Before this year’s speaker at the Gordon Goodman Lecture*, Professor Kevin Anderson, begins his lecture, I reflect a bit on what has been written about him. He is one of the UK’s most recognised and notable climate scientists; he has considerable experience of communicating climate science to policy makers, the business community and civil society; and he has not flown for 12 years. Once he took the train to China, even though it took 11 days. Kevin truly practices what he preaches.

Photo: Per Nordström
Photo: Per Nordström

Kevin Anderson begins the lecture with a climate quotation from the Pope:  

The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions.

“I am not a Catholic, but the Pope captures the essence of today’s problems in a very clear way. In other words, we describe the major challenges facing humanity as romantic illusions that are not as important as economy and technology”, Kevin begins. “I am a former oil engineer and know that technology is important, but it will not solve our emission problems. We are making ourselves and future generations dependent on economics and new technology that does not exist. Future challenges are meant to be overcome through increased growth and new innovations.”  

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and Visiting Professor at Uppsala University. As a child, Kevin lived next door to a nuclear power plant, and energy issues were often talked about at home. Before his interest in the environment took over, he used to build oil rigs. In his spare time, he enjoys climbing.  

“We have known what the future consequences will be since 1990, but we have done very little. Today, the annual global emissions of greenhouse gases are 60% higher than they were then. By the year 2050, emissions must be down to zero if we are to meet the target of a maximum two-degree temperature rise. However, as we in the rich world release the most emissions, we are in an even bigger hurry. The rich world must have zero emissions by 2035, and Sweden must begin to reduce its emissions by 13% a year NOW!” 

We have to solve our problems today

“Relying on future generations to solve our problems is kind of like a smoker hoping that his potential lung cancer will be cured,” Kevin continues. “There is much talk about BECCS, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. The idea is to use trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The trees will absorb the carbon dioxide, after which we will fell the trees, burn them, and then capture and store the released carbon dioxide. However, 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere every year, half of which is absorbed by oceans and plants, and the rest would thus be absorbed by BECCS. In other words, we would need another biosphere.”

Will we be able to reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target? 

“We can manage two degrees, but it is very urgent. Everything has to become more efficient: refrigerators, cars, industries, and it will require a global restructuring of the entire energy system. We in the rich world must start a Marshall Plan for transferring new technologies to those who need them in other parts of the world. In addition, we have to change our behaviour and start to rely on new economic models that take environmental costs into greater account.”

10% of the world’s population currently emits 50% of all greenhouse gases. If the 10% who emit the most were to reduce their emissions to the average EU level, global emissions would be reduced by 33%.

“The worst offenders are tourists, politicians, businessmen, and not least the climate scientists themselves, who fly across the world to attend various conferences,” says Kevin to a somewhat speechless audience.

Many thoughts go through my head after the lecture. Kevin Anderson conveys such a clear and distinct message about the situation and what needs to be done in order for us to accomplish this. I really hope that many more people out there will have an opportunity to listen to him.       

* Gordon Goodman was an ecologist and researcher who gained a research position in Sweden and ended up staying. In Sweden, he started the Beijer Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute, and together with Professor Bert Bolin he was involved in the founding of the UN’s climate panel, the IPCC.

Text: Per Nordström
Translation: CAE


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