By Kingsmill Bond and Sam Butler-Sloss

The world has changed a lot since Paris; so too should the logic of climate mitigation. Mitigating climate change is no longer an expensive collective action problem; it is a technology revolution with enormous wealth-generating and redistributive potential.

Getting this framing right is critical, for the road to Glasgow and far beyond. It is not only that ‘gain not pain’ breeds co-operation and competition; rather that this is a far more accurate representation of the reality in 2021. However, the residual narrative of pain and burden-sharing is very strong. And harnessing this great wave of innovation and redistribution requires moving on from the old framing and overcoming the vested interests that cling on to it.

We set out the old framing of climate mitigation as pain, summarise what has changed, and then suggest a more appropriate framing of gain. We consider what is holding back the energy transition and how best to drive it forward.

If Paris advanced the narrative from ‘ought’ to ‘will’, then Glasgow needs to move the debate from ‘pain’ to ‘gain’. To overcome the last great barrier to the energy transition, which is the forces of incumbency and inertia, hiding behind the ‘pain’ narrative.

The old logic: pain

The old logic of climate mitigation goes something like this: the solution to climate change imposes a burden, so let’s come together and share it. More formally, this logic is that climate change is a collective action problem; that is, the private cost of mitigation is greater than the private benefit, so countries don’t have the incentive to do it. It is a story of individual pain for collective and distant gain. And so countries free-ride and our hopes for mitigation are based on altruism.

With this logic, we have the rationale for a climate treaty to change the incentive of individual countries to choose mitigation. Academics then thought up many ways to do this, such as side payments, issue linkages, and punishment for non-compliance.

This framing rests on one critical assumption: the solution means pain not gain. But this is a strange way to frame an epochal technology transformation – a revolution with enormous wealth-generating potential and energy security gains.

Of course, given the dwindling window of time, change must be supercharged. But the starting point should be: how can we bring forward this great wave of innovation and wealth generation to avoid climate chaos? Clearly the timeframe is a challenge, but equally, innovation has a good relationship with constraints – it likes deadlines.[1] And financial markets anticipate approaching technology tipping points.[2]

What has changed since Paris?

A lot has changed since Paris. Above all the cost of renewable energy technologies has continued to fall on inexorable learning curves. And to levels demonstrably lower than the cost of fossil fuels. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the International Energy Agency thought the cost of solar electricity in 2040 would still be higher than that of electricity from fossil fuels, and expected deployment of only a cumulative 360 GW of solar by 2020. According to BloombergNEF (BNEF), by 2020 some 90% of new electricity generation was cheaper from renewables than from fossil fuels, and 710 GW of solar was deployed. Battery prices have fallen still faster, halving from 2015-2020 and sparking a four-fold increase in deployment. The BNEF charts below illustrate this process of falling costs and rising deployment, which is very familiar from many other areas of technology.

Figure 1: Process of falling costs and rising deployment

Meanwhile, engineers have continued to perfect integration technologies to allow ever higher levels of renewable electricity generation. People used to worry about variable renewables rising above 2% penetration. In 2020 they were over 50% in Denmark, and in Northern Germany, South Australia and California, policymakers are already designing 100% renewable electricity systems.

As a result of this, renewable technologies have continued to grow exponentially, enabling them to take all the growth in supply in country after country and sector after sector, driving peak after peak in fossil fuel demand.[3] First in electricity, then in cars, and now innovation is spreading across the energy complex, from hydrogen to steel, from shipping to trucks.

Financial markets have woken up to the speed of change, derating fossil fuel stocks consistently since Paris, and more than doubling the price of renewable stocks in the last 2 years. 2021 has seen a disconnect between fossil fuel commodity price surges and share prices.

The climate has moved faster than most anticipated too. Since Paris, climate change has moved from a problem of tomorrow to a crisis of today: from abstract models in scientific journals to breaking news of floods and fires on televisions around the world. Society is waking up to the scale of the imminent threat.

And governments are responding. When Paris was signed, few had committed to net zero; by 2021, around 70% of the world by GDP had done so.[4] The reality of today is therefore fundamentally different to that of Paris.

