Heated debate: why was it so hard to get a global climate deal?

Disclaimer: the visuals used in this post were made using OurWorldInData‘s grapher tool. I would like to thank Max and the team for allowing me to use them in my own writings. OurWorldInData is a web publication which presents interactive visualisations of development and how the world is changing, and well worth exploring. You can interact, engage and explore all of the data visualisations used in this post by clicking on the image.

In 2015, members of the United Nations (UN) finally managed to agree on a new deal to address global climate change. While this meeting in Paris was seen by many as an important victory, it marked a long-fought stalemate in global negotiations—a dialogue which has spanned several decades of heated debate. So, why has it been so hard to reach a global plan on how to reduce our carbon emissions?

Before trying to unravel the complications in international negotiations, it’s important to note that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have historically been strongly linked to economic growth and human development. Below, I have plotted the relationship between national average GDP and per capita CO2 emissions (which, by clicking on it, you can explore through time). Broadly speaking, GDP growth has typically been driven by increased energy provision and industrialisation, with an unintended consequence of increased CO2 emissions. This economic-CO2 link has two important implications:

  • countries still undergoing development (and attempting to alleviate poverty) are likely to continue growth in their CO2 emissions;
  • nations may perceive targets to reduce their carbon emissions as putting themselves at an economic disadvantage relative to countries who have lesser or no reduction targets.

co2-emissions-per-capita-vs-gdp-per-capita-ppp-international-

This has ultimately led to a distinct divide in international negotiations between developed and developing nations, with heated debate as to how the responsibility of mitigating climate change should be shared. The reasoning for this rift can be explained in three key visuals.

Who is responsible for the carbon dioxide (CO2) that has accumulated to date?
If we extend our timeline back to 1750 and total up how much CO2 each country has emitted to date, we calculate each nation’s ‘cumulative emissions’. The question ‘who is responsible for the historical contribution to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere?’ could be reworded as ‘who has emitted the most CO2 to date?’.

In the chart below, we have plotted the cumulative emissions of each nation through time from the industrial revolution in 1750. Europe, shortly followed by North America, has been producing CO2 over this full time period. Other regions—Latin America, Asia and Africa—started contributing to global CO2 emissions much later (largely contained to the 20th and 21st centuries). Fast-forward to the accumulated totals we see today, the USA is the largest cumulative contributor (with more than double the cumulative emissions of China). As a combined emitter, the EU also dominates. Note that you can view the cumulative visual in absolute or relative terms.

From the standpoint of developing nations: the earliest industrialisers in Europe and North America hold the largest responsibility for CO2 emissions to date.

cumulative-co2-million-tonnes 2014

Which nations currently emit the most CO2?
If we forget the accumulation aspect from historical emissions, and focus on who currently emits the most CO2, does that shift the share of responsibility? Below we can view annual emissions by country through time. Note that you can choose to view any country in a line or map visual. In reflection of the cumulative chart we explored above, we can see that the annual trends of European and North American nations have grown much earlier than in other regions.

However, emissions from a number of growing economies have been increasing rapidly over the last few decades. Fast-forwarding to annual emissions in 2014, we can see that a number of low-to-middle income nations are now within the top global emitters. In fact, China is now the largest emitter, followed by (in order) the USA, EU-28, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Mexico. Note that a number of nations who are already top emitters are likely to continue to increase emissions as they undergo necessary development.

This brings us to the argument of developed nations: to effectively address climate change, all of the top emitters have to take their share in carbon reduction, including nations still undergoing rapid development.

co2-emissions-million-tonnes-co2

How much CO2 do we emit per person?
There is a key drawback to the measure of total national emissions: it takes no account of population size. China is currently the world’s largest emitter, but since it also has the largest population, all being equal we would expect this to be the case. To make a fair comparison of contributions, we have to therefore compare emissions in terms of CO2 emitted per person.

Below we can compare CO2 emissions per capita through time since 1950 (this data is probably most interesting when viewed in map mode). Again, if we cycle through time, we see that per capita emissions in most countries have continued to increase in line with development. However, if we look at the distribution of per capita emissions in 2014, large global inequalities remain. Note that carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change—nitrous oxide and methane are not included here. If these gases were included, the global inequalities would be even higher.

With a few exceptions, there is an important north-divide in terms of per capita emissions. Most nations across Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and South Asia have per capita emissions below five tonnes per year (many with less than 1-2 tonnes). This contrasts with the global north where emissions are typically above five tonnes (with North America above 15 tonnes). The largest emitter- Qatar- has per capita emissions of 50 tonnes per year (1243 times that of Chad, the lowest emitter).

Smaller capita emissions across low- and middle-income nations is largely a reflection of lower levels of prosperity—as these nations to develop, we would expect their per capita emissions to grow.

co2-emissions-per-capita-tonnes-per-year.png

The great divide
So, how do these three visualisations explain the international climate divide?
From the perspective of many developed nations: some developing economies—namely China and India—are now some of the largest global CO2 emitters. As other nations also continue to develop, more transitioning economies are likely to enter the top rankings. To tackle climate change, all countries must therefore reduce emissions. If they fail to, the efforts of developed nations will be diluted to very little.

From the perspective of many developing nations: the responsibility of historical and cumulative CO2 emissions largely lies with high-income economies who have had a long history of industrialisation and development. This opportunity for development without carbon restrictions is now reflected in the large economic and lifestyle inequalities between the global north and south (as reflected in today’s differences in per capita emissions). Placing carbon reduction targets on these nations would act as an unfair barrier to development and poverty alleviation.

Seeing the World as it is, with Hans Rosling

Last year we said goodbye to David MacKay, a guy whose unique approach to sustainability, energy and environment has been a key influencer in the work I do today. It was with tremendous sadness that 2017 brings the loss of another inspiration of mine: Hans Rosling. While working in slightly different fields, the similarities between the two—both in life and death—are not lost on me.

Both had an overwhelming and infectious love of statistics, especially high-level, big-picture data. However, understanding statistics was never enough—the real joy came in communicating stats in a way that anyone could understand. The magic of the data was somehow lost if that feeling of enlightenment—which often accompanies the realisation of an unseen trend—wasn’t shared. While David worked on big-picture renewable energy numbers, Hans was more concerned with global development progress—poverty, inequality, education and health. I now seem to work at the fringes of both of these fields; big data at the blended seam where human development meets environmental sustainability. The influential mix of these two figures are to blame. I owe them both a lot.

