domingo, 29 de noviembre de 2020

The tragedy of conspiracy theorists and deniers

 Conspiracy theorists and deniers have probably existed since at least the very beginning of human’s presence in planet Earth. During the last decades we have co-existed with perhaps one of the most harmful generation of deniers, climate change deniers, which are in great part responsible for the lack of ineffective climate action that has brought us to the brink of climate breakdown. More recently, during the COVID pandemic, we are assisting to an extreme proliferation of conspiracy theories. Conspiranoics (conspiracy theorists) are all around us. You will probably find them even in your inner family and friends circles. If you have still not heard about the explanation of COVID PCR tests being done so close to the brain because they are a covered way to implant into the brain a microchip that will later be activated through 5G cellular towers, just give time to time and be ready to get surprised by who tells you about this.    

The denial and disregard of evidences, the refusal to undertake or even listen to any consistency check, and the strategy to bring the discussion in a difficult-to-contrast terrain (‘many medicine doctors support this point of view’), are common treats of conspiranoics.

In many cases, what moves conspiranoics is the deep believe that the rest of humanity (except them and those that profess their same creed) is being deeply manipulated by negative forces or interests (which depending on the specific conspiracy theory can have its origin in our dimension or in other dimensions of existence or even other planets).

But the tragedy of it all is that conspiranoics are being effectively manipulated by those establishment forces that are in the origin of the deepest real challenges our society faces: climate breakdown, ecosystem breakdown (and associated spread of  zoonotic pandemics), inequality in all its forms, lack of governance, extractivism from people and ecosystems … and in short a socio-economic-political setup serving the corporate profit-making goal instead of people’s needs. Conspiracy theories act as a smokescreen distracting individuals from the real bottom-line challenges. It is a primitive strategy that unfortunately still works within our societies: Those currently and historically benefiting from all the social wrongs and evils still deeply embedded into our societies manage to distract the attention from real problems so they can keep on benefiting from the many. And conspiranoics, unknowingly, act as their more loyal servers by supporting and spreading their distraction mechanisms, even coming to the point of idolatrize and blindly follow the mandates from the very responsible of the real bottom-line challenges. This sounds like the ultimate expression of manipulation applied upon those that claim the others are being manipulated.

But beyond the tragedy for conspiracy theorists themselves, this constitutes a huge handicap for society as a whole, demanding a society-wide effort (governance, trustable institutions, proper education, family, social circles…) to overcome such a state of social immaturity. 

martes, 17 de noviembre de 2020

2021 remaining carbon budgets

 And 2020 is almost gone by…, with the smoke of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath unable to completely shade the escalating impacts of climate change.

CO2 emissions in 2020 have been high. Despite an estimated 7% reduction of energy-related emissions  because of the pandemic, LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) emissions have likely maintained its increasing trend with forests around the world burning as a consequence of global warming, poor management and irresponsible extractive policies. If we assume last year’s trend in LULUCF emissions is maintained, global CO2 emissions in 2020 will be around 41 GtCO2/y, a barely 4% reduction from 2019.

Hence, the clock keeps ticking and the available carbon budget for any transition roadmap starting in 2021 will be reduced from the one that was available in 2020.

Figure-1 presents the 2021 carbon budget as function of global warming and the likelihood to limit global warming at these values. These carbon budgets have been derived from the IPCC 1.5SR  (which provides 2018 carbon budgets), updated with the 2018, 2019 and 2020 CO2 remissions (from the Global Carbon Project, except for 2020 emissions that have been estimated assuming a 7% reduction in energy-related emissions and a trending evolution of LULUCF emissions), including the conservative estimate for earth system feedbacks reported in the IPCC 1.5SR and the estimate of the impact from the 2019 updated UK’s Met Office sea surface temperature (SST) database (HadSST4). In order to estimate the impact from the SST database update, we used the transient climate response to cumulative carbon emissions (TRCE) for each likelihood derived from the IPCC SR1.5.

Figure-1: Remaining carbon budgets for 2021, as function of global warming for different likelihoods (33%, 50% and 67%)


As Figure-1 shows, the remaining carbon budget for keeping global warming below 1.5oC is quickly shrinking.

The 2021 carbon budget is the yardstick against which the cumulative emissions from any transition roadmap should be compared in order to check its climate consistency. As Figure-2 shows, this means that in order to have a 50% likelihood (the flip of a coin) to limit global warming to 1.5oC, cumulative emissions from 2021 to 2100 should be below 250 GtCO2. If the likelihood of success is increased to 67% (which should be a minimum policy goal in the face of the increased climate damages if warming goes beyond 1.5oC), cumulative emissions should be below 109 GtCO2

Figure-2: The carbon budget is the measuring stick to check the climate consistency of transition roadmaps. As of 2021, consistency with 1.5oC global warming requires limiting cumulative emissions to 250 GtCO2 if a 50% likelihood of success is the policy goal, but to 109 GtCO2 if likelihood of success is increased to 67%.

In 2021 we’ll just go beyond the red line where just one hand’s fingers suffice to count the remaining years at current emissions level to exhaust the 1.5oC carbon budget.

miércoles, 28 de octubre de 2020

Climate change mitigation and degrowth: why system approach matters


A systemic approach to seize the opportunity window from current challenges

We are already ending 2020, and several decades lacking effective action to mitigate climate change have brought us to a very challenging situation. However, often, challenges act as catalysators of necessary changes and opportunities to progress, so let’s focus and get the best out of it.