The trends will only continue

The trends in costs and technology will only continue, if not accelerate. This is because granular renewables surf “sticky” learning curves. With each new unit deployed, costs fall, and as costs fall, deployment rises. Models that factor in continued learning curves, such as that of Oxford academic Doyne Farmer, show that a rapid energy transition would likely mean a net capital saving of over $5 trillion relative to business as usual, without even considering the costs of climate change, more extreme weather events and pollution.[5]

Yet the forces driving the energy revolution are not confined to economic advantage. They include:

  • Energy security. 80% of the people of the world reside in countries that import fossil fuels. By this logic, the number favouring the transition outnumber the status quo four to one. Given that most of the fossil fuel rents accrue to a tiny number of people in the exporters, the numerical superiority of those favouring change is higher still.

  • Energy access. 770m people still do not have access to electricity. Renewables offer the cheapest and fastest way to reach them, particularly in South Asia and Africa.[6]

  • Pollution. Fossil fuels kill over 8m a year as the result of pollution.[7] A casualty count whose acceptability vanishes as the cost of alternatives fall.[8]

  • Climate. Business as usual will lead the world inexorably to higher and higher temperatures and the breaching of tipping points in Earth systems, putting at risk the lives and livelihoods of the 8,000 million on the planet and the unborn generations to come. And will continue to hit the poorest the hardest despite the vast asymmetry in responsibility.

  • Availability. The technical potential of renewable energy is 100 times the size of current energy demand.[9] Renewables are abundant and eternal; fossil fuels are limited and can only be used once.

  • Development. The old trade-off between development and climate mitigation – historically a key sticking point – has been solved. Developing countries are those that are endowed with the most renewable resource potential. Now the economic potential has been unlocked, so the technical potential can be harvested as developing countries leapfrog the old fossil system as they seek energy independence.

  • Geopolitics. Energy leadership will inevitably result in geopolitical power. And as the US wakes up to the reality of falling behind China in the technologies of the future, it is acting to maintain hegemony. This race for influence will drive renewable technologies out into the rest of the world.[10]

  • Unpaid externalities. The fossil fuel system gets a huge subsidy from the rest of society both in terms of direct support of over $600bn a year[11] and unpaid externalities. At $100 per tonne for CO2 equivalent, the energy sector gets a subsidy from the rest of society for unpaid externalities of $4,000bn a year.[12] As people wake up to this and to the limited carbon budget, fossil fuel taxes can only rise.

  • The combination of the above means that this is an energy revolution that would unfold with or without climate change. Yes, climate change kicked it off and will continue to accelerate it. And without government action it would be slower and more sporadic. But the superiority of renewables would nonetheless drive an energy transition.

The new logic: gain

So there is now a new logic to the energy transition – the pursuit of gain. The shift of energy from scarce to abundant; from concentrated to distributed; from decreasing to increasing returns; from extraction by the lucky to manufacturing by the diligent; and from generating rents for a few to bringing prosperity for the many.

Countries and companies pursuing their own advantage will inexorably drive the energy transition, as they compete to lead in solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles, renewable hydrogen and green steel. To build and operate the technologies of the future and to deploy them faster than their neighbours. And this very competition will drive faster change.

And as cheaper energy is generated, so this will drive growth and provide space and money to support those workers damaged by the energy transition.

What is holding back change

Despite the clear technology transition that is taking place, the forces of inertia and incumbency are powerful. Some incumbents seek to shield the status quo through a toxic combination of false analysis, political control, dissemblance and system manipulation. Voters are told that change will be expensive and painful, and high-cost or sub-scale technologies like CCS, direct air capture and tree planting are touted as real solutions which will enable us to carry on with business as usual. The great hope of much of the fossil fuel incumbency,[13] like the tobacco incumbency before them, is to buy time to make profits for just a few more years.

The graphic below illustrates how the falling costs of solar have broken through technology and economic barriers and we are now at the political/incumbency barrier.

Figure 2: How falling costs break through barriers: concept chart

What needs to be done

In broad terms, what needs to be done is well understood and set out by the Energy Transitions Commission[14] amongst others. We summarise four key aspects of this:

  • Clean electrification. The world needs to decarbonise electricity, electrify everything it can, and use some variant of hydrogen for the rest.

  • Change land from being a source to a sink. Stop deforestation and use the potential of the land and soil to store carbon.