The pairs’ parallels in mindset seemed to extend to death, with both losing a battle with cancer before their time. David was only 48 years old. Hans had an extra 20 years, dying at the age of 68, yet by today’s standards this still seems premature. It’s somewhat ironic that a guy who spent so much of his life showing others how far global health and life expectancy had progressed, was lost too soon. Nonetheless, as a master of health data, I’m sure Hans would argue that his case was not beyond what one would expect from statistical expectations. It makes me wonder whether the expected question of “why me?” ever crossed his mind. I suspect not.

It never ceases to amaze me how small influencers (usually oblivious to their true impact) can have such a dramatic impact on shaping the lives they touch. I stumbled upon Hans’s work at just the right time. Finishing my undergraduate degree in Environmental Geoscience, I was left feeling somewhat helpless and emotionally exhausted. I don’t think this feeling is uncommon amongst environmental students. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my degree subject—I don’t think I’ll ever lose the curiosity that led me to study the complexity of planetary systems in the first place. But it can be a hollow field to work in at times. Five years of natural science where human development was largely absent, and only featured in discussions over our devastating impact on environmental decline. The tensions between human impact and planetary systems are magnified tenfold, until it’s unavoidable to see the world any other way than: humanity versus environment. It seemed like a depressing fate: confined to a career of fighting progress on the environment’s behalf. Not only were we failing at sustainability, but social progress was stalling. Even David MacKay and his breathtaking work could offer little in the way of optimism.

hans-rosling

If you’ve watched any of Hans Rosling’s work, you’ll understand how my perspective flipped from then on. I’ve yet to find anyone who can present such a truly fact-based vision of the world with unbounding energy, clarity and hilarity. He had a unique ability to make you feel both stupid and enlightened at the same time, yet love him even more for doing so. People often talk about a profound moment when everything seems to ‘click’ and fall into place: for me, it was seeing into the mind of Hans Rosling. It’s not until you take that important step back and look at the picture in full that you see how far the world has come. Almost any statistic upon which you would global progress—percentage of people below the poverty line; child mortality rates; life expectancy; number of children in education; energy access rates; adult literacy rates—are better than they ever have been. Next year, things will most likely be a little better than they are now. And, the next year the same will occur. That in itself, once you see it in the global datasets than Hans presents (and are free to explore at Gapminder here), is worth reflecting on.

This was a real eye-opener for me, and an inflection point to where I am today—still working in environmental sustainability but always with a view to human development. It’s no longer a case of environment or progress. It’s about ensuring and sustaining progress (because the world will continue to do so, regardless) in the most sustainable way we can.

It saddened me to hear that Hans was often jaded and doubtful of whether he had really made any true impact. In his mind, despite many years of trying to present a fact-based view of the world, so many remain ignorant to how the global development landscape really is. True, many will never have watched his videos or looked at the statistics. But for those who have, the impact can be transformative, and through this sharing of the flame, his legacy can continue to drive progress. Every one of my university students has been introduced to his work; he features in nearly all of my lectures and teachings. I’ve seen the influence first-hand. There are few greater pleasures than hearing the giggles from students as they watch Hans chase statistical bubbles across the stage; see that glint of revelation as they realise their view of the world had been wrong all along; that transformative moment when they grasp that the truth is there to see when you take a step back to see it in full. This is how we continue to build a fact-based view of the world, and a legacy that Hans deserves.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite clips of his. It also happens to be one of the most relevant to the essential blend of environmental sustainability and global development. Note: I was once probably one of the ignorant environmental students he references in this talk. Thank you, Hans, for helping me to see the bigger picture. You will be sadly missed, but never forgotten.

 

Breath: it’s time to rationalise respiration in livestock emissions

The contribution of livestock to climate change is now well-established, and showing growing awareness in the average consumer. The FAO estimates that livestock alone contribute approximately 15-20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s a lot, especially when we consider that in contrast to other key contributors such as energy and road transport, there are fewer “clean” options for mitigation (besides eating less meat, of course).

As someone who spends their days researching and analysing the interactions between agriculture, nutrition and sustainability, I’ve come to know the relative carbon intensities of different foods by heart. Around three kilograms of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents—the measure of GHG emissions) are emitted for every kilogram of chicken meat; pork is a little worse at 4.5-5 kilograms; beef worse still, ranging anywhere from 12-30 kilograms; and in some systems, lamb comes out worst at 14+ kilograms per kilo [shown a little further down]. I’ve gotten used to quoting these numbers for years, and perhaps out of habit (or ignorance?) taken the methodologies by which they’re calculated for granted. They were, after all, set by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

It wasn’t until I had to carry out a carbon intensity assessment for a food product myself, that I started to question whether these numbers capture the full picture of the global impact of livestock. I’m Sustainability and Business Development Manager for 3f bio, a spin-out company developing a novel and patented zero-waste technology for the production of Food, Fuel and Feed. The technology aims to make the meat-free food product mycoprotein (you may know it more commonly by its brand name Quorn™) through integration within existing biorefineries which already produce bioethanol (fuel) and animal feed (DDGS). Long story short: we’re developing a zero-waste process which can make healthy, low-cost, sustainable protein.

So I crunched the numbers on the GHG emissions, and our mycoprotein comes out at about 1.05kg/kg (shown below versus other protein). A good result: much lower-carbon than meat alternatives, and significant reductions on the existing process for mycoprotein production. However, there was still one key difference between the methodology for calculating our emissions, and that of livestock products. We included emissions from respiration in our estimates; a source of emissions left out of livestock numbers.

co2-intensity-imagesRespiration (i.e. breathing) isn’t simply an oversight—we didn’t just happen to forget that livestock breath out carbon dioxide. The FAO explicitly excludes respiration emissions on the basis that:
Respiration by livestock is not a net source of CO2…. Emissions from livestock respiration are part of a rapidly cycling biological system, where the plant matter consumed was itself created through the conversion of atmospheric CO2 into organic compounds. Since the emitted and absorbed quantities are considered to be equivalent, livestock respiration is not considered to be a net source under the Kyoto Protocol.

