Changing the ‘Targets and Timetables’ Climate Change Narrative

Earlier this week I was in Leipzig, Germany, to meet the Ecological Modelling research group at the Helmholz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and one of my PhD supervisors, Dr. George Perry. While there I was lucky to meet and talk with some renowned ecological modellers: Thorsten Wiegand, who’s work includes spatial point process modelling (although some of his discussion with George about that was a bit technical for me!); Volker Grimm, proponent the ‘Pattern-Oriented Modelling’ approach (look out for a new review of this in Phil Trans. of the Royal Society in the near future), and Andreas Huth, notable forest dynamics modeller.

At UFZ I gave a presentation I entitled “Future Forests: Managing and Creating Forests for Biodiversity, Recreation, Timber and Carbon” in which I talked about some of the work I did in Michigan and the new project I’m working on now in the UK. The talk seemed to go down well and the research group had some very good questions, both about technical aspects of the modelling and the issues it is applied to (i.e. forest ecosystem management and woodland creation, including the Woodland Carbon Code). Thanks to Juergen Groeneveld for organising this (and his hospitality at UFZ).

Much of the data I presented regarding the Michigan work was collected by Megan Matonis. Her analyses of that data, on which I helped and supervised, are now available to read in a paper that is currently in press with Forest Ecology and Management (email me if you can’t access the online version).

Another interesting activity at UFZ was hearing Roger Pielke Jr. talk about the need to ‘change the climate change narrative’. In his talk he suggested that understanding all carbon policy can be boiled down to a single sentence;

‘people engage in economic activity that uses energy from carbon emitting generation’.

He emphasised that he thinks the “Targets and Timetables” approach to reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions is flawed. As an example, he used the case of the UK and the Climate Change Act of 2008 which set the aim of an 80% cut in the country’s carbon emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, with an intermediate target of 34% by 2020. However, Pielke argues that given the ‘iron’ law of climate policy (that we cannot mitigate emissions by reducing GDP, both because people will pay only so much to mitigation now, and because increasing GDP is seen as a virtue by way of its effects on povety reduction) we cannot hit these types of targets.

Previous decarbonisation of the UK economy has been achieved by replacing the contribution to GDP from high-emitting manufacturing with low-emitting financial services. He wonders how long can this go and presented his estimate that for the UK to actually hit its 2020 target it will have to build more than 40 nuclear power stations in the next 10 years. In this context, he suggested that the building of a third runway at Heathrow was an insignificant concern (in terms of the new emissions it would generate) when there are still 1.5 billion people globally who do not have access to electricity. His argument is that we do not know how to achieve the targets and the timetables we have set ourselves.

Pielke argues that we must change the climate change narrative from

“We need to use less energy and fossil fuels are cheap


“We need more energy and fossil fuels are too expensive“.

This would allow these 1.5 billion people to access the electricity they aspire to whilst driving the growth of alternative, cleaner, sources of energy. I like this argument – and his one about making small steps towards these change to reach bigger changes – but it seems to run counter to his point about the insignificance of another runway at Heathrow (which by increasing capacity for flights would continue the narrative of cheap fossil-fuelled energy). Opening a third runway but only allowing non-fossil-fuelled aeroplanes to use it is ultimately most consistent with the change in narrative he argues for.

And of course, while at UFZ, George Perry and I took the opportunity to discuss past, current and ongoing work over beers and dinner. Mainly we discussed the idea surrounding the narrative properties of generative simulation models and on which I plan to submit a manuscript to a journal for publication soon. But we also thought about other areas of research including land use modelling (continuing our work in Spain) and landscape disturbance-succession modeling (including the use of the LFSM I’ve developed with paleo-estimates of wildfire regimes).

All-in-all a very interesting and productive trip!

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