  • Sequence change by sectors. The easier to solve sectors such as electricity and light transport should be solved first, followed by the harder sectors; only 13% of emissions come from sectors where we do not yet have solutions.[15]

  • Sequence change by countries. It makes sense for wealthier countries to figure out new technologies first, and then to deploy and scale them in less wealthy ones. It also makes sense for less wealthy countries with lower energy demand per capita to leapfrog to the new technology rather investing scarce capital into the dying fossil fuel sector.

And with regard to the role of governments, we highlight five areas below. This transition, within the required timeframe, is not something that market forces alone can achieve.

  • Set targets. Companies, investors and households need to know the direction and speed of travel.

  • Retool policy. Most policies and subsidy mechanics were set up for a fossil fuel world. They need to be transitioned to create an environment for renewables to flourish. This means not just removing fossil fuel subsidies and taxing fossil fuels for their externalities but also the detailed work of retooling regulatory systems.

  • Build infrastructure. Governments need to put in place the modern, forward looking smart infrastructure for a renewable system.

  • Sell the story to the people. Nothing is easy, especially in light of the constant disinformation of the incumbency. Energy transition will cause job losses, in the same way as the growth of the internet has led to job losses; but the world is a better place for having universally available information and will be a better and fairer world when energy is local and cheap. Leaders need to step up to the plate and articulate the benefits of an energy transition as well as the costs of business as usual.

  • Figure out answers for the hard to solve sectors. Encourage corporate leaders to invest research dollars to figure out solutions for the tougher sectors such as aviation and plastics that represent the final 13% of emissions where we lack economical solutions today.

What can the Glasgow COP achieve?

The stated priorities for COP26 are many, including progress on national targets, carbon markets and coal phase-out as well as delivering the $100bn of climate finance to developing countries. These are important details for the diplomats to deliver on. However, COP must also change the narrative of the energy transition from pain to gain. It is gain not pain that reflects the reality of today, will shift capital flows from the billions to the trillions and can mobilise the wit and will of humanity at a speed necessary to avoid climate chaos. COP must therefore act as a giant megaphone to make clear to the peoples of the world that there is a bright future ahead if the interests of the many can overcome the rents of the few.

[1] For example, observe the amount of technology that has come out of the military context.

[2] Witness the high values financial markets are giving to hydrogen green hopefuls like ITM Power, NEL Hydrogen and Plug Power, while Tesla demonstrates the EV mania for the now inevitable auto sector disruption globally.

[3] Source: Reach for the sun. The emerging market electricity leapfrog, Carbon Tracker, 2021

[4] Source: Net zero by 2050, IEA, 2021

[5] Source: Estimating the costs of energy transition scenarios using probabilistic forecasting methods, Way et al, 2020

[6] Source: Net zero by 2050, IEA, 2021

[7] Source: Environmental research, Vohra et al, 2021

[8] Source: Air quality and climate policy integration in India, IEA, 2021

[9] Source: The Sky’s the limit, Carbon Tracker, 2021

[10] Source: A new world, the geopolitics of the energy transformation, IRENA, 2019; Sino-US competition is good for climate change efforts, Foreign Policy, 2021

[11] Note: This is from G20 countries and consists of investments in state-owned enterprises, direct budgetary transfers, tax breaks and concessional public grants and loans. Source: Climate policy factbook, subsidies to fossil fuels, BNEF, 2021

[12] Note: Annual emissions from energy ~40 GtCO2e (40 billion tonnes)

[13] But not all companies, obviously; some have seen the writing on the wall and are changing strategy. For detailed analysis of this issue see: The new climate war, Mann, 2021

[14] Source: Making mission possible, Energy Transitions Commission, 2020

[15] Source: Rethinking climate change, Rethink X, 2021

14 views0 comments

By Helena Gray

On Monday 9th August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a climate report warning of ‘code red for humanity’.

After an 8 year wait, the IPCC’s Working Group 1 released its 6th Assessment Report (AR6): The Physical Science Basis. This report comes at a crucial time 12 weeks ahead of COP26 in Glasgow and against a backdrop of devastating weather events, impending tipping points and increasingly smart greenwashing across the world.

New and updated climate models have added to the understanding of the climate, with climate communications and grassroot movements contributing to the creation of net-zero targets, ambitions setting and policy changes at all levels of society.