In other words: animals are part of a short cyclic system with the natural environment such that respiration is not a net source of emissions. In practice, this is right. To grow, crops (it could be grass, cereals, pulses—any crop an animal would eat) essentially capture CO2, removing it from the atmosphere. Then when an animal eats the crop, this CO2 is emitted back to the atmosphere through respiration (breathing). In a balanced natural system, this can continue over and over with no change in atmospheric emissions. Crop captures CO2 –> animal eats crop –> animal exhales CO2 –>crop captures CO2 –> animal eats crop –> animal exhales CO2. And repeat.

So it’s true: in a balanced biological system, respiration is not a net source of emissions. And since the FAO sets the guidelines for how to report on agricultural emissions, no one includes respiration in livestock footprints. But is there a valid case for us doing so?

There’s one fundamental driver of the need to have a focus on environmental sustainability at all: the very fact that humans are rapidly shifting Earth’s biological systems out of equilibrium. If our systems were in equilibrium—which is the rationale for not including respiration in our calculations—then there’d actually be no need for us to discuss climate change at all. The rapid rate of change through which we are altering our biological systems (which includes the carbon cycle) means that they are now out of balance.

Now, going back to the assessment that triggered this discussion in the first place: calculating the footprint of mycoprotein (a type of fungi). The very nature of the process is almost identical to that of livestock. It works like this: we feed a carbohydrate-rich crop into a fermenter, add some nutrients and oxygen –> fungi/mycoprotein grows –> as it grows, it respires–> this CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere. There’s actually very little difference between this and a livestock system; the only difference being that mycoprotein is grown in a fermenter rather than a barn or field, and the CO2 is emitted through a pipe rather than an animal’s mouth. In both processes, the CO2 was initially captured by the feed crop as part of a cyclic loop.

We included respiration in our calculations, because it didn’t make sense—and there is no credible case—for us not to. The process essentially emits CO2 through a pipe/vent/column to the atmosphere. It is therefore a source of atmospheric CO2 emissions. When compared in this way, it throws up the question of whether we should be doing the same for livestock.

Just how much of a difference would respiration make to these numbers? I crunched some of the numbers on respiration emissions based on published respiration rates[1], and animal growth/lifespan figures. You can see the end result below as dashed columns. For mycoprotein figures, I have subtracted respiration emissions to show the difference it makes.

[I should note that I’m providing these as an estimate only—there can be variability based on factors such as the lifespan and size of an animal, and its feed intake. Although not perfect, they should still give a feel for the magnitude of difference].

livestock-emissions-respiration-adjusted

Makes a big difference, right? Some studies [although they have received some criticism on underlying figures, and are somewhat ideologically motivated] estimate that with respiration emissions, livestock would account for 51% of total global GHG emissions[2]. I suspect that’s not wholly accurate, but it’s still significantly larger than the figures we currently report.

However, the purpose of this discussion wasn’t to try to demonstrate or emphasise how bad or carbon-intensive meat is. With or without respiration emissions, it’s already obvious. It was in fact to raise a wider question of how we account for our GHG sources and sinks. As I mentioned above, we’ve shifted our natural systems—including the carbon cycle—out of balance. Now, in the Paris climate agreement, the world has [I should technically say “will” because it hasn’t come into force yet] pledged to restore this balance in the carbon cycle. In technical terms, we’ve pledged to achieve “net-zero” emissions. All this means is that our sources and sinks of GHGs balance i.e. the amount of GHGs we emit is exactly the same as the amount that the Earth’s natural systems can capture. Theoretically, if these balance then GHGs do not accumulate in the atmosphere.

What’s fundamental in ensuring that our sources and sinks balance? Knowing what they are and how much they contribute. There’s an old business mantra: “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”, and it lies at the core of what we’re trying to do. If you’re not measuring your sources and sinks, how will you ever be able to track progress in ensuring they balance?

The discussion around livestock respiration has been closed for a while now. But perhaps it’s time (considering the Paris commitment that the world is signing on to), to open it back up again. Yet it should be done through an intent on furthering understanding and progress rather than an underlying agenda to prove or disprove how bad/good our livestock systems are. It’s easy for such discussions to be taken over by groups at either extremes of the spectrum. The end result is usually a drowning out of voices in the middle, until everyone loses patience and we end up no further forward than when we started.

[1] Pedersen, S., Blanes-Vidal, V., Jørgensen, H., Chwalibog, A., Haeussermann, A., Heetkamp, M.J.W. and Aarnink, A.J.A., 2008. Carbon dioxide production in animal houses: A literature review. Agricultural Engineering International: CIGR Journal.

[2] http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

Can UK Climate Policy Weather the Closure of DECC?

In periods of political turmoil or instability, priorities tend to become even more short-term focused than usual. Slow developing, or long term issues inevitably take a back-seat to more immediate concerns. It’s no wonder then that significant concern has been raised about the UK’s long-term commitment to climate change (amongst other environmental sustainability issues) following the Brexit vote to leave the EU, and appointment of a new governmental cabinet. But just how damaging could these changes be for UK climate and energy policy? Maybe not as much as some predict.

There have been two key changes within Theresa May’s new government—neither of which have received a particularly favourable response from the environmental community. The first was the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as environment secretary. The Conservative “Leave” campaigner is now in charge of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). With roughly 80% of environmental legislation regulated by the EU, and a strong reliance on the EU for farming subsidies, Defra is likely to be one of the most challenging departments to lead in a post-Brexit UK.

Does Leadsom seem prepared or qualified for such a tough task? I’m afraid I can offer little in the way of optimism on this front. Leadsom’s experience in resolving complex political issues—of which she will encounter again and again during such an extreme transition term—is not reassuring. That’s looking beyond her track record on environmental policy decisions, which includes previously voting against UK climate change targets; voting for the sale of British forestry; and a strong stance in favour of repealing the fox hunting ban. I haven’t found much positivity to soften the blow on this one. All I can offer on this front is that her influence will hopefully only last a few years (which seems long, but is arguably short-term on sustainability and environmental terms). How much damage can she really do over that period?

The potentially more influential change—a decision that could stand much longer than Leadsom—was the abolishment of the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This has been merged into a new governmental department: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). With the exception of a few, most within the climate change “arena” have met this decision with a high degree of animosity.

In truth, my initial reaction was largely negative—this represents a lack of commitment to climate change; the government are trying to sweep it under another banner; we’re going to fall even further behind on our mitigation targets. But upon some longer reflection, and taking a step back, I’ve slowly came round to the idea that it might not be as bad as it seems—at least, it doesn’t have to be. We could potentially utilise this period of transition to kickstart wider progress than we’ve achieved to date.

