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MELBOURNE SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY INSTITUTE
CENTRE FOR ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGY
POST-CARBON WORLDS AND TRANSITIONS
Physics versus politics: Can we close the gap?
19-20 JULY, 2012
WALES INSTITUTE OF SUSTAINABLE EDUCATION,
CENTRE FOR ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGY, MACHYNLLETH, WALES
It is widely accepted that global emissions of greenhouse gases must fall rapidly to avoid serious risks of ‘dangerous climate change’. But what do we mean by ‘rapidly’? A wide range of decarbonisation programmes has emerged, many of them analysed in a recent report from the University of Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, Post Carbon Pathways (Wiseman and Edwards, 2012).
It is noticeable that most government and many academic programmes have emissions targets in the range of 20-40% at a target date of around 2050. These give linear reduction rates of 1-3% a year. In contrast, many non-governmental analyses have lower targets and closer target dates, with linear reductions of >5% a year. The disparity between these two groups is even greater with respect to cumulative ‘carbon budgets’ – often considered the key metric – between the present and 2050.
The reason for this considerable gap seems to be that the ‘slow’ studies are following a politically and economically ‘realistic’ plan, leaving the apparent physical requirements on one side at least for the time being; while the ‘rapid’ studies are trying to conform with the physics, and setting aside the politics and economics – again, at least for the time being. It appears that what works physically does not work politically, and what works politically, does not work physically.
We can readily appreciate that both sides are trying to be ‘realistic’ in their own way, yet the gap between them suggests a serious and under-recognised lacuna in policy. The conference will attempt to address this question, among others. At the very least the conference will compile a definitive list of decarbonisation plans and build on Wiseman and Edwards’ classification system. It tries to ask ‘the difficult questions’.
Chaired by Paul Allen (External Relations Director / Zero Carbon Britain Project Director, Centre for Alternative Technology) and Peter Harper (Head of Research and Innovation, Centre for Alternative Technology), with keynote talks from:
- Professor John Wiseman (Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute)
- Professor Kevin Anderson (Deputy Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)
- Jane Davidson (previously Minister for Environment and Sustainability in the Welsh Government and now Director of INSPIRE (Institute for Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Effectiveness))
There will also be discussion sessions, with indicative material as follows:
1. Indicators and ‘Guard-rails’: Temperatures, GHG concentrations, emission rates, cumulative emissions. Relative advantages for analysis and/or policy. Target dates. Is there anything special about 2050? Is it a good consensus date? What are the implications of framing policy in terms of earlier or later dates? Is the 2°C ‘guard-rail’ a reasonable guide? What are the probabilities associated with it? Key indicators for decarbonisation programmes: annual rate of decarbonisation, cumulative emissions per capita. Territorial vs. consumption-based accounting: should the latter be the accepted standard? Is there ever such a situation as ‘too late’ for mitigation? ‘Overshoot’ scenarios. Should targets <100 years entail recalculation of relative GWPs, with what policy implications?
2. Ethics, Fairness and Realpolitik: Do ethical factors have any real bearing on effective policy? Should they be deliberately ignored as dangerously misleading? In view of numerous asymmetries between Annex I countries and others, is perceived ‘fairness’ a necessary condition of international agreements? Who are the key moral agents, and can ‘rights’ be coherently assigned to future generations or ‘nature’? High or low discount rates? Are ‘physically realistic’ scenarios usually associated with ethical perspectives? Is the ‘precautionary principle’ applicable? What are reasonable odds for ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’? Is applied ‘geoengineering’ likely to be influenced by ethical concerns? Should it be on our agenda now?
3. Scale Factors vs. Intensity: Nationally and globally, carbon intensity tends to decline, but is usually neutralised by growth in population and GDP. All government-sponsored decarbonisation programmes presume continued economic growth, and therefore very rapid ‘decoupling’. Is this plausible? Relevance of territorial (production) verses consumption carbon accounting. Rapid decarbonisation strategies generally assume slow or stationary economic growth. Is this plausible? What is required for the transition to a steady-state economy? The lifestyle question: ceteris paribus, should scenarios strive to avoid lifestyle changes? De-growth scenarios. The ‘happiness’ literature and its indicators. The Kaya identity as an attempt to decompose intensity: can it be improved to include non-energy emissions?
4. Energy mixes: Energy technology as the core of any decarbonisation programme. Do the necessary ‘solutions’ already exist in principle? Are there common factors that any scenario can simply assume (for example enhanced electricity supply, building upgrades, electric vehicles)? Can we construct a standard set of ‘archetypal mixtures’ for primary and delivered energy (compare those famously featured by Mackay). Are ‘baseload’ and ‘variable’ strategies generally incompatible? Can they each work equally well? Can we map various ideological preferences and aversions? Can they be explained or justified? Is there consensus about the relative contributions of demand- and supply-based measures? Are there reasons for avoiding fossil fuels altogether, or moving via gas? Do the cost curves tend to favour renewables in the near future? Can it be assumed that successful mass CCS is merely a matter of scaling up? Can hydrogen and gas grids play various roles in parallel in electricity grids? Is there a presumption on each nation relying on its territorial resources, or liberalised international flows of energy?
5. Visions and Trajectories: The distinction between imagined or projected end states (‘Visions’), and the trajectories between the present and the end state. Contrasting conceptual frameworks: groping forward from the present, versus reaching back from the future. What is the best role for Visions? Are they merely inspirational, or can they inform a strategic plan? Can they actually be misleading: ‘wrong trousers’? Is the attempt to frame strategy as a coherent process necessarily mistaken? How far ahead can ‘back-casting be effective? Can Visions serve as ‘parallel narratives’ to prepare people for suddenly-different worlds? Can they provide ‘insulated spaces’ for testing problematic and controversial ideas? Can they be used in a public dialogue to inform choices among alternatives, both in end-states and trajectories? Is this an important role for the arts community? Are there genuinely attractive post-carbon worlds out there?
6. Criteria of Choice for Visions and Pathways: Within the ‘decarbonisation programmes’ community, what factors most influence choices? Given the extremely large number of possibilities that can be generated, it is essential to rule most out and work with a smaller number. Why should one Vision or trajectory be chosen over others? Who is to decide? A key distinction (and the focus of this meeting) is between scenarios that work on physical constraints first, and those that work on political constraints first, or in other words are closer to present norms, practices and expectations. But even ‘physicalists’ would tend to choose pathways with the lowest level of disruptive changes. Other criteria include:
- Minimising risks of irreversible mistakes or sunk costs
- More likely to command an international consensus
- Demanding fewer speculative innovations or ‘silver bullets’
- Meeting other sustainability goals (such as the ‘Nine Planetary Boundaries’)
- Compatibility with failure of the mitigation process, and possible ‘collapse’
7. Towards a Standard Methodology: Are there basic features true of any decarbonisation programme? Is it possible to compare them on a consistent basis? Is there a standard list of assumptions that can be checked off? Can they be converted into a series of indicator numbers? For example can they invariably be described in terms of reduced demand, increased low-carbon supply and net-negative processes, even though some of these might have a value of 0? (e.g., the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 scenario could be summarised 44-46-10). Can they all be described in terms of ‘wedges’ and represented graphically? Are there other graphical conventional that can be used? Sankey diagrams? Can they always be allocated a ‘carbon budget’, or perhaps more importantly, a per-capita carbon budget? Is it possible to create a generic template methodology for new scenarios? Is this perhaps a beguiling but dangerous idea?
8. Open Discussion Session: A session left open for any other discussion topics that may be formed during the conference.