Adding balance to the meat debate

18 02 2019

Of late, I have seen article after article, video after video, exposing ‘meat eating’ as a culprit for the exploding greenhouse emissions we are experiencing. And when I point out it’s all rubbish, I’m attacked as a climate denier….. ME!  A climate denier…?!

There’s so much to say about this topic, it’s hard to know where to start, but I will just say this; meat consumption is not the issue, the predicament is industrial agriculture, pure and simple…… so instead of blaming animal farming, commentators should be attacking the entrenched conventional farming system that needs to be destroyed.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, the consumption of your diet is just as harmful as the consumption of unsustainable meat. Are you listening George Monbiot? George is one of those classic deniers of the truth. He recently wrote “76% of farmland is wasted on farming animals”. And what does George know about farming?  Zilch I’ll bet…… because farms that grow meat are incapable of growing anything else, otherwise meat would not be produced there.

When soil incapable of growing edible vegetable matter for people is converted to this use, it’s only possible because of the addition of untold chemicals which, since the beginning of the ‘green revolution’, a completely wrong use of the term ‘green’ by the way…..


This opinion piece by Richard Young was originally published by Triodos Bank here


Grazing animals have shaped the quintessentially pastoral British countryside for thousands of years and play a vital role in sustainable food systems. However, over the last decade or so we’ve been told by a succession of high-profile reports that we have to make drastic cuts in our consumption of meat in order to help limit global warming, biodiversity loss and other agriculture-related problems. This has left many people confused about what they should eat to be healthy and have a sustainable lifestyle.

The authors of these reports, such as the recent EAT-Lancet report, all correctly highlight the problems for humanity caused by a rapidly growing global population, high meat consumption in developed countries and an increasing appetite – or in some cases nutritional need – for meat in many developing countries. However, the focus is always put on cutting out red meat, rather than poultry, and no distinction is made in the way the meat is produced.

The basic reason for this is that all cattle, sheep and other ruminants emit the greenhouse gas methane, while chickens do not. They also convert grain to protein less efficiently than poultry or pigs.

It is predicted that by 2050 another billion tonnes of grain will be needed every year to produce enough meat to feed the global population, something which is clearly unsustainable, since continuous grain production is one of the biggest causes of soil degradation and loss. Indeed, globally, cropland soils continue to degrade as carbon is lost to the atmosphere – 24 billion tonnes of soil is lost annually, over three tonnes for every person on the planet.

However, what the researchers invariably overlook is that this is only an issue in relation to grain-fed cattle, such as those in US feedlots, whose rations consist of maize, soya meal and chopped straw.

In contrast, two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass, in most cases because the land is not suitable for growing crops. The only practical way to get food from this land without causing an environmental disaster is to graze it with livestock. Almost all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly fed on grass, grazed in the fields during summer and fed as hay or silage over winter – and the UK has one of the best climates in the world for growing grass. Some of these animals do also get grain, but in many cases this is waste grain, like Brewer’s grain (what’s left after beer making), which humans cannot eat.

Tragically, a high proportion of the UK’s most species-rich grasslands have in the past been ploughed for cropping or resown with ryegrass monocultures. However, all organic and most pasture-fed meat producers include legumes, multiple grass species and herbs in their grazing mixtures. Even many intensive farmers have now been persuaded by agri-environment schemes to restore grassland diversity, with wild flowers and delicate species getting a chance to recover once the use of synthetic fertilisers ceases. This in turn helps to revive the intricate web of life, which begins with microbes, soil spiders and other insects, embraces farmland birds and small mammals, and ultimately sustains us humans.

While over-grazing was encouraged by farm subsidies prior to the early 1990s, some grassland is now under-grazed due to falling demand for lamb. This is a problem because many bird and butterfly species have evolved in tandem with grazing livestock. In fact, both the RSPB and Natural England recognise that grazing animals are essential for sustaining healthy wildlife populations.

