UCL Environment


‘Observing’ the Paris Climate Change Conference: In the shadow of the Copenhagen Accord in flower

By Jennifer Hazelton, on 18 December 2015

Animal figures at COP21 - Adam Byrne

Copyright – Adam Byrne December 2015

COP21 external conference centre Paris Dec 2015 - Adam Byrne

Copyright Adam Byrne Dec 2015

Author: Adam Byrne, UCL PhD Student in the Department of Geography

The Paris Agreement that was adopted last Saturday has been greeted with much fanfare and comment from those involved in the process. I had the privilege as a PhD student to attend the COP and was funded by the ESRC doctoral training school. In this brief commentary, rather than offer policy analysis of which there are now already copious amounts, I present here a sketch, as it were, of the COP as I experienced it.

As an accredited ‘observer’ of the COP21 I was not allowed to observe the negotiations under the French presidency other than the open statements of the Comité de Paris, which were broadcast live on the internet in any case. I therefore spent most of the time unable to be a witness to events, which somewhat makes a mockery of the term. In the age of the internet, it was impossible for the UNFCCC and the French government to keep the negotiations completely closed off from the outside world, however, for just as when it rained on Tuesday of the second week and the roof of Hall 4 leaked, some of the delegates tweeted events from behind their security guarded areas, and the information flowed out into the wider world. Beyond this, however, towards the end of the COP it became increasingly difficult for most people, including the vast bulk of the negotiators, to know exactly what was going on as informal consultations and bilateral meetings took place – so much for transparency. This ignorance fostered a sense of fear that the talks might fail, but this fear was misplaced. My belief going into the COP was that there was sufficient political will to mean an agreement was quite likely, and a commitment to the UNFCCC as an institution and process. No national government would want to undermine the negotiations and have the blame for the failure of Paris heaped on their shoulders. Significant diplomatic activities by the French and other governments had occurred in the run up to the conference which also meant the signs were good. The event did not disappoint from this perspective.

This was a highly regulated experience. In fact it was like being in an international airport, in terms of scale, the security process which included the removal of belts and the checking of any liquids, the fact that the conference centre bordered a private airport and the aviation museum, and that the conference halls appeared to be converted plane hangars. Within the site, political action was heavily circumscribed. Walls were kept free from posters, and leaflets were allowed to be left on exhibitor’s tables, but were not allowed to be distributed at the doors. Six designated spaces were allowed for NGO demonstrations, whose political activities were heavily circumscribed due to their diminished numbers through the exclusionary practice of accreditation, and the censorship that was placed on them (e.g. no satirical drawings of Heads of States, negotiators, individuals were allowed). Consequently their actions tended to contain a less offensive interactive novelty element. The long-standing Fossil of the Day Award (which gives out prizes to the worst performing states, e.g. Saudi Arabia) was tongue-in-cheek and clever enough to get past the censorship.

In keeping with the history and location of the Le Bourget Airport site (it was after all the first airport in Paris, and where the American, Charles Lindbergh, completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927), it was a fortunate coincidence that the phrase ‘landing zone’ became an oft repeated phrase in the negotiations for the past year and a half. The image conjured was that of airplane Earth being piloted by the President of the COP, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, to a safe landing zone which accommodated the various positions of the parties. However the analogy and the phrase was an inaccurate one. One of the visual themes of the conference was Noah’s Ark. The offices and the pavilions of the parties were constructed out of some kind of reconstituted wood which made them look hut-like, suitable for animals. A multitude of child-friendly, colourful cartoon-animal acrylic cut-outs lined the main road servicing the Halls which led to a cluster of them outside the plenary hall. This was coordinated by the French artist Gad Weil, and they were reportedly recyclable. Admittedly children were largely absent from the COP, this being a middle-aged and above affair, despite the excellent speech by the 18 year old Marshall Islander, Selina Leem, in the closing statement of the COP. By naming this animal-lined main route the ‘Champs-Élysées’, the organizers demonstrated that they had a sense of humour. The most famous avenue in France this was not. The play on words, intentional or not, is also vaguely sardonic. Champs-Élysées translates as the Elysian Fields, a part of classical Greek religion, which essentially celebrated segregation. The Elysian Fields were a kind of paradise for the chosen few by the gods. There were in fact layers of segregation at the COP21 – VIP areas, areas of a room that couldn’t be moved into, and delegates offices which although not guarded, the doors of which presented as psychological barriers.

