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10 Dec 2008

9%, the Wizard of Oz and Sex

Last week a friend sent me a stunning, thinking-shifting powerpoint by Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre’s Energy Programme entitled Reframing Climate Change: from long-term targets to emission pathways. If you want a sobering and, frankly, deeply depressing, update on the implications of the latest climate science, this is as good a place to start as any. It looks at the scale of the year-on-year emissions that we need to make, and it is quite something. Given that we need to aim to stay below 450ppm in order to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change (and even that, as the Climate Safety report, issued last week, and the recent testimony from Tim Helwig-Larsen and James Hansen at the House of Commons set out, is almost certainly not enough), what does that actually mean in terms of emissions cuts?

If , Anderson argues, we were to aim for 650ppm with global emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 3% annual cuts starting today. A huge task in itself. If we want to aim for 550ppm with emissions peaking in 2020, we would need 6% annual reductions (which means 9% reductions in emissions from energy generation). If we go for the 450ppm target, which is, realistically, the one that has any chance of preserving a stable climate, we need 9% reductions, every year, for the foreseeable future, starting now. 9%.

9% is just a number though, and as one wades through the climate change literature one is bombared with numbers… but having studied this presentation, 9% is clearly an important one, perhaps as important as Bill McKibben’s 350.  What might it actually mean in practice?   Anderson goes on to look at the rare occasions in the past when reductions have actually been achieved by ‘developed’ nations. Annual reductions of greater than 1% p.a. have, he argues, quoting the Stern Report, only “been associated with economic recession or upheaval”. Interesting.

The Dash for Gas in the UK, and the French nuclear power programme apparently led to reductions of 1%. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to reductions of just 5%.  Yet we need to do 9% every year, starting  now, in order to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change.  That is the vitally important point, so important that I will say it again.  We need to bring about 9% cuts every year, starting  now, in order to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change.  This might be a good moment to sit down and take a few deep breaths.  I know I had to.

In this context, the decision by the British government to pump billions of pounds into the banking system and to cut interest rates and VAT in order to get us shopping again looks even more foolish than it did the day before I read this presentation. We may well have done our chances of survival more good by using that money to actively undermine and hasten the demise of our economy rather than trying to prop it up! The sensible option would have been to use it to prepare for the post carbon world which is, after all, an inevitability anyway, with profound urgency.

I’m not talking here about the kind of fantasty post-carbon world so beloved of policymakers; the one with millions of hydrogen cars, a globalised economy with huge container ships bringing still largely unnecessary products from better insulated factories in China aided by a huge sail to reduce their fuel consumption and then moved around between superstores here in a more efficient manner. We are talking about profound structural change, a move from the global to the local, from ‘sustainability’ to resilience, and from haggling in conference centre corridors over wording in climate agreements to putting society on a footing akin to a wartime mobilisation.

Alastair Darling’s decision to throw everything at trying to get the economy to spend itself better, seems even more vastly inappropriate than it did before.  If getting overly into debt in order to buy more stuff we didn’t need in the first place is one of the things that got us into this mess in the first place, then it surely isn’t going to be the thing that gets us out of it again.  Comedian Marcus Brigstock on Radio 4 last week called this the ‘Buy Crap For Britain!’ campaign, lampooning the idea that it is our patriotic duty to buy more stuff that in 6 weeks will end up landfill anyway. From a 9% perspective, as well as from many others, its madness.

Rather than give money to bail out the car industry in order to enable them to keep making cars, that money should be tied to regearing the industry to producing wind turbines, solar panels and low energy forms of transportation.  If we are to give money to support peoples’ livelihoods (no bad thing), then we are in a position to demand changes to how it functions.  Some industries though, are beyond becoming climate-responsible, it is, for example, hard to see a creative way of bailing out Ryanair.

As I have written before, if your horse has died, no amount of dangling carrots in front of its face or kicking it up the backside is going to make a difference.  It is time to move on, grieve for that horse, and start thinking about life post-horse. To use another analogy, this time in relation to the oil price, what has happened with oil prices is somewhat similar to the Wizard of Oz (if you’ve never seen it it’ll be Christmas soon, you can see it then…).

The difference between the last time oil cost $50 a barrel and now is like Dorothy’s house being picked up in Kansas in the hurricane, spun around and plonked back down again, in a world that initially looks like Kansas, but is actually completely different.  As in the Wizard of Oz, we can also see a pair of legs sticking out from beneath our house, the Witch of Economic Growth, squashed as flat as a pancake.

Economic growth was, let’s face it, an idea with a temporary lifespan to start with, one that would inevitably hit the buffers of resource constraints.  It brought many benefits, but also increased loneliness, social fragmentation, pushed the world to the bring of ecological meltdown and much more besides.  I say let’s write it off as a fascinating but ultimately failed economic experiment, and look instead at a new way, one based on the economics of resilience and, ultimately, survival.