How long have we been arguing that our business leaders need to be taking more interest in climate change; that economist need to be heeding the financial risks and opportunities; that climate change strategy needs to be embedded across the spectrum and within a wider strategy network? We make these arguments over and over, because they’re true. Climate change can no longer be seen as a bolt-on consideration; it has to become an integrated part of the bigger picture.

If we want it to, this is a prime opportunity to do just that. Greg Clark has been made head of BEIS. I admit to knowing very little about him, other than the fact that he’s an economist by training and has consistently shown not only a strong awareness of climate change as a threat, but actually shows a pretty rational understanding of its risks. I have a couple of idols that I follow, and those judgement I tend to put a lot of trust in (they’ve yet to let me down)—one of them is Chris Goodall. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me sharing his view on Clark’s appointment—I’ve picked it up from his weekly newsletter [if you don’t currently follow Chris, he has a blog “Carbon Commentary”, which he manages to update much more frequently than mine…]:

Greg Clark was made head of the merged industry and energy departments. Environmentalists moaned about the demotion of low-carbon ambitions. I think this is wrong. Clark seems to be a centrist economist by training (he was a member of the Social Democrats in the late ‘80s and has a PhD in economics). His very tightly organised doctoral thesis (here) shows an openness to non-conventional economic models as opposed to raw free-market ideology. My prediction? Put a trained economist who believes in climate science (which Clark does) into government and a global carbon price will come to the forefront of UK policy. The second focus of an economist will be on the operation of the wholesale electricity market, a major barrier to the development of storage.

Beyond the head of the department itself, the merger offers a prime opportunity to increase the presence of climate change policy across business, economic, and industrial strategy. This is not a complete abolition of climate change leadership—there will still be staff members employed in the role of managing the UK’s climate progress. Can you imagine having a presence at top-level business meetings, economic policy discussions and industrial strategy plans, consistently asking the question “how does this tie into our mitigation targets?” and “how can we further re-align this with our low-carbon energy objectives?”.

Rather than being in isolated department, an integration could offer the chance to weave our climate ambitions into every discussion. Is this not what we’ve been arguing and asking for a long time? Everyone likes to talk about inter- or multi-disciplinarity—it’s essential—but often we shoot ourselves in the foot by putting the barriers up when opportunities to integrate present themselves.

Of course, all of this is hypothetical—I fully acknowledge that this won’t, and is unlikely to, happen by default. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that climate change strategy is going to suddenly become integral to our business and economic planning moving forward. But if we fight hard enough, it could certainly gain a much larger, and more positively-driven presence than it currently has. Either way, we’re left with two options: to forever mourn the loss of DECC, or to try to build something better and more holistic with what has fallen out. The only option which is going to get us anywhere is the latter.

Does the World Have a Protein Problem?

When it comes to sustainability, protein and in particular, animal-based protein is a topic that can get a lot of attention. In a couple of months’ time, I’m about to embark on a PhD looking at how we can sustainably meet our growing global protein demands through to 2050. In other words: how can we ensure everyone has access to a protein-sufficient diet in a way that reduces pressure on our natural environment and resources?

However, a question I’m often asked is “wait…aren’t we all already consuming too much protein?”. It’s a widely-held belief and, as you’ll see below, a perspective that’s often portrayed by some of the world’s leading sustainability think-tanks. So before I start, maybe it’s worth addressing the question: does the world really have a protein problem?

To try to answer this question, I’m going to build upon some analysis carried out by the World Resource Institute (WRI). This “correction” of the WRI’s work is in no way intended as a criticism of them as a think-tank: I’m a big fan of the way they try to communicate key ideas through visualisations and figures. However, on reflection of its Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts article (based largely on its new paper Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future), I couldn’t help but feel it was getting the global food, and particularly protein, story really wrong.

In the figure below, I’ve copied over the WRI’s visualisation of our global protein consumption, as an average by region (the green bars represent plant-based protein; the red as animal-based protein). The thickness of the bars is representative of the size of the population in that region. Now, the WRI’s analysis and interpretation of this figure is pretty simple. I quote: “All regions already consume more protein than average dietary requirements—with highest consumption in wealthy regions.” At first glance that does indeed appear to be the case—we know that especially for regions towards the right of the diagram, the resource intensity of animal-based protein production means that for sustainability reasons we probably need to reduce our intake. That’s pretty simple.

Protein Picture 1 (2015, non-adjusted for digestibility)

But what about the regions towards the left of the figure? Are they really “consuming more protein than average dietary requirements”? To answer this fairly, there are three key considerations/corrections I think we need to address.

Firstly, consider that the bars in the diagram represent the average protein intake per person by region. This means that some people will be consuming more, and some less than the represented average. How many are above and below this number and by how much? That’s a challenging question to answer, and largely depends on the regional inequalities in diets. But let’s keep it simple and say we have a normal distribution—all this means is that the distribution is symmetric, with half of a population consuming more than the average, and half less than the average. Protein Normal Distribution

If this were the case, it would mean that half of India—which has an average teetering on the recommended average line—would be protein malnourished. Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa would similarly have large portions of their populations in protein malnourishment. Let’s not underestimate what that means: we’ve suddenly moved from all regions over-consuming protein to several billion not consuming enough.

This is a key drawback of relying too heavily on average values. Averages can be great for trying to condense broad and often complex issues into simple messages (I utilise them a lot for this reason)—but if not used carefully, they can disregard large, and crucial, parts of the story. Averages work well when the distribution around them is small but unfortunately we live in a largely unequal world. Relying too heavily on them therefore runs the risk of over-simplifying the narrative.

But wait- it gets worse. The figure above considers only average bulk protein intake. It takes no account for protein quality or the human ability to digest it. “Protein” comprises a range of different building blocks—amino acids—and for adequate human nutrition, we need an adequate mixture of all of these. To take account of this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) developed a “Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score” (PDCAAS) which attempts to correct for protein quality and truly evaluate the amount that can be digested for human nutrition. Unfortunately from a sustainability perspective, animal-based protein tends to have a much higher score than plant-based sources.

