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Ecological debt is defined as the level of resource consumption and waste discharge by a population which is in excess of locally sustainable natural production and assimilative capacity. The term was coined in 1992 by the Insituto de Ecologia Politica in Santiago, Chile, wherein the production of greenhouse gases by the developed nations of the north was seen as inequitable. This was exacerbated by utilisation in the north of resources extracted in the south which imposed climatic and social changes not included in the calculations of international debt. Subsequently, a rich versus poor argument emerged, asserting that the impact of exploitation of finite natural resources from these nations had not been fully ‘compensated’ by price, royalties or licensing fees. Surrounding this was a series of ‘debt for nature’ agreements wherein some parts of a nation’s debt was erased in return for the designation of large wilderness areas. However, due to the inherently interrelated nature of ecology and ecosystems, ecological debt has now transcended the physical and political boundaries of any individual nation to become a global phenomenon that involves every person on earth in calculating the suggested debts through collective and individual behaviours worldwide.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last month released a white paper setting out their industrial strategy. This document claims to contain a plan which is “building a Britain fit for the future”, as such, it is important to see how environmentally friendly that future appears.
The first notable thing is that the government identifies four “grand challenges” which are to be tackled to put the UK at the forefront of the world economy; the ageing society, future of mobility and AI & data economy are three of them. But the final challenge the government has identified is clean growth, which appears to be a strong environmental commitment. The government states it “will maximise the advantages for UK industry from the shift to clean growth.”
So what does the government mean by this? And more importantly, what do they plan to do? Let’s begin by going through the “early priority areas” identified in the strategy.
Today marks the six-month anniversary of Michael Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary. In the past, Gove had shown a fairly poor voting record on environmental issues, voting against a ban on “unconventional petroleum exploitation” and alongside that voted against a motion explicitly requiring environmental permits for natural gas fracking operations. The MP also had no previous experience in agricultural or environmental roles, previous roles being Justice and Education secretary, so his promotion sparked outcry from many. Ed Davey, the former Environment secretary, described the appointment as ‘an act of environmental vandalism’, and said it would be ‘like putting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop’.
The looming prospect of Brexit makes for uncertain times in the realm of UK environmental policy, and so in many ways Gove’s tenure takes place at a truly pivotal moment. So, what has he achieved since June?
Harry Holmes and Lucy Fellingham
Recently Phillip Hammond the Chancellor released the UK Autumn Budget, the outline of the government’s spending plan. As ever, the green agenda didn’t register as high as the NHS and housing, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to talk about. So, without further ado, let’s look at the environmental side of the budget document.
Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
The Paris Agreement (Article 2) seeks to restrict climate change to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, with the ethically imperative goal of ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. An important question, discussed in greater detail in my previous article, is whether the more ambitious of these two goals was merely aspirational, or if this is indeed an achievable target.
By some measures, global temperature rise is already knocking on the door of 1.5 degrees. Some studies have argued that we could have emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to reach that level of warming as soon as 2021. But these numbers rely on different assumptions than were made when the goals of the Paris Agreement were devised in 2015, at which time delegates were advised that global temperatures had risen by ‘only’ 0.85 degrees. With this in mind, the 1.5 degree goal in the Paris Agreement should be seen as a very real possibility, with recent studies indicating that net-zero greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2045 (figure 1) or 2055 (partly dependent on our ability to reduce emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases). In other words, achieving the 1.5-degree goal will be extremely difficult and require rapid decarbonisation of every part of every economy in the world, but it is possible.
Figure 1: Future emission trajectories under business as usual (baseline), the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement (NDC), uniform pricing on all greenhouse gas emissions to deliver a 50% probability of staying within the 2°C target (default 3.4), as with default 3.4 but with a probability of at least 66% of staying below 2°C of warming (default 2.6), as with default 2.6 but minimising the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage as a means of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere (No BECCS 2.6), and delivering a 50-66% probability of remaining below the 1.5°C target (van Vuuren et al. 2017)
If we can understand the 1.5-degree target as being achievable and set with the intention of it being fulfilled, rather than a meaningless phrase added to placate many of the world’s countries at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, who may otherwise have walked out of the discussions at Paris, the implications are huge. No longer will the biggest emitting countries and companies be able to drive global temperatures up beyond safe levels and then be able to claim that by the time we understood the science of climate change and came to a global consensus on its prevention, it was too late to do anything about it. We know it will be tough, and that we must be fully determined in our ambition to achieve rapid decarbonisation, but the knowledge that this trajectory is possible will greatly strengthen future claims of responsibility for causing climate change.
With this in mind, any future, not prevented impacts of climate change, including forced movement of people due to sea level rise, economic losses from extreme weather attributed to climate change, loss of life, and non-economic losses should be subject to ‘loss and damage’ claims. Those failing to play their part in preventing further climate change now, and pushing warming beyond global targets are responsible for its impacts. The fact they now know they can do something about it will simply add to their responsibility, should they fail to act now. And if they don’t, they should be liable to compensate those affected by conscious decisions to contribute to the devastation resulting from climate change – stories of which can be heard from delegates throughout COP23.
Despite the apparent logic of this, much of the developed world (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their large historical emissions and responsibility for climate change) remain unmovably opposed to developing mechanisms through the UN climate process to facilitate loss and damage claims. The latest attempts to block this process has been led at COP23 by the US, EU, Canada and Australia, whose contention that financing should be excluded from negotiations on loss and damage is apparently grounded in the fact that not every natural disaster can be attributed to climate change. The absurdity of this argument is underlined by recent and rapid advances in the science of attributing (probabilistically) extreme weather events to climate change. Since we can now model to what extent climate change influenced a particular event, we can determine with ever growing certainty how responsible for climate-related losses are those who contributed most to climate change.
