Monday, June 13, 2016

Flaming June

Published as a podcast at on Friday 3rd June

Yes, it’s June, but in the UK you might not think so as it’s been bitterly cold in the last few days, at least in the eastern half of the country. There’s no word yet, but I do expect to hear shortly that globally, May 2016 will have been the warmest May on record. Following the warmest January, February, March and April. Excuse me while I throw another log on the fire.

There’s a new report out this week from the IEA, the international Energy Agency on the role of cities in cutting GHG emissions. There’s a report from REN21 about how renewable energy is thriving, even in the UK, while Christian Aid tells us more about the threats from climate change. Is your city in the top 20 at risk from flooding? You may be at risk even if it’s not. The US Geological Survey reports on how wildfires in Alaska are affecting global CO2 levels and The Royal Society B has been looking at cow dung.

On another note - there must be a link there somewhere - if you’re a UK voter don’t forget to vote in the EU referendum. This is a life-changing decision and you only have until next Tuesday, 7th June, to make sure you are on the electoral register.

First, “Cities are in the frontline for cutting carbon emissions,” says the IEA 

Cities must take the lead in the transition to a low-carbon energy sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said this week, highlighting that urban areas account for up to two-thirds of the potential to cost-effectively reduce global carbon emissions.
In its annual report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2016 (ETP 2016), the IEA offers long-term technology pathways that could limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2°C, in line with the goals set at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015. The most cost-effective approach involves deploying low-carbon options in cities, especially in emerging and developing economies.

"Cities today are home to about half the global population but represent almost two-thirds of global  energy demand and 70% of carbon emissions from the energy sector, so they must play a leading role if COP21 commitments are to be achieved," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said at the launch of the report during the Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco. "Because cities are centres of economic growth and innovation, they are ideal test-beds for new technologies – from more sustainable transport systems to smart grids – that will help lead the transition to a low-carbon energy sector.”

For instance, urban buildings provide useful space to self-generate the electricity they consume: by 2050, rooftop solar could technically meet one-third of cities’ electricity demand. And those buildings offer significant demand potential for the roll-out of the most efficient technologies, like energy-efficient windows and appliances. ETP 2016 also details how best electric vehicles and public transport can lead to a low-carbon mobility system while reducing investment needs by USD 20 trillion compared with current development trends in cities.

But while ETP 2016 shows that the COP21 goals are achievable, its Tracking Clean Energy Progress analysis reveals that progress deploying clean energy technologies worldwide is still falling worryingly short of what is needed. The IEA analysis reveals that there have been positive developments on some technologies: the total renewable energy capacity installed currently provides around 23% of global electricity generation, sustained by progress in solar PV and on-shore wind that pushed the growth of renewable energy capacity to a record high, exceeding 150 gigawatts in 2015. This is an encouraging trend in line with the 2°C goal of having in excess of two-thirds of electricity generated by renewables in 2050. China is the largest renewable energy market, accounting in 2015 for more than half of the world’s new global onshore wind capacity and one-third of the solar PV capacity installed.  The United States maintained its position as the second largest market in the world for renewable energy, sustaining a 40% growth rate in capacity additions over the past year. In ETP 2016, China and the United States collectively account for one third of the renewable energy capacity additions to 2050 that are required to be on track to meet the 2°C goal.

In parallel, the global stock of electric vehicles on the road surpassed one million in 2015, a significant milestone, albeit the current stock is still small compared to the ambitious aim of deploying over one billion electric vehicles by 2050 to achieve the 2°C goal. China and the United States were market leaders in total sales, and Norway kept its global lead in terms of market share, with almost one in four cars sold being electric, but the global share is still low, with only seven countries having more than 1% of electric vehicles in their market share.

Summarising the report’s findings, Dr. Birol concluded “COP21 could prove to be a historic turning point for radical action against climate change, and recent developments on some clean energy technologies are encouraging. However, overall progress is still too slow, and must be accelerated to avoid low fossil fuel prices becoming an obstacle to the low-carbon transition. Today’s energy market conditions will be a litmus test for governments to show how dedicated they are to turning their Paris commitments into concrete actions for a low-carbon future.” 

