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Wadham Chapel, Wadham College, Oxford Credit: Dylan Garcia / Alamy Stock Photo
Wadham Chapel, Wadham College, Oxford Credit: Dylan Garcia / Alamy Stock Photo
12 September 2019 17:30

Highlights: The net-zero climate change conference in Oxford

Multiple Authors

EmissionsHighlights: The net-zero climate change conference in Oxford

This week, the city of Oxford played host to an international conference on “achieving net-zero”. The event follows hot on the heels of the UK becoming the first major economy to set a net-zero climate target.

The conference was organised by the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, which hosted a conference on the 1.5C warming limit in 2016.

Spread across three days, the conference attracted a varied mix of around 160 science and policy researchers, energy experts and industry representatives.

It was modelled loosely on the Talanoa Dialogue structure adopted at UN climate talks, addressing the questions “where are we?”, “where do we want to get to?” and “how do we get there?”.

Carbon Brief was at the conference to hear all the talks and ask a range of participants on camera (see below) about their priorities for achieving net-zero.



Day one: Where are we?

The conference opened with a plenary that did not shy away from the big questions being discussed across the three days, featuring both in-depth analysis of the current situation and passionate calls to action.

It began with a wide-ranging opening speech by veteran energy researcher Dr Amory Lovins, who is chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He looked back at the path taken by the US energy system over the past few decades and emphasised the importance of improvements in energy efficiency.

He said that today many opportunities are so simple they are being overlooked, including changes to infrastructure design that do not tend to be included in government studies or industry forecasts.

As an example, he said better designed pipes and ducts with reduced friction in industry and buildings could save half the world’s coal-fired electricity if fully deployed. “No magic is required,” he added.

Lovins also noted that as heavy vehicles and aircraft improve in efficiency, fossil fuel reserves are becoming “more at risk from market competition that climate regulation”. “Oil is becoming uncompetitive even at low prices,” he said.

Bringing his talk to a close, Lovins said he thought, when considering Paris targets, studies and current trends suggest both “despair and complacency are equally unwarranted”. He explained that most Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) do not “credibly analyse” energy efficiency, “which is the biggest contributor to climate protection”.

One exception, he said, was a pathway which was included in the IPCC 1.5C report and saves $1-3tn per year in supply-side investment, while requiring no carbon removal technologies. He said he hopes this will make people appreciate that energy efficiency is both “available and worthwhile”.

After this positive start, conference organiser and University of Oxford climate scientist Prof Myles Allen promised to “depress” the audience before handing over to Dr Rupert Read, associate professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia and a spokesperson for activist group Extinction Rebellion, to “make us all angry”.

Though many British politicians had been approached to speak, Allen said the best they could do for the opening session was to read from a letter written by former prime minister Theresa May announcing the government’s plan for “ending our contribution to global warming” by 2050.

In the ensuing discussion, Allen considered what it means to “end” the nation’s contribution to warming.

He explained that with human-induced warming already at 1.1C and rising at 0.2-0.25C per decade, the planet is 10 to 15 years away from 1.5C and there is 30 to 40 years to get the warming rate to zero.

“Every decade’s delay at the rate we are going, followed by the same rate of reduction thereafter, adds another quarter of a degree,” he said. “It’s that simple,” Allen added. He concluded:

“At what point is that an emergency?… If we don’t start thinking of this in these terms, we are just going to keep on adding more and more quarters of a degree.”

This led neatly into the final talk by Read, who laid out Extinction Rebellion’s three “demands” – including its controversial 2025 net-zero target, which he said is necessary due to the precautionary principle:

“2050 is death. Death to the coral of course, almost certainly death to the rainforest and thus in due course almost certainly to most of us – or at least our children – and 2050 will be used as an excuse for prevarication and for geoengineering.”

He said the 2025 target is “physically possible”, but asked if it is politically possible. He added that Extinction Rebellion exists to address this challenge and is our “best shot” at meeting it.

Read concluded his piece by calling on the academics present to go beyond their research and not remain neutral, while noting they did not need to get themselves arrested.

Though the audience applauded Read’s impassioned speech, there was some pushback concerning his suggestion that the climate scientists present were not doing enough.

There was further applause for Prof Jo House of the University of Bristol, who said she has found herself defending climate science against activists who have accused researchers of being too conservative in their predictions.


