Face of change

5 min read

Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre, believes the West must totally re-think its climate policy. Stuart Nathan reports.

Kevin Anderson, research director of the Tyndall Centre’s energy and climate change programme, doesn’t come across as a pessimist. But his conclusions on how we in the west can help reduce the effects of climate change, and adjust to those we can’t avoid, are likely to provoke groans from some quarters.

‘I do believe we have to make some fundamental and radical changes to our behaviour in most western countries, and I’m increasingly thinking that is not going to be without some pain,’ he said.

‘I used to think we could reduce our emissions without too much pain but because of the slowness of our response — well, we’re not really responding at all — I’m now much less certain.’

Anderson’s background is unusual for an environmental academic. Leaving school at 16, a spell in the merchant navy was followed by a degree in mechanical engineering. This led to a career in both the onshore and offshore petrochemical industry. ‘I’d always had an interest in energy and environmental issues and while I was in the North Sea I became more and more interested in the environmental impact of what we were doing. So I did an MSc, covering the biology, law and policy side, followed by a PhD.’

Based at Manchester University, Anderson’s work is just one part of the studies undertaken by the Tyndall Centre, a multi-centre, multi-disciplinary research organisation established in 2000 by three of the national research councils. ‘This was specifically to look at climate change, because there was a feeling that these issues couldn’t just be tackled with one kind of thinking,’ he said.

‘We have economists, engineers, social scientists, anthropologists, biologists — a whole range of people.’ The staff is also multicultural, he added; climate change is a global problem that requires action from societies around the world and it can’t be studied purely from the point of view of western-style democracies.

The centre was intended to act as a bridge between scientists and engineers working in the climate change field and the policy makers. Its research was an important input into last year’s Stern Review, which looked at the economic impact of climate change, and a great deal of Anderson’s own research has looked at the effects of air travel on the environment.

Government and individual action are inescapably bound together to ameliorate the effects of climate change, Anderson believes. ‘It would be nice if we could just rely on everyone’s goodwill to act but realistically, nobody thinks that’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘So we need a policy framework that will not only encourage us to act, but also change our behaviour. There are many discussions over whether we need collective action, as in a kind of war mentality.’

But Anderson is certain that individual action is necessary. He has no truck with the argument that one person’s, or one country’s, efforts to reduce emissions are meaningless. ‘It’s too easy for us as individuals to say “The UK only accounts for two per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, so what does it matter what we do?” Well, yeah. But California’s two per cent. Beijing is less than two per cent, and so is Shanghai. If you break it down into small enough chunks, then nobody looks like a significant proportion and nobody has to act.’

He is equally scathing about the US government’s opinion that developing new technologies is an answer to the problem. ‘The people who say that are very seldom scientists or technologists. they’re people who don’t want to see significant changes to their own lives and enjoy the benefits of huge levels of technology,’ he said. ‘They are misguided and misinformed, and don’t understand or haven’t bothered to inform themselves about what’s happening with emissions at the moment.’

In the case of climate change, the timescales don’t allow us to sit back and see what can be developed, said Anderson. ‘The reason for that is that it’s about cumulative emissions. Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for 100-plus years, so every year you add to what was already there. If you wait to see what technologies there are in 2020, without changing your behaviour, then you’ve got another 13 years of very high levels of emissions, and that means you lock your society into additional climate change.’

Coping with the climate change already ‘locked in’ is high on the Tyndall Centre’s agenda. Anderson believes that global average temperatures are likely to rise by more than 2°C and in the UK, this will mean changes are necessary — in particular to the types of houses we build. ‘We saw around 30,000 people die in France because of heat, not long ago. If those temperatures become the norm, and by 2030-2040 I think they could, then there are real issues here for vulnerable parts of the community. The problem is that although we can deal with daytime temperatures, it’s at night that people are most at risk of death. Individual, detached blocks can’t deal with cooling very well — we need to look to southern Europe and the Mediterranean.’

Using materials with high heat capacities, and building around shady quadrangles, will help housing absorb heat and remain comfortable without any need for powered air conditioning, which creates more emissions and causes more problems by ‘dumping’ excess heat on neighbours.

As for individual action, Anderson is keen to make a distinction between energy efficiency and energy conservation. Although energy can be saved by swapping older appliances for more efficient replacements, ‘there are some things we just need to do less of, like using less private transport and more public transport’. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean cutting down on flying. ‘The growth rates [in aviation] are completely unsustainable but the message is not that we ought to stop flying or even cut back, but do not expect to fly much more, or even any more.’

According to Anderson, the energy generation mix will also have to change. And although he doesn’t believe that nuclear power can do much to cut CO2 emissions, he acknowledged that there is an energy security argument. While nuclear power could help us become self-sufficient, if we want to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbons it has to be combined with renewables, he said.

For Anderson, the biggest problem is the political mindset in the West, and he is adamant that this has to change. ‘Everything is measured in economic terms — you can’t do this, because it would affect our competitiveness or cost too much. You hear this language all the time, this accounting, financial mentality.’

This, he said, has led to issues of climate change being neglected at the policy level. ‘It’s only now that the Stern Review, from an economist, has conducted a thorough and relatively solemn assessment of climate change science that policymakers have sat up and taken it seriously. Why has it taken an economist to do that? We’ve had plenty of scientists and engineers who have been putting out very accessible messages and have been willing to talk to policy makers for the past 10 years. When an economist stands up and puts a pounds and pence number on it, people suddenly say, “Oh, it’s important now.” I’m worried about this privileging of economics over the other factors, and I think it has led us to some of the problems we’re now in.’

For example, Anderson thinks that economics-centred policy has led to the UK’s renewable energy potential being neglected. ‘We’re awash with renewables, just like we always have been with coal, oil and gas. And we’re a small island, we don’t have huge issues with transmission losses.’

In particular, he believes that the different sorts of renewables should be linked together. ‘If you look at wind, wave and tidal, then wind collects energy over a short period of time; but when the wind dies down, the wave power will still be there, because it’s accumulated over time and distance. The tidal power, of course, is completely predictable. These things shouldn’t be seen as separate technologies, they should be seen as suites of technologies that complement each other.’

However, the financial cost is high. ‘They are expensive to build, and in terms of price, gas is about £350/kW, nuclear maybe as high as £3,000/kW, coal with carbon capture about £1,000/kW, and renewables maybe £900/kW.

‘Unless we have a policy framework that will privilege more expensive capital costs over cheap gas, we aren’t going to see the change.’