The systems through which humankind organizes its activity in planet Earth are very complex. But we humans, and specially the management layers we put in place, have a strong tendency to oversimplify, and ultimately end up confusing the simplifications with reality. As a consequence, we often lose the systemic perspective and fail to address the options for structural change.

By addressing structural change we could unleash a huge potential for improving our chances to navigate current challenges. A systemic layer where this becomes evident is the economy:  We became fully dependent from a growth imperative for our socioeconomic systems to be more or less in equilibrium (although an unstable and unfair equilibrium). This is a rather simplistic and immature setup, fully inconsistent with any logic (exponential growth within a finite Planet), and leaves us far from approaching a thriving socioeconomic system. But we still do not dare to address the structural changes needed to progress…

The urgency of the current global challenges (climate and ecosystem breakdown) leaves no room for us to avoid addressing structural issues. Doing so would allow us to simultaneously address other long-standing challenges like distributional issues, universal access to social services and democracy itself.

During the last few years, further spurred by the context of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, we have assisted to a surge in degrowth literature, every time with better articulated conceptual arguments, and beginning to nail down specific proposals about how to advance in that direction. These are extremely positive developments aiming at addressing structural issues, but we should not lose of sight the huge dimension of the underlaying challenge: Our societies still do not know (and have never experimented with) how to organise themselves for surviving (let alone striving) without a growing economy (we are still that simple or undeveloped). Therefore, the systemic perspective and approach should never be lost.

Often, within degrowth literature there is a limited and biased consideration of technology’s evolution role for the transition. This facilitates putting forward the main degrowth arguments (no absolute decupling within the available timeframe is feasible, and hence the focus must be on degrowth). But again, this may fall into the trap of oversimplifying reality and losing the needed systemic approach.

The point I try to make here is that under the current extreme challenging context we cannot lose the systemic approach and must look holistically to how better combine the different pieces in order to seize the full opportunity window (that the current challenges bring about) for advancing towards a shared prosperity.

Put it more simply: Yes, we need to learn how to organize our socioeconomic system away from the growth imperative, but given the absolute lack of experience on organizing our socioeconomic system in a non-growth context with the current population level, for the sake of shared prosperity, let’s minimize degrowth requirements (at least during the transition while we learn about how to reorganize ourselves under this new context) with a system approach, so that we maximize the chances of success and reaping the huge benefits this structural change offers, and prevent barriers that could likely lead to a collapse of socioeconomic systems and a drift towards authoritarianism and fascism.


The energy transition and its links with outer systemic layers

The energy system does not exist in vacuum. It is embedded into other systems, with strong interactions and feedbacks with the outer systemic layers (economy, society, Earth). This fact is often overlooked when addressing the energy transition, which can have fatal consequences both for the chances of transition roadmaps to be materialized, and to inform policy making to guide the transition (see here).

The energy system will be subject to complex endogenous dynamics during the transition. But on top of that, the economy systemic layer may impose additional burdens with an upwards energy demand trend to underpin economic growth.

Transitioning today’s energy and power systems towards renewables within the time window available for climate consistency is already a huge challenge (see here, here, here and here). Adding the economy’s growth imperative on top of it makes the task still more difficult, because renewable’s and efficiency deployment have to deal simultaneously with the substitution of the existing fossil fuel infrastructure and coping with the additional energy demand increase linked to economic growth. Hence, the chances of success in transitioning within the available time window would increase significantly if the economic growth imperative could be relaxed or eliminated.

The economic growth imperative has dominated economic policy and mainstream economics since the classical economists of the 19th century. Today, the economic growth imperative is so deeply embedded into our socioeconomic structure and policy mindset that any slowdown in economic growth triggers deep crisis episodes (recessions, depressions…). The way socioeconomic systems are currently structured is such that if economic growth stops, jobs are lost, businesses close and people lose access to fundamental basic services (food, housing, health, transport…). However, the current socioeconomic structure is a social construct: There is nothing that prevents societies to introduce structural changes to adapt and improve its organizational structures, so that they are better adapted to the prevailing systemic boundary conditions, and perform better in fulfilling its goal, which should be providing  shared prosperity and allow all of use to develop and thrive within our shared means.

In the past, while the social system was relatively small compared to the size of the outer systemic layer (Earth system), economic growth did not produce evident negative macro impacts. However, since the mid-20th century it is becoming increasingly evident that these impacts exist and are unsustainable. Climate change is one of the main impacts, but others include biodiversity loss and air pollution.

Although economic growth has brought about important progress in social dimensions, this does not rule out the possibility of progress and prosperity being achieved or improved with different socioeconomic structures. In fact, there is mounting evidence that economic growth could be an inefficient way of reaching good social performance, and that it is subject to a saturation process whereby economic growth beyond a certain threshold would not produce additional social improvements (Jackson T., 2017).

Moving from a stand-alone consideration of the economy to a systemic approach, it becomes evident that the economic activity has both lower and upper activity boundaries: The lower activity boundary is to prevent shortfalls in social needs; the upper activity boundary is to avoid overshooting the Earth system capacity. A safe and just space for humanity to thrive exists within these two boundaries (Raworth K., 2017). Hence, recent years have witnessed increasing efforts to address the structural changes that would allow us to transition from past socioeconomic structures towards mature ones, signaling the end of the growth phase (Trebeck K., Williams J., 2019).