We have a once-off opportunity to put in place the infrastructure that we will need in a post-oil, resource constrained, 9%-a-year world.  What might the first steps look like?  George Monbiot has set out some things that could be done tomorrow and wouldn’t immediately incense anyone too much.  The Climate Safety report sets out a clear programme of action that can also start tomorrow (you can download the pdf. here).  What Transition initiatives are starting to do around the world is to model the benefits a lower energy world might bring, and to start the process of making unelectable policies electable. They take as their starting point the vision of what the world might be like once it has made the Transition, leaner, more efficient, less stressed, friendlier, more practical and adaptable, more rooted in community.  Monbiot captured this very well in his piece in the Guardian this week;

He (George Marshall) proposes that instead of arguing for sacrifice, environmentalists should show where the rewards might lie: that understanding what the science is saying and planning accordingly is the smart thing to do, which will protect your interests more effectively than flinging abuse at scientists. We should emphasise the old-fashioned virtues of uniting in the face of a crisis, of resourcefulness and community action. Projects like the transition towns network and proposals for a green new deal tell a story which people are more willing to hear.

This is also where the concept of the Green New Deal comes into its own.  It is a concept that can all too easily be hijacked, but at its core, the idea that economies need to be redesigned from the ground up based on resilience and preparedness for a lower energy world, is a key one of our age.

If anyone is still struggling to find a silver lining in the idea of a lower energy, 9%, world which is actually moving towards 9% cuts called in a committed way, then it can, at times, be worth looking towards our more tried and tested human instincts.  A piece on the BBC website last week entitled Britons ‘saving money with sex’ showed that alongside the long-desired reduction in air travel, car sales and road traffic currently underway, the recession is having some other positive side effects too.

According to the article, a survey by YouGov found that sex was the most popular free activity, something more and more people are looking for, far ahead of window shopping and gossiping. Scotland is apparently the place making best use of this free source of entertainment, with 43% of people choosing sex ahead of tiddlewinks and making things out of pipecleaners, whereas in England the figure is lower at 35% (perhaps because its because the winter days are a bit longer?). The survey did highlight a gender difference though, with women putting gossiping above sex, whereas for the men, it was definitely sex that topped the ‘what shall we do now?’ chart.

So if we are moving away from consumption, from the ‘Buy Crap for Britain’ solution to economic contraction, towards a more profound rethink given the need to tackle climate change with unprecedented gusto, perhaps we might do worse than to link it to increased pleasure and intimacy, and to a move away from the loneliness so many people experience.  It may be more successful than pictures of polar bears.  We just need to work out something to make condoms out of other than oil.  Hemp?

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


10 Dec 5:20pm

Music to my ears- this stuff is really good- can you get this into the papers too? More people need to read it….

10 Dec 6:11pm

try rubber, proper rubber from trees i mean.

nice article, coincides quite well with JC MacKay’s book; Without Hot Air. freely available

his book and this article debunks the comfortable notion that “every little helps”. We need big bold steps. leaps in faith and move from the safety of incremental change.

11 Dec 11:06am

I’ve had the same experience as Rob this week of being knocked for six and feeling downright upset by the Tyndall research.

Just to throw out some useful links on this, you can watch Kevin Anderson giving the powerpoint presentation that Rob’s provided a link to here: – just below “tuesday 23rd september” – then about 20 minutes in; read a paper which has all the main points from the presentation here:; and read a piece from the Guardian on this here:

One of the points that’s really striking about this research is that it’s made an academic whose work focusses on climate change make the leap to talk about our economic system.

In the journal article, it says that achieving the emissions reductions they call for won’t be possible “without a sea change in the economic orthodoxy” and that unless we start geo-engineering, it’s “difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilization at or below 650 ppmv CO2e”.

The close of the conference talk on this research is interesting too as Professor Anderson does something “very unscientific” and makes an appeal for the kind of changes in behaviour and social values that Transition works towards, ending with a quote…

“at every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”
Roberto Unger

Jane Buttigieg
11 Dec 11:38am

I agree with Banjojim. This blog often has articles which are so great that it’s a shame they can’t be read as widely as those written by Monbiot. This is an example of one such. The Guardian or independent could do a lot worse than reproduce some of these, which would get them the coverage they deserve.

Katy Duke
11 Dec 2:14pm

Fantastic stuff!
I’ve sent a link in the following email to all Somerset CC and Mendip DC councillors;

To the movers and shakers of Somerset.