In the figure below I’ve attempted to show what happens to our previous representation when we correct for this digestibility factor¹. It’s further bad news for those at the left-hand side of our figure—those on predominantly vegetarian diets—here, even the average population intake falls well below the recommended requirement. In India, for example, we might conclude that the majority of the country are protein-malnourished. The same applies to Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Protein Picture 2 (2015, corrected for digestibility).jpg

It gets worse still. The third correction we have to consider is the effect of population growth over the next few decades. By 2050, the UN predict that our global population will grow to approximately 9.5-10 billion. Of course, more people means more food and more protein. Where is most of this growth projected to occur? You guessed it: India, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa—the three regions already in severe protein malnourishment. I’ve crunched the numbers and drawn the end result below²; it tells a pretty startling story. The average intake in India and Sub-Saharan Africa fall below half of the recommended intake [remember: this means that around half of the population could be even lower than the bar drawn]. More than half of the global population would already be, or be in severe risk of falling into, protein-malnourishment.

Protein Picture 3 (2050, corrected for digestibility).jpg

Through three quick analyses, we’ve suddenly moved far from the WRI’s message that all regions are over-consuming protein. But this is sadly the narrative that is being told over and over. The sustainability story of the right-hand side of the figure—that developed regions are consuming too much resource-intensive animal-based protein—is always the key focus. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a vitally important one. But let’s return to the basic definition of sustainability for a second: “meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own”. The environmental community tends to place key emphasis on the latter half, often to the neglect of the former. When it comes to protein we’re not meeting the needs of the current generation. Several billion are protein-malnourished, and sadly their story is being completely missed from the global food narrative.

Does the world have a protein problem? Yes: a crucially important yet overlooked one. So through my PhD, I aim to address and converge both ends of the spectrum. The lower end deserves as much, if not more, attention than the upper one. To do so, we need to start to telling the full protein story.

 

¹To correct for digestibility, I’ve applied an average PDCAAS score of 0.65 for plant-based protein, and 1.0 for animal-based protein in line with FAO guideline figures.

²Note in this case that I’ve assumed global food production remains constant—admittedly this will not be the case. How agricultural efficiency, productivity and distribution will or could change in the coming decades is a topic too large to cover here.

Remembering David MacKay and his Unique Approach

Everyone has a story to tell about how they got to where they are today. Career paths can be driven by money, others by circumstance, many by passion, and for some, just pure coincidence. The biggest driver in my life has been people. The choice to venture into the world of sustainability appears to have stemmed from passion—who knows where this originates from. But importantly, my way of thinking towards sustainability and the approach I take to my work has been largely influenced by a few individuals. It has only just occurred to me that all three share the same name—one of these being David MacKay (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air).

It was with great sadness that I heard David lost his year-long battle with cancer, aged only 48. I felt it necessary to dedicate at least one blog post to him in the hope that his work can reach at least one other person. A person’s ideas, thoughts, teachings are not lost with their body, after all, and that at least is a comforting thought.

David MacKay.jpg

Anyone that has worked with me knows that I like working with numbers. Especially big numbers. In essence, I like to look at ‘big picture’ sustainability challenges. This didn’t come without its challenges: when I proposed my BSc dissertation idea I was told it was large enough for an MSc project; my MSc dissertation was more like a PhD proposal; and as I begin my PhD at the end of this year, I’m sure I’ll have some recommendations to “narrow it down”. But I probably won’t, because David MacKay taught me that the greatest value can often be added by stepping back and seeing the bigger picture.

For those who are unfamiliar with David’s work, he wrote the [I originally wrote “one of” but I’ve yet to read another on the same level] greatest and most influential book I’ve read on energy: Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air. When this was first released, my dad and I bought the paper copy, but David also generously published it online for free (investing £10,000 of his own money in doing so). I encourage anyone and everyone to take a look. However, if you’re looking for a more digestible form of his work, he also condensed it into a TED talk which you can watch here.

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.gif

David’s approach in the book seems daunting to many; its pages are filled with numbers, equations and calculations. He was an engineer, after all, and his book is an obvious reflection of that. However, somewhat counterintuitively, what made this book so remarkable was its ability to make an issue (sustainable energy) which we nearly always treat as overly complex, and simplify it down to its most important considerations. Using the UK as his example, he asks two fundamental questions: “how much energy do we need?” and “if we maximise our energy production from sustainable resources, can we meet this demand?”.

His approach to these questions is what I think remains key to his legacy. He answered them through ‘big picture’ back-of-the-envelope calculations. Too often, especially in scientific disciplines, we let ourselves be held back by a lack of data, or data that ‘isn’t quite precise enough’. We convince ourselves that we need figures that are dead-on. David has shown that this simply isn’t true—in fact, probably quite the opposite: in order to look at large-scale complex issues we need crude number-crunching and back-of-the-envelope calculations. The moment you try to make it more precise than this, you lose the ability to simplify, the value in being able to identify and extract the key take-homes.

I read David’s book when I was 16/17 and in my first year as a university undergraduate. It was around the same period that I read Mike Berners-Lee’s “How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything”. Both Mike and David tackled slightly different issues, but their approach is largely the same—neither shy from crunching rough (note that rough does not mean uninformed or poorly researched) numbers for fear of getting them wrong. That summer I did my own analysis of UK agriculture and land use ‘David MacKay style’. He has influenced my approach to every project, dissertation and piece of work I’ve done (including the PhD on global protein demand/supply I’m about to undertake). His book was equally inspiring to my dad, who has coined and developed a new integrated process for the production of Food, Feed and Fuel [you can find out more, here]—a development that would have been near-impossible to uncover without looking at the agricultural/food system with a ‘big picture’ lens.

The point is therefore that David MacKay should not only be celebrated for his contribution to UK energy. He has undoubtedly added so much value to this challenge, but he has done so much more. He should be remembered for his way of thinking, and the application/teaching of an approach that extends well beyond energy. I’ve applied it to agriculture and food. You could equally apply it to the evaluation of any resource. In fact, I’d argue that this transcends the field of sustainability too—you can literally apply it to any complex issue. In doing so, we can see these challenges through a clearer, simplified lens—a vital step if we’re to develop effective solutions.

So although we’ve lost one of our most intelligent thinkers, his way of thinking does not die with him. It lives on in everyone who applies it in their own work. And I suspect, based on his passion for teaching and learning (in all areas of his work, including his free books), that this would signify a life well-lived.

Many thanks to David MacKay: one of the best.

What Do You Mean “We Don’t Have a Paris Agreement”?

It’s been around two months since more than 190 countries signed on to the COP21 climate agreement in Paris. Except, technically they didn’t. As we battle out in fierce debates of whether the Paris agreement was a failure or flop, it’s sometimes easy to forget that nobody has actually signed on to anything yet.

