What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?

The story of emissions

Our various drives towards efficiency in general may have multiple motivations. It may be that we want to save money (use less), increase productivity (produce more), reduce carbon emissions (lower our negative impact) or more usually, it is a combination of these and other influencing factors. For universities, a significant driving factor is the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme.

Last year, the UK Climate Change Act set out

A legally binding target of at least an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to be achieved through action in the UK and abroad. Also a reduction in emissions of at least 34 percent by 2020. Both these targets are against a 1990 baseline.

The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme will be introduced in April 2010 and is “central to the UK’s strategy for improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.” Very simply put, the CRC is a tool to encourage energy efficiency through a ‘cap and trade’ market mechanism. Central to the scheme is a League Table which will not only serve as a basis for recycling carbon credits, but will provide a publicly available ranking of energy efficiency performance. The scheme therefore creates two drivers toward energy efficiency in participating organisations: a reputational incentive in addition to an increased cost of carbon.

So, from April, measures will be enforced to ensure relatively large UK organisations (including universities) produce 80% fewer carbon emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.  The figure of 80% reflects our current, generally agreed scientific understanding of what the UK must do to help stabilise worldwide carbon emissions and ensure that the global temperature does not increase by any more than +2c by 2100.  80% is the UK and many other developed countries’ obligation to ensure that the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere does not exceed 450ppm (parts per million of C02 equivalent)1. Developing countries that already emit fewer emissions may continue to increase their emissions for a while longer in order to pursue economic growth and a better standard of living. However, by 2050, worldwide carbon emissions, we are advised, should be stabilised at 450ppm.

2050 is the deadline

80% is the necessary reduction in emissions

+2c is the maximum ‘safe’ increase in global temperature

450ppm is the maximum ‘safe’ level of carbon in the atmosphere

Last month, the Committee on Climate Change, published a progress report which showed that UK emissions have fallen at just 0.6% per year between 2003-7. This is in contrast to what the report says we should be doing (currently legislated at -1.7%) and need to be doing, which is reducing our annual emissions by 2.6% to meet our intended carbon budget.

UK reductions in emissionsThe UK reported to the UN that between 1990 and 2004, we reduced our carbon emissions by 6%2 However, the way this figure is calculated ignores the fact that the UK has ‘lowered’ its emissions almost entirely through exporting our industry. More recently, we have reported a 15% reduction to the UN, but according to Dieter Helm, government advisor and Prof. of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford, the reduction does not take into account our emissions from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism.3 When these factors are taken into account, our 15% reduction is actually a 19% increase in carbon emissions since 1990. That is, around half of our energy footprint occurs overseas so it doesn’t count. Yet despite this, only last week it was reported that thanks to the UK and a few other countries, the EU as a whole is ‘on track‘ to meet its 2012 Kyoto target commitments. Not surprisingly, this shifting of our industry and emissions to other countries has, for example, meant that “10.03–26.54% of China’s annual CO2 emissions are produced during the manufacture of export goods destined for foreign consumers.”4.

This is the first story I want to highlight. We tell ourselves that our emissions are decreasing, all the while they are increasing. Helm calls it an ‘illusion’ and that “focusing on consumption rather than production of emissions is the only intellectually and ethically sound solution.”5 If we are to focus on consumption, rather than production, there is another story to tell about energy, but I will leave that for another time.

Towards a ‘resilient education’ ?

The 2050, -80%, +2c, 450ppm scenario is increasingly seen by some scientists as conservative. In 2006, Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre, said that a 90% cut is required to stabilise at +2c, 70% of which should be achieved by 2030.6conference in September at the University of Oxford concentrated on the implications of a +4c rise in temperatures:

The immediacy and scale of the reductions necessary to avoid anything below 4°C, and indeed the human and ecosystem implications of living with 4°C, are beyond anything we have been prepared to countenance. Understanding the implications of 4°C and higher temperatures is essential if global society is to make informed choices about the balance between “extreme” rates of mitigation and “extreme” impacts and adaptation costs.

Along these lines, the Tyndall Centre recently published a paper which concluded that:

It is increasingly unlikely any global agreement will deliver the radical reversal in emission trends required for stabilization at 450 ppmv carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Similarly, the current framing of climate change cannot be reconciled with the rates of mitigation necessary to stabilize at 550 ppmv CO2e and even an optimistic interpretation suggests stabilization much below 650 ppmv CO2e is improbable.7

In a discussion of their scenarios, they state that to stabilise at 450ppm, global energy related emissions should peak in 2015 (five years earlier than the IPCC report) and rapidly decline by 6-8% per year between 2020-40, with complete decarbonisation soon after 2050.

While this analysis suggests stabilizing at 450 ppmv is theoretically possible, in the absence of an unprecedented step change in the global economic model and the rapid deployment of successful CO2 scrubbing technologies, 450 ppmv is no longer a viable stabilization concentration. The implications of this for climate change policy, particularly adaptation, are profound. The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2C (Meinshausen 2006). As a consequence, any further delay in global society beginning down a pathway towards 450 ppmv leaves 2C as an inappropriate and dangerously misleading mitigation and adaptation target.8

A peak in emissions by 2015, even 2020, has profound implications not only on the way we use energy, but also our economic model of growth, both of which I intend to address in future blog posts. Personally, as an individual whose glass is usually half-full, I am deeply affected by the literature on energy and climate change. I wonder if there has ever been an equivalent body of research that details the possible decline of civilisation within just a few generations. As I read the reports, I am reminded that we are discussing a date that my two-year old daughter may live to experience and certainly my grandchildren will. Indeed, I hope that I will live past the threshold of 2050, all of which makes me realise that this is something I have a responsibility towards. It is within my grasp to effect change, in whatever small and possibly inconsequential way.