Transitioning our societies towards sustainability while maintaining the economic growth imperative would require very strong decoupling of GDP from emissions and material consumption. Recent analyses of historic evidence of decoupling and the prospects provided by several scenarios is not encouraging in terms of the capability to achieve and sustainably maintain the required rates of decoupling within the available time window (Hickel, Kallis, 2019), (Li, 2020), (Schröder, Storm, 2020).

The climate consistency of the energy transition is linked to its cumulative CO2 emissions, and specifically on how these compare to the remaining carbon budget. The mitigation rate deployed during the transition is the tool available to control cumulative emissions. The emissions compound annual mitigation rate associated to limiting global warming at 2C with 67% likelihood and 1.5C with 50% likelihood are 5% and 16% respectively. These results are based on using the carbon budgets provided in (IPCC, 2018), updated to 2020 and interpreted as indicated here (see here and here for a discussion on these carbon budgets and how they compare with those of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report).


Tackling the energy transition’s systemic interdependencies

Energy transition roadmaps exist only on paper and often do not consider systemic interdependencies (paper supports anything we write on it…). However, when trying to implement a transition roadmap, these interdependencies come to the fore and lead to specific socioeconomic outcomes, which can be good (welfare improvements) or challenging (restrictions in economic activity, distributional impacts, job misalignments, negative impacts for specific communities…). That is why analysing the socioeconomic footprint of transition roadmaps it is so important to inform society and policy making in order to bring transition roadmaps from paper to reality (for socioeconomic footprint analyses see for instance here, here, here, here and here).

A full socioeconomic footprint analysis can be quite elaborated and depends on sophisticated integrated models. However, a simple way to address the first order implications of systemic interdependence is using the Kaya identity. The Kaya identity relates the size of the economy with CO2 emissions, energy intensity and CO2 emissions intensity of energy. Hence, the Kaya identity can be used to explore the links between the rates of change of these four variables. Here I use the Kaya identity to evaluate the economic growth consistent with a transition pathway defined by the rate of mitigation  of CO2 emissions and the evolution of energy intensity (EI) and CO2 emissions intensity of energy (EmIE).

The EI is the ratio between the energy demanded by the economy and the size of the economy (in gross domestic product – GDP - terms). The EmIE is the ratio between the energy-related CO2 emissions and the energy demanded by the economy. The time evolution of EI and EmIE can be understood as the endogenous technological characterization of an energy transition roadmap, although it also includes an important social component through behavioural change elements. The improvement (reduction) of EI is linked to the deployment of energy efficiency (EE), while the improvement (reduction) of EmIE is linked to the deployment of renewables (RE) (I rule out nuclear energy for sustainability and social reasons). It should be understood that even if EI and EmIE are constant, when the economy grows there is need for additional EE and RE deployment to cope with the consequences of the increased economic activity. If on top of that, the transition pathway introduces improvements in EI and EmIE, the deployment rate of EE and RE has to increase still more.

The Kaya identity implies that there is an equilibrium point between the rates of change of the economy size, EI, EmIE and CO2 emissions. This means that given three of these four rates, for instance those that technologically characterize the transition (EI and EmIE) and a goal for CO2 mitigation rate (to align with a carbon budget), there is only one possible value for the economy growth (or degrowth) rate.

Let’s quantify these relationships so that we can extract insights about the current challenges and how to address them.

Figure 1 presents the per capita GDP growth rate (the population scenario employed for this analysis is that from IRENA’s GRO), which considers a 0.65% CAGR - Compound Annual Growth Rate - up till 2050) as function of the CO2 mitigation rate (for reference purposes, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to produce a 7%/y reduction of energy-related emissions in 2020), and for three transition pathways (each of them technologically defined by the improvement rates of EI and EmIE, all expressed as CAGR). At the top of the figure the CO2 mitigation rates associated with climate consistency with the 1.5oC with 50% likelihood and the 2oC with 67% likelihood climate goals are shown.

The three transition pathways presented in Figure 1 are associated to the following contexts:

  •          The first transition pathway is a business as usual (BAU) evolution, technologically characterized by improvement rates of EI and EmIE aligned with historic values.
  •          The second transition pathway (‘current transition scenarios’) is technological characterized by improvement rates of EI and EmIE from the dominant currently available transition roadmaps, such as those from IRENA  and IEA.
  •           The third transition pathway (‘room for increased ambition’) is technologically characterized by what could be considered the potential improvement in efficiency and renewables deployment (see for instance here and here).


Figure 1: GDP growth rate as function of CO2 emissions mitigation rate for different transition pathways characterized by the CAGR of energy intensity (EI) and the emissions intensity of energy (EmIE). The figure presents also the emissions mitigation rates linked to the available 2020 carbon budgets for 2C at 67% likelihood and 1.5C at 50% likelihood. 