Day one: Parallel sessions

The conference then split off for its first set of parallel sessions. The first of the two sets of talks tackled the topic of “what do we mean by net-zero?”.

Dr Richard Millar, senior analyst for climate science at the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC), opened by noting that the ambiguous wording of the Paris Agreement’s commitment to “achieving a balance of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs)” means formulating policy for “a clear and actionable long-term target” requires making several decisions.

One of these decisions is which emissions should be included, Millar said. In its recommendations on net-zero to the UK government, the CCC decided that emissions from international aviation and shipping should be included in the target. This “can significantly increase the requirement for active CO2 removal to achieve net-zero”, he noted.

In addition, because of residual emissions of methane and nitrous oxide – which are hard to eliminate entirely – reaching net-zero will need net-negative CO2 emissions to compensate, Millar said.

Millar concluded by pointed out that when considering what the right net-zero date is for the UK, “it is important to recognise that we’re not doing this in a vacuum”. “There is an international context to this,” he said, and for the UK to be credible leader, it needs to be aligning with the target dates of other nations, “or going beyond” them.

Millar’s talk was followed by Heleen van Soest, an international climate policy researcher with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, who spoke on her research – yet to be published – on when major economies are projected to reach CO2 and GHG “neutrality”.

Next up was Prof Duncan McLaren, a professor in practice and research fellow at Lancaster University, who presented on the potential “perverse effects” of how pursuing negative emissions techniques could put mitigation efforts at risk.

Negative emissions, also known as CO2 or GHG removal, is a range of methods – some of which have not been tested at scale – to remove gases from the atmosphere and store them on land, underground or in the oceans.

McLaren was at pains to emphasise that he is not arguing against using carbon removal, but explained that as these techniques were “almost certainly needed” alongside mitigation to achieve net-zero, scientists should try to “maximise the chance that they can be deployed effectively”.

There are three main forms of “mitigation deterrent” from negative emissions, said McLaren, which could potentially “prevent, defer or delay mitigation”. For example, CO2 could leak from where it has been stored, or perhaps it is “diverted to carbon utilisation rather than into storage”. If captured CO2 is put into enhanced oil recovery, there would be more oil being burned, creating emissions that were “previously unexpected”, noted McLaren.

“Having separate targets for accounting for emissions reductions and negative emissions would help,” he concluded.

Finally in this session, Dr Carl-Friedrich Schleussner – a research group leader at Humboldt University and head of climate science and impacts at Climate Analytics – presented on the risks of using new methods for comparing the warming impact of different GHGs.

The various GHGs are typically compared directly with CO2 using their “global warming potential” – usually over 100 years and known as “GWP100” for short. However, a new approach – called “GWP*” – has gained traction recently as a better way to account for the differences between short- and long-lived gases in the atmosphere. (Read the Carbon Brief guest post by Dr Michelle Cain for more details.)

But although GWP* might be superior “scientifically”, said Schleussner, using it for climate policy requires “understanding the implications” as it risks “changing the goalposts”. For example, the Paris Agreement was based on GWP100, not GWP*, he noted. In addition, for national targets, GWP* can be used to argue for keeping methane emissions at existing levels rather than reducing them. This “raises fundamental concerns about equity and fairness” because it favours countries that have high emissions already.

Schleussner’s talk prompted a number of questions from the audience – including from those involved in developing GWP* and applying it for climate policy in New Zealand.

Three speakers spoke on a diverse array of topics during the second parallel sessions stream, which looked broadly at “how much can we reduce emissions using currently available approaches”.

First up was Zakia Soomauroo, a Mauritian researcher who is undertaking a PhD at the Technical University of Berlin. She is exploring the capacity of small island states such as the one she originates from to become frontrunners in reaching net-zero.

Nations such as Fiji and Barbados, which Soomauroo studied, are some of the most exposed to climate change, while contributing tiny proportions of global emissions. She found that the geography and small scale of these nations often makes them ideal locations for public transportation rollouts and electrification of cars (something already happening in Barbados).

Next was political scientist Dr Kate Dooley from the University of Melbourne, discussing her modelling of the potential global contribution of ecosystem restoration and sustainable forest use to the 1.5C target.

The discussion following this round of presentations included the complex issues of indigenous land rights and reducing demand for global agricultural products.

The final talk was given by Dr Ella Adlen, who was presenting results from an upcoming review paper examining the “promises and challenges of CO2 utilisation”.