Business Green reports similar comments from Christiana Figueres the UN's outgoing climate chief. “A fundamental change is needed in the dynamic between business and governments in a post-Paris Agreement world”, she said
The "well-intended" conversation between governments and private sector that took place in the lead-up to the Paris climate conference in December now needs to deepen into collaboration.  reminds us that the Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer described COP21 as a turning point. Now several months on, what has happened to the promises that were made? The most forward-looking organisations have started to decarbonise their complete economic model with the establishment of ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% or to rely totally on renewable energy. The picture is fragmented, and there are still allegations of green wash and examples of organisations who find it all too difficult and lower their targets.

The IEA commented on renewable energy and REN21 is another organisation with a report out.

REN21 is the global renewable energy policy multi-stakeholder network that connects a wide range of key actors. REN21’s goal is to facilitate knowledge exchange, policy development and joint action towards a rapid global transition to renewable energy. REN21 is an international non-profit association and is based at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Paris,

According to the report, 2015 was an extraordinary year for renewable energy. Renewables are now cost competitive with fossil fuels in many markets and are established around the world as mainstream sources of energy. Cities, communities and companies are leading the rapidly expanding “100% renewable” movement, playing a vital role in advancing the global energy transition. Distributed renewable energy is advancing rapidly to close the gap between the energy haves- and have-nots.

A point that hit the UK headlines is that REN21 revealed that  the top five countries for investment in renewable power and fuels in 2015 include the UK at number 4. Impressive when you consider that this is absolute investment, not investment per head. Impressive when you recognise that 1,2 and 3 are China, the US and Japan. Impressive when you consider how much damage the British government has done to the renewables industry with short-notice policy changes.

Scientists at the US Geological Survey have been looking at
Baseline and Projected Future Carbon Storage and Greenhouse-Gas Fluxes in Ecosystems of Alaska. No, hang on, this is important. Alaska is big. Its area is equivalent to one fifth of the whole of the rest of the United States. And it is a very important carbon sink, which means the wetlands, the forests and the tundra which cover vast areas of the state all absorb CO2, removing it from the atmosphere and locking it away for tens or even hundreds of years. It’s called carbon sequestration. I picked this story up from the Guardian, but I don’t agree with the way they reported it. “Spike in Alaska wildfires is worsening global warming, US says” was their headline. The researchers looked at the period from 1950 to 2009 and yes, they found that “Although there is a high variability in fire regime across interior Alaska, fire frequency, severity, and area burned have increased in recent years, and the trend was projected to continue for the rest of the century across most of the regions and most of the climate scenarios, with the boreal region projected to see the highest increase in fire activities.”
They stated that “the boreal region of the State - meaning the heavily forested northern region -  has been a carbon source, losing 5.1 TgC/yr as the result of increased fire activity in recent decades.”
However they also looked at the period from 2010 to 2099 and found that “Carbon sequestration of upland and wetland ecosystems of Alaska would increase substantially to 18.2 to 34.4 TgC/yr, primarily because of an increase in Net Primary Productivity (I think that means growth) of 12 to 30 percent associated with responses to rising atmospheric CO2, increased nitrogen cycling, and longer growing seasons. Although carbon emissions to the atmosphere from wildfire were projected to increase substantially for all of the projected climates, the increases in Net Primary Productivity would more than compensate for those losses. Our analysis, they say,  indicates that upland and wetland ecosystems would be sinks for GHGs for all simulations during the rest of the century”.

I suppose to be fair to the Guardian it could be argued that without wildfires Alaska would be an even better carbon sink.

There’s a lot of concern that over-use of antibiotics is rapidly leading to resistant superbugs that cannot be treated. For years farmers have routinely added antibiotics to cattle feed because they significantly increase growth. The Royal Society B has carried out investigations which indicate that this practice may have other unintended consequences.
For example, antibiotics may alter microbial emissions of greenhouse gases by affecting livestock gut microbiota. Furthermore, antibiotics may affect the microbiota of non-target animals that rely on dung, such as dung beetles, and the ecosystem services they provide. 
Researchers found that dung beetles were unaffected by antibiotics, but that dung from treated animals would release up to 1.8 times more methane than normal. They also suspected that the amount of methane released from cows’ burps would also increase, although they did not carry out specific tests to verify this.

Agriculture is responsible for about 18% of global GHG emissions and most of this is due to livestock. This is estimated to exceed total emissions from transportation. I’m no vegetarian, but we can’t deny that livestock farming is damaging the planet.