But what about methane? The high methane levels in the atmosphere are a significant cause of global warming, yet ruminants are responsible for only 5% of UK anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon – grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out by photosynthesis. In fact, fossil fuels are not only the main source of carbon dioxide emissions, they are also responsible for a third more methane than ruminants and all the methane from fossil fuels contains additional, ‘fossil’ carbon.

So what meat should we choose to help sustain the planet? It’s not a red versus white issue. The simple answer is that we should eat far less grain-fed meat, be it beef, pork or chicken, instead we should actively seek grass-fed meat and meat from animals supplemented with only small amounts of otherwise waste grain.

While few people yet realise it, we actually need to encourage increased production of grass-fed meat, since the most effective way to restore our degraded arable soils and wild pollinators is to re-introduce grass and grazing animals into cropland rotations.






Time to rethink monetary policy

15 02 2019

How this great article went under my radar, I do not know……. another classic from the Consciousness of Sheep.

Image may contain: one or more people

When the first stuffed platypus was presented to European scientists, they dismissed it.  “What we have here,” they opined, “is some unfortunate lutrinae onto which some scoundrel has attached various anatidae parts.”  And so the innocent little platypus, which had been minding its own business until the European explorers arrived, was placed on the same zoological shelf as the Yeti.

The European scientists, you see, had a model.  A map of how the world’s animal species were ordered.  At the apex, predictably, were humans themselves.  Beneath them were anatomically similar apes and monkeys; followed by cats, dogs, pigs, etc.  What all of these “higher” species had in common, however, was that they were all mammals – creatures that carry their young in an internal womb, and that suckle them with milk.  This distinguished them from other, dissimilar species like birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

Then along comes this upstart platypus, not just looking like it possesses bird parts, but having the audacity to lay eggs!  For several decades, despite growing evidence that platypuses were real, European scientists continued to dismiss these reported sightings as fake news.  The platypus was an unfortunate intrusion into the scientists’ neatly ordered model of how the world worked.  Despite the philosophy of science demanding that a fact – like the existence of a platypus – that disproves a model is the very essence of falsifiability, the scientists chose to reject the fact rather than deconstruct and rebuild their model.

The same European scientists later – and infamously – rejected evidence for the existence of one of the platypus’s neighbours… the black swan… which brings us to a modern pseudoscience that also famously rejects reality in order to preserve the models that it has spent decades finessing.

Economic models have already proved their – very negative – worth in the worst possible way in the shape of the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing global depression.  This ought to have been enough for the entire economics profession to be given their marching orders and afforded their true place alongside aromatherapists, astrologers and homeopaths.  However, in 2008, governments lacked any acceptable alternative.  So despite knowing that an economic forecast was of equal value to flipping a coin, they put the same economists who had broken the system in charge of fixing it.

The economists did no such thing, of course.  The financial crisis of 2008 was the platypus of our age; something so out of step with the models that it could not reasonably be incorporated into them.  They even used the term “black swan” to describe it.

Any examination of the real economy over centuries, however, demonstrates that cyclical period of boom and bust – frequently punctuated by major financial crashes – are in fact the norm.  It is the so-called “Great Moderation” in the economists’ model that is the aberration… the thing so out of step with reality that it can reasonably be dismissed as fake news.

This, however, is merely the most obvious flaw in an economic model that is based on anomalies.  Most importantly, almost everything that economists are taught about how the economy works is based on what happened in the course of the two decade long mother of all anomalies; the post war boom 1953-1973.  As historian Paul Kennedy explains:

“The accumulated world industrial output between 1953 and 1973 was comparable in volume to that of the entire century and a half which separated 1953 from 1800.  The recovery of war-damaged economies, the development of new technologies, the continued shift from agriculture to industry, the harnessing of national resources within ‘planned economies,’ and the spread of industrialization to the Third World all helped to effect this dramatic change.  In an even more emphatic way, and for much the same reasons, the volume of world trade also grew spectacularly after 1945…”

In other words, economic modelling based on how the economy operated in the decades prior to the First World War might provide a closer fit to the real world in 2018.  The same is true for interest rates. As political economist Mark Blyth has shown, economists have modelled interest rates on the two decades around the historical high point in 1981.  However, for the entire period following the introduction of derivatives by the Dutch in the sixteenth century, the average interest rate is below four percent.

