By Robert Lowe, on 27 October 2015
On Tuesday 20 October 2015, UCL Energy Institute, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, UKERC and the French Embassy hosted ‘Global Energy, Global Climate’. This was the first in a series of three events organised jointly by UCL Energy Institute and the French Embassy (under the auspices of the long-established relationship between the French Embassy’s Science and Technology Department and UCL’s Grand Challenges programme), to be held termly through the 2015-16 academic year.
For an evening event on Energy and Climate Change, in the middle of Global Climate Change Week and in the run-up to COP21, it would have been hard to think of a better line-up of speakers – Jean-Charles Hourcade (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS), Jim Watson (UKERC Research Director, Paul Ekins (Director of UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources), Jim Skea (ex-UKERC Research Director and IPCC WGIII co-chair) and our discussant, Jill Duggan (Doosan Babcock).
Jean-Charles gave a fascinating summary, peppered with memorable epithets, of the attempts that have been made since 1988 to craft an international agreement that would limit global CO2 emissions (and yes, there are other GHGs, but CO2 accounts for roughly 2/3 of man-made climate forcing). Those who rail against the glacial rate of progress over almost 30 years, would do well to reflect on the real complexities of the negotiations.
Paul Ekins, Jim Skea, and Jim Watson then set out some of the key findings and arguments from the latest UKERC book, Global Energy: Issues, Potentials, Policy Implications. Paul reflected on choices and policy challenges, Jim Skea on on-going developments in global energy markets, among them the very high rate of growth of renewables, and Jim Watson on the complexities of the innovation process – the importance of learning-by-doing, the long time scales to deploy new technologies at scale, and the low probability of university-based researchers finding a silver bullet that will solve the problems of energy and climate change.
Jill Duggan gave a masterful summing up, reflecting on how, despite disappointments, there are signs of progress – among other things, she stated that it would now be inconceivable to propose the construction of a new, unabated coal-fired power station in the UK. It is less than ten years since E.ON proposed the construction of two new coal-fired units, at Kingsnorth. Perhaps her most memorable point was that credibility is one of the most important resources that governments have to drive through what may prove to be the most difficult infrastructural, social and political transition of the last two centuries.
The panel discussion was memorable both for the level of agreement, and one notable disagreement – on the feasibility of carbon taxation. All participants agreed on the desirability of carbon pricing, but Jim Skea, Jim Watson and Jill Duggan thought that carbon taxation was very unlikely to be the best way to achieve it. Jean-Charles described how, in the 1990s, key EU governments worked to frustrate attempts to introduce EU-wide carbon taxation. No UK government would have the credibility to make it stick, and in the absence of long-term certainty, it would be largely ignored by industry. There are spectacular outliers – Denmark and Sweden – which have maintained very high levels of energy and carbon taxation, in the case of Denmark since the late 1970s. But those of us, like Paul Ekins and myself, who have argued for twenty years for carbon taxation, would do well to understand the political problems elsewhere.
My own conclusions after having chaired this event? The fossil fuel age will prove much harder to get out of than to get into – those who are yet to be persuaded of this would do well to read the reports of the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project undertaken by UCL-Energy and IDDRI (another Anglo-French collaboration), and perhaps McGlade & Ekins paper, The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C.
Thomas Kuhn’s description of the nature of the scientific crises that precede scientific revolutions (paradigm shifts) seems to me to be a useful metaphor for the challenge of climate change and our attempts to solve it – and here I paraphrase: the accumulation of widely disparate problems that initially attract a series of incremental responses; the generation of a host of new ideas, many of which ultimately fail to be taken up, but some of which point the way to a new paradigm; a growing sense of disorientation and crisis as it becomes clear that ways of tackling the underlying problems that have been successful historically, no longer appear to work; and finally, resolution, as the new paradigm with all of its technical, social, economic, and political dimensions is articulated and entrenched.