 Relevant conclusions can be extracted from the analysis of the results presented in Figure 1:

  •           For any given technological characterization of a transition roadmap (defined by its efficiency and decarbonization deployment: EI and EmIE improvement rates), the higher the annual CO2 mitigation rate, the lower the GDP growth. Hence, as mitigation requirements increase (in order to adjust to ever reducing carbon budgets) the margin for maintaining positive economic growth reduces or vanishes.
  •        For a BAU evolution of EI and EmIE improvements (current deployment rates of efficiency and decarbonization), degrowth is required for any meaningful climate goal. Indeed, to maintain positive economic growth under BAU, CO2 mitigation rates lower than 1.5%/y are needed, and these would lead to global warming well above 2oC. For having a 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2oC, a -4%/y growth rate (4%/y degrowth) would be needed, and for reaching just a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5oC, degrowth would need to be about 15%/y. Needless to point out that these are high degrowth rates, which would impose a huge challenge on our socioeconomic system because we still did not learn how to organize it even under a mild degrowth context. Hence, this is certainly not the way we would like to go, because not only it would introduce unsurmountable transition barriers, but would likely lead to socioeconomic breakdown. Hence, the prospects under BAU are really bad: either we collapse because of climate change impacts (and the subsequent socioeconomic breakdown), or we collapse because of direct socioeconomic breakdown. We better move away from BAU ASAP.
  •           Even for the technological characterization of efficiency and decarbonization deployment implemented in the dominant transition roadmaps (curve for ‘current transition scenarios’ in Figure-1), positive economic growth can be maintained only for climate goals consistent with a 2oC global warming. When aiming to a 1.5oC climate goal, the technological characterization of these current mainstream roadmaps would require degrowth rates of about 10%/y, which is still a huge degrowth rate for our socioeconomic system to have any change to survive before mastering the structural changes needed to prosper and thrive away from the growth imperative. This is also not a place where we want to find ourselves, because it would likely lead to socioeconomic breakdown and unsurmountable transition barriers. It must be pointed out that the unaddressed wrongs of our current socioeconomic setup (like inequality, poverty and other access distributional issues) would likely magnify under a socioeconomic breakdown context, as we are already starting to glimpse in regard to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Still, the current degrowth literature, in the best case, focuses in these current mainstream transition scenarios, because together with the BAU these scenarios make clear the case for degrowth. But by departing from the (holistic) system analysis perspective, following these transition roadmaps with the required degrowth to reach the needed CO2 mitigation rate could potentially be as dangerous as insisting on maintaining ourselves within the growth imperative.
  •          However, there is still room to increase the rates of efficiency and decarbonization deployment beyond those used in the current mainstream transition roadmaps, and we urgently need to explore these possibilities and its socioeconomic implications before it becomes too late. With increased technological ambition (higher rates of improvement of EI and EmIE) the margin to maintain growth (or to limit degrowth) for different climate goals increases (‘room for increased ambition’ curve in Figure-1). This would provide a much needed buffer to advance in our understanding and experience about how to organize socioeconomic systems away from the growth imperative without triggering socioeconomic collapse.  However, Figure-1 shows that even for a fairly ambitious transition (5%/y reduction of EI and 12%/y reduction of emissions intensity of energy use), the 1.5oC at 50% likelihood climate goal would require an almost steady state economy (zero growth).
  •          Degrowth it is not an absolute imperative for the transition to comply with climate goals (as proposed by many references that tend to underestimate the potential for efficiency and decarbonization deployment potential (Hickel, Kallis, 2019), (Schröder, Storm, 2020), (Li, 2020)). But limiting growth, or even being able to organize our socioeconomic system to thrive under degrowth, at our current stand point (end 2020 without meaningful climate action still undertaken) very importantly increases the chances of complying with  the kind of climate goals that would prevent huge climate impacts (limiting global warming to 1.5oC degrees with at least 50% likelihood). It seems advisable to proceed with the right combination of increased technological ambition and degrowth so that we provide ourselves with the space needed for learning while doing and introducing lasting structural improvements in our systems. Different approaches could be used for this combination. For instance, the Absolute Zero UK’s report proposes a temporal reduction of supplied services while the technologies needed to provide them become available. This example, where degrowth provides a climate buffer for technology deployment, could be understood as the complimentary of what I commented above with higher ambition technological deployment providing a climate buffer to mature the economy.
  •          Our current socioeconomic structure collapses under a degrowth context. For complying with ambitious climate goals that prevent catastrophic impact on our socioeconomic system it is likely that there is need to move into the degrowth area of Figure 1 (to a higher or lower extend depending on how fast we manage to deploy efficiency and decarbonization). Hence addressing structural aspects that allow our socioeconomic systems to progress and thrive under degrowth contexts, as well as gaining experience on how to set and operate such socioeconomic setups at an accelerated pace, should be a priority.
  •          Under the current context, neither technologic improvement nor degrowth alone are capable to bring us to save port, avoiding the worst effects of the climate breakdown storm while preventing our socioeconomic ship to sink. Hence, a systemic, holistic and collaborative approach is needed to find the right pathway. Advancing this approach, by itself, is an additional potential benefit we can reap from the current challenging context.


The way forward?

A steady state economy seems to be the appropriate goal for human activity in a planet with finite resources and impact bearing capacity. Despite being so far from current mainstream economic thinking and policy, the concept of a steady state economy was already in the mind of main classical economists like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in the thoughts of some of the most influential 20th century economists as John Maynard Keynes (See for instance Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy). For reaching a steady state of the global economy, some countries will have to grow further (coupled with appropriate distribution) in order to satisfy basic social needs, while other countries where economic activity has surpassed the carrying capacity of the ecosystems that contain and sustain it will need to degrow (while also addressing distributional issues).