Christian Aid’s new report is called Act now or Pay Later

“More than a billion people across the world are living in cities seriously threatened by climate change,” it tells us. “These are coastal cities, and most are already experiencing increased flooding, extreme weather and storm surges.” 
In the run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has given a timely reminder that every $1 spent on reducing the risks from disasters now will save around $7 of damages later. It’s essential that we act urgently to prevent the suffering of millions of poor and vulnerable people. 
The good news is that improvements in science make the impacts of climate change increasingly predictable. It is possible to put measures in place now to identify the most vulnerable people and places and minimise the impacts. 
The first action, they say, has to be to reduce carbon emissions rapidly and limit temperature increase by encouraging a shift in investment from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources. Maybe we should be looking at agriculture as well. Next is to help vulnerable communities survive and thrive, by better protecting their homes and livelihoods. Finally, is to put in place agreed, international systems that support communities to recover from ultimate loss and damage caused by devastating storms and floods. 

The report includes a list of the top 20 major cities most at risk of flooding. The top two are both in India - Calcutta and Bombay. Dhaka in Bangladesh comes in at No 3 and two other cities in Bangladesh are also in the top 20. Four cities in China are in the list, as well as two in the US - Miami at no. 9 and New York City at no. 17. 

Maybe all this seems too remote, but maybe it’s far closer to home than you think.

No, London, although sited on a tidal estuary, is not in the top 20. Nevertheless, the report takes time to explain in detail why London is a vulnerable city. An independent assessment of the climate change risks to London identified the following concerns:

London is currently well protected by the Thames Barrier but climate change could put this protection at risk. Already the barrier is closed far more frequently than was thought would be necessary when it was first designed. It is estimated that 1.25 million people and half a million properties are on floodplains in London, while an estimated 800,000 properties in London are vulnerable to surface-water flooding. 

Leaving aside flooding, as summers get hotter, there is increased health risk, especially for already vulnerable groups. By 2050 it is expected that one in three summers will exceed current Met Office heatwave temperatures. (That is really tempting in icy June 2016, but let’s be realistic.) Remember, in 2003 a heatwave across Europe caused 20,000 premature deaths, of which 15,000 were in France. As we experience increasingly hot and dry summers there’s an increased risk of water shortages. London is already an area of serious water stress, and a combined increase in population, water demand, and reduced water resources due to drought, could pose a serious threat. 
The international consequences of climate change could have a disproportionate effect on London because of its position as a major financial centre. Extreme weather will pose a significant risk to investments and businesses around the world, and will also have implications for the London insurance market.
Many of these are predictable impacts. With the right measures in place, adaptation can be implemented ahead of the climate extremes predicted for coming decades. 

You may not have an international business, but you will almost certainly have an international supply chain. No? Your phone was made in Britain, was it? And your laptop? And your car? Contingency planning. Have I mentioned it before? That’s one of the issues that we’ll be addressing at the Sustainable Best Practice Mastermind group. I still have a couple of places on the initial meeting on 7th July. It’s a select group of only 8 or 10 people but it will include executives from industries like the train operating companies, power generation, the NHS, insurance, civil engineering and local government. If you think your skills and experience would complement the group I’d like to hear from you. 

Finally, the EU obliges us to put VAT on fuel. So, says the Leave campaign, if we left the EU we could remove the VAT and cut the cost of living for poorer families. Let’s assume that we talking just about gas and electricity. The problem is that if we did make energy cheaper it would indeed help poorer people save money but it would help richer people to waste more. Consumption would go up, and since we import a significant proportion of our energy it would have a negative effect on the balance of payments. The other question is if we cut tax revenue on fuel what would we tax instead in order to make up the shortfall? The situation with road fuel is different. There’s VAT on petrol and diesel but there’s also excise duty, which is the largest component of the price. UK petrol prices are higher than elsewhere in Europe because we have a higher level of excise duty, and the government can vary that at will whether or not we are in the EU. Again, if we reduced tax on road fuel it would increase consumption and put pressure on the balance of payments, because the the North Sea no longer meets all our needs. And if taxes are cut they either have to be imposed elsewhere or public spending has to be cut.

I’m not suggesting how you should vote in the referendum, although I do urge you very strongly to vote. All I’m saying is check the facts. And check the facts behind the facts as well. 

You need to be on the electoral register to be able to vote, but if you’re not the deadline for registration is next Tuesday 7th June. You can register on line or by contacting your local town hall.

As our theme tune draws this episode to a close let me remind you that there will be another episode next week. I’ve a number of interviews lined up for future episodes and it's been suggested that I should look at green investments. Other suggestions are always welcome.

This is Anthony Day. 

That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

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