This is no trifling academic issue.  Interest rates have become the primary means by which economists – to whom our politicians have handed the leavers [I can’t make up my mind whether this is a typo, a Freudian slip, or a very clever pun!] of power – seek to manage the economy.  The aim of “monetary policy” being to raise interest rates sufficiently high to prevent a recurrence of the inflation of the 1970s, while keeping them sufficiently low that they do not trigger or exacerbate a repeat of the 2008 crash.

The problem with this as of 2018 is that despite close to zero percent interest rates – and trillions of dollars, euros, pounds and yen in stimulus packages – the rate of inflation has barely moved.  Indeed, with growth rates stalling in the USUK and Eurozonedeflation is more likely than inflation.  Despite this, the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and European Central Bank remain committed to raising interest rates and reversing quantitative easing… because that is what their model tells them that they should do.

Central to the model is a belief – based on those anomalous decades when we had growth on steroids and interest rates to match – that employment causes inflation.  So with the official rate of unemployment in the USA standing at 4.1 percent and the UK at 4.2 percent, the model is telling the economists at the central banks that inflation is already running out of control… even though it isn’t.  As Constance Bevitt, quoted in the New York Times puts it:

“When they talk about full employment, that ignores almost all of the people who have dropped out of the economy entirely. I think that they are examining the problem with assumptions from a different economic era. And they don’t know how to assess where we are now.” [It’s occurred to me that lots of baby boomers, such as myself, have now retired and dropped out of ‘the workforce’, and none of this is taken into account…]

Larry Elliott at the Guardian draws a similar conclusion about the UK:

“Britain’s flexible labour market has resulted in the development of a particular sort of economy over the past decade: low productivity, low investment and low wage. Since the turn of the millennium, business investment has grown by about 1% a year on average because companies have substituted cheap workers for capital. Labour has become a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, which might be good for individual firms, but means people have less money to buy goods and services – a shortfall in demand only partly filled by rising levels of debt. The idea that everyone is happy with a zero-hour contract is for the birds.

“Workers are cowed to an extent that has surprised the Bank of England. For years, the members of Threadneedle Street’s monetary policy committee (MPC) have been expecting falling unemployment to lead to rising wage pressure, but it hasn’t happened. When the financial crisis erupted in August 2007, the unemployment rate was 5.3% and annual wage growth was running at 4.7%. Today unemployment is 4.2% and earnings are growing at 2.8%.”

This is a very different economy to the one that operated between 1953 and 1973; a time when the workers’ share of productivity rose consistently.  In those days a semi-skilled manual worker had a sufficient wage to buy a home, support a family, run a car and afford a holiday.  In 2018, a semi-skilled manual worker living in the UK depends upon foodbanks and tax credits to remain solvent.

In short, despite mountains of evidence that the economists’ model bears no relation to the real world, like their nineteenth century zoological counter parts, they continue to reject any evidence that disproves the model as fake news.  One obvious reason for this is that all of us – whatever our specialisms – get a sinking feeling of despondency when some inconvenient fact comes along to tell us that it is time to go back to the drawing board.  Understandably, we test the inconvenient fact to destruction before deconstructing our models.  But even when the fact proves sufficiently resilient to be considered to be true, there remains the temptation to sweep it under the proverbial carpet and pretend that nothing is amiss.

There is, however, another reason why so many economists spend so many of their waking hours studiously ignoring reality when it whacks them over the head with the force of a steam hammer.  They simply do not see it.  That is, if you are on the kind of salary enjoyed by a member of one or other monetary policy committee, your lived experience will be so removed from the experience of ordinary working (and not working) people that you simply refuse to believe them when – either by anecdote or statistic – they inform you of just how bad things are down on Main Street.