In order to address the current challenges while progressing towards a mature economy following a safe pathway an holistic system approach is needed which simultaneously and collaboratively progresses in these two fronts:

·       Reduce as fast as possible and without further delay both the energy intensity (EI) of the economy and the emissions intensity of the energy system (EmIE). The margin to accelerate these improvements, and specially the EmIE reduction, is still very important, even when compared with current mainstream transition pathways. 

·       Address structural changes that reduce or completely eliminate the current growth dependency of our economies and learn-by-doing how to set up such a mature socioeconomic system and thrive within it.

At this point one could wonder where behavioural changes fit in this systemic approach to address current challenges, because indeed they constitute an important transition pillar. Behavioural changes form part of both action fronts mentioned above. A move towards a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces the emissions intensity of the economy, as well as increasing the use of public transport, biking or walking in detriment of private motorized transport does, or pushing within your working context for a reduction in commutes and flights while delivering the same professional service. Likewise, the decision to reduce consumption, or even to actively demand from governments that expenditure (both public and private) in activities with low (or even negative) social value is eliminated and redirected towards high social value areas (education, health, universal basic income, job guarantees…), are important components to evolve towards a mature economy. Moreover, behavioural change can link the two action fronts outlined above, potentiating collaborative attitudes and triggering synergies between them. But behavioural change must be underpinned with appropriate organizational structures, and the two action fronts herewith commented outline the main areas where public and private effort should be directed to deploy these structures.

Analyses of the socioeconomic implications of deploying more ambitious transitions that simultaneously address structural changes are urgently needed, providing insights capable to inform the required holistic policy framework for a just and fair transition.

Transitioning and avoiding dangerous climate impacts would have been much easier 20 or even 10 years ago: Lower mitigation rates, lower EE and RE deployment rates, and weaker requirements to revisit fundamental structural issues about our socioeconomic setup, with more space for learning how to thrive away from the growth imperative. But we humans are rather slow in reacting when there is room enough to do it comfortably. So now we are faced with a huge challenge. Let’s use this opportunity window and seize the chance for addressing those fundamental structural issues as well as we can.


martes, 20 de octubre de 2020

Climate consistency focus (or lack thereof...)

 Just two and a half months to go for finishing 2020, struggling to navigate a pandemic and its consequences, while still failing to gain awareness and develop social responsibility for tackling the climate and ecological crisis that sit at its origin.

Climate breakdown is not anymore a thread comfortably laying into the future (i.e. lending itself to the social irresponsibility of passing it to following generations), but is already happening in front of our eyes: The COVID pandemic, devastating wildfires all across the world (Australia, United States, Brazilian Amazon, artic tundra,…), floods, droughts, bleaching of coral reefs, agricultural yield reduction… All of them unfolding at higher rates than predicted by climate and earth system models. Last year was already 1.3C above pre-industrial levels, so when we speak about the huge socio-economic impacts of going beyond 1.5C global warming we are not talking about an hypothetic far away future, but about the reality of ours and next generation.

I am still surprised on how we insist on keep on fooling ourselves. The carbon budgets are a clear example of this. Here I discussed the climate consistency of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Sustainable Development Scenario from this perspective.

The carbon budget (CB) is a very useful yardstick to measure the climate consistency of how we plan to address the climate crisis. For any given year it states how much carbon dioxide we can still emit in order to keep global warming under a given threshold, and hence is the appropriate reference to check the climate consistency of transition roadmaps by comparing its cumulative emissions with the available carbon budgets.

The most recent consolidated reference from the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change (IPCC) is its 2018 Special Report on1.5C (SR1.5). In this report, the IPCC provided a significantly higher estimate of the remaining carbon budgets than the ones being used before, which were those from the IPCC fifth assessment report (AR5) from 2014. Here and here I discussed the very important differences between the carbon budgets in AR5 and SR1.5, as well as its potential implications. For 2021 we will have the sixth assessment report (AR6) from IPCC providing an update of the remaining carbon budget estimates as per the most recent climate simulations.

But let’s just take the current SR1.5 carbon budgets and come back to discus the social license to keep on fooling ourselves. Unfortunately, the IPCC SR1.5 had across its publication process several undefinitions that opened the door to different interpretations regarding the remaining carbon budgets (let’s hope the AR6 overcomes these issues), which subsequently led to develop policy transition roadmaps (like those from the International Energy Agency – IAE- and the International Renewable Energy Agency – IRENA) aligned with the higher boundary of the remaining carbon budgets estimates. These policy roadmaps inform policy-making in most countries, and due to the institutional and social inertia, lock us into transition pathways that can be inconsistent with climate breakdown. This could make us lose the tiny opportunity window still available to mitigate some of the consequences of climate breakdown.

Given the evidence of the already ongoing climate impacts (and the associated underestimate of our capacity to predict them), a basic precautionary principle should provide guidance on how to use the available information on the remaining carbon budgets with social responsibility, and to set the boundaries of the social license on how this is addressed.

