This blog article is largely a summary and brief discussion of a short paper published in Nature Climate Change. “The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets” by Duncan McLaren & Nils Markusson. I mesh some of the summary with a blog article written by McLaren, as this appears to give extra information and more clarity to the general argument. Unless specified, quotations come from the article.
The paper discusses “technologies of prevarication” which form part of an “an ongoing cycle that repeatedly avoids transformative social and economic change” (p.392).
The ‘gentle’ argument is that the international goals of avoiding climate change have been reinterpreted in the light of new technological and modelling methods, and the promises these new ‘devices’ have allowed. These technological promises, in general, allow the sidelining of social transformation, and the delay of any real cut back in emissions.
In the terms I’ve deployed elsewhere, these fantasies about technologies act as defense mechanisms against change and political challenge.
The article proposes five different stages in the global climate policy process. These stages overlap, but policy debates about targets in these stages “was noticeably framed primarily in [certain] terms while previous formulations retreated from the public eye” (p.392).
The stages they argue for are:
1) Stabilizsation c.Rio 1992
2) Percentage emissions reductions c.Kyoto 1997
3) Atmospheric concentrations c.Copenhagen 2009
4) Cumulative budgets c.Durban 2011, Doha 2012
5) Outcome temperatures c.Paris 2015
I should add that I don’t think these stages are proven and fully documented (the article is short), but they are plausible, and I’m sure the authors will document them more rigorously later.
Stage 1: at Rio, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated,
the UN settled on a goal of ‘stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs [Green House Gases] at a level commensurate with avoiding dangerous anthropogenic climate change’…p.392
This was associated with coupled ‘general circulation models‘  and ‘integrated assessment models‘  which allowed the exploration of emissions reductions techniques and their economic costs. As the authors say in a blog post:
assessing specific policy interventions with these early models was difficult, and responses were often discussed in very broad-brush terms.13 May 2020 Guest post: A brief history of climate targets
Policy responses included: energy efficiency, promotion of forest carbon sinks (the blog adds ocean iron fertilisation), and finally nuclear energy. Nuclear energy stalled largely because of costs and public concerns about risks, and voters not wanting to live near one.
Stage 2: The debate around Kyoto was largely over speed of emissions reductions, usually with percentage reductions of emissions by target dates.
Models enabled people to relate emmissions cuts to concentrations of GHGs, but not to outcome temperatures.
Policy and promises focused on emissions reductions from fossil fuels, through the technologies of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) (promising up to 90% reductions from fossil fuels) and fuel switching, and on energy efficiency. Trading schemes were proposed, [although were often so slackly developed, in order to reduce costs to business, that they had little result.] The IPCC issued a report on CCS. The blog mentions that in some parts of the world there was talk of building new “capture ready” coal power stations, with licenses being granted before the term was even defined. The blog states:
CCS was selected preferentially by the model algorithms because the simulated costs of continued expansion and use of fossil-fuel power – linked to retrofitting with CCS – were lower than those associated with phasing out electricity generation using coal and gas.13 May 2020 Guest post: A brief history of climate targets
practical development of CCS got little further than research facilities, while the promise of ‘CCS readiness’ even facilitated continued construction of new fossil power plants.p.394
Fuel also switching did not live up to its promise.
continued to become more sophisticated. It moved on to establish direct links between economic activity and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.13 May 2020 Guest post: A brief history of climate targets
Stage 3: Atmospheric concentrations c.Copenhagen 2009
The blog asserts that in the lead up to the Copenhagen COP, there was intense debate over setting a goal for atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Initially 550 ppm was considered adequate but the debate saw that lowered to 450 ppm.
There had been little progress, in reducing emissions. Bioenergy came to the fore as a promise, especially Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) which implied a lowering of GHG concentrations at a future date. At the time BECCS was more or less completely conceptual, but it merged two apparently known technologies so was considered practicable.