As all those with accreditation from the climate change gods will know, paradise at the COP21 became the simple pleasure of a good night sleep. Should we be worried about the long list of ‘errors’ that were read out before the Agreement was adopted, and which were supposedly put down to sleep deprivation? Perhaps. Sleep deprivation makes for an interesting diplomatic strategy and is a handy excuse for creating legal imprecision, as the legal requirement for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in Article 4.4 was downgraded to soft law at the 11th hour after protest by the US. Anyone hoping for a break in the tradition of US domestic politics determining climate change policy at the international level was going to be disappointed, the US team had an excellent conference in this sense – they managed to avoid both domestic political oversight and international commitments in one foul swoop, quite an achievement.

In truth the COP process represented not an individual pilot struggling through a difficult landing, but rather a metaphorical Noah, with preconceived ideas, sorting the animals two-by-two in readiness to resume the journey. The parties had spent the equivalent of 4 years packing for their trip, and having hauled their luggage up to the check-in desk were only to be told that some things could not be brought on board. Noah knew what was needed – the Copenhagen Accord incorporated into international law plus some additions. An agreement that was applicable to all yet incorporated differentiation and set out a long-term framework. An agreement which represents hybridity between international and national, law and politics. Yet in sorting the wants and desires of the parties, stuff was excluded: legally binding targets, the aviation and maritime sectors, liability and compensation, stringent reporting procedures. Some states effectively ceded physical territory, bits of small island developing states weren’t allowed on board. As one attended the side-events and other activities beyond the conference halls, one became more fully aware of the impossibility of attempting to incorporate climate change into a legal text, and the futility of thinking about it in terms such as ‘legal process’ – folded up, the Paris Agreement fits nicely into the back pocket.

As the climate change plane hurtles down the runway to its uncertain destination with rain falling, and the pilots still squabbling and grumbling over who is at the controls, expect backtracking and wriggling at future COPs as decisions to implement the Agreement are taken.


2 degrees or 1.5? Either way it’s the local action that will count

By Jennifer Hazelton, on 14 December 2015

Author: Dan Osborn, Professor of Human Ecology, Department of Earth Sciences. Published on 14th December, 2015.

Given that a 2°C rise in global mean temperatures is thought to represent the “threshold” around which point dangerous impacts of climate change would kick in at a global scale; it must be a relief to risk assessors, as well as to the world’s more vulnerable nations and communities, to see some margin for error being built into the policy position in the form of thinking on 1.5°C. Keeping below 2°C will be very challenging as we are already close to, or even at, 1°C. To stay below either threshold figures means emissions must plummet across the globe with, maybe, even some major countries becoming zero-carbon economies between now and 2050. Such a transformation is difficult to see as credible given the pace at which new technologies would need to be introduced or existing ones rolled out.

There are few global agreements involving many counties that have ever worked effectively, unless they involve trade, partly because countries always have over-riding local interests. The Montreal Protocol is a splendid exception, although even here, and for many reasons, it is taking some time for the “ozone hole” to reduce in extent and duration.

The real challenge is that COP21 negotiators may come to a stronger or weaker agreement, but that it makes no difference on the ground when people and their nations take local actions. To achieve success, aspirations need to be turned into a clear set of national policies and programmes of mitigation and adaptation if impacts of a changed climate are to be avoided or a least minimised.

Successful implementation of whatever is agreed in Paris will depend on sub-global, and in reality, local decision-makers and have to be reflected in the choices everyone makes in daily life. “Think globally, act locally” has been a mantra of the environmentally concerned for decades. Humanity has yet to learn how to act on global issues that are not single-issue based as was the case for CFCs or acid rain or, even, persistent pesticides.