AR6 confirms the worst / states the obvious

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” – AR6

Since pre-industrial times, global temperatures have increased by 1.07˚C as a result of human activities and CO2 concentrations are rising at an unprecedented rate to their highest levels in at least 2 million years. The report clarifies that the 1.5˚C rise, a rise that is believed to minimise major environmental catastrophes, will be reached sometime in the 2030s and will continue rising unless drastic action is taken now to reduce emissions.

In addition, the study warns that methane emissions have contributed around 30-50% to current warming, equivalent to about 0.5˚C. The majority of methane emissions comes from a range of human sources, including from the production, transport and use of natural gas, but the particles have significantly more warming potential than CO2.

Figure 1: History of global temperature change and the causes of recent warming

Source: IPCC, 2021

AR6 also highlights that human influenced global warming is leading to ice melt, rising ocean temperature and thermal expansion contributing to more than 90% of sea level rise. As a result, sea levels are rising at the fastest rates in at least 3000 years.

Perhaps the most obvious impact of human-induced climate change is the effect on weather and climate extremes. The report nicely highlights how 10-year and 50-year weather events are increasingly likely at each temperature scenario. More frequent and severe climate and energy disruption will keep climate at the centre of discussions and place increasing pressure on those industries and countries who continue generating emissions without meaningful targets.

Figure 2: Projected changes in extremes are larger in frequency and intensity with every additional increment of global warming

Source: IPCC

AR6 carbon budgets update

In AR6, scientists updated the estimated carbon budgets remaining from the beginning of 2020 for three temperature limits.

Figure 3: Estimates of historical CO2 emissions and remaining carbon budgets

Source: IPCC, 2021

Carbon Tracker estimates the number of years until the budget is reached at current rates of production, as illustrated below – just 9 years for a 66% chance of keeping temperatures under 1.5˚C and 16 years for a 1.7˚C.

Our 2019 analysis in Breaking the Habit showed that existing oil operations will already take the world beyond the 1.5˚C temperature target. The IEA’s Net Zero Emission scenario substantiated this earlier this year.

Figure 4: Carbon Tracker analysis of 2021 Carbon Budgets

Source: BP, Global Carbon Project, IPCC, CTI Analysis (2021 update)

Whilst the methodologies differ, the message is the same: there is a limited carbon budget left and action is needed now.

It’s not all doom & gloom: COP26

Whilst AR6 makes for sombre reading, it has ratcheted up the degree of confidence in the science. Temperatures will continue to rise until at least the mid-century, unless strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse emission are made immediately.

“Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net zero trajectory by mid-century.” – António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

At Carbon Tracker, our analysis shows that solar and wind potential is far higher than that of fossil fuels and can meet global energy demand many times over, unlocking huge opportunities for society. Not only are renewables becoming cost competitive (see Do Not Revive Coal and Reach for the Sun), increasing fossil fuel’s stranded asset risk, but they’re also far less disruptive and more physically and economically accessible for communities globally. This is particularly important for countries in the global south, who are disproportionately affected by climatic events stemming from emissions generated by developed countries and most at risk from declining fossil exports.

But we need governments to be pushing in the right direction. Foot Off the Gas questioned the logic of the UK’s planned gas power pipeline, and as AR6 highlights the threat and potency of methane emissions, this throws the government’s pro-gas energy strategy into more contentious territory ahead of climate talks where the UK will attempt to position itself as a global leader.

AR6 lays the foundation for meaningful outcomes at COP, emphasising the need for strong leadership from the public and private sector to ensure a just transition, a move towards net zero and ensuring financial support is available. Policymakers need to use the science and data available from the IPCC to review their climate actions, and emissions reductions and assess how they can be a contributor at all levels of society. Business as usual is no longer an acceptable strategy, however slick the net zero greenwashing.

Even as the news cycle moves on from this IPCC report, we will continue to see climate ambition, denial, activism, and chaos, at the forefront of global debate. What is now crucial, with just 9 years remaining until the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees is likely exhausted, is how swiftly we all act upon this alarm sounded by the world’s leading climate scientists:

“Dangerous climate change is not some far off target, it is here now. And the question is, how bad are we willing to let it get?” – Professor Michael E Mann on Outrage and Optimism on 10th August.
9 views0 comments

Updated: Aug 13

In less than 100 days COP 26 will start. Many agree that this year’s conference is being held at a critical moment. To underscore how important this moment is, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christian Figueres reminds us that this is the first hard test of the provisions of the Paris Agreement.