“CO2 utilisation clearly spans disciplines and also splits opinions,” she said, explaining this was reflected in the breadth of positions help by the team behind the work.

Adlen emphasised that converting CO2 into useful products such as building materials and fuels could help progress towards net-zero, but equally might have no impact, or could even increase emissions.


Day one: Closing plenary

The first day of the conference closed with a plenary session on “achieving net-zero on a flourishing planet”. Dr Jo House, reader in environmental science and policy at the University of Bristol, opened with a recap of the recent special report on land from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Reviewing the current – and potential – contribution from the land sector to mitigation, House noted that it accounts for a quarter of mitigation efforts up to 2030 pledged under the Paris Agreement. (For more details, see the guest post that House wrote for Carbon Brief in 2017.)

Next up was Prof Pete Smith, chair in plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen. Smith presented on “ecosystem services” associated with land-based mitigation – though the “fashionable language” is to call these services “nature’s contribution to people”, he noted.

Smith whisked through some of the positive and negative impacts on ecosystem services of different forms of land-based mitigation. On the whole, there are largely co-benefits, said Smith, citing the restoration of soils so they store more carbon as an example of a “no-brainer” climate solution.

And in some cases, these co-benefits mean that even if mitigation options do not provide all the climate benefits they promise, many of them “are worth implementing anyway”, he added, likening the benefits to “making the world better by accident”.

The next talk picked up on a similar theme, focusing on “nature-based solutions” – also known as “natural climate solutions”. Well-designed solutions can incorporate diverse native species, said Prof Nathalie Seddon – professor of biodiversity at the University of Oxford – as well as avoiding damage to ecosystems, respecting land rights and embracing local stewardship.

And finally on day one, Dr Shilpi Srivastava – a research fellow in resource politics at the Institute of Development Studies – presented on making net-zero “transformative”. This means not just seeing a transition to new, clean technologies, but a wider transformation of the society towards equity and sustainability, she explained.


Video interviews

During the conference, Carbon Brief asked a range of participants to give a key priority for achieving net-zero. In the video below, Carbon Brief talks to:



Day two: Where do we want to get to?

The second day of the conference opened with a plenary session that explored the potential and outcomes of applying “radical approaches for reducing emissions”, encompassing everything from social to technical transformations.

Barbara Hammond, chief executive of Oxford’s Low Carbon Hub, began proceedings by telling the audience there was a need for “whole-system” innovation across society and the economy, supported by “coalitions of the willing”.

It’s not about “the kit”, she said, as drastic transformation could be achieved with the materials and technologies already available. Instead, she said “it’s all about the people”.

Under the current system, Hammond said companies are rewarded both for being big and for making large profits. This is particularly “stark” in the energy sector, meaning people tend to be isolated from the services they use, she explained.

She gave Osney Lock, the first community-owned hydro scheme to be built on the Thames, as an example of an alternative strategy that had been developed locally. She explained the process of working with local people to drum up support and raise funds for this relatively small renewable facility.

She concluded that while Oxford was a particularly welcoming environment, the model her team had used should work elsewhere as well.

Next up was Dr Gunnar Luderer from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who said the role of electrification in the future is underestimated. “Electricity is set to become a cheaper energy carrier than combustible fuels,” he noted.

His team’s analysis has found that under 1.5C-consistent pathways, renewable power will be cheaper than energy from oil and gas from 2030, and they set out to find to what extent this would result in “deep electrification”.

They looked at the extent to which different sectors are electrified so far and found “deep” potential everywhere, including industrial heating, which accounts for around 30% of total final energy consumption. Under effective climate policies, they suggested electrification could increase from around 20% to 70% of final energy use by 2050.

However, Luderer concluded that for this to work out, once again there was a need to consider both the people at the heart of this transformation and interactions between systems, for example ensuring that electricity comes from sources like wind and solar.

Luderer was followed by Prof Nick Eyre, director of the UK Centre for Research on Energy Demand, who began by outlining the key characteristics of a “zero carbon energy transition”. Namely, these are high levels of variable renewables, a major increase in electrification and a reduction in primary energy demand.

Eyre laid out a hypothetical post-transition scenario for the UK, involving 100% of energy from wind and solar – although he emphasised he was not saying this was plausible – with liquid fuels coming from hydrogen via electrolysis and with efficiency gains arising largely from electrification.

