From Dylan to Bieber: Decarbonisation is now a single-career span exercise

James Murray
From Dylan to Bieber: Decarbonisation is now a single-career span exercise

On Bob Dylan, World Cups, and the true urgency of the climate challenge

This blog post is purposefully designed to make you feel both old and worried. Don't say you weren't warned.

Earlier this month Carbon Brief published an excellent analysis of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and the genuinely remarkable reductions that have been achieved over the past 20 years. To highlight the huge scale of the emissions savings the website deployed a good old fashioned journalistic hook. Instead of simply saying emissions had fallen 38 per cent since 1990 it calculated that UK carbon emissions were now at their consistently lowest level since 1890. The last time the UK emitted less CO2 - barring anomalous years such as the miners strikes of 1893 and 1921 or the general strike of 1921 - was the same year as Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was Prime Minister, The Picture of Dorian Grey was published, and the Forth Bridge was opened.

It is a highly effective way of illustrating the staggering success of the UK's recent decarbonisation strategy - all delivered, lest we forget, while the economy continued to grow and energy prices remained largely manageable. It is easy to see why so many national papers picked up on Carbon Brief's analysis. It is not every day that you hear a key economic metric has gone back to 19th century levels and it be an unalloyed good news story. The UK's recent decarbonisation is genuinely historic.

However, there is another way to apply this framing. Look forward, not back, and the results become a good deal less reassuring.

Whenever I get a chance to speak in public I make the same point. If Justin Bieber tours for as long as Bob Dylan then, if we are to avert dangerous climate change, he will have to finish touring in a net zero emission global economy. The 'Keep on Beliebing: Zimmer, Zimmer, Zimmerframe Tour' will be enabled by solar powered stadia and biofuel fireworks. Bieber would travel to collect his Nobel Prize in a net zero emission jet, which would be kind of bittersweet I guess. As you can imagine, I don't get asked to speak at weddings, funerals, and birthdays much anymore.

However, I've done the maths and the analysis stands. Bob Dylan's first major gig was in 1961 and he is still going strong. That's a career of 57 years and counting. Justin Bieber's first EP was released in 2009. If his career spans 57 years that takes us to 2066.

The Paris Agreement sets a target of delivering a net zero emission economy during the second half of this century - a deliberately commodious goal that was designed to appease the concerns of carbon intensive economies and developing world superpowers. The precise date by which a net zero economy needs to be delivered to stand a good chance of limiting temperature increases to below 2C - the other key target in the Paris deal - depends on a host of variables: when will global emissions peak, how steep is the emissions reduction curve past that point, how much reliance on negative emissions technologies is feasible, how much risk are people willing to countenance. However, the general consensus is you would want a net zero emission global economy up and running by some point in the 2070s or 2080s, which means for reason of equity and feasibility you would probably want net zero emissions economies to start emerging in the world's richest nations from the 2050s and 2060s. Justin Bieber's final tour would have to be as part of a zero emission economy.

To put it another way - and again, I've made this point previously - I was born in 1980, one of the first of Thatcher's children, right on the cusp between Gen X and those avocado-loving Millennials you keep reading about. One of my grandfathers lived to 91 and my grandmother turned 90 last year. If I can match or surpass them - something that advances in medical science makes entirely possible - I too will get to see if we succeed in building that net zero emission economy in time. I may even have the energy to catch Bieber's emissions-saving final tour.

The fact is we now have the span of a single career to deliver the fastest and most comprehensive industrial and economic transformation in human history. But once you start to drill down into more specific green economy targets - many of which are legally binding - the challenge becomes even more acute.

Let's start with the UK's Climate Change Act and its goal to cut emissions 80 per cent by 2050. That is 32 years away, the same length of time as the gap between now and 1986, the year of 'Freddy Starr ate my hamster', mad cow disease, and Dire Straights' Brothers in Arms. It is a long time ago and a lot has changed, but equally a lot of our infrastructure and technology remains fundamentally recognisable, while decisions made then continue to impact us now - 1986 was the year Eurotunnel Group was formed, the year the privatisation of UK buses began, the year the UK, under Margaret Thatcher, signed the Single European Act.

In what amounts to a blink of an eye from an historical perspective the UK will have to cut emissions by a further 42 per cent against 1990 levels. That means the near complete decarbonisation of energy, including both power and heat, the emergence of a near fully emission free transport system, and an economy-wide transformation in energy efficiency that leaves the release of greenhouse gas emissions confined to a few parts of the agricultural and industrial sectors. This all needs to be delivered before my sons are as old as I am now and before Bieber has embarked on his late career renaissance Modern Times period.

As Michael Liebreich pointed out this week in an essential essay on the next phase of decarbonisation, we may know how to decarbonise power and have a good idea of how to decarbonise road transport, but in other areas of the economy we are a long way from having a clear plan for ensuring the 2050 goal is met.

But perhaps 2050 is still too far hence to focus minds. What of 2040? By then the government has committed to ensuring all new cars are zero emission and all but eradicating the use of "avoidable" plastic. That is just 22 years away. Twenty-two years ago it was 1996, Tony Blair was closing in on Number 10, Take That broke up, Britpop ruled the airwaves, and somehow Braveheart won the Oscar for Best Picture. An internal combustion engine that has dominated the auto industry for over a century will be gone before today's cultural releases have even graduated to 'classic' status.