The two proposed solutions to this latter problem involve the question of diversity.  Among its other work, the campaign group Positive Money has highlighted the race and gender disparity at the Bank of England.  However, were we to just swap some white male mainstream economists for some equivalent BME and female mainstream economists, this is unlikely to have much impact.  A second approach to diversity from radical economists such as Ann Pettifor is to break up the neoclassical economists’ monopoly by bringing in economists from different schools of economics.

Arguably, however, neither of these proposed solutions would be sufficient to solve the problem of economists refusal to allow facts to stand in the way of their models.  For this, something even more radical is required – a complete rethink of the way monetary policy is made.  The 2008 crash and the decade of near stagnation for 80 percent of us that followed has demonstrated that the approach of handing economic policy to technocrats has failed.  The unelected Bank of England or Federal Reserve Chairman can no longer be allowed to be the final authority.  Policy must ultimately reside with elected representatives  whose jobs are on the line if they mess up.

Of course it is entirely reasonable that our representatives base their decisions on the advice and recommendations of experts.  It is here that real diversity is required.  Not merely swapping white male economists for black female ones, or opening the door just wide enough for some token contrarian economists.  Rather, what is needed is for monetary policy committees to encompass a range of specialisms far beyond economics and the social sciences, together with representatives from trades unions, charities and business organisations that are more in touch with the realities of life in the real economy.

None of this is about to happen any time soon; not least because nobody voluntarily relinquishes power and privilege.  But another crisis is brewing; and there are signs that it will be bigger than 2008.  And when that crisis bursts over us, this time around we need to put these changes in place before the economists rally round and persuade our craven politicians that there is no alternative… because there is.





Climbing The Ladder Of Awareness

12 02 2019

By Paul Chefurka

Oct 20, 2012 | Society In Decline 

When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages:

  1. Dead asleep. At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
  2. Awareness of one fundamental problem. Whether it’s Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
  3. Awareness of many problems. As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow.  At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems – for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion.  They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the “highest priority” problem.
  4. Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems. The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what’s going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren’t very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.
  5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.  This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a “Solution” is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression will set in. After all, we’ve learned throughout our lives that our hope for tomorrow lies in  our ability to solve problems today.  When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.

How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation.  These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two.  I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other.  I call them the outer path and the inner path.

If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network and Permaculture Movement. To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability initiatives will have great appeal.  Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however.  Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it’s just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.

If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of attractions.

Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception.  For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, “Become the change you wish to see in the world,” on the most profoundly personal level.  This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, “As above, so below.” Or in plain language,  “In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself.”

However, the inner path does not imply a “retreat into religion”. Most of the people I’ve met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics.  Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does. It’s worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point.  If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair.  If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin to seem like a reasonable option.  Please keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.

From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians).  The number of those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.

I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5 awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent (transition, shift, metamorphosis – call it what you will), will require all of us – no matter what our chosen paths – to cooperate on making wise decisions in difficult times.

Best wishes for a long, exciting and fulfilling  journey.





This civilisation is finished: so what is to be done?

12 02 2019

Rupert Read, Environmental Philosopher and Chair of Green House Think Tank. The Paris Agreement explicitly commits us to use non-existent, utterly reckless, unaffordable and ineffective ‘Negative Emissions Technologies’ which will almost certainly fail to be realised. Barring a multifaceted miracle, within a generation, we will be facing an exponentially rising tide of climate disasters that will bring this civilization down. We, therefore, need to engage with climate realism.

This means an epic struggle to mitigate and adapt, an epic struggle to take on the climate-criminals and, notably, to start planning seriously for civilizational collapse. Dr Rupert Read is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Rupert is a specialist in Wittgenstein, environmental philosophy, critiques of Rawlsian liberalism, and philosophy of film. His research in environmental ethics and economics has included publications on problems of ‘natural capital’ valuations of nature, as well as pioneering work on the Precautionary Principle.

Recently, his work was cited by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in their landmark decision to ban the cultivation of GM aubergine. Rupert is also chair of the UK-based post-growth think tank, Green House, and is a former Green Party of England & Wales councillor, spokesperson, European parliamentary candidate and national parliamentary candidate. He stood as the Green Party MP-candidate for Cambridge in 2015.