To approach this kind of world, he said there would be three key areas requiring innovation.

Firstly, Eyre said a system based on variable renewables must be balanced, using storage technologies such as batteries. Second, attention must focus on difficult sectors such as aviation and shipping. Eyre suggested hydrogen fuels would be key.

Finally, he said the pace of these changes would exceed that of historic socio-technical shifts and would therefore require large changes for people as well:

“While we can change the technology very quickly, 30 years is less than half a human lifetime, so we are talking about retrofitting humans…We are going to need to retrofit our brains.”

When asked why nuclear and carbon capture and storage did not feature in his scenario, he said the answer was “basically cost”. He asked:

“Why would you want to do something difficult and expensive, when you can do something cheap and easy?”

The final talk of the opening session was given by Dr Fredric Bauer of Lund University, who discussed innovations in European industry that can contribute to net-zero pathways.

Specifically, his work has focused on “hard-to-cut” industries where emissions have traditionally proved difficult to reduce, including plastics, steel, pulp and paper, and meat and dairy.


Day two: Another plenary

The late-morning plenary looked specifically at “innovation to recapture the already emitted”. The first speaker was David Hone, chief climate change adviser in the Shell scenarios team, who unpacked the company’s “Sky” scenario – a pathway to keeping global warming to “well below” 2C. (Carbon Brief has previously published a deep dive into what Shell calls its “radical” climate change scenario. This shows that although Sky is consistent with other well-below 2C pathways in the academic literature, almost all of these alternative futures share a heavy reliance on negative emissions.)

“The Sky scenario meets the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Hone. And in addition to the technological change in the energy system that it is based on, “if you combine it with large-scale reforestation, you can actually bring the curve just that little bit further to meet the 1.5C goal”, noted Hone.

Next up was Dr Phil Renforth, associate professor in the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University, presenting on the potential of “enhanced weathering, ocean alkalinity and all things carbon mineralisation”.

Renforth focused his talk on enhanced weathering, which involves speeding up the natural CO2-absorbing rock weathering process by crushing and spreading rocks on land.

As Renforth mentioned in his talk at the negative emissions conference in Gothenburg last year, there are some “myths or assumptions” around the “cost, scale and speed” of enhanced weathering. While these are important issues, “there’s a lot more nuance here”, he told the audience in Oxford.

The key energy cost for this technique is grinding up the rocks, explained Renforth. It is potentially more energy intensive that CCS, but of a similar scale as Direct Air Capture, he noted, adding that “there is scope to reduce costs by improving the efficiency of the grinding technology”.

Next up was Dr Andrew Cavanagh, a geologist at the University of Edinburgh, who highlighted the “extraordinary disconnect between readiness of CO2 storage in Europe and the world – and the expectations embedded in net-zero”.

Cavanagh presented some stark numbers on the huge amount of CO2 storage that he said

that was needed and the dearth of suitable locations that have been identified and confirmed. (See video above where Cavanagh explains some of these numbers.)

And the amount of storage needed would increase rapidly if carbon capture becomes more widespread, noted Cavanagh:

“There are orders of magnitude increases in the rate of storage every decade out from now to 2050. That’s very…challenging.”

The last presentation of the session came from Prof Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru chair of low carbon energy and environment at Swansea University, who claimed his talk would “probably be the most controversial of the conference”.

His talk looked at whether shale gas and oil extraction could make carbon storage commercially viable. The rock formations that hold shale are “perfect” for storing CO2, said Barron. It can hold three molecules of CO2 for every molecule of natural gas it replaces, he explained, and it has managed to hold gas for millions of years without leakage.

He described a newly developed method of “waterless fracking”. (“Water is absolutely the worst thing the industry could ever use,” explained Barron, because it damages the clay-based reservoir being fracked.) This method follows a “huff and puff” approach, he said, which involves extracting methane, injecting CO2, getting out more methane, injecting more CO2 and so on, until the reservoir is full of CO2.

There is a field trial in its early stages in Pennsylvania and Barron is planning another in the UK.

If the UK extracted all its gas needs through this method – rather than relying on imports – and then buried CO2 at the same time, the country could be sequestering 100% of its annual CO2 emissions within two years, Barron told Carbon Brief afterwards. Barron emphasised that such an idea could be a means to buy time for large-scale decarbonisation, rather than being an end in itself.


