist or the City can accept. In the report he’s airily dismissing 450ppm CO2e as unrealistic, so I think he’s aiming for ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ and preserving capital accumulation as far as possible whatever the cost.

Worst Case Scenario

The fact that the sun has been getting slightly warmer over time hasn’t stopped the glacial cycles from happening. The equibrium point of the biosphere seems to be what we’d call an ice age, and yet, despite the fact that the sun has been getting warmer, the climate has remained in homeostasis, with the help of life, for many glacial cycles.

We are riding high on a possibly extended warm period in the cycle. A clear impact of the climate models, no room for doubt, is that excess CO2 will keep us artifically in the warmest phase of the cycle.

I’m stepping well outside the solid science here into James Lovelock territory, but it absolutely scares the hell out of me that species are going extinct left right and centre. The great extinctions, of which we are now in the sixth, correlate very strongly with radical changes, where the biosphere moves to a very different relatively stable state. I try to stick strictly to the IPCC type probabilities, because I know I can defend that with well supported science, but that other stuff scares me absolutely rigid.

Our government, and very likely also other governments of the same general type, are most likely to respond to this threat by playing Russian Roulette with the planetary ecosystem and looking to make money out of the situation. I don’t believe that this is in our interests as a species.