But then again, the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) could happen much faster still. Scotland has a target to end the sale of conventional cars by 2032, the Dutch reckon it can be done by 2030, and Norway has a target of 2025. MPs this week called on the UK government to pull forward its 2040 target. The gap between now and 2032 is the same as the gap between now and 2004, when Tony Blair and George W Bush were wrestling with the fall-out from the Iraq War and Strictly Come Dancing became a fixture on our screens. 2025 is just seven years away, which means many Norwegians have already purchased their last internal combustion engine.

One last example. The UK's Carbon Budgets and the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggest that by 2030 the UK needs to have basically halved emissions against 1990 levels and be delivering power at an average of 50-100g CO2/kWh. Across EU the goal is to cut emissions 30 per cent against 1990 levels and source at least 27 per cent of the bloc's energy from renewables.

That means that within 12 years the UK has to have delivered a power system where fossil fuels are completely marginalised and a transport system that is fundamentally transformed from the one we have currently. Twelve years ago the Labour Party was being subjected to intense internal battles between warring factions, the England football team were preparing to stink the place out at a World Cup, the first signs of a financial bubble were starting to emerge, and the world's biggest pop stars were Beyonce, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake. Plus ca change, amirite?

What can be taken from looking at the decarbonisation challenge through this lens?

The most obvious point is that across politics and business the required sense of urgency that should be underpinning our response to climate change is sorely lacking. The timelines for delivering on governments' stated goals are eye-wateringly tight. When you consider the great global project that is decarbonisation effectively spans a single career, when you think that critically important and legally binding targets have to be met within little more than a decade, then the six months that drifts by between each Budget and Spring Statement without the government unveiling a revamped air quality strategy or effective CCS plans becomes a meaningful and scandalous delay.

Taken in this light the willingness of David Cameron and Theresa May to let the UK's energy efficiency policy landscape steadily erode to its current level of confused inadequacy should be regarded as right up their with their more high profile career-ending, election-squandering, Brexit-fumbling failures.  

Businesses that meet unambitious environmental targets early and then delay setting new goals, or opt to wait for a change of management to pursue sufficiently ambitious decarbonisation plans are similarly guilty of a dereliction of duty that could leave their shareholders, stakeholders, and employees at risk in the long term. There is negligible long term commercial gain to be had through foot-dragging incrementalism. There is no time to waste. Every year, every month, counts.

The second lesson is that the decisions we make now can resonate through decades. Even if you look at the longest time frame available to deliver a net zero emission economy and compare that to the historic record, we still live in homes and use infrastructure built long before the 1960s. The culture is still shaped by trends established when Dylan was singing his protest songs, our geopolitics are still informed by the Cold War and civil rights choices made then.

As such it is hard to fathom how so many policy and investment decisions are still being made without any consideration for the economy-reshaping decarbonisation that governments around the world have agreed to enact over the next 50 years.

And yet decisions in favour of high carbon infrastructure are being made on a daily basis, further fuelling carbon bubble risks in the process. Investments are being made on the assumption that past performance is the best guide to the future, when we know climate risks and environmental policy demand a rapid and fundamental shift in the way the global economy operates. There are pop music careers that look set to last longer than the market for internal combustion engines. We should all be living in triple-glazed, renewable powered, smart homes before England get close to winning another World Cup.

Investments in infrastructure and technologies that do not acknowledge these carbon bubble risks are playing a very dangerous game, both with their own capital and the stability of the entire global financial system. Meeting the various decarbonisation targets the world has set may be extremely challenging, it may not happen, unleashing a scenario that would bring with it a whole different set of physical climate-related risks. But at the same time the one big, all-encompassing technological transformation that has reshaped the last half century - the digital revolution - shows how quickly entire markets can be transformed, disrupted, and even eradicated. Investors, businesses, and politicians need to be aware of these risks and respond accordingly.

This year marks 10 years since the UK Climate Change Act - the world's first - was passed. A cross-party celebration is expected as part of an autumn that will also feature the government's Green Great Britain Week and a promised international summit on zero emission vehicles. The UK's green business and NGO community is currently considering what it would like to see to mark the anniversary. But beyond the obvious and perennial calls for more action on energy efficiency, a roadmap for decarbonising heat, and a clearer strategy for ensuring medium-term carbon targets are actually met, it strikes me as time for the government to honestly and publicly address the urgent reality of longer-term deep decarbonisation.

Last year the government indicated it was not yet the right time to adopt the "net zero emission" law that it had accepted 18 months previously should be placed on the statute book. It offered no real explanation as to why it would be premature to establish a clear long term target to honour the key goal of the Paris Agreement - the creation of a net zero emission economy. But the reality is it is anything but too early to set such a target. In fact the dates we should be considering for a net zero emission target are as close as 2050 was when we first started discussing the current Climate Change Act. A law that made it clear throughout the Brexit process and beyond that decarbonisation will shape the entire careers of anyone now entering the workplace would be immensely valuable.

Similarly, while the government's talk of a green finance task force and its support for enhanced climate-related financial disclosure is immensely welcome it is no way commensurate to the scale and imminence of the carbon bubble risk. A Royal Commission that publicly addressed the reality of stranded asset risks, the strategies that could steadily deflate this bubble, and the geopolitical threats that could flow from the drying up of fossil fuel revenues across the world's petro-states (yes, President Putin, once again we are looking at you) could serve to finally give climate risks and decarbonisation opportunities the political status they deserve.

Most of all though, the opportunity should be seized for political and business leaders alike to honestly talk to the public about the full spectrum economic and technological transformation that awaits. To inform people that climate change and our response has less and less to do with your grandchildren, and ever more to do with your retirement. A retirement we can only hope is spent watching either Justin Bieber, or even better a hologram Bob Dylan, tour in a net zero carbon world.

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