By Julian Hawkins in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
Extinction Rebellion say we must become carbon neutral in five years, but the Centre for Alternative Technology propose ten years, while the Committee on Climate Change say thirty years is good enough to avoid seriously damaging climate change.
Officially, the UK has reduced Carbon emissions by about 40% since 1990, but Greta Thunberg says the true figure is only 10%. So, what is going on?
Management by Targets
There's a political bidding war on target dates for becoming carbon-neutral in the UK. Some of the dates proposed seem impossible, but their proponents appear to believe that we can achieve amazing emission cuts just by passing laws.
After nearly forty years working on complex projects in the IT sector, I beg to differ.
I have seen plenty of projects where managers attempt to make things go faster by setting stupid deadlines and making people work harder. It usually either fails or works badly, and often hurts the people forced to work long hours.
If anybody thinks that IT is a special case, I suggest they talk to other people subject to management by targets - starting with NHS workers.
There are genuine limits to how fast things can happen. It takes time to manufacture products, and to train people to build them, and to change land use practices, and for trees to grow.
This does not mean that targets are bad, just that they are not the solution in themselves.
We have little time to prevent severe damage from climate change. Fixing this needs processes and technologies that work. Good, realistic targets can help people to make the right changes quickly, and avoid counter-productive outcomes. They can also, in theory, push other countries towards doing the same. Bad targets can waste time and lead to stupid decisions with counter-productive results.
End dates, staged deliverables and priorities
Much of the carbon dioxide emitted remains in the atmosphere for centuries to millennia. As a result, the total long term impact depends almost entirely on the total amount emitted, though deferring emissions may slightly mitigate the short term impact.
We need a target date to become carbon-neutral, but we also need steady cuts, not just one big push at the end. The quicker we make the cuts, the less carbon dioxide is emitted in total.
A good way to achieve this is by prioritising the easy wins, such as more wind power, and improving (and enforcing) insulation standards on new homes.
Which is the right target?
Greta Thunberg's remark about using the wrong numbers refers to the difference between territorial and consumption emissions:
• Territorial emissions are those emitted within the country's own territory
• Consumption emissions adjust for the emissions required to manufacture imports and exports
UK territorial emissions are steadily falling as our heavy industry declines, and we switch from coal to gas and renewables for electricity. Our consumption emissions are higher, and they are only falling slowly.
So, is she correct?
Officially no. Territorial emissions are the official measure, because they are relatively easy to measure and avoid double counting.
The problem is "offshoring" - moving high emission processes to another country in order to achieve targets. This makes it possible to hit territorial targets without actually reducing global emissions, which defeats the whole point of the target.
However, relying completely on consumption-based targets risks letting the manufacturing countries offload their responsibilities onto consuming countries. This is particularly relevant to China, which plans to increase emissions for another decade.
I believe that importing and exporting countries must share the responsibility for reducing emissions, and we need targets for both territorial and consumption emissions.
What target should we set?
The UK's emissions are now relatively modest (about 1/25 of China's total emissions), so simply getting to zero in the UK alone will not make much difference on its own. Therefore, the question should be: how can we best contribute to zero emissions worldwide?
The obvious answer is to set a good example through emission cuts that benefit both the world generally and the UK specifically. This should encourage other countries to do the same.
If we set an impossible target then we will fail to achieve it, and we will give the climate change deniers free ammunition.
The science says we need zero emissions in 30 years - globally - and this assumes a steady reduction in emissions. This gives us a fair chance of avoiding a temperature increase above 1.5 C, as per the Paris Agreement.
The Committe on Climate Change (CCC) suggest that is a reasonable target. I think there are some weaknesses in their assessment, and suggest a toughened up version
• Set targets for both territorial and offshore emissions
• Plan for the earliest dates we can reasonably hope to achieve, likely to be 20 to 30 years for territorial emissions, longer for offshore
• Set intermediate targets for steady reductions, and prioritise quick wins
• Ban any solution involving offshoring or other cheating, or which causes disproportionate harm to the UK's people or natural environment
• once we hit zero - keep going until the UK is a significant carbon sink
• improve local and national resilience - the effects of climate change and the rise of populist leaders around the world will make life tougher
• set up a national framework based on the principle of subsidiarity - combine an overall strategy, with both national and local actions, but no "Green" dictator
• engage in global negotiations, and be prepared to aim higher if enough countries are genuinely willing to do the same
• cooperate with and assist other countries - but take due account of national interest
I believe this is the best we can do to minimise the risk of a climate catastrophe, as well as protecting our own people.
Thanks to Steve Bolter for invaluable feedback which clarified some complex issues, and to Jane Brophy for reading it .
Julian Hawkins 2019 ©