About the series Shed A Light is a series of talks that seek to present alternative framings of future human-nature interactions and the pragmatic solution pathways that we could take to get there. By recognising the interlinkages between struggles for ecological, social and economic justice in addition to the desperate need for immediate societal transformation, Shed A Light aims to engage everyone with the green agenda and prompt broad-based discussions on sustainability issues. Filmed at Churchill College, 7 November 2018.





Capricious foes, Big Sister & high-carbon plutocrats: irreverent musings from Katowice’s COP24

5 02 2019

… the time for action is not at COP25, but now and during the intervening months …

Kevin Anderson

Four weeks on and the allure of Christmas and New Year festivities fade into the grey light of a Manchester January – a fine backdrop for revisiting December’s COP24

1) An Orwellian tale: myths & hidden enemies 
A quick glance at COP24 suggests three steps forward and two steps back. But whilst to the naïve optimist this may sound like progress, in reality it’s yet another retrograde bound towards a climate abyss. As government negotiators play poker with the beauty of three billion years of evolution, climate change emissions march on. This year with a stride 2.7% longer than last year – which itself was 1.6% longer than the year before. Whilst the reality is that every COP marks another step backwards, the hype of these extravaganzas gives the impression that we’re forging a pathway towards a decarbonised future.

For me the fantasy-land of COP24 was epitomised at the UK’s ever-busy Green is Great stand. Here, the nation that kick-started the fossil-fuel era, regaled passers-by with a heart-warming tale of rapidly falling emissions and a growing green economy. This cheerful narrative chimed with those desperate to believe these annual junkets are forging a decarbonised promise-land. Despite my cynicism, I was nevertheless surprised just how pervasive the UK’s mirage had become.

Adjacent to Brexit Blighty’s pavilion was the WWF’s Panda Hub. Here I attended a session at which two British speakers offered advice to the New Zealand government on their forthcoming energy law. The mantra of the UK being at the vanguard of climate action was reiterated by a ‘great & good’ of the NGO world and by the Director of Policy at a prestigious climate change institute. A similar fable from a couple of Government stooges would not have been a surprise. But surely the NGO and academic communities should demonstrate greater integrity and a more discerning appraisal of government assertions?

If you ignore rising emissions from aviation and shipping along with those related to the UK’s imports and exports, a chirpy yarn can be told. But then why not omit cars, cement production and other so-called “hard to decarbonise” sectors? In reality, since 1990 carbon dioxide emissions associated with operating UK plc. have, in any meaningful sense, remained stubbornly static.[1] But let’s not just pick on the UK. The same can be said of many self-avowed climate-progressive nations, Denmark, France and Sweden amongst them. And then there’s evergreen Norway with emissions up 50% since 1990.

Sadly the subterfuge of these supposed progressives was conveniently hidden behind the new axis of climate-evil emerging in Katowice[2]: Trump’s USA; MBS’s Saudi; Putin’s Russia; and the Emir’s Kuwait – with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, quietly sniggering from the side-lines. But surely no one really expected more from this quintet of regressives. It’s the self-proclaimed paragons of virtue where the real intransigence (or absence of imagination) truly resides. When it comes to commitments made in Paris, the list of climate villains extends far and wide – with few if any world leaders escaping the net.

2) Let them eat cake: a legacy of failure & escalating inequity 
How is it that behind the glad-handing of policy makers and the mutterings of progress by many academics, NGOs and journalists, we continue to so fundamentally fail?

On mitigation, endless presentations infused with ‘negative emissions’, hints of geo-engineering and offsetting salved the conscience of Katowice’s high-carbon delegates. But when it came to addressing issues of international equity and climate change, no such soothing balm was available. I left my brief foray into the murky realm of equity with the uneasy conclusion that, just as we have wilfully deluded ourselves over mitigation, so we are doing when it comes to issues of fairness and funding.