So we could better understand what the conference means and why it is important we asked Ms. Figueres, Professor Michael Mann, and Founder Bill McKibben for their thoughts on what success might look like.

Here is what they had to say:

What outcome would make COP 26 a success?

McKibben: A truly strong commitment to climate finance for the developing world--and an explicit acknowledgement that they are owed a great deal.

Figueres: COP 26 is the first COP since the Paris Agreement that will test countries´ capacity and willingness to upgrade their efforts as compared to those registered in 2015.

1. COP26 must be a credible and ambitious rise in efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. The sum total of all efforts must keep alive the possibility of an eventual temperature rise that does not go beyond 1.5 degrees.

2. We must a step up in the climate finance provided by the global North to the global South. The commitment was $100 billion per year starting in 2020. We are still hovering around $70 Billion. We must close that gap to regain the trust of developing countries.

3. There must be the finalization of the Paris rulebook which includes agreement on a price on global pollution.

4. There must be a decidedly strengthened collaboration across all sectors of society, without which we will not be able to meet the scale and speed needed to half emissions by 2030.

Mann: Actionable pledges on the part of major carbon producing countries, including the U.S., China, Australia, Canada, EU, UK, Russia, and others to ramp carbon emissions down substantially over the next decade.

What might prevent that from happening?

Figueres: There are of course many challenges on the way toward delivering the outcomes, but perhaps the one that looms the largest is the unfulfillment of the finance pledge. Promises made must be kept, otherwise a lack of trust undermines the whole process.

Mann: This is the subject of my book “The New Climate War”. In short, while outright climate denial has largely disappeared since the impacts of climate change are now clear to all, polluters and those promoting their agenda haven’t given up the fight. They’re simply turning to other tactics: delay, distraction, deflection, division, despair-mongering in their efforts to block effort to decarbonize our economy. We must recognize those tactics and fight back — again, that’s what my book is about.

What results would make COP 26 a disappointment?

McKibben: Every oil producing country continuing to insist that they should be allowed to get their reserves out of the ground.

Figueres: A limited delivery of the four above goals.

Mann: A lack of actionable pledges on the part of major carbon producers to ramp carbon emissions down substantially over the next decade. Over-reliance on speculative future tech and geoengineering and promises of carbon capture decades down the road must not be allowed to be used as a crutch to take the pressure off carbon polluters to reduce carbon emissions now.

Five years from now, will COP 26 be viewed as a significant moment in the fight against climate change? Why or why not?

McKibben: It's definitely going to be a significant moment. If we're to meet the IPCC timeline--halve emissions by 2030--it's the last chance to really organize the planet for the effort.

Figueres: Yes, because it is the first hard test of the provisions of the Paris Agreement which act as mileposts toward the necessary decarbonization by 2050. If we don’t make this milepost, it will put more pressure on the next few mileposts.

Mann: I state the following at the end of “The New Climate War”:

As we pass the milestone of the fiftieth anniversary of the very first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), I believe that we are at a critical juncture. Despite the obvious political challenges we currently face, we are witnessing an alignment of historical and political events— and acts of Mother Nature—that are awakening us to the reality of the climate crisis. We appear to be nearing the much-anticipated tipping point on climate action. In a piece titled “The Climate Crisis and the Case for Hope” published in September 2019, my friend Jeff Goodell, a writer for Rolling Stone, posited that “a decade or sofrom now, when the climate revolution is fully underway and Miami Beach real estate prices are in free-fall due to constant flooding, and internal combustion engines are as dead as CDs, people will look back on the fall of 2019 as the turning point in the climate crisis.” We can debate the precise date of the turning point. But I concur with Jeff’s larger thesis.

So much has changed since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Companies now openly speak of setting emission reduction targets and use phrases like net-zero. Elected officials around the world push for ideas like the Green New Deal and governments pledge to build back better. Rhetorically things have never been better when it comes to fighting climate change.

As our panel highlights for all the progress that has been made there is still much work to do when it comes to climate change. COP 26 offers an opportunity to show that we are committed to turning good rhetoric into reality and how seriously we take the Paris Agreement.

For more information about the conference or Carbon Tracker’s events at COP 26 please visit:

20 views0 comments