Taking as basis the IPCC SR1.5 reported carbon budgets, minimum levels of social responsibility would require:  

  •           Use average air temperature instead of mixed air and sea water temperature to characterize climate goals. Sea surface temperature is cooler than air temperature, and hence by mixing both we obtain a lower overall temperature (if we would mix air, water and ice temperature we would still obtain a lower average). Hence, using a mixed (air and sea water) temperature to define the goal for global warming (1.5C or 2C) is equivalent to implicitly admitting a higher warming of the air (and its associated impacts).
  •           Including at least the very conservative estimates of Earth system feedbacks provided by IPCC. Earth system feedbacks are difficult to be modeled, and hence, most climate and earth system models do not include them. Yet, we are well aware of the fact that earth system feedbacks exist and that we are getting very close or perhaps already have surpassed the tipping points that trigger some of them. Our modeling abilities do not define reality, but rather the other way around: As we improve modeling skills and capacities, we better reproduce reality. The IPCC SR1.5 provides a very conservative estimate of earth system feedbacks (100 GtCO2 reduction in remaining carbon budgets), but yet this is not included in the reporting of the climate consistency of most transition roadmaps. Let’s hope the IPCC AR6 provides a more thorough evaluation of the likely impact for earth system feedbacks, but up till them at least the low recommendation from IPCC ASR1.5 should be included.
  •           In 2019, after the publication of IPCC SR1.5C, one of the main databases for sea surface temperature was updated to correct for measurement errors, which has relevant implications on the remaining carbon budgets. The effect of any update in past measurement errors should be included into the carbon budgets we use to develop transition roadmaps and inform climate policy.

Factoring in these minimum levels of social responsibility in the use of carbon budgets, linear transition pathways provide a very convenient way to visualize and conceptualize the transition implications and its climate consistency. We already used here linear transition pathways to illustrate the climate urgency we are facing. The lineal evolution could seem too idealized and far from real evolutions, but the fact is that the transition roadmaps put forward by the International Renewable Energy Agency in its Global Renewables Outlook and the International Energy Agency in its World Energy Outlook are pretty linear in terms of the proposed emissions mitigation.

Figure-1 below presents different linear transition pathways starting in 2020 (and hence including the emissions reduction effect of the COVID-19 pandemic for 2020) and leading to zero emissions in different time horizons (without including negative emissions). As boundaries of these linear transition pathways, the transitions leading to cumulative emissions equal to the carbon budgets available in 2020 for 1.5C warming with 67% likelihood, 1.5C warming with 50% likelihood and 2C warming with 67% likelihood are also shown.

As we may appreciate, a transition consistent with having a 67% likelihood (it is worth pointing out that this is a rather low likelihood) of limiting global warming below 1.5C would require completing the transition within the following 5 years. Having a 50% likelihood (the flipping of a coin) to limit global warming to 1.5C would require completing the transition within a bit more than one decade. Having a 67% likelihood to limit global warming to 2C would require completing the transition by 2060.

To further document the impact of completing the transition in different time horizons, Figure-2 presents the cumulative emissions of linear transition roadmaps starting in 2020 and reaching zero emissions in different years with the available carbon budgets for different climate goals.


Figure-1: Historic evolution of total CO2 emissions up to 2019, linear transitions ending at different years, and limits associated to the 2020 carbon budgets for 1.5C@67%, 1.5C@50% and 2C@67%. 


Figure-2: cumulative emissions since 2020 of linear transitions ending at different years, compared with the available 2020 carbon budgets for 1.5C@67%, 1.5C@50% and 2C@67%.

Most the proposed transition roadmaps, and particularly those with the highest impact in crafting climate policy, reach zero emissions by 2060 – 2070, with the recent NZE2050 roadmap from IEA aiming at 2050 (although with a very poor documentation), and all include certain amount of negative emissions technologies. Yet, most of these transition roadmaps are put forward as Paris Agreement compatible or even aligned with a 1.5C global warming.

lunes, 20 de abril de 2020

Climate consistency of IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario

This post presents the results of checking the climate consistency of the most ambitious energy transition scenario from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Energy transition scenarios are meant to inform policy-makers and society about the implications of potential roadmaps for the energy sector. In the context of addressing the climate change challenge, the goal of scenarios should be achieving a targeted level of global warming. Hence, the climate consistency of scenarios should be clearly and transparently reported, but often this is not the case. Moreover, it is common to find ambiguity in climate consistency reporting, with scenarios claiming to adhere to current policy commitments (e.g., Paris Agreement) without properly backing these statements.

Policy agreements themselves often embody a significant ambiguity. It is for instance not clear what does it take to be consistent with the Paris Agreement, so different interpretations are used. Unfortunately, how IPCC has reported available carbon budgets has also contributed to the overall ambiguity, since different numeric values of carbon budgets can be inferred from its publications. Moreover, the fact that global warming is linked to total emissions and not only to energy-related emissions is often by-passed by implicit or explicit assumptions about the evolution of non-energy emissions, for which the proposed energy transition scenarios do not provide any means for mitigation. And on top of all of this we have the significant uncertainty attached to carbon budgets themselves.

The lack of clarity in reporting the climate consistency of energy transition scenarios strongly undermines its value, since chances to trigger the wrong policy or societal response are high.
Carbon budgets (CBs) are an appropriate yardstick to check the climate consistency of transition scenarios. The IPCC compiles the available scientific knowledge on climate change, including carbon budgets. The IPCC periodically produces Assessment Reports (AR) where the available knowledge on climate change is compiled. The fifth AR was released in 2014, and the sixth AR is due for 2021-2022. Climate and earth system models are updated for each AR, and therefore changes in carbon budgets are to be expected. Since climate and earth system models incorporate ever increasing detail about physical mechanisms (including feedbacks), carbon budgets estimates can be expected to reduce in updated ARs.