COP after COP has seen the principal of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) weakened. Put simply, CBDR requires wealthier nations (i.e. greater financial capacity) with high-emissions per capita (i.e. greater relative historical responsibility for emissions) to “take the lead in combating climate change”. This was a central tenet of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and specifically committed such wealthy nations to peak their emissions before 2000. Virtually all failed to do so.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol established binding but weak emission targets for these nations, with the intention of tightening them in a subsequent ‘commitment period’. The all-important second ‘commitment period’ was never ratified – partly because a new ‘regime’ for international mitigation was anticipated.

In 2015, and to wide acclaim, the new regime emerged in the guise of the Paris Agreement. This saw the dismantling of any legally binding framework for wealthier high CO2/capita countries to demonstrate leadership. Instead nations submitted voluntary bottom-up mitigation plans based on what they determined was their appropriate national responsibility for holding to a global rise of between 1.5 and 2°C. True to form, world leaders dispensed with any pretence of integrity, choosing instead to continue playing poker with physics & nature. Even under the most optimistic interpretation of the collective nonsense offered, the aggregate of world leaders’ proposals aligned more with 3.5°C of warming than the 1.5 to 2°C that they had committed to.

So, has the shame of repeated failure on mitigation initiated greater international funding for those poorer nations vulnerable to climate impacts and in the early phases of establishing their energy systems?

In Copenhagen ‘developing’ nations agreed to produce mitigation plans, with the understanding that their “means of implementation” would attract financial support from the wealthier hi-emitters. Move on to Paris, and the wealthy nations flex their financial muscles and begin to backtrack. Rather than deliver a new and anticipated post-2020 finance package, they chose to extend what was supposed to be their $100billion per year ‘floor’ (i.e. starting value) out to 2025. To put that in perspective, $100billion equates to one twenty-eighth of the UK’s annual GDP – and even this paltry sum is proving difficult to collect from rich nations.

Surely COP24 couldn’t belittle poor nations further? Yet the Katowice text stoops to new lows. Funding initially intended to mobilise action on mitigation and adaptation is transposed into various financial instruments, with the very real prospect of economically burdening poorer countries with still more debt.

3) Big Sister & ‘badge-less’ delegates
Finally, I want to touch on something far outside my experience and probably one of the most damning aspects of the COPs that I’ve become aware of.

As a professor in the gentle world of academia, I can speak wherever I’m able to get a forum. I can explain my analysis in direct language that accurately reflects my judgements – free from any fear of being actively shut down. Certainly, there are academics (usually senior) who favour backstabbing over face to face engagement, but typically their comments are later relayed via their own (and more honest) Post-Doc & PhD colleagues. And if I find myself on a stage with climate Glitterati & accidently step on a few hi-emitting toes – the worse I face is an insincere smile and being crossed off their Christmas card list. But such bruising of egos and prestige is relatively harmless. Elsewhere however this is not the case – for both early career academics and civil society.

At COP24 I spoke at some length with both these groups. Not uncommonly early career researchers feared speaking out “as it would affect their chances of funding”. This specific example arose during a national side event on the miraculous low-carbon merits of coal and extractive industries. However, similar language is frequently used to describe how hierarchical structures in universities stifle open debate amongst researchers working on short-term contracts. Given senior academics have collectively and demonstrably failed to catalyse a meaningful mitigation agenda, fresh perspectives are sorely needed. Consequently, the new generation of academics and researchers should be encouraged to speak out, rather than be silenced and co-opted.

Turning to wider civil society, I hadn’t realised just how tightly constrained their activities were, or that they are required to operate within clear rules. At first this appears not too unreasonable – but probe a bit further and the friendly face of the UNFCCC morphs into an Orwellian dictator. Whilst country and industry representatives can extol the unrivalled virtues of their policies and commercial ventures, – civil society is forced to resort to platitudes and oblique references. Directly questioning a rich oil-based regime’s deceptions or even openly referring to Poland’s addiction to “dirty “coal is outlawed. By contrast eulogising on the wonders of clean coal is welcomed, as is praising a government’s mitigation proposals – even if they are more in line with 4°C than the Paris commitments.