Like CCS before it, BECCS promised ways to cut the costs of meeting a particular target, slowing the transition even more by its promise to effectively reverse emissions at a future date.p.394
The blog phrases this more strongly. BECCS “allow[ed] the justification of a slower transition by its promise to effectively reverse emissions at a future date.”
Computer modelling became more complicated, with many 450 ppm of CO2 scenarios using the postulate of imagined CCS. The fact that this target appeared, to some, nowhere near adequate to prevent destructive climate change led to 350.org being founded.
There was less talk of emissions cuts and more talk of concentrations, and some possible confusion over the connection to temperature outcomes, even if the Copenhagen was officially focused on keeping the increase in temperature at about 2 degrees.
Yet again, CCS, or BECCS, had failed to be deployed, or we might add, even researched, to any useful extent.
Stage 4: Cumulative budgets Durban 2011, Doha 2012
some negotiators argued… for the pursuit of ‘a clear limit on GHG concentrations, and consequently a scientifically calculated carbon budget’…p.394
A Carbon Budget attempts to set a total limit on the CO2 that can be emitted by States, to keep global temperature rise below a certain level. According to the blog “the UK began setting periodic five-year carbon budgets under its Climate Change Act in 2008″.
At around the same time:
the development of a simple inversion tool in the MAGICC model enabled not only the development of RCPs [Representative Concentration Pathways], but also more sophisticated global carbon budgeting models.p.394
The idea of limiting cumulative emissions seemed to be more robust than previous methods, but opened the idea of imagined ‘negative emissions technologies’, which again reinforced the fantasy of underdeveloped BECCS. Indeed these imagined technologies became the only way forward, even if they largely remained imaginary.
As the blog states:
In addition, [these negative emissions technologies] enabled promises of future carbon removal as a means to reverse any “overshoot” of the budget…. And there is a fine line between inadvertent and planned overshoot13 May 2020 Guest post: A brief history of climate targets
Stage 5: Outcome Temperatures. The carbon budgets idea never really got put into play – possibly because they were too empirical and demanded emissions cutbacks, and the non-use of fossil fuel reserves. So the Paris COP shifted to a focus on temperature increase – officially 2 degrees, but possibly 1.5 – as the boundary around dangerous climate change. This further boosted talk of negative emissions technology.
Looking ahead, although [Negative Emissions Technologies] might retrospectively balance carbon budgets, delayed action would still make a temperature overshoot more likely.p.395
This helps construct “a space for an imaginary technology that can act directly to reduce temperatures”, such as Geoengineering. This, in turn, makes the use of geoengineering, and attempts to control the ecology of the whole world, more likely to be factored into models.
However, it is extremely difficult to accurately model the ecological consequences of geoengineering (especially without large scale testing), so the likely undesired effects become a cost left out of the models.
The blog remarks:
Policy change looks like to be a co-evolutionary process involving implicit policy, politics, models, and imagined technologies.
In this process, the ‘evolutionary fitness’ of each technological promise is less a product of its (potential) climate impact than a measure of how well it can be modelled, and how well it matches the extant framings of climate policy.p.395
These imagined techs then become embedded in the models and in the policy projects even if they do not exist at sufficient scale, after years of opportunity. The blog argues that the problem is magnified because the “integrated assessment models” focus on:
cost optimisation with time discounting. This means they favour future promises of action over plausible, but potentially costly, near-term interventions.13 May 2020 Guest post: A brief history of climate targets
The delays make the policies look cheaper to deliver, and cheapness is, in neoliberalism, a virtue; but over time little has been delivered – for example it appears that during the first decade of the twenty-first century, world coal production almost doubled, and it has not declined back to dangerous 1990s levels, yet.
Critically, in this process, each technological promise has enabled a continued politics of prevarication and inadequate action by raising expectations of more effective policy options becoming available in the future, in turn justifying existing limited and gradualist policy choices and thus diminishing the perceived urgency of deploying costly and unpopular, but better understood and tested, options for policy in the short term.p.395
These technologies of prevarication have rarely delivered on their promises, or been as cheap as expected, and have rarely been embraced by governments or business in practice as opposed to imaginal rhetoric.