In Paris we achieved the “adoption” of the international agreement—this is the process by which we establish the content, detail and form of what the agreement will entail. In other words, we decided what we plan to sign on to. The process whereby countries can actually sign (more technically termed “ratify”) doesn’t begin until April this year. The United Nations meet in New York on April 22nd where Heads of State can officially sign on to the agreement; nations are given a year’s deadline (until April 2017) to do so. Even then, signing doesn’t necessarily mean a country is included in the agreement—they then need to pursue their own domestic review and approval process, and report back to say that all domestic processes have been cleared*.

For the Paris agreement to officially come into action (i.e. become live), countries agreed on an “entry into force” mandate that 55 parties covering 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would have to join. If this requirement wasn’t met, the entire Paris deal would fall through and would cease to exist. I mentioned it in a previous blog post while the “entry into force” mandates were still being negotiated: 55% global emissions coverage is far too low. You can’t tackle the issue working with barely half of the world’s emissions. Plus, those signed on within that 55% would surely drop out pretty rapidly when they realised their efforts were being dwarfed by their counterparts.

55% Paris

Source: http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/01/after-cop21-what-needs-happen-paris-agreement-take-effect?

So, given the fact that no one has signed the agreement yet, why have so many been celebrating like the deal is sealed? In short: it pretty much has been. I tend to err on the side of caution, however, this is one situation where I’m nearly 100% certain that most (if not all) of the parties in Paris will eventually sign the agreement. For most nations, the international backlash for choosing not to, would be too large. That’s one additional reason I’m pleased the reception to the details of the agreement has been so positive (there has been plenty of criticism too, but the majority has been on the mid-ground to optimistic side of the spectrum). If the reaction had been overwhelmingly negative, we’d be offering nations a prime opportunity to back out: “the consensus says that it’s doomed to fail anyway, so what’s the point of signing?”.

Having all nations sign might be a push too far, however, the 55 parties covering 55% of global emissions should be easily met. That’s why the following figures (see below) posted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) are largely speculative—I’d like to think we won’t have to calculate how far we are from 55% coverage. The figures are, nonetheless, another very interesting highlight of how much of our global emissions are dominated by a select few parties.

Some of the key stand-outs include:

  • You can’t have an agreement if neither of the biggest three parties (China, the US and EU) sign. It has always been apparent that realistically you can’t begin to tackle climate change without these parties, however, even the UN framework provides this mandate;
  • The 55 parties rule is an interesting one, and understandably intended by the UN to make the agreement truly global. See the top left pie chart, for example—even though China, the US and EU nearly meet the 55% coverage on their own, they’d still need another 52 parties to join (despite their collective emissions only adding about 10%);
  • The top-right pie chart is unrealistic: the EU is still mourning the loss of its neighbours in Kyoto, and has been one of the few parties trying to push for more ambitious targets. If any party was to drop out, it wouldn’t be them;
  • If China and the US both refused to sign the agreement (a scenario that would have seemed realistic, or even likely, in the past), nearly all other nations would have to sign to surpass the 55% threshold (as shown in the bottom pie chart);
  • The 55% requirement is based on current GHG emissions and takes no account of projected emissions growth. This underplays the influence of large growing nations (it was India in particular who brought my attention to it). Granted that basing figures on projected growth would be challenging and divisive to do, however, one of the key failures of the Kyoto Protocol was a failure to properly address the rapid emissions growth of large nations such as China and India, which eventually surpassed most developed nations.

55% Scenarios.png

Source: http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/01/after-cop21-what-needs-happen-paris-agreement-take-effect?

As I mentioned, speculation about these figures are largely redundant since I expect the mandates will be easily met within the next year. Still, it’s still a revealing exercise to study the different scenario options (and how the fate of the agreement falls largely in the hands of a few key parties). Keeping a detailed eye on how the nitty-gritty of the UN and legal processes operate and evolve has been a steep learning curve. I doubt there will be any substitute for keeping up-to-date with these progressions in real-time—it develops an understanding of how international governance structures operate in a way that I simply couldn’t (and didn’t) gain from reading about past agreements such as Kyoto. The small, but crucial, aspects of the process were lost on me.

 

*This requirement made – what seemed like tedious bickering over non-essential fine-print – the legal wording of the specifics of the agreement extremely important (and led to the awkward final moments when the US raised the “should-shall” controversy). These minor fine-print details play a large influence in the domestic review process, and in case of the US would determine whether it had to be approved by Congress (a potentially make-or-break scenario).

 

Delhi’s Odd-Even Rule Is At Odds With What Needs To Be Done [Part 2]

[I  decided to provide an analysis of Delhi’s Odd-Even Rule in two parts for easier digestion: you can find some background on Delhi’s pollution issue, the rationale of the road rationing scheme and whether it’s working in Part 1 here]

The introduction of Delhi’s Odd-Even Vehicle Rule is unlikely to have the level of impact that many are expecting. But those who had studied the numbers had probably predicted that already.

Let’s briefly put the odd-even restrictions on vehicles into context. There have been quite a number of misleading reports over the last week (some from highly-respected sources) that Delhi will halve the number of vehicles on its roads. That’s unfortunately not true. First of all, the odd-even rule only applies to private four-wheel cars. Two-wheelers, three-wheelers, and trucks are not included (neither are buses but to ban them would be pretty counter-intuitive!). However, even if we said that it would halve the number of private cars, we’d still be wrong. There are a number of additional exemptions to the rule which limit this restriction further. The following are exempt:

  • Commercial vehicles (i.e. taxis-esque services)
  • Women drivers (solo, in a female-only car, or with children under the age of 12)
  • Private vehicles running on CNG (a cleaner type of fuel), as well as electric and hybrid cars
  • VIP escort vehicles (Presidents, Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, judges, embassy vehicles)
  • Emergency vehicles (thankfully!)
  • People on their way to hospital for medical emergencies will be exempt on a “trust basis.”

In other words, the rule applies to non-VIP males driving a private petrol or diesel car. In which case, it’s slightly misleading to claim it’s “halving Delhi’s vehicles”.