Day two: Parallel sessions

Day two saw the second set of parallel sessions. In the first session, the conversation focused on the international governance and regulatory frameworks that will be required for a net-zero world.

With the Katowice “rulebook” largely agreed in December last year (though with some outstanding issues), the Paris Agreement is now ready to be implemented when it enters force at the start of 2020.

However, talks in this session noted that the existing regime is not perfect and addressed the potential for the current system to foster significant change, as well as shortcomings and what might need to be improved.

The chair, Prof Lavanya Rajamani from the University of Oxford, said the speakers would focus on the “creative gap-filling” that would be required in the coming years.

Proceedings began with Andrew Higham, who was closely involved with the Paris Agreement negotiations and is co-founder of Mission 2020, an initiative which seeks to give a sense of urgency to climate action.

He used his talk to highlight three areas in which the Paris regime is “not really adequate”. Firstly he highlighted the “ever present urgency” of meeting global climate goals and the need to ratchet up ambition in the coming years.

Next there was the “loose arrangement” around pushing for net-zero targets, which are not explicitly required under Paris, and finally its lack of focus on the long-term future:

“Really the Paris Agreement does not look beyond 2050, it is silent on the long term. If you think about the fact we have atmospheric [CO2] concentrations of 415ppm, the fact that in geological history that is not a very human-friendly environment to be living in, we need to be thinking of a millennial timescale.”

Next to speak was analyst Claire Fyson, from non-profit science and policy institute Climate Analytics. She was joined in the presentation by MJ Mace, a lawyer based at University College London who has been involved with climate negotiations for several years.

Together they explored the need for CO2 removal in the coming decades, which they argued is effectively enshrined in Article 4 of the Paris Agreement. (This sets a goal of achieving “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century”.) They considered whether the international community was prepared to implement such action on an “unprecedented scale”.

“It’s quite scary the multiple gaps that we have,” said Mace, citing political constraints on overcoming these gaps and noting previous shortcomings:

“I’m going to start ranting now…we haven’t even been able to agree on common timeframes for NDCs [nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement]…we have not been able to agree common accounting approaches in some fundamental areas.”

Fyson then considered what scientists could do to help overcome these issues, despite the significant political challenges ahead.

They were followed by Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, who continued on the theme of governance challenges around carbon removal.

“We are in deep, deep trouble and while on the one hand we hear lots of scientists saying there are all these fantastic opportunities…on the other side we have exactly the opposite.”

He said the number one challenge was simply to get leaders accepting that emissions reduction is not enough and large-scale CO2 removal is necessary.

He also cited the lack of joined-up thinking on this topic, with agriculture, wetlands and the ocean all being considered by separate international entities. He said there was a need to “bring these issues together”.

The final speaker was Cleo Verkuijl from the Stockholm Environment Institute, who considered how international governance could be used to curtail fossil fuel production. (See Carbon Brief’s 2016 explainer on this concept for more.)

While one method to address supply is limiting demand – through the growth of renewables and energy efficiency, for example – she said progress so far had not been sufficient. Instead, Verkuijl told the audience “we should be addressing both supply and demand”.

Her suggestion was the adoption of “supply side” policies that limit fossil fuel exploration, extraction or transportation in a bid to “get us where we need to be”.

Over in the second parallel session, the focus was “Achieving net-zero in cities, regions, and the private sector”. The first speaker was Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council’s “cabinet member for a zero carbon Oxford”.

Hayes pointed out that the city council had declared a climate emergency and had established a citizens assembly to help advise on measures to address it.

In terms of local measures, Hayes offered the example of the roof-mounted solar park – “one of the biggest in the country” – at the local BMW plant that manufactures the Mini. This generates enough electricity to power 850 homes, said Hayes.

Next up was Galina Alova, a PhD candidate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. She presented her ongoing research into transition patterns among electricity-generating companies around the world. Her initial findings suggest a transition towards renewables and away from coal is underway, but it is “often accompanied by growth in gas”. Overall, there is “little evidence for fossil fuel reduction”, she said.

The third speaker was Dr Margot Pellegrino, assistant professor in spatial planning and urbanism at the Université Paris Est Marne la Vallée.

Pellegrino presented on boosting the energy performance of existing residential buildings. Such projects can often miss objectives by not renovating as many buildings as hoped and the performance of the upgraded building being lower than expected, she said. Pellegrino described three experimental projects in northern France that are applying the Dutch “Energiesprong” concept of energy efficient housing.