Often the problems, or unintended consequences, of the imagined technologies were not seen until people started to implement them. BECCS for example can result in deforestation, impingement on food production, require large amounts of energy input, and the extracted CO2 can be used to help push oil out of wells to be burnt to produce more CO2. At the best talk of CCS and carbon extraction merely slows down transition.
There is a possibility that:
each promise has, to some degree, fed systemic ‘moral corruption’ in which current elites are enabled to pursue self-serving pathways while passing off risk to vulnerable people in the future and in the Global South.p.395
The technological promises, promise to save neoliberalism and market based developmentalism, and “promised future action, rather than immediate sacrifice.”
Carbon sinks may have perhaps gone backwards. Nuclear power has almost ceased being built, even though the promise remains to allow people to imagine future cuts in emissions. Efficiency gains have enabled growth in consumption and energy expectations have expanded. Often technologies etc have allowed additional energy capacity rather than reduced emissions. We can add that it appears that many countries (particularly China and the US) have encouraged poorer countries to lock-in to coal dependency to keep the exporters coal mines running, as emissions are counted on a per country basis. This increases the cost of conversion to renewables – all the money which could have been spent getting the countries self sufficient in renewables has been wasted in fossil fuels. While cheaper renewables make a change apparently more practicable, it is an extra expense and destruction of invested capital that poorer countries, and some wealthier ones, cannot afford easily – they have more immediate expenses, and few powerful people like to admit they have wasted money for nothing.
The whole process has downplayed urgency and helped defer deadlines for action.
We have played into the imagined technological fix, rather than the social change we need. There is no suggestion that the people who have invented and worked on this technology are to blame, the problem is the way their imaginings have been used to in policy and modelling to maintain small scale action. It has been more important for politicians to maintain neoliberalism, and development, than to act on climate.
[L]ayers of past unredeemed technological promises have become sedimented in climate pathway models. Contemporary imaginaries may prove just as unrealizable as the previous generations of promises,and there is no logical end to the set of possible technological promises that could be added to ‘resolve’ the models.p.396
This ‘sedimentation’ of failed technological promises is now so standard that risks of technology disappointment and failure should be incorporated into models and policy discussions, and research.
Thirty years of failure, should show that we cannot continue our society working as it does, and expect to solve problems of climate change. We have to, as the blog states, “deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations.”
Assuming the figures used to make this graph are accurate, the image shows how well we have reduced energy production from fossil fuels, and how much we have increased renewable energy in the last 40 years.
We have failed. We have had years of climate action, discussion between nations, and targets have been set, yet the actions taken have ignored the problem and made the situation worse. The idea that technologies are largely defense mechanisms or modes of prevarication, is graphically illustrated. If we keep the same social organisation, and the same development processes going, then we are committing suicide. Whatever the appearance our States are failed States, when it comes to dealing with this problem.
We cannot rely on the State or big business to save us, or even to try to save us. We have been doing that, and this faith has not been repaid. We may need to get to work outside the State and outside big business…
This is where ideas of degrowth and community energy democracy come in. Degrowth will almost certainly not be a popular response to politicians, but it does allow us to ask questions which are otherwise not being asked. These questions have the potential to open the unconscious of our social dynamic towards destruction.
What, for example, if we tried to reduce burning fossil fuels without replacing them? This would be world changing, it would also start debates about wealth distribution, and energy distribution. What do we really need the energy for? How do we need the energy production distributed, to make these cuts possible? How can we levelise consumption to give everyone what they need to survive comfortably and freely? Can communities build and manage their own energy supplies? Can any of this be achieved along with the maintenance of rivalrous military based nation states? Will those in power who love the maintenance of violence-based hierarchies fight with all they can muster to go to destruction before surrendering their power?
I doubt such questions will be asked, but they are essential, otherwise technology is likely to primarily remain either a prevarication or a defense mechanism, which maintains our self-destruction.