In 2018 the IPCC released its last publication updating carbon budgets (Special Report on 1.5C – SR1.5C). This publication is still based on model results from the AR5, but introduced several methodological changes to derive carbon budgets, lading to a significant increase of CBs over those presented in AR5. In here  and here we discuss this update in CBs and its implications. One of the effects of this update in CBs is that some of the principal energy transition scenarios that before the SR1.5C were reported to be consistent with a 2C global warming, suddenly were reported to be consistent with 1.5C global warming (without reducing its cumulative emissions).

Comparing the cumulative CO2 emissions from transition scenarios with the available carbon budgets provides a direct check of its climate consistency.

Energy transition scenarios provide high detail for energy-related CO2 emissions, and the proposed means to mitigate them. However, CBs make reference to total CO2 emissions. Therefore, for checking climate consistency total cumulative CO2 emissions are the metric to be compared with available carbon budgets. This means that energy-related CO2 emissions need to be complemented with industrial process CO2 emissions and LUCUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) CO2 emissions before comparing with the available carbon budgets.

Most energy transition scenarios do not address the details of mitigation in industry-process and LULUCF emissions, but still they make statements about climate consistency. For this purpose, they rely on unclear, non-transparent and unbacked assumptions about mitigation of non-energy related emissions. Often, the implicit mitigation for non-energy related emissions turns out to be far more ambitious than that for energy-related emissions, which is in stark contrast with the absolute lack of mitigation measures that these scenarios propose for non-energy related emissions.

In order to avoid this inconsistency, and in the absence of detailed transition analysis for non-energy related emissions, we propose that the climate consistency of the energy scenario is analyzed by framing it with the range of likely non-energy related emissions consistent with the proposed energy transition scenario. This range of non-energy related cumulative CO2 emissions can be defined by the two following cases:
  •         Business As Usual (BAU) CO2 emissions from industry-process and LULUCF, consistent with historic values and trends.
  •       Mitigation in non-energy related CO2 emissions that has the same ambition as that deployed in the energy transition scenario for energy-related CO2 emissions, where ambition is defined by the time-dependent ratio of transition to BAU emissions.

Among the most influential energy transition scenarios during the last decades are those developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and reported in its annual World Energy Outlook (WEO). 
The 2019 WEO includes 3 scenarios: Current Policies Scenario (CPS), Stated Policies Scenario (SPS) and Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). The SDS is by far the more ambitious of the three in climate terms: Cumulative energy-related emissions between 2020 and 2100 from SPS and CPS are about 360% and 500% those of SDS, with SPS and CPS still emitting additional CO2 after 2100. Here we will address the climate consistency of the SDS scenario (the one with the highest climate ambition).

In the WEO 2019, IEA claims the SDS to be consistent with 1.8C global warming with 66% likelihood, or 1.65C global warming with 50% likelihood. It is worth noting that the reduction of CO2 energy-related emissions of the SDS from the SPS already includes 9% of Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS). As we will see below, the analysis of the climate consistency of the SDS rather points (at best) to an alignment with a 2C global warming with 50% likelihood (see Fig.1).

As discussed above, the analysis of climate consistency requires evaluating the total cumulative CO2 emissions and comparing them with the available carbon budgets. The energy-related emissions associated to the SDS are taken from the WEO 2019. Two estimates of industry process CO2 emissions and LULUCF CO2 emissions will be used to frame the likely evolution of this sectors in parallel to the implementation of the SDS energy transition roadmap: BAU and similar ambition to the mitigation in the energy-related emissions.

For industry process emissions, starting from the current values, the BAU follows the historic increasing trend with a linear evolution. The other extreme for industry process emissions assumes the same time evolution of mitigation as in energy-related emissions, leading to zero emissions a bit before 2070.

For LULUCF, starting from the average level of emissions from the last couple of decades, the BAU implements the historic increasing trend using a linear evolution up to 2040, when LULUCF are assumed to stabilize and keep constant up to 2100. The other extreme for LULUCF emissions assumes the same time evolution of mitigation as in energy-related emissions, leading to zero emissions a bit before 2070.

Figure-1 presents the results. Carbon budgets as of 2020 for different levels of global warming and likelihoods are presented at the right (yellow bars) and include the uncertainty range recommended by IIPC in the 2018 1.5C Special Report. Cumulative emissions (2020-2100) for the SDS transition scenario are presented at the left for the two cases of industry process emissions and LULUCF emissions: Energy-related emissions from SDS are presented in blue bars (the same for both cases); The bar at the left includes the BAU process industry and LULUCF cumulative emissions, while the bar at the right has industry process and LULUCF emissions with the same mitigation ambition as the energy-related emissions.

As it may be seen, total cumulative emissions are well above the available carbon budgets for 1.5C (67% and 50% likelihoods). The case that considers a similar mitigation ambition for industry process and LULUCF emissions as that for energy-related emissions has total cumulative emissions that fall within the upper uncertainty range of the carbon budget for 2C at 67% likelihood, and close to the median value of the carbon budget for 2C at 50% likelihood. However, if BAU emissions are considered for industry process and LULUCF (which seems more consistent with a transition scenario that does not foresee any measure to mitigate these emissions), the cumulative emissions are almost in the limit of the upper uncertainty range of the 2C at 50% carbon budget, and hence would be likely to lead to a global warming above 2C.