Closing this session was Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director on climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), who presented on engaging fossil fuel companies on net-zero.


Day two: Closing plenary

The final session in the main conference on day two was dedicated to “equity, ethics and inter-generational justice” of achieving net-zero.

It began with a late addition to the programme – an update on the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Tarran Simms – executive director of environmental NGO Andros Conservancy & Trust in the Bahamas – gave a short talk on the destruction caused by the slow-moving storm, emphasising that “small island states contribute the least amount to the overall GHG emissions, but we are ground zero of the entire climate crisis”.

This short talk received the largest ovation of the whole conference.

In his opening remarks, session chair Dr Matthew Ives – senior research officer in complex systems economic modelling at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – spoke of the birth of his first child and the sharpened focus it had given him of the challenge at hand.

“I want the best for his future,” Ives said in his emotional introduction, “and I certainly don’t want him to have to clean up the crap from our work, or lack thereof, for the rest of his life”.

“Achieving net-zero will get us a heck of a lot towards giving us equity, and social and intergenerational justice,” he added.

(Recent analysis by Carbon Brief shows that, for a world where warming is limited to 1.5C, the average person born today can emit only an eighth of the lifetime emissions of someone born in 1950.)

The first formal talk of the session was from Prof Henry Shue, senior research fellow at Oxford’s Centre for International Studies, giving a philosopher’s perspective on net-zero.

“All decisions about the degree of ambition for emissions mitigation in the present are unavoidably also decisions about how to distribute risks and burdens across generations,” he noted. “The less risk we bear, the more they bear.”

If we can’t achieve action on climate now, “there’s good reason to believe it will become relatively more difficult precisely when the physical climatic threats themselves become worse”, Shue warned. “Action by us now can make future lives vastly better than they otherwise would be, and this gift is ours to give.”

Offering a view from South Africa, Celeste Renaud – a postgraduate student at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute – discussed how the country is attempting to achieve a “just transition” to low carbon sources.

“We have an incredibly carbon-intensive economy, Renaud explained, “largely due to our reliance on coal for primary energy supply and most of our electricity generation”. (More details can be found in Carbon Brief’s country profile of South Africa.)

“A quarter of South Africa’s population lives in extreme poverty,” said Renaud, which means an energy transition needs to meet the challenges of inequality and unemployment in order to “gain political buy-in”.

This transition is already underway, noted Renaud, “but it must choose the inclusive path, which does exist – if we can imagine it”.

The third speaker was Prof Dave Frame, director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, returning to the topic of the metrics used to compare the warming impact of different GHGs.

“Historical responsibility and polluter pays argument ought to take proper account of the temporal aspects of pollution,” argued Frame. In practice, he said this means not treating short-lived GHGs such as methane as equivalent to long-lived gases such as CO2, because they don’t accumulate in the atmosphere over very long time periods.

If you apply GWP100 in a net-zero emissions target, “that implies you have to go all the way to zero” for agricultural emissions too, argued Frame – this would be “a cooling [impact] from that sector”. This is because methane has around a 10-year lifespan in the atmosphere, so cutting methane emissions reduces how much is entering the atmosphere while previously emitted methane is constantly being broken down in the atmosphere at the same time.

So the sectors that produce a lot of methane “want to have a conversation about sectorial fairness”, explained Frame:

“We see that in Ireland, we see that in New Zealand, and other places [where methane emissions make up a large proportion of the total]. And we will see it more and more as time goes by and other countries also go on the mitigation journey.”

“The point here is not that there’s a specific right answer,” noted Frame, but “this is something that your way of thinking about climate policy should take account of”. He added: “This will matter more for poor countries, where methane is a bigger deal, fractionally speaking”.

Concluding this session was Dr Oliver Geden, head of the EU Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, who presented on the “distributional challenges” of designing policy for a net-zero target for the European Union.


Day three: how do we get there?

The third and final day of the conference had a definite policy angle, attempting to tackle the theme of “how do we get there?”.

In the opening plenary session, James Shaw MP – New Zealand’s Minister for Climate Change – gave a speech on their government’s response to climate change.

“There’s a lot of work we’re doing in New Zealand to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050,” said Shaw. He highlighted three areas in particular – New Zealand’s first-ever government climate action plan, its Zero Carbon Bill, and fixing New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme and reducing emissions from agriculture.

