Economics and politics - comment and analysis
15. May 2016 I Will Denayer I Ecology and Growth, Europe, General Politics

An interview with Hoesung Lee, IPCC chair. Denial, self-deception, no strategy, unrealistic goals, bad accounting methods

Last week, Hoesung Lee, the new head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was interviewed by the Guardian (see here). The IPCC chair insists that it is still possible to avoid a ‘dangerous’ 2 degrees C increase of global warming. What is more, the Paris temperature goal remains technically possible even if emissions continue to grow beyond 2020 or even 2030: ‘It is a daunting task, but the assessment clearly indicates that we have the technology and the means that will allow us to achieve that goal.’ I wonder which assessment it is that Lee refers to, given that his own conservative figures predict a rise of global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees C by 2100 (see here). Very few people agree with Lee, even within the mainstream. Christina Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris agreement and former UN climate chief, for example, has called for a peaking of emissions by 2020 to keep the 2 degrees C limit within reach – not that this is anywhere near feasible either, as I will explain below.

Lee goes on to explain that the cost of meeting the 2 degrees C target over the next seven or eight decades will amount to a cut of less than one percent in CO2 emissions a year. Delaying action until the middle of the century would be ruinously expensive – meeting the 2 C degrees target by 2100 would require a cut of 6 percent of emissions a year.  However, even then, Lee refuses to rule out the feasibility of the 2C goal: ‘It is achievable if there is a drastic change in the way of doing business.’

Figure 1


Figure 1: the green curve shows the evolution of CO2 if all pledges of all countries work out perfectly (this means that 732Gt of a 1000Gt budget will be used up, which is required to have a 66% chance to stay below 2 degrees C by 2100. The red curve shows what needs to be accomplished to reach this goal). Source: UNFCCC.

Figure 2


Figure 2: evolution of GHGs in 3 scenarios (INDCs are the Intented National Determined Contributions of Paris (see here)). The figure of Climate Interactive is 0.8 degrees C higher than the UN estimate. Source:    

The denial is incomprehensible. Lee gave this interview on May 11. The last couple of weeks, the Arctic has been in the news on a daily basis. A real calamity is in the making. According to Scribbler, since April 27th daily rates of sea ice loss have been in the range of 75,000 square kilometers for every 24 hour period. This means that every twelve hours the Arctic loses the size of Belgium, it loses the size of Ireland in one day, the size of Germany in five days, the size of New Mexico in four days (see here and here and here for previous forecasts).

I commented on the methane problem before and won’t go into it again, but in the Innoku Wilderness levels of methane are measured that are 650 part per billion higher than normal background levels – similar to what one finds in a large city (see here). A blue event (no ice on the Arctic) will dramatically accelerate the rate of warming. The shift will cause profound disruptions of both global atmospheric and ocean-current circulation. It brings the world closer to runaway climate change.

The greatest deniers are not the crackpots who deny the reality of climate change, but the international institutions that are supposed to tackle it and refuse to come to terms with reality. As a result, we are sleepwalking into disaster. It has never been otherwise. COP21 refers to the 21th climate conference in thirty years. All previous 20 conferences outright failed to curb emissions. There is no indication that Paris will be different – indeed in terms of strategy, Paris is a step back compared to Kyoto. It is not only the IPCC. At the start of his presidency, Obama pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. Obama showed strong advocacy for climate action, but where is the long-term thinking that is needed for this historic economic transition? As Jeffrey Sachs told the Guardian:

‘Why is it that with an administration that is gung-ho on climate we are in the eighth year and there is no plan at all? No sketch, no white paper, no scenario to 2050? (…) The goal of cutting GHGs by 80% has been around since the beginning of the Obama administration. But as far as I know you can’t find out even one document that sketches out how this would be accomplished’ (see here).

There is no plan. Despite the agreement in Paris – a combination of an unrealistic and a nonsensical goal (see here for the sad history of the 2 degrees C target) with no instruments to achieve it, nothing binding, everything voluntary – most countries do not look beyond 2030, although COP21 requires all parties to start phasing out GHGs completely by the middle of the century. Lee told the journalists of the Guardian that he puts his hopes on geoengineering. But geoengineering is a pipe dream: it is unproven, dangerous, costly (once started, it has to go on ‘forever’), there is no consensus and it is wishful thinking to assume that it will be possible to work out an international agreement on it. Many countries will never agree, for example the African countries will resist (geoengineering will increase drought at the Equator) (see here).