Anyway, if this proportion of drivers comprise a large contribution to Delhi’s air pollution then the restrictions could still be effective. How do the number stack up? I had a hunt around to try to find some data on how Delhi’s pollution breaks down by source (shown below)*. As you can see, transport contributes 22-23% to the city’s PM2.5 concentration. [I should note that the contribution of different sources varies between seasons: in summer, vehicles only contribute roughly 10% to emissions—but since pollution levels are highest in the winter, I’ve used the 22% winter figures]. While we often assume that the main culprit of polluted cities is road traffic, sources such as waste-burning, diesel generators (especially in developing nations), industry, dust and domestic activities are surprisingly large.

Delhi1

Even if the odd-even rule did manage to halve the number of road transport vehicles (and correspondingly reduce their emissions by half), pollution levels would only be reduced by 11% (admittedly this is a decent chunk, but probably difficult to see clearly in amongst noisy measurements). But when we breakdown transport emissions further by vehicle (see below), we see that 4-wheel cars only contribute 4% to total emissions. In this case, even all private cars were included (i.e. no exemptions), we’d only be cutting emissions by a few percent at the most.

Delhi2

Targeting this small slice  is not only going to be deficient in scale, but improvements are likely to be largely outstripped in the long-term. A team of 6000-10,000 volunteers have been drafted in over the trial period to monitor implementation, and driver compliance has been impressive so far. However, such levels of monitoring are probably unsustainable and it’s likely that compliance will fall when this gets more lax. Some drivers could probably find ways of bypassing the rule by registration of different number plates. It’s also important to consider the staggering rate at which vehicles are being added to Delhi’s roads—approximately 1400 per day. From my calculations, if that rate were to stay the same, Delhi would have added around 2.5 million more within five years.

That raises a further concern: will this rate of increase stay the same? True, the restriction might discourage people from purchasing a vehicle, but it could have the opposite effect. For those with money, what’s one of the easiest ways to beat the scheme? Buy a second car with the opposite number plate (and probably an older, dirtier one if it’s your second). Of course, being able to afford one car isn’t economically feasible for many Delhiites, but with a rapidly growing middle class there is the potential to drive many towards buying a second. This has proven to be true in cities such as Beijing, Mexico City and Bogota.

The odd-even rule is a scheme focused on short-term rapid reduction in pollution. Beijing implemented it in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics and at the time it was pretty successful; I still didn’t envy the marathon runners, but they did experience a significant dip in emission levels. Several years down the line and Beijing’s pollution levels are nothing to envy.  However, at the time China also tackled the other key slices of the pie: it halted more than 100 factories and 56 power plants (mainly coal-fired) for the duration of the games. It also invested billions in its public transport (especially its metro and bus systems) to cope with the displacement in private travel.

This is exactly why Delhi needs to do the same, but with a long-term infrastructure focus. In terms of transport, the city needs a major focus on the improvement of its public transportation systems; it needs to make it favourable and attractive for people to choose public over private transport. That’s not going to happen if these options remain unreliable, overcrowded and unsafe. That’s not going to be an easy or cheap task, but it’s one the city needs to face, especially in light of its rapid economic and urbanisation growth rates. It’s also clear that focusing on transport won’t be enough to clean up Delhi’s air. Focusing on a single 22% slice is insufficient with pollution levels 16-20 times the recommended safe limit.

Despite my criticism of the trial, there are some positives to take from it. It has, if nothing else, drawn significant attention both nationally and internationally to the scale of the city’s pollution issues. There are clear signals that this is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed; the overwhelming response from Delhi citizens is another signal that the public pressure for change is strong. The reduction in traffic congestion has been another significant positive—many have noted the increase in productivity that reduced travel time could help.

It’s a start nonetheless, but falls well short of what’s needed. We don’t need to look at air quality measurements to see this—we could have predicted it from some background numbers. Ultimately, if you only tackle a little, you’re only going to achieve a little.

 

*Although there are small variations in quoted numbers from different sources, I’ve taken the most recent (2014) study data from the Central Pollution Control Board; CPCB (which has been widely cited) which I’d expect to be most legitimate. I haven’t seen any figures which vary hugely from these, so I’m going to assume they’re pretty close (or close enough to use for back-of-the-envelope context).

Delhi’s Odd-Even Rule Is At Odds With What’s Needed [Part 1]

[I have decided to provide an analysis of Delhi’s Odd-Even Rule in two parts for easier digestion: the first to provide some background on Delhi’s pollution issue, the rationale of the road rationing scheme and whether it’s working; the second to provide some further analysis, statistics and reflections on why it probably won’t have the level of effect Delhi desperately needs]

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Beijing was the world’s most polluted city—on the subject of air pollution, China’s capital consistently steals the headlines—but according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Delhi actually claims the top spot. There are a number of important air pollutants (and Delhi scores badly on all of them), but that of most concern is PM2.5 (particulate matter measuring only 2.5 micrometres in diameter. PM2.5 comprises tiny particles of dust, soot, dirt, smoke, liquid droplets in the air. The size of these particles means they can easily penetrate the lungs, increasing the risk of a range of cardiovascular health issues including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, bronchitis, and heart attacks. In many cities air pollution is a fatal issue, estimated to cut years off the lives of its residents.

Comparison of Air Quality in Delhi and Beijing 2014-2015

Delhi’s concentrations of PM2.5, like most growing cities, have been on the rise. The figures are pretty shocking. The city’s concentrations have recently been consistently reaching 400-500mg/m3—a staggering 16-20 times the WHO’s “safe” limit (25mg/m3). To try to combat Delhi’s air pollution issues, officials launched the trial of an odd-even road rationing scheme last week (starting January 1st and running for two weeks). This scheme, which has been tried in other cities, aims to cut road traffic by regulating private cars to travel every second day. Essentially, it’s implemented by your car’s number plate: if your plate ends in an even number, you can only drive on an even date, and vice versa for odd number plates. The rationale works on the basis that if you take a large proportion of emitting cars off the road, you’ll remove a large proportion of city’s particulates.

640px-Trafficjamdelhi.jpg

Has the scheme been working? The public response has been impressively cooperative (maybe not so surprising when you consider how debilitating the issue must be for Delhiites)—the number of drivers caught violating the restrictions has been in the 100s-1000s, which is small for a city with roughly 9 million vehicles. There have been a number of positive reports from locals on congestion and traffic improvements on city roads. But has it had an impact on air pollution levels? The government plans to publish full results at the end of the trial period, but from the reported numbers from various sources so far, the opinion was very much split. Some have reported that the scheme is working, others report that pollution levels are actually climbing.