I have been visiting (virtually) the Poznan climate change talks via OneClimate Island in Second Life which has me transfixed. There is still time for you to visit at 5.30pm each evening this week. After listening to an energised discussion about the forthcoming Age of Stupid film, which I hope we will show in March in Frome, I took the opportunity to ask Yvo de Boer two questions;

Do you personally think that agreement will be reached to cut emissions by 80% by 2050?… and …
Will Obama’s involvement make a fundamental difference to your negotiations?
You can see his measured but positive responses (‘well I hope so’, and ‘absolutely’) on the OneClimate website and YouTube

Here the Youth Delegation in Poznan ask you to take action & call Gordon Brown.

Here the founder of the Transition Network, Rob Hopkins, explores some of the implications of the latest climate science. I urge you to read this and other articles on his excellent blog now that Somerset has officially joined the movement. We need to take action.

From George Monbiot;
My reading of the new projections suggests that to play its part in preventing two degrees of global warming, the UK needs to cut greenhouse gases by roughly 25% from current levels by the end of 2012 – a quarter in four years. But how the heck could this be done? Here is a list of measures which could be enacted almost immediately. They require no economic or technological miracles; but they do demand that the government is brave enough to govern.

Professor Kevin Anderson “at every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”

Best wishes, and please circulate,

Katy Duke
founder member of
Sustainable Frome

11 Dec 6:39pm

Some really great links Reevesie, thanks.

I saw Kevin give very much this talk about a year ago (slight updates). Colin Challen asked Kevin to present it to local Labour party members including MPs and Hilary Benn last spring.

The public audience was many supportive although a few were a bit shell-shocked. I gather the other meeting went less well.

Kevin is human enough to take the mick out of himself – he is the single person in a three bedroom house and the freezer is his mum’s – but my sense is that the politicians just find the consequences too difficult to handle. They simply do not want to have to tell the public that they will have to “give up” some of their toys and that economic growth in all its glory is not a viable future option.

When challenged about this, Kevin’s suggestion was that the time to do it was immediately after an election as this would give the maximum amount of time for things to bed down before the relevant Government had to face the voters again.

11 Dec 6:52pm

“Rather than give money to bail out the car industry in order to enable them to keep making cars, that money should be tied to regearing the industry to producing wind turbines, solar panels and low energy forms of transportation.”

The problem is that the economic meltdown brings down the price of oil so for a while the problem goes away. The price of petrol has come down hugely so there’s no incentive to invest in better mpg. However, low oil price means low oil investment which means when the economy lifts up, there’s no oil to meet to the demand, then the price of oil goes up again and we fall back into recession. What a laugh.

13 Dec 10:42am

Great piece, I agree. Also concur that 9% is outlandish in today’s economic climate. The 20:20:20 targets that Europe is struggling to agree upon bring us closer to 1%, if that.

I’d like to take this analysis a step further. Assuming Anderson’s trajectory is correct, we’re heading for 2 degree+ long before 2050. As Climate Safety pointed out, Arctic sea ice has melted some 80 years ahead of (IPCC) schedule, and methane gysers are pouring out of frozen lakes in the middle of winter. So, I think we need to look at the warming scenarios again, and the humanitarian impacts we should anticipate.

In particular, in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America, there could be such enormous weather related disasters, coming one after another, that it will dwarf our ability to respond. Coupled with the economic downturn, donors will have less money to fork out.

Last year I helped write a report for the APPGPOG (parliamentary peak oil group) on the humanitarian impacts of peak oil, as it was May and oil was around $130 a barrel. Should be still available on our site:
in which we aruged that international NGOs, UN, donors, etc. need to overhaul the way we think about aid, and build-in resilience and relevant training where necessary.

Having worked in this “industry” for years, I know how little it has changed, or adapted. Post-tsunami reconstruction adopted almost no renewable energy or permaculture design concepts. Not because they wouldn’t have been of interest, but because nobody in local Govt., UN coordinators, NGO implementors or local contractors knew very much about it. New houses built in the Maldives have dozens of sockets to drive appliances – on islands where electricity is entirely based on diesel, shipped in at great expense from a long way off. Bottled gas for cooking, and so on. This is only one example, the same can be found in Aceh, Pakistan post-earthquake, etc.

The point is that there is an enormous awareness and knowledge gap within the entire aid network (including local universities in the countries vulnerable to disasters).

Looking back at the 9% or 650ppm/2 degrees factors, I think we need to realise that ferocious weather events or peak oil will happen rather sooner than we think. And local capacity should be mobilised in advance, so that they have access to at least some knowledge about the kind of home grown responsnes that can enable survival.

As Mark Lynas pointed out in 6 degrees, “mankind’s most effective adaptation has been migration”. We need to accept that people are going to move when the climate prevents them to stay where they are. Where can they go and how are we prepared?