How are our CO2 emissions evolving? Do our efforts make a difference? To understand what is happening, it is necessary to know what territorial emissions are and what the difference is between production emissions and consumption emissions.

Territorial emissions refer to GHGs that occur within a country (e.g. from burning fossil fuels for the generation of electricity, in transport and industrial production, direct emissions from heating in households and businesses as well as emissions related to agricultural, forestry and waste management activities). These are the current basis of carbon accounting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Production emissions refer to territorial emissions plus emissions from international aviation and shipping on the basis of bunker fuels.

Consumption emissions refer to production emissions minus emissions embedded in export of goods and services, plus emissions embedded in imports of goods and services.

Finally, the carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by a nation (equivalent to consumption emissions), a business, a product (equivalent to lifecycle emissions) or a person (see for these definitions here).

Countries publish figures on the emissions that they emit for all sectors including changes in carbon sinks (such as forests) and aviation and shipping fuelled from within the country. Dividing the total figure by the population estimate gives the carbon emissions per person. These figures have been showing a falling trend for years. For example, as Stuart Parkinson writes, in the UK carbon emissions per person in 1990 were 14.6t. In 2014, they were 9.1t – a reduction by 38% (see here). The figure of 2015 will see a further fall. This even looks impressive: the average carbon emission per person for Europe is ca. 10t, for North America it is over 20t and China is now over 8t (see here).

These are production emissions. Consumption emissions basically refer to who is responsible for them. For example, if a machine is made in China, but bought and used in the UK, under the consumption-based accounting system the UK is responsible for the emissions of manufacture and use, while, under a production-based system, only use would be counted (see here). The consumption-based system – which is the carbon footprint – is more appropriate to use because it is much more logical as well as realistic.

How does the picture of CO2 emissions look when the the consumption emissions accounting method is used? According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, the UK markedly increased its net import of energy intensive goods since the 1990s (see here and here). The researchers estimate that in 1992, UK’s emissions would have been 35% higher if all the goods used in the UK would have been manufactured in the UK. By 2010, this figure had increased to 80%. This means that, according to the footprint method, the average contribution to climate change per person increased to 19.5t in 1990 and to 15.5t in 2014. This is much higher than the production-based method: the percentage reduction between 1990 and 2014 is about only half of the official figure. Among other things, this is a result of globalization. Manufactured goods are now mostly produced elsewhere. The shift of production overseas and the import of goods reduce emissions as measured on a production basis, but not on a consumption basis. Over the last two decades, growth in imported emissions has more than offset reductions in production emissions.

Figure 3


Figure 3: UK carbon footprint per person (carbon emissions and carbon footprint). Source: Stuart Parkinson (see here).

So, what is the conclusion? Undeniably, progress has and is being made. But it is radically insufficient. In order to reach the goal of keeping average global temperature below 2 degrees C by 2100, the average carbon footprint has to decrease to ca. 3t per person (see here). This means that the majority of European countries – and globally speaking we are not the biggest polluters – need to cut their carbon footprint by 80%. This is a completely different story from the one that the chair of IPCC told the Guardian. Such cuts are impossible to achieve without a carbon tax – if it is indeed possible to ever achieve them. The task is truly gargantuan and as good as well nigh absolutely impossible.

The accounting method that the countries and the international organisations use to calculate their emissions is flawed. Year after year atmospheric CO2 is rising. It is true that the CO2 emissions of many countries are decreasing. The carbon footprint is also decreasing in many countries. This is all good news. The only problem is the one that shows up in Parkinson’s graph: the carbon footprint offsets the carbon emissions (compare the emissions of 1990 with the footprint in 2014). All of this to prevent the world from reaching a ‘dangerous’ 2 degrees C average global warming target by 2100 … that will be reached this decade (see here).

Nietzsche said that insanity in individuals is rare, but that it is the rule in nations. What do you think he would say about our international organisations? Do you think he would be wrong?