All this is itself disturbing. Whilst the negotiators haggle over the colour of the Titanic’s deckchairs and how to minimise assistance for poorer nations, the UNFCCC’s overlord ensures a manicured flow of platitudes. The clever trick here is to facilitate the occasional and highly choreographed protest. To those outside the COP bubble, such events support the impression of a healthy balanced debate. National negotiators with their parochial interests and hydrocarbon firms with their slick PR, all being held to account by civil society organisations maintaining a bigger-picture & long-term perspective. But that is far from the truth.

For civil-society groups getting an “observer” status badge is an essential passport to the COPs. These are issued by the UNFCCC and can easily be revoked. Without ‘badges’, or worse still, by forcibly being “de-badged” (as it’s referred to), civil society delegates have very limited opportunity to hold nations and companies to account or to put counter positions to the press. Such tight policing has a real impact in both diluting protests and, perhaps more disturbingly, enabling nations and companies to go relatively unchallenged. The latter would be less of a concern, if the eminent heads of NGOs were standing up to be counted. But over the years the relationship between the heads of many NGOs and senior company and government representatives has become all too cosy. Witness the UK Government’s decoupling mantra forthcoming from the lips of one of the UK’s highest profile NGO figures.

So what level of ‘control’ is typically exerted at COPs? To avoid compromising badges for those wishing to attend future UNFCCC events, I can’t provide detail here, but the range is wide: highlighting the negative aspects of a country or company’s proposals or activities; displaying temporary (unauthorised) signs; asking too challenging questions in side events; circulating ‘negative’ photographs or images; and countering official accounts. In brief, criticising a specific country, company or individual is not allowed in material circulated within the conference venue. Previously, some civil-society delegates have had to delete tweets and issue a UNFCCC dictated apology – or lose their badges. This year, and following a climate-related protest in Belgium, those involved were subsequently stopped from entering Poland and the Katowice COP; so much for the EU’s freedom of speech and movement.

If the COP demonstrated significant headway towards delivering on the Paris agreement, perhaps there would be some argument for giving the process leeway to proceed unhindered by anything that may delay progress. But no amount of massaging by the policy-makers and the UNFCCC’s elite can counter the brutal and damning judgement of the numbers. Twenty-four COPs on, annual carbon dioxide emissions are over 60% higher now than in 1990, and set to rise further by almost 3% in 2018.

4) Conclusion
It’s a month now since I returned from the surreal world of COP24. I’ve had time to flush out any residual and unsubstantiated optimism and remind myself that climate change is still a peripheral issue within the policy realm. The UK is an interesting litmus of just how fragmented government thinking is. A huge effort went into the UK’s COP presence – yet back at home our Minister for Clean Growth celebrates the new Clair Ridge oil platform and its additional 50 thousand tonnes of CO2 per day (a quarter of a billion tonnes over its lifetime). Simultaneously, the government remains committed to a new shale gas revolution whilst plans are afoot for expanding Heathrow airport and the road network.

COP can be likened to an ocean gyre with the ‘axis of evil’, Machiavellian subterfuge and naïve optimism circulating with other climate flotsam and with nothing tangible escaping from it. Twenty-four COPs on, questions must surely be asked as to whether continuing with these high-carbon jamborees serves a worthwhile purpose or not? Thus far the incremental gains delivered by the yearly COPs are completely dwarfed by the annual build-up of atmospheric carbon emissions. In some respects the Paris Agreement hinted at a potential step change – but this moment of hope has quickly given way to Byzantine technocracy – the rulebook, stocktaking, financial scams, etc.; not yet a hint of mitigation or ethical conscience.

But is this jettisoning of COPs too simple? Perhaps international negotiations could run alongside strong bilateral agreements (e.g. China and the EU)? Stringent emission standards imposed on all imports and exports to these regions could potentially lead to a much more ambitious international agenda. The US provides an interesting and long-running model for this approach. For just over half a century, California has established increasingly tighter vehicle emission standards, each time quickly adopted at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearly internationalising such a model would have implications for WTO. But in 2018, and with global emissions still on the rise, perhaps now is the time for a profound political tipping point where meaningful mitigation takes precedent over political expediency?

