Guest post: “Carbon budgets are misleading”

Here’s a guest post from Dr Seb Carney (biographical details at bottom), on the question of just-how-much-use are “carbon budgets” – what might be dangerous about them?  It should go without saying that guest posts are by people who probably do not agree with everything CEM does, and, vice versa, we may not endorse everything a guest poster says (but obvs we think the views expressed are worthy of your time and serious consideration).

The budgeting approach encourages the belief that emissions can be gradually ‘managed’ down. This is very misleading and a different, solution focus is needed.

I have been involved with climate research since 2001 when I began my PhD (I did finish it in 2006 though the experience will probably never leave me!). In this time and afterwards, I have been fortunate to have worked with policymakers at all levels from the local to the EU. I have worked in a number of cultures, often without pay to try and support knowledge and understanding of how changes may be enacted. As I suffered through the pain of the PhD process I was struck by how the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) target of 60% had not been altered as no action had happened. It was always intended to be a midpoint (though it is often misunderstood as an endpoint) that sets the trajectory for what happened after. This together with the considerations over ‘contraction and convergence’ caused me to question why targets were formed in this way (this was 2003/4). I raised this in the research centre. The budget concept has actually always been the consideration it is just that the target by a year was meant to be a simplification.

The problem to me is the belief that the transition to a low/zero/negative carbon future is one that can be ‘managed’ that policymakers can arrive at decisions based upon models (largely economic) that tell them what they need to measure. The focus is nearly always on the problem and not the solution. So we measure carbon (including all associated gases) we don’t measure the underpinning infrastructures that can facilitate the change. We know for a zero-carbon future (especially in cities like Manchester/London/Edinburgh/Bristol) where there is no industry the date arrived at has to be far sooner than the national level. We know this means no gas/coal/oil being consumed and we know it requires strong policy to make it happen. It comes with multiple benefits (e.g. cleaner air) that are not costed, with fossil fuel subsidy ignored (e.g. environmental damage). If a city is able to control its critical infrastructure (such as the power lines) and can ensure it is met by zero-carbon energy then it knows how much energy will cost going forward (especially if it is all from renewables) as there are not international price variations on the fossil fuels exchanges to consider. It is like a fixed vs variable rate mortgage. This should be a highly prized aspect of resilience that is all too often overlooked.

The carbon budgeting idea (which I was a past proponent of) does mislead. It is an exercise that is really just about ‘how you cut the cake fairly’. This is often the first exercise any student of philosophy is given to consider, it opens many different perspectives. Indeed, it is the stumbling block on the international stage where under the UN negotiations they refer to ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities’ (CBDR-RC). This takes into account past emissions at differing points, future emissions, ability to change, ‘sustainable development’ and a whole host of other aspects. No agreement has been made so setting a local budget is an interesting exercise. However, these figures are based upon old scenario runs. They miss the fact that each time a scenario is run by the climate models there is a downward trend in both the emissions that are left and what we thought we had in the first place. The recent press releases by the leading modellers in this area NCAR/Hadley are announcing that their latest findings are showing that Climate Sensitivity (the temperature at a point when atmospheric emissions have doubled) has been significantly underestimated (this changes the global ‘safe’ amount of carbon budget and therefore everything underneath). These are called CMIP6 models. Previous budgets were based on CMIP5/4/3/2/1. So a philosophical target which the budgets represent, are static, and don’t take into account this downward trend in the models. If accounting for this the zero target has to be much sooner, the budget represents a philosophical starting point not a scientific one.

The problem remains the belief it can be managed somehow, that we just need more knowledge, better numbers and then we can act. Climate change mitigation and adaptation is simply not like that, although we have been led to believe it is. Mike Hulme talks about Knowledge Gaps vs Knowledge Thickening to deliver the changes needed. The idea of a Citizens’ Assembly is definitely useful as it means the society can taken ownership making it less of a political exercise. Forward-thinking cities have moved down this path. However, clearer direction needs to be provided.

The focus has to be on tracking the solutions and changing the infrastructure to make zero-carbon decisions possible, an innovation supportive approach. Then we consider (not exhaustive) how many buildings are no longer burning fossil fuels, how many vehicles, what energy infrastructure is needed to support it and if we can’t get people to retrofit their homes how large shall we make this infrastructure? The idea that we must perform inventories of greenhouse gases every year which contain none of this data is foolhardy as it masks well-known principles such as the sailing ship’s effect. It also causes delays. We know what a future zero/negative future requires, and we need to track progress along that journey, in real time – not wait a year or two for the stats to come out.

The starting point for any city now, which regulations now permit (as of July 2019) is to own the infrastructure and develop it. This will enable the more rapid uptake of renewable deployment that is required. It will also help make the city/region/country more resilient to changes in the space in a future that is becoming increasingly uncertain.

So let’s have solution-driven approaches not problem-focused ones, track the right issues and move more rapidly in the right direction. Not wait a year or two to see if a policy has made an impact on emissions that we know already it has not.


Biographical details

Seb has more than 15 years’ experience defining, scoping and leading strategy development and change programmes with national and municipal policy makers, private businesses and stakeholders. Helping them to analyse data, manage uncertainty and develop emissions monitoring, low carbon and sustainability strategies. He has a broad portfolio of expertise and skills. He was the expert to the EU’s CoR on European Energy Policy and an invited author (and editor) at the World Bank and United Nations. He holds a PhD on sub-national greenhouse gas emissions calculations and mitigation strategies. He has recently detoured into law and is looking to move into regulation enforcement and setting governance frameworks that facilitate change.

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