If we can formalise a regime for loss and damage, and render the biggest emitters liable for the impacts of their actions, this would be a small but significant step towards addressing the vast injustices of climate change. For the developed world to continue to ignore their moral duty on this matter is simply unacceptable.
This article follows Oxford Climate Society’s side event at this year’s UN Climate Conference, on 12 November 2017, and is in part inspired by the talks given by the speakers, Professor Myles Allen and Kya Raina Lal.
Author: Felix Heilmann, Oxford Climate Society Vice President 2017/18 and Convenor of the Oxford School of Climate Change
The facts are clear. The most existential threat to our common future comes in the form of emissions created by what our economy runs on at the moment – fossil fuels that heat up the world’s climate. This is the astounding simplicity at the heart of what seems to be one of the world’s most complex problems. It is important to recall this as the climate negotiations make headlines over the course of these two weeks.
It is also worth recalling that there is, all in all, a surprisingly broad agreement from corporate boardrooms to civil society marches on the most fundamental principle on how a liveable future should look like – it is a future in which all major sectors of the society and economy have been successfully decarbonised, e.g. through the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy, increases in efficiency, and the like.
Naturally, there are disagreements on what exactly such a future should look like, and even more disagreement on how to get there – should governments take political action, or should we just trust market forces? Should some countries move first when others are not doing their fair share? The fact that there’s disagreement on these topics, however, is just a sign of a healthy democratic debate.
This cannot be said about a fundamental issue at the heart of climate politics: Far too often are highly necessary points about making today’s policy decisions future-proof dismissed as being “ideological”, and categorically rejected. Too often is climate action seen as a bargaining chip in political negotiations when it is, in fact, in our greatest common interest. Diverse groups within politics still showcase a categorical opposition to climate action, which they claim is an ideological issue – at a time when even companies such as Shell and Siemens have acknowledged its importance. It’s wrong and dangerous that silencing the debate about climate solutions and the necessity for action, or treating them as a bargaining chip, is still a workable political strategy for many parties across the industrialized world. In a healthy democratic culture, problems should be acknowledged, the best solutions debated, and then subsequently implemented. It is time that we close the gap between the pressing importance of the climate challenge and its representation and discussion in politics.
When it comes to life-or-death issues such as the climate crisis, it is not words but actions that matter. Every scientist will confirm that inaction is not an option in this case – we have to get our heads out of the sand, and face down this issue. That’s why it’s time to bridge across political divisions and build powerful coalitions that can create the future we want. This requires action on all sides of the political spectrum, and it can only be hoped that this is – finally – realized universally. In the meantime, we can work on what is crucial for a healthy democratic debate: having a good informational basis and getting the facts right. This is the spirit behind the latest addition to the Oxford Climate Society’s portfolio: The Oxford School of Climate Change. A select group of students will get the opportunity to hear about some of the most important issues in the climate debate from leading academics in the field, and there will also be ample opportunity to discuss solutions for the challenges ahead.
Words won’t safeguard our future – actions will. But words can lead to actions, and that’s why it’s crucial that we lead wide-ranging, expedient discussions on how to get into a safe future. The School of Climate Change will be a part of this effort.
I’m sure you're aware of the damaging effect of fossil fuel consumption on the atmosphere, and resultantly our climate. But what you may not be aware of is the massive global subsidising of their use, rationalised by some as necessary to keep the world economy running. And staggeringly, global fossil fuel subsidies currently stand at $5.3 trillion - yes, that’s trillion - or roughly 6.5% of the gross world product (GWP) in 2015. It might be suggested that this figure should be dropping with the increasing international investment in renewable energy sources, but between 2013 and 2015 it rose by $400 bn, or by around 8%.
The study from IMF academics was published back in August in the journal World Development, and is the first of its kind in the way it defines and quantifies fossil fuel subsidisation. Rather than just taking into account the direct subsidies towards lower fuel prices (just 0.7% of GWP in 2013), they also include indirect costs due to fossil fuel use such as air pollution deaths and global warming, which in all are over 7 times larger than the direct costs. Unsurprisingly, coal and petrols received much greater amounts of subsidy due to their more harmful emissions and more widespread use than, for example, natural gas. And whilst it is also no surprise that China, USA and Russia provide the greatest subsidies (in that order), the magnitudes are surprising. China subsidised fossil fuels three times as much as the US in 2015, with the US providing more than double the subsidies paid by the entire EU, despite the former having more than 150 million fewer citizens. Startlingly, simply eliminating these subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions by over 20% and air pollution deaths by over 50%, which are two major areas of concern in the modern era.
Whilst these figures are estimates they should be fairly accurate, and the authors hope that the study places heightened strain on policymakers to consider factors such as health and emissions when investing in energy. Difficulty comes when considering the power and control exerted by fossil fuel companies in policymaking, directly via lobbying and indirectly via campaign funding. However in any government and economy, decisions tend ultimately to be made for financial reasons, and whilst fossil fuel reserves are running low and becoming costlier to extract, the effects of their use are straining health services more and more. Eventually the cost of fossil fuel use to the bank balance and citizens health will be too great to ignore, and clean, renewable energies will be required to keep us functioning. One can only hope that with the fitness of our planet, economies and people at heart, world governments finally wake up, and that change comes sooner rather than later.
The study can be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X16304867
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.