Figure-1: Cumulative emissions of IEA’s SDS (2020-2100) compared with available carbon budgets. Energy-related emissions are those from the SDS. For process and LULUCF emissions two cases are presented: BAU and same ambition as for energy-related emissions.

The analysis herewith presented has focused on the SDS from IEA, concluding that this energy transition scenario, at best would be aligned with 2C global warming, but that it significantly overshoots the 1.5C climate goal. However, this conclusion can be extended to other of the available main energy transition scenarios which also belong to the 800 – 900 GtCO2 cumulative energy-related emissions climate tier.

Historic GHG emissions have already produced 1.1C of global warming, and its impacts are being felt around the world with increasing intensity year after year. Avoiding climate impacts that can seriously challenge the integrity of our socioeconomic and environmental systems would require limiting global warming to 1.5C, and reaching this goal requires the whole world completing the transition before 2050. Even if we fail to stabilize global warming to 1.5C, the faster we can transition the better for our socio-economic systems. In this context, and taking into account how these influential energy transition scenarios lock-in policies and investments for the following decades, it is difficult to understand why we have not been analyzing more ambitious scenarios since several years ago, so that policy-making can be properly informed.

In the post-COVID period, the opportunity window to address structural change should be used to increase transition rates and bring us into more climate-ambitious transition roadmaps.   

domingo, 12 de abril de 2020

GDP is a wicked compass to guide our socio-economic system: Additional COVID-19 evidence

Fears to economic consequences from COVID-19 have delayed (or prevented altogether) effective response to the pandemic in many countries, with a significant death toll impact, and are now hasting a risky return to ‘normality’ (breaking confinement measures) against the advice of health experts. In several global North countries, we have witnessed the naked nasty reality of statements putting GDP before people’s life, accepting to sacrifice our elders just to maintain GDP growth for a bit longer.

Our economic system has become production growth-dependent, and our whole social system seems to be guided by one single compass: GDP growth. When GDP stops growing, our economic system collapses, and our societies suffer. By itself, this is a very clear sign of weakness (moreover considering the fallacy of eternal GDP growth) and lack of resilience. We certainly do not have appropriate socio-economic structures to navigate collective crisis, and we should better take advantage of the lessons from the COVID-19 crisis to improve before we have to face bigger crisis already in the pipeline (e.g., climate change).

Because of the time lags between the initial wave of the COVID-19 crisis in different countries, it is still rather soon to have the full picture. Indeed, the crisis is just taking off in the US (Figure-2) and it may still be incipient in many parts of the global South. But data up to date (Figure-1) already hints what could be a significant positive correlation between COVID-19 deaths per million people and GDP per capita. This could still become more of a U-curve if the COVID-19 crisis hits strong in the global South. However, if this happens it will be (at least in part) due to weakened health systems in these countries, for which the structural adjustment policies dictated by global North controlled institutions during the last decades have an important responsibility. And since these are (at least in theory) impositions done in the name of promoting GDP growth in the global South, the main conclusion would still hold:

It seems we are using the wrong compass (GDP growth) to guide the evolution of our socio-economic systems. Blindly following it takes us far away from prosperity, at least when facing a collective crisis. Focusing our whole socio-economic system on serving GDP growth leaves us without resilience and capability to navigate shocks without high impacts.  


Figure-2: Evolution of confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people in selected countries (January 31  to April 11th, 2020)

We already knew that the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ counties narrative becomes a fallacy as soon as we evaluate the state of development in a holistic two-dimensional space (‘achieved social thresholds’ and ‘biophysical boundaries transgressed’): we all live in developing countries. Indeed, Figure-3 shows how there is no country in the D-quadrant, the region where the needs of all are met within the means of the planet, where developed countries would lay (

Figure-3: Countries' performance in terms of achieved social thresholds and biophysical boundaries transgressed

The mainstream neoliberal argument during the last decades has been that there is a significant positive correlation between the ‘social thresholds achieved’ and GDP growth. This is certainly the case for some prosperity indicators, such as child mortality (Figure-4) and maternal mortality (Figure-5).

However, the beneficial effect of GDP on many prosperity indicators, while being important for low income countries, saturates or even becomes negative as high GDPs per capita are reached, which invalidates the use of GDP growth as the only compass to guide the evolution towards prosperity. This can be appreciated, among other, in life expectancy (Figure-6), self-reported life satisfaction (Figure-7), human development index (Figure-8), share of children in employment (Figure-9) and death rate from indoor air pollution (Figure-10).

Other indicators present a high dispersion with GDP, like Human Rights Score (Figure-11), perform the worst at middle GDPs, like outdoor air pollution death rates (Figure-12), or even deteriorate as GDP increases, like gender wage gap (Figure-13) and the share of low-pay earners who are female (Figure-14).

Therefore, we should stop using GDP growth as the only or main compass to guide the evolution of the socio-economic system. The momentum provided by the evidence disclosed during the COVID-19 crisis (about the lack of resilience and extreme socio-economic weakness that results from blindly using the GDP growth compass) should be used to change course and adopt a compass that guides us towards inclusive prosperity, while redesigning socio-economic structures so that they have the needed resilience.