The climate action plan is a “massive programme of work right across government that will run for many, many years”, explained Shaw. It was produced in response to an inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the low emissions economy.

This inquiry produced 77 recommendations, said Shaw, including “setting up a green investment fund”, “a clean car discount”, and “introducing a new requirement to scrutinise all policy decisions made by government with climate impact statements”.

The government “agreed immediately” with 43 of the recommendations, noted Shaw, and “and agreed to do more work on another 33”.

Another recommendation was to establish an independent climate change commission, similar to the CCC in the UK. This commission will “set clear targets that set us on that path down to net-zero emissions”, said Shaw. It is included in the Zero Carbon Bill currently before the New Zealand parliament.

In a technologically challenging session, using a video link crossing 11,000 miles and 11 hours of time difference, Shaw took questions from the floor.

Dr Carl-Friedrich Schleussner asked whether, “as a developed country with comparatively high methane emissions”, New Zealand should “strive to lead” on emissions reductions.

Shaw noted that this had been an ongoing debate in the New Zealand government, and they hadn’t been able to settle on specific methane target. As a result, their net-zero target is a range – a 24-47% cut from 2017 levels. This “is a really unsatisfactory target”, said Shaw, because the actions a farmer might take to cut emissions by 24% “are completely different” from those for a 47% target. New Zealand’s new climate change commission will be asked to “come up with a more robust target for methane”, Shaw added.

Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G), asked how New Zealand’s close relationship with other Pacific nations has influenced their climate change ambition.

“For me, one of the most important things about the Zero Carbon Bill is that we’ve made the commitment to 1.5C and no more,” replied Shaw. And “that was critical for us”, he added, because “north of 1.5C, the existential risk to a number of low-lying Pacific states dramatically increases. And so we felt that it would be simply irresponsible of us to commit to anything other than 1.5C”.

Among other questions, Dr Steve Smith – head of climate science at the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – asked what New Zealand can teach the UK on climate action.

Shaw suggested agriculture as a potential area for collaboration between the two countries. “You’ve committed to net zero for all gases by 2050 – we haven’t – and so that means that you’re planning to reduce your biogenic methane to net zero – so offsetting what you don’t reduce, said Shaw. “And I don’t know how you’re going to do that, but I’m keen to talk to you about how we might do that together.”


Day three: Closing plenaries

The conference ended with a series of plenary talks from an array of speakers, including yet more discussions around carbon capture.

Bjorn Haugstad, director general of the climate department in the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, began his talk by stating what he described as the “bleeding obvious” – that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be needed to achieve the Paris targets.

He said the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) will not be enough to incentivise commercial CCS before discussing early Norwegian projects and attempts to create a viable business model for this technology.

Haugstad was followed by David Hawkins, director of climate policy at NGO the Natural Resources Defense Council, who began by painting a picture of the “climate suffering” already being seen and the importance of CO2 removal:

“Climate suffering is here, it’s here in these forest fires in California, it’s here in the devastation in the Bahamas…it’s here in these heatwaves that are killing people today…where does that suffering emanate from? Well it emanates from the CO2 that is already in the air.”

He said we must deal with this “legacy” and added that without removing CO2 from the atmosphere this suffering will increase in the near future.

To achieve this, he said both technological and natural methods must be employed. He suggested government-supported R&D, the use of tax credits and regulations that require fossil fuel suppliers to use direct air capture to reduce their emissions.

While he accepted that, as other speakers had mentioned, this technology would certainly be expensive to roll out in the short term, he said that does not mean it will be “harder and more expensive in perpetuity”.

More discussion of CO2 removal came next from Dr Jessica Strefler of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who considered how to bring down the high levels of negative emissions included in many existing IAM pathways.

Based on work from her team, she suggested that a linear carbon price path would drive decisive short-term action while ensuring moderate long-term prices that would avoid excessive carbon removal in the future.

The final talk in this section came from Jamie Clarke, executive director of Climate Outreach, who outlined why public engagement with net-zero would be essential to achieve this target.

He cited the recent Committee on Climate Change report on net-zero, which found that 62% of emissions reductions would require some degree of societal and individual behaviour change. He said:

“One would assume that 62% of discussions would be around these areas, but no, maybe that is not the case quite yet.”