The Tyndall paper states that

Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emission trends and a commitment to ‘limiting average global temperature increases to below 4C above pre-industrial levels’, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society.9

I am reminded of the quote below by George Monbiot, where he reflects on the power of individual action versus group action. It suggests to me that those of us working within Further and Higher Education are better positioned than many people to influence radical change. Many of you are academics and teachers who can draw this into your work. Many of us work closely with Snr. Management in large institutions and there are opportunities for both informal and formal discussion.  Most of us are able to advertise, to potentially thousands of people, ad hoc seminars and meetings where these issues can be discussed and campaigns co-ordinated. All of us, especially within the EdTech community, can begin to think about how to develop ‘resilient education’. That is, a pedagogy and curriculum that both encourages and fosters the radical change that is necessary as well as ensuring that the present depth, breadth and quality of education is sustainable in a future where there may be less abundance and freedom than we have become accustomed to.

Most environmentalists – and I include myself in this – are hypocrites … I would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past forty years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time . . . I have sought to demonstrate that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions is – if difficult – technically and economically possible. I have not demonstrated that it is politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me to do so. It is up to you . . . The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.10

What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?

  1. I recognise that the 450ppm figure is a political compromise and that Hansen et al. are advising a reduction to 350ppm. I use 450ppm here because that is the figure the CRC Scheme is using. For more information on 350 vs. 450, see 350 vs. 450: The Heart of the Matter []
  2. Prosperity without Growth? – The transition to a sustainable economy, p.51 []
  3. UK’s official CO2 figures an illusion – study. Source: Too Good to be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record [PDF] []
  4. Yan, Y.F., Yang, L.K., China’s foreign trade and climate change: A case study of CO2 emissions. Energy Policy (2009), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2009.09.025 []
  5. West blamed for China’s rapid increase in CO2 []
  6. Living Within a Carbon Budget, 2006 []
  7. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends, Anderson, K & Bows, A, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2008) 366, 3863–3882 doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138 Published online 29 August 2008 []
  8. ibid p. 3877 []
  9. ibid. 3880 []
  10. Heat: How to stop the planet from burning, Monbiot, G. 2007 []

13 thoughts on “What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?

  1. Thanks for pulling this stuff together Joss. Over at the JISC online conference, where we are talking about the future of higher education institutions, it struck me that when Graham, Rob and myself did our future interviews, climate change was a factor in them, yet we probably haven’t engaged with this enough.
    At the recent climate change conference they were talking about a +6 degree rise – it may be that limiting it to +2 becomes an aspiration before we know it.

    • Yes, the +2c rise is increasingly viewed as a very conservative figure, as the Tyndall paper shows. However, a +6c and even a +4c rise by 2100 has such profound implications across the board, that the difficulty is how to fruitfully engage with such a scenario. I’m not sure how useful the +2, +4, +6c markers are. To the casual observer, they probably appear quite tolerable changes in temperature that mask the actual predicament we’re facing. In trying to define a ‘resilient education’, I think we need to foreground the socio-economic changes these forecasts imply. It needs to be a cross-disciplinary effort (it’s by no means just a matter of technical problems requiring solutions) that attempts to make fundamental changes to how we live in the world.

      Bill Rees has already published a couple of papers on this matter: http://ceae.colorado.edu/~amadei/CVEN4700/PDF/HigherEd%28Rees%29.pdf & http://www.academicmatters.ca/AcademicMatters/docs/AM_APR_08.pdf

      They’re a good starting point for discussion and action. For me, they also help put EdTech into perspective. I’m beginning to think that we need to pause and consider the cognitive dependencies we’re creating between technology and learning. A resilient education surely has fewer and different technological dependencies?

  2. This is topical for me, as my alma mater sits today substantially underwater
    Think in the first world, we’ll be fine. It’ll be rough, yes, but we’ll make it.
    The big question is whether the big emerging world countries like India, China, Indonesia, can preserve their economic growth in the heat and deliver their populations to middle income, tertiary educated levels, or whether they collapse as failed states. That will make an order of magnitude difference in the size of the Tertiary sector in 2100.

  3. You are correct, in that I use the word ‘fine’ somewhat loosely. But I didn’t say we would retain our economic model or that it would be plain sailing by any stretch

    I expect in the first world we won’t face malthusian population collapses or failed states. Our democracies may not survive, our economic model may not survive, but our society will. We can afford to fall back on cooler ground. We can afford, over a century, to build new cities in the north and migrate to them. We can, and probably will in the end, afford Geoengineering. It might not work, but we can afford to try, and once we start seeing regular climate related mass casualty events in the first world, we will. The 21st century might not repeat the economic growth of the 20th, but the first world will make it through, more or less. So, while it’s going to be a very busy century, I expect my children to live through it.

    China? India? Indonesia? These nations live a lot closer to the line than we do. High temperature scenarios would bring the strong chance of collapse of civil society and death on a grand scale. They might not be ‘fine’.

    Also, I’ll tip my cap to you here and note that this is your field, not mine. I certainly don’t disagree that 6C is looking likely now.

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