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CapGlobalCarbon, Keep It In The Ground and the divestment campaign

Note: this article assumes that you are already up-to-speed on what CapGlobalCarbon is. See here to get a quick overview, or here for a short video explainer of Cap and Share, the main component of CGC.

In recent days there has been a surge of activity from climate campaigners around the world who are involved in the Keep it in the Ground campaign. They’ve targeted some of the dirtiest power plants and, with some success, the most prominent fossil fuel investors in Germany, Wales, Turkey, New Zealand, the USA, the Philippines and South Africa, among other countries. 

KIITG has been successful in raising awareness of the need for a rapid transition to a net zero carbon world, stigmatising the fossil fuel companies and encouraging divestment from them. However divestment only changes company ownership, it does not provide a direct method for keeping fossil fuels in the ground (see below).  CapGlobalCarbon could complement the KIITG campaign and nonviolent direct action in general by providing an effective and direct mechanism to scale down fossil fuel use.

Both KIITG and CGC work from the premise that at least 80% of fossil fuel needs to stay in the ground.Indeed, if the Paris agreement is to be honoured, more than 80% will need to stay put. CGC simply provides a predictable framework for this phase-out. 

One reason that CGC is necessary is that as things stand, even if KIITG manages to close down a dirty power plant in one place, there’s nothing to stop an equally dirty one from being constructed elsewhere. (This problem is also discussed in article on the Citylab blog. However, the author’s suggested remedy – a carbon price – would not be sufficient to ensure that emissions will actually be eliminated. My colleague Erik-Jan Van Oosten comments that “the problem with a carbon price is that it indirectly, and thus unreliably, tries to control the amount of fossil carbon entering the economy. In short, the problem with a price is that it can be paid, regardless of its consequences.”)

Another reason relates to fairness. We need to ensure that the remaining 20% of fossil fuels are used in a way that benefits everyone, not just a small elite. This is taken into account by CGC, which concerns itself with how best to share out the revenue from the fuel’s production. It fits in very well with Keep it in the Ground’s recognition that many people in the Global South are already facing major losses from climate change, and with its concern for justice.

CapGlobalCarbon would also encourage increased investment in renewable energy and would help to generate funds for those investments. Without the safety net that CGC would provide, there’s a risk that the shutting down of fossil fuel plants would trigger an economic depression, causing widespread suffering, since the relationship between GDP and fossil fuel use continues to be very tight.

So CGC would act as a vital support to Keep it in the Ground, ensuring that its campaigns don’t fall victim to the undermining power of corporate lobbyists and that its action has long-term effects.

CapGlobalCarbon and the divestment movement

While we certainly agree with the values of the divestment movement, we believe it can only have a limited impact on fossil fuel use by itself. As my colleague David Knight puts it, “divestment must be seen as part of a package of changes needed to tackle the negative impacts of fossil fuel production and use, not as a substitute for concerted and rigorous action at international and national governmental levels to keep fossil fuels in the ground.” 

There are two main reasons for this. One is that around 70% of fossil fuel is actually owned by states . There are no shares to divest from in those cases. So even if the divestment movement managed to close that 30% of fossil fuel plants that are privately owned, a great deal of fossil fuel production would continue to take place.

Some might argue that the closing down of the 30% would give renewables enough of a boost to make further investment by states in fossil fuels redundant, but this can’t be counted on. It would only take one or two ‘rogue states’ who ignored the market signal and continued blithely producing and consuming fossil fuels to throw everything out of whack. 

The other limitation is that shares in fossil fuel companies are really just symbols of how investors think the company is doing. After an initial flotation of shares, there’s no direct connection between the shares and the company at all. In other words, even if all the private fossil fuel companies saw their share values crash, they could remain operational and even rake in profits. 

Divestment is helpful for sending a signal to markets that things need to change and building popular pressure for substantive action by governments on climate. But more is needed. CGC would strongly amplify the signal sent by the divestment movement, ensuring that governments and private investors get the message loudly and clearly that fossil fuel production will definitely end by 2050 at the latest.

[Minor edit at 12:38, May 20: added attribution for the quote from Erik.]

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2 °C warming threshold is closer than we think

The latest scientific findings underline the need for much quicker and more profound action on climate change than is currently being proposed by governments.

Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, has shown that the carbon emissions budget for avoiding 2 °C warming is due to be used up by 2034 if annual global emissions continue at the 2013 level. Climate scientists recognise that the global temperature depends directly on the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that humanity would have a 66% chance of avoiding 2 °C warming if it kept within a budget of 1000 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2 starting from 2011. Anderson applied simple arithmetic to this budget First, he subtracted 140 Gt that have already been emitted from burning fossil fuels between 2011 and 2014. Next he subtracted conservative estimates of the emissions from deforestation (60 Gt) and cement production (150 Gt) up to 2100. This left a budget of 650 Gt for energy production. In 2013 global emissions from energy production were 34.2 Gt. This leads to the conclusion that if emissions continue at the 2013 level the 2°C warming threshold would be exceeded within 650/34.2 = 19 years’ time or around 2034 . Anderson’s paper concludes “… the carbon budgets associated with a 2 °C threshold demand profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy” (our italics).

Thanks to Prof Bob Whitmarsh for providing this summary.

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What If Janet Yellen Joined Todd Stern in Paris?

On December 11, the UN Climate Change conference in Paris (called COP-21) will be wrapping up, and the headlines will announce if the negotiators were able to agree to save the Earth or not. Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, will be leading the U.S. delegation at COP-21. At the photo op at the end of the conference, Secretary of State John Kerry will surely be in the front row. If there is a problem and the conference looks like it might fail, President Obama may fly in at the last minute as he did in 2009 in Copenhagen to try to save the talks. But who else will be part of the delegation, and are they the right people?

COP-21 is not just another regular meeting of diplomats, and climate change is not just another environmental issue. For a real outcome to occur, the delegates need to be talking about a major change to the global economy: a limit on fossil fuel input. It is highly doubtful that a few dozen mid-level staff from the EPA and State Department will be able to talk in terms of “leaving fossil fuels in the ground,” or implementing a global cap on carbon emissions, and returning carbon pricing revenues back to people. Even if they were empowered by Secretary Kerry to do so, would anyone take them seriously, given the current state of Congress? No. The only way to get that type of conversation taken seriously is to add a few key people to Todd Stern’s entourage, starting with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and President Obama’s Economic Advisers.

Chair Yellen would be a revolutionary addition to the U.S. climate delegation, and would send an immediate message that the U.S. understands the economic implications of serious climate action. Central bankers don’t typically attend environmental conferences. But that’s the point: behind all the green hype, COP-21 is really an economic conference. Yellen’s attendance would highlight the need for the creation of powerful fiscal and monetary instruments to protect the economy and create economic incentives for a low-carbon transition in the new fossil fuel-limited world. Stock markets would immediately begin incorporating fossil fuel limitations into their valuations, and perhaps deflate the “carbon bubble” before it bursts.

Accompanying Yellen could be two of President Obama’s economic team, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Jason Furman, the Chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, to provide additional gravitas from the Executive Branch in economic discussions about a global carbon price that would otherwise be lacking. At the conference Chair Yellen, Secretary Lew, and Chairman Furman could announce new programs run by the Fed and the Treasury for “quantitative easing to the people” along with a plan for “climate dividends” that return revenues from a carbon price back to households. Fed critics would go nuts since Yellen has a nearly unlimited checkbook outside the purview of the climate deniers in Congress. Chair Yellen does not need to wait for an invitation from Todd Stern or the President. She could always buy herself a plane ticket to Paris and would likely garner some press attention for any such announcements she wanted to make there.

President Obama’s best chance to build a lasting legacy will be in Paris. COP-21 provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lame-duck President facing a hostile Congress to show courage and leadership on an issue that has implications for decades and even centuries. The consensus document from the UNFCCC will likely contain some nice flowery language, but it will not come close to what the science requires. But there is still time to salvage the process, by bringing a few key people into the U.S. delegation, and supporting a global cap on emissions with revenues returned back to people.

Cross-posted in the Huffington Post.

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What is Cap Global Carbon?

Cap Global Carbon is an initiative from outside government to make sure that global emissions from fossil fuels are steadily reduced year by year until we achieve a zero-carbon economy. It provides a safeguard.

It also provides an opportunity: CapGlobalCarbon will contribute significantly to the reduction of global poverty and inequality, help to secure indigenous land rights and protect the global commons.

This is a chance for Humanity to realise our potential to work together as a global force for the good of all life on Earth.

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