Maybe the fact that many countries have valuable economic and social resources based on the coast will sharpen minds and they will learn to how to act. This issue should unite the very smallest and the very largest countries. Sea-level rise is one of the most inexorable consequences of a changing climate and the costs of protecting these resources is very high both locally and globally. Defending a major coastal city can cost between £10bn and £50bn and will always, because of the geography of coastal cities, have its own limitations. Maybe we need a new mantra: “Agree now; act now and here’s how”. ANANHEHO sounds like something wheezing. Once the ink is dry on COP21 let’s hope it’s neither the planet nor its people.

Thoughts on UCL-French Embassy Event

By Jennifer Hazelton, on 16 November 2015

Author: Professor Robert Lowe, Director of the UCL Energy Institute, first posted on the UCL Energy Blog 27 Oct 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, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7533/full/nature14016.html.

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.

UK Energy Policy: What role for economic instruments?

By Jennifer Hazelton, on 9 November 2015

Posted to the Energy and Carbon Blog on : 05 Nov 2015 by UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources‘ Director, Paul Ekins


There is growing bewilderment practically everywhere about what the still relatively new UK Government is doing is respect of energy policy. The mantra since the election is that energy policy is to be re-set to achieve decarbonisation targets, to which the government says that it is still committed, in a more cost-effective way that will benefit the ‘hard-working families’ to which the government says that it is also committed. Unfortunately it is quite impossible to recognise this laudable objective in the policies that have so far been implemented, especially those which use those policies called economic instruments – basically taxes, charges and subsidies – which are the subject of this blog.

Firstly, relatively low subsidies for the cheapest low-carbon energy source, onshore wind, are to be removed early, and planning permission has been made more difficult to secure even for those plants that do not need subsidy. Secondly, subsidies for the second cheapest low-carbon energy source, solar PV, seem likely to be drastically cut, just when industry sources thought that they were only a few years from being able to be subsidy-free, but depended on continuing support to get there. Over 1,000 jobs in the solar industry have already gone, with more losses predicted if the subsidy cuts are followed through. These once hard-working families at least will find it difficult to discern the government’s concern for their welfare.

Of course, it is right that mature industries should be subsidy-free, and one might applaud the government for its aspirations, if not its timing, on this point, were it not for the fact that it is storming ahead with giving a very large subsidy to Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, including a price guarantee that will cost consumers an extra £4.4 bn to £20 bn, on the government’s own figures, with various credit guarantees, insurances and derisking subsidies on top. Yet nuclear power is a mature industry if ever there was one, and one whose costs, unlike those of renewables, resolutely refuse to fall and in this case will impact hard-working families and other energy consumers for 35 years from the date of first generation.

It now looks almost certain that when power from Hinkley Point C finally comes on line, it will be substantially more expensive, and therefore more heavily subsidised, even than offshore wind, which was once thought to be unassailable as the most expensive low-carbon energy source.

In short, the government’s subsidy policy is anything but cost-effective, and will maintain a burden on hard-working families for decades and everyone else, whilst eschewing energy sources that would seem only to need a few more years’ support.

The credibility of the government’s repeated stated commitments to both cost-effectiveness and emissions reduction is fatally undermined by its removal of the specific tax incentives for energy efficiency and renewables, which score at the top of the range on both counts.

So to the tax side of economic instruments, concerning which there have been two major changes from the new government in its Summer Budget 2015. First, the exemption from the Climate Change Levy (the tax on the business use of energy) which was accorded to renewable electricity sources has been removed. This was announced in July and took effect from August 1st, without any prior consultation, thereby depriving renewable generators of a source of revenue (currently £5.54/MWh) which they will certainly have factored into their business plans when these were created – and bidding competitively for government contracts. While perhaps not technically retrospective legislation, such a change is devastating for business confidence in the stability and predictability of government policy, something which this government, as others before it, claims to be committed to. For example, a recent government consultation paper relevant to this blog, ‘Reforming the business energy efficiency tax landscape’, states: “The government is committed to developing an effective framework that provides businesses with certainty and encourages business investment in energy efficiency and carbon saving” – an assurance that might be expected to attract the cynical riposte from renewable generators at least: “At least until the next Budget” – this change is expected to increase government revenues (if current investment plans still proceed with the corresponding added cost) by about £900 million by 2020.