The truth is that none of the comparisons are particularly valid. Air pollution levels are incredibly variable [see image above] and dependent on factors such as the season (winter is typically worse than summer), the meteorological/weather conditions (wind speed, direction, humidity, rainfall are all important), the time of day, the type of measure you’re using. One source reported a dramatic improvement…by comparing December’s peak reading to today’s average reading. That doesn’t tell us much more than the fact that peaks tend to be larger than, well, peaks. It’s data cherry-picking for a favourable headline. Other sources reported an increase since the restrictions were put in place, but seemed to forget that they were measuring during a period of very low wind and high humidity (particulates are basically clinging to water droplets in the air with no wind to disperse them). Their comparisons are no more valid.

In other words: air pollution is a complex issue that you can’t properly draw conclusions from using only a couple days’ data. To realistically evaluate the impact of the scheme, we’d need to compare like-for-like over a much longer-term dataset to average out the variability. What we can conclude, however, is that it’s probably not going to provide the scale of improvement Delhi desperately needs. To be debating whether air pollution levels have gone up or down a little when Delhi’s pollution is 16-20 times the recommended safe limit pretty much illustrates this point. However, we don’t need to wait for long-term direct pollution data to understand this—we can work out why that might be the case by putting some more general statistics and considerations into perspective.

How a Lack of Logic in Paris Offers Hope to Our Sustainability Struggles

If there was one element that trumped all else at the Paris COP negotiations, it was surely ethics. Not technology, science, economics, or business (these were all key players, of course), but a strong feeling of moral conscience and responsibility. What do I mean? Well, when you look objectively at how the process unfolded through a purely rational/logical lens, it just doesn’t make sense.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at how our global emissions stack up (see image below and explore further here). The world’s top 10 emitters emit more than 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions. If we extend this to the top 20 parties, we’re pushing 80-85% of the global total. Compare that to the lowest 100 emitters, who are responsible for less than 3%.

Top 10 emitters

Source: BBC News “Six Graphics That Explain Climate Change”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-5aceb360-8bc3-4741-99f0-2e4f76ca02bb

In other words, if our primary aim was to reduce global emissions, we would only really need a deal inclusive of 10-20 parties (in this case, the EU represents 28 countries so let’s say 40 or so nations). Of course, developing nations’ emissions will continue to rise in the medium-term, but most of those projected to experience the largest growth are already included as top emitters. The remaining 150 or so countries included in the deal are a mere drop in the overall global stock.

And yet, somehow, the biggest influencers in Paris were predominantly the little fish—the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least-Developed Countries (LDCs). The discussions were dominated by calls for justice from the 100-150 smallest emitters. They didn’t get everything they protested for, and many have criticised the final deal on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough to protect these nations. However, they did push for the inclusion of a new 1.5C temperature target, maintain a clear principle of differentiation based on their special circumstances, walk away with a promise of $100 billion of climate finance from developed nations (per year by 2020), and the inclusion of a clause for loss and damage (although it should be noted that this does not include any liability claim).

If we view this through a purely rational and objective perspective, this shouldn’t have happened. The underlying principle of a negotiation is that parties trade-off between contribution and compromise to reach a mutual outcome. Kids learn this bartering process in the playground: “I’ll give you X if you give me Y in return”. Yet somehow the 100-150 smallest emitters walked away from Paris with something positive despite bringing very little to the negotiating table. They turned up in Paris with little-to-no bargaining power, yet managed to gain far more than many had expected. If the top 10-20 emitters wanted to reach an agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they could have done so on their own and on their own terms. If that was their main objective they didn’t need to make the challenge harder for themselves by tightening the temperature target or committing to climate finance to those nations outwith the top emitters.

It might be cruel to suggest that many of the lowest-emitting nations add negligible value to a global climate change agreement. But that’s exactly my point: we have to question how we’ve reached the stage where many of us find this ethically unacceptable and what this means for the directed we’re headed.

Many will wave this away as nothing new or ground-breaking: “of course that’s the case—we’re doing so because it’s the right thing to do.” However that hasn’t always been the case; in fact, a large shift towards ethical responsibility at the global level has been a fairly new development. It hasn’t always been this way. In earlier human history (going back to hunter-gatherer periods) our ethical boundaries probably didn’t extend far beyond closest relatives. This was slowly extended to the tribal level, then perhaps a regional coalition. Progressively the span of who (and what) we include in our ethical spheres has widened. Philosophically it’s argued that ethics are not static—it’s not as simple as being “ethical” or “unethical”—but dynamic. They have evolved over time. We’re now at the stage where they have evolved to the global level.

It’s interesting to consider how quickly this expansion in moral spheres has occurred. Think about half a century ago: even if global warming was as pressing as it is today, it’s hard to imagine the Paris negotiations unfolding as they did. National interest and protection was far too dominant. We’ve been involved in the UNFCCC negotiating process for 20 years now and have, on the whole, failed miserably. Overriding self-interest (where “self” in this case represents a country or party) by many large parties (for example, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for fear of “sacrificing their economic advantage”) was a key reason for this failure. Even as recent as six years ago in Copenhagen we hadn’t reached the stage where we were willing to put this aside for a global deal. The evolution in global ethics—unlike its slow Darwinian cousin—has been a rapid and recent development.

So what? Is this really a big deal? Well, it actually is—it has important implications for how our progress on climate change (and other global issues) evolves in the coming years. The important point is that our [dominant] global economic system (one which continues to feed our unsustainability) is one which treats us as self-interested materialist individuals. The stability of a capitalist system relies on us buying and consuming more and more stuff. The purpose of this acquisition of more stuff is to, selfishly, maximise our own satisfaction. It might look ridiculous on paper, but it’s a growth system we’re very much locked into and find it hard to decouple from. It is, at least, if we’re self-interested individuals. However, if the Paris negotiations proved anything, it was surely that we don’t always behave in this way. We either feel responsibility for those beyond the “self” or “self” has now been widened to incorporate humans at a global level. I haven’t yet worked out which is the case.

This uprising of global ethics evolved so fast that we didn’t really see it coming. A couple of decades ago we might not have predicted it. This fact provides some hope for the future: because we can’t currently see how it’s going to happen doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t. Humans, and the world, are changing fast and often in ways that are not entirely rational or logical. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but perhaps we can take heart in the fact that sometimes we succumb to decisions that just don’t make rational sense.