Like globalisation, the modern aid industry is largely about bringing in external stuff to keep people alive. Like food, medicines, diesel to run the machines to make the meds do their magic, and so on. If we put the case forward properly – as coherently as done so by Anderson, et al – perhaps the key donors would listen (US, EU, Scandanavians, UK, Japan). The message is clear:

– look at the climate data today (not IPCCs). It’s not good. Project the impacts over the next ten years in the most vulnerable parts of the world. Where most people live.
– Overlay this with peak oil production figures. Run best case (IEA, etc) and worst case (Campbell et al). Pick a point in the middle and use it for this scenario planning.
– Will the standard aid and development package work in this combined scenario ? Probably not. OK, what are the alternatives?
– Resilience planning needed at all levels – training must be rolled out through local and international actors. Every project should be vetted: does it build local resilence to CC and PO? Does it include some capacity building in a relevant area?
– Take note that many of the practices and technologies are coming out of “the South” anyway.

These are some thoughts. Bit more of a rant than a comment.
Great to see this site.

Mari Shackell
13 Dec 2:01pm

I clicked on to Kevin Tyndall’s powerpoint presentation today via the first link in the text of this article.

Once in this presentation, it’s quite hard to pull out of it if you want to, all you can do it click to go on. It seems to end abruptly and unexpectedly, without any real conclusions and with no obvious way back to where you started from.


14 Dec 6:52pm


I find your comment very thought-provoking, and not a rant at all.

Many of those climate-change refugees will head for Britain. We are a rich country with a temperate climate moderated by the Atlantic, in other words better-placed than most to protect ourselves from the effects of global heating. Many much more vulnerable countries have historic ties with us, in other words they were British colonies, English is widely spoken there, their peoples have well-established communities in the UK.

Is anyone in the UK planning how to respond to this likely future mass-migration, with all its social, political and economic consequences?

[…] No. In fact, organisations such as PIRC, who recently gave evidence to the UK parliamentary audit committee, believe that this is too high. There are also people arguing convincingly that 2ºC is a political target only, and bears no real resemblance to what is an actual ’safe’ figure. Hence their latest report, Climate Safety. It seems that 2ºC might in fact be the cover for shifting us towards what is ‘politically acceptable’ rather than what is needed. Why would the UK agree to the necessity for 80% cuts but then agree that across Europe only 30% (or 20%) is required? Someone who has been explaining it far, far better than I can here is Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre. It’s worth reading his powerpoint, via the Transition Culture Blog (probably the best tited blog post ever on climate: 9 degrees, the Wizard of Oz, and Sex). […]

20 Dec 9:50pm

I’ll admit that I’m quite new to this.

I know that climate change IS happening. We see the evidence of shrinking polar ice caps and retreating glaciers on a regular basis.

Three years ago, I stood on a mountain in the French Alps while an old man from that area pointed out to me all of the changes that he’d observed during his lifetime.

I have absolutely no doubts about this at all.

However, I do have a question for anyone who has studied this much more than I have.

Is there any REAL evidence that all of this is due to the actions of mankind rather than climate change being part of a natural cycle?

After all, the fossil record shows that hippos and crocodiles once lived in the UK. Even with climate change, that would still impossible in 2008.

22 Dec 1:15pm

Many of those climate-change refugees will head for Britain. We are a rich country with a temperate climate moderated by the Atlantic, in other words better-placed than most to protect ourselves from the effects of global heating. Many much more vulnerable countries have historic ties with us, in other words they were British colonies, English is widely spoken there, their peoples have well-established communities in the UK.

Is anyone in the UK planning how to respond to this likely future mass-migration, with all its social, political and economic consequences.

4 Jan 11:28pm

The issue of migration, or displacement, from climate change in the international development arena is being “debated” at the moment.

The Norwegian Refugee – one of the largest NGOs working with refugees and displaced people – released a report in 2008 about climate refugees:
where they argue that climate alone is not the spark for migration. So ‘climate refugees’ don’t exist as such. Yet.

Meanwhile, another good source is the respected journal ‘Forced Migration Review’ which came out with a special edition on climate change and displacement, see:
If you are able to get through the jargon and waffle, there are a few good recommendations there, but from what I have read, none of the articles really flag up the scale of crisis we could be facing. It seems they are still referring to IPCC 4th assessment stuff (Nov 07) which is now much superceded with more recent findings, as discussed on this site.

I personally think there should be more joined up thinking by the major aid actors, that looks at all of the emerging crises and how they will affect the poorest, and the likely migration scenarios. These issues include:
– climate change
– peak oil / energy shortages
– falling aid revenues (reflecting economic probs)
– food crisis, following on from last year, now escalating

A coherent response is necessary, that adopts permaculture principles (esp soil restoration), decentralised & simple energy systems and other resilient community designs