Of course, the COPs are much more than simply a space for negotiations. They are where a significant swathe of the climate community comes together, with all the direct and tacit benefits physical engagement offers. But did Katowice, Fiji-Bonn, Marrakech or even Paris represent the pinnacle of high-quality and low carbon discussion and debate? Could we have done much better? Perhaps established regional COP hubs throughout the different continents of the world, all with seamless virtual links to each other and the central venue. Could journalists have listened, interviewed and written from their offices? Could civil society have engaged vociferously in their home nations whilst facilitating climate vulnerable communities in having their voices heard? Almost fifty years on from the first moon landing, are the challenges of delivering high-quality virtual engagement really beyond our ability to resolve?

If the COPs are to become part of the solution rather than continuing to contribute to the problem, then they need to undergo a fundamental transformation. Moreover the UNFCCC’s elite needs to escape their Big Sister approach and embrace rather than endeavour to close down a wider constituency of voices. Neither of these will occur without considerable and ongoing pressure from those external to, as well as within, the UNFCCC. The time for action is not at COP25, but now and during the intervening months.

Lowlights of COP24
i) Several climate glitterati & their entourages again jet in and parade around making vacuous noises. This would be a harmless aside if it were just a tasteless comedy act, but it is these carbon bloaters and their clamouring sycophants that set much of the agenda within which the rest of us work. Whilst they remain the conduit between the Davos mind-set and the research community, climate change will continue to be a failing techno-economic issue, ultimately bequeathed to future generations.
ii) The pathetic refusal of several nations to formally ‘welcome’ the IPCC’s 1.5°C report (and I say this as someone who has serious reservations about the mitigation analysis within the report).
iii) The blatant travel-agency nature of many of the national pavilions – with the periodic glasses of bubbly and exotic nibbles undermining the seriousness of the issues we were supposed to be there to address.
iv) The level of co-option, with academics and NGOs all too often singing from official Hymn sheets.
v) The absence of younger voices presenting and on panels.

Highlights of COP24
i) Amy Goodman and the excellent Democracy Now (DN) team providing a unique journalistic conduit between the COPs and the outside world. Certainly DN has a political leaning, but this is not hidden. Consequently, and regardless of political inclination, any discerning listener can engage with the rich and refreshingly diverse content of DN’s reporting. For a candid grasp of just where we are (or are not) in addressing climate change Amy’s full interviews give time to extend well beyond the polarising headlines preferred by many journalists and editors.
ii) Listening to John Schellnhuber call for “system change” and “a new narrative for modernity”. John is arguably the most prestigious climate scientist present at COPs and the science darling of ‘the great & the good’ (from Merkel to the Pope). Whilst many others in Professor Schellnhuber’s exalted position have long forgone their scientific integrity, John continues to voice his conclusions directly and without spin. I really can’t exaggerate just how refreshing this is. I may not agree with all he has to say, but I know that what he is saying is carefully considered and sincere. 
iii)
At the other end of the academic and age spectrum was the ever-present voice of Greta Thunberg soaring like a descant above the monotonic mutterings of the status-quo choir. We need many more voices from her generation prepared to boldly call out the abysmal and ongoing failure of my generation. Applying Occam’s razor to our delusional substitutes for action, this fifteen year old (now sixteen) revealed just how pathetic our efforts have been. In so doing Greta opened up space for a vociferous younger generation to force through a new and constructive dialogue.

[1] An actual fall of around 10% in 28 years (i.e. under 0.4% p.a.)
[2] The group of national leaders who refused to “welcome” the IPCC special report into 1.5°C (SR1.5).

For a review of the COP23 (Bonn-Fiji) see:Personal reflections on COP23
An edited version was published in the Conversation: Hope from Chaos: could political upheaval lead to a new green epoch

For a review of the Paris COP21 see: The hidden agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement
An edited version was published in Nature: Talks in the city of light generate more heat