Warning that poorly planned policies may encounter resistance of the kind seen with the gilets jaunes in France, Clarke said messages on this topic must cross the political spectrum and be delivered using relatable language and imagery.

The final plenary of the conference continued the policy focus, starting with a talk from Dr Rebecca Heaton, head of climate change at power station Drax and a member of the UK’s CCC.

Four of six boilers at the Drax plant in North Yorkshire have been converted from coal to “sustainably sourced biomass”, said Heaton. (The extent to which Drax’s use of biomass is good for the climate has been the subject of intense debate for a number of years.)

Drax also has a pilot biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) project – the first in Europe, noted Heaton. This is currently capturing one tonne of CO2 per day, which is being stored on site and offered to utilisation companies.

“This all sounds very good, but negative emissions has no commercial value” at the moment, said Heaton. “We’re a relatively small company, we don’t have deep pockets…we need some help to try and make this happen”.

There are issues with “eternal subsidies”, she noted, so “we’re looking at various policy mechanisms, which we think might work to help get this off the ground”. One option could be selling negative emissions “to people who need them”, Heaton suggested, which may be a way of “doing this at a cheaper cost”.

Next up was Dr Jonathan Scurlock, the chief policy adviser on renewable energy and climate change at the National Farmers’ Union, who presented on UK farming’s net-zero goal.

“Agriculture may be viewed as a bit of a problem child,” began Scurlock, because of residual emissions that are hard to mitigate entirely. But “we see ourselves as part of the solution”, argued Scurlock, pointing out that farmland is both a sink and source of GHGs.

In January 2019 – ahead of the UK government’s own net-zero goal – the NFU committed to taking UK farming to “net-zero climate impact” by 2040, said Scurlock.

The NFU published its “white paper” on achieving net-zero yesterday, he explained, which include three key “pillars” of boosting productivity and reducing emissions, enhancing carbon storage, and “coupling bioenergy to carbon capture, utilisation and storage”. [The strategy does not include cutting beef production or large-scale afforestation.]

The penultimate talk was from Steve Jermy, a board member of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, providing a regional viewpoint. Discussing some examples from Cornwall, Jermy noted that there were “a number of technologies that we’re interested in”, including “deep geothermal” and floating offshore wind farms.

And rounding off the whole conference was Barry Gardiner MP, UK shadow secretary of state for international trade and shadow minister for international climate change.

Discussing the failure of the Copenhagen UN climate summer in 2009 and the success of Paris six years later, Gardiner noted “politics is the only way we have to achieve climate justice”.

The impact of Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate strikes in recent months has “absolutely transformed here in the UK the way in which politicians are approaching the issue of climate change”, said Gardiner. “We change things because we’re no longer talking about climate change, we’re talking about the climate emergency,” he added”

“And that’s a big thing in parliament. And in framing things as a crisis, we’re coming to the understanding that our response has to be motivated by what is political[ly] convenient, but [also] what the cold logic of climate science demands of us.”

(The shifting language around climate change in the UK’s parliament is the subject of a recent Carbon Brief analysis piece.)

Asked by an audience member about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK’s membership of the EU ETS, Gardiner said it would be a “complete disaster for just about everything, but in particular for our climate targets”.

And finally, responding to a question about the UK’s leadership at next year’s UN climate summit – which will be hosted in Glasgow – Gardiner warned that “one of the things that really worries me about COP26 is the complete lack of diplomatic preparation. The recent cuts to the number of government officials dedicated to climate climate has left “an appalling situation as the host of the COP”, he added.

“Internationally, the credibility our country has on climate change is enormous and we need to leverage it at COP26,” argued Gardiner. But “we will not be able to do that” unless the UK is “making those diplomatic engagements” and alliances with “a clear strategy of what we want out of the COP”.

Gardiner said that just two days ago, Claire Perry O’Neill MP – who will be COP26 President – told him that “I do not have an office; I do not have any officials; and I have no administrative back-up whatsoever”. “I don’t know when or if that’s going to be resolved,” continued Gardiner, “but if it’s not, the idea of us actually setting realistic targets for the outcomes that we want from COP26 are straight down the pan – and this government has to get to grips with it”.

The issue of diplomats came up when Carbon Brief asked Gardiner about priorities for achieving net-zero, which you can watch below.

Sharelines from this story
  • Highlights: The net-zero climate change conference in Oxford

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