The other energy-related tax adjustment in the Summer Budget was the abolition, apart from in the year of purchase, of the gradation of Vehicle Excise Duty according to the vehicle’s calculated carbon dioxide emissions per km travelled. Before the Summer Budget this ranged from £0 (for 0-100 gCO2/km) to £505 (for over 255 gCO2/km) per year. The Summer Budget changed this such that all new registrations from April 17 will pay a flat rate of £140 per year (with a £310 supplement for cars with a list price of more than £40,000), including vehicles with emissions of 1-50 gCO2/km per year. The new first-year rates range from £0-2,000, compared to £0-1,100 under the current system. The change is expected to increase the tax take by about £1 billion per year by 2020, with the main losers the drivers of low-emission vehicles.

In sum, this is a very strange way for a government to proceed when it claims to be interested in business investment in energy efficiency and carbon saving, both of which require some confidence in the stability of government policy which this government’s actions over the last six months have done much to destroy. What does this say about the likely outcome of the consultation on the ‘business energy efficiency tax landscape’?

One tax from the last government that has so far survived the energy policy activism of this one is the carbon price support (CPS). This was originally intended to rise at a rate reflecting the Treasury’s estimated ‘social cost of carbon’, but in the face of political concern about energy bills this ‘escalator’ was halted in the 2015 budget, with the CPS at around £18/tCO2until 2020. Apart from earning the Treasury around £2 billion a year, this tax plays a crucial role in reducing emissions from UK coal-fired power stations, with the removal of the CCL exemption for renewables the government seems to be drawing a distinction between taxes for climate policy, such as the CSP, and taxes for energy efficiency, such as the CCL and the other instruments mentioned in the consultation paper.

As far as these instruments are concerned, some simplification of the tax landscape can surely be expected. The main question is whether this will level up or down the effective rate of energy taxation. Even though these taxes will be denominated in energy, it would be desirable for their rates to be based on the energy’s carbon content. The government’s carbon price trajectory for firms outside the EU ETS suggests that this price should now be around £60/tCO2, increasing to £76/tCO2 by 2030. For electricity, the CPF, CCL and CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment) together add up to about £55/tCO2. For gas, the CCL and CRC add up to much less, only around £22/tCO2. Taxing both these energy types at £60/tCO2 (about £14/MWh for electricity and £11/MWh for gas) would therefore both simplify the tax rates and tie them explicitly into climate policy. The Climate Change Agreement rebates on the taxes for so-called energy-intensive sectors would probably need to be maintained for political reasons. Such an outcome to the consultation would do little to rectify the inconsistencies on the subsidy side of energy and climate highlighted above, but it would at least show that with tax policy the government was more committed to tax efficiency than its predecessor, without being less committed to emissions reduction, as it states.

Prof Paul Ekins OBE is Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy

Interested in the Environment? This is your Domain!

By Jennifer Hazelton, on 28 September 2015

Welcome to the UCL Environment Domain. This blog is for you if you are:

  • An academic at UCL with environment related research expertise,
  • A student at UCL studying an environment related topic,
  • A postdoctoral researcher, RA or other member of staff with an environment angle to your work,
  • Employed in a sector which either manages, impacts on or involves the environment,
  • Part of an organisation or institution with an environment focus,
  • Someone who cares about the environment and how they interact with it.

The blog is for you, but it should also be by you and represent you. So, whether you are a member of UCL staff, a student, a collaborator, member of the public or whoever you are…if you would like to have your voice heard then submit a blog* and we will consider posting it.

The editor will be sourcing content from across UCL and its partners, but we welcome your input and are very interested in what you have to say – well, about the environment at least!

Some examples of topics that we would be interested to hear about from you:

  1. What does “the environment” mean to you, why do you care?
  2. Is it possible to talk about the environment without talking about people, and vice versa?
  3. Can a man-made environment be as beautiful and spectacular as a natural one?
  4. What do you think we need to know more about in our environment?

We look forward to hearing from you, and to bringing you some exciting new content. In the meantime, why not let us know what topics you would be most interested in? Follow us on Twitter @Environ_Domain and either tweet us or email j.hazelton@ucl.ac.uk with your ideas.

*submit your blog or text to j.hazelton@ucl.ac.uk