COP 23, the annual climate conference, is running in Bonn, Germany. We have a report from a man on the ground. The US is not participating, at least not in a positive way; the UN is warning of an emissions gap while levels of CO2 and methane are racing ahead. Should we be driving electric cars? They’re clean, aren’t they? Some claim that they are just as dirty as combustion engined vehicles. Client Earth is still trying to get the UK government to clean up the air, water fountains are fizzing in Paris, Juliana seems to have new friends and how precious is plastic?
Hello. Yes, once again it's me, Anthony Day. And here's the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 10 November. I hope you enjoyed last week’s report. It's a change for me to be interviewed rather than doing the interviewing. Having said that, at the conference that I was running last weekend I was interviewed by another podcaster and if you're really interested - it’s nothing to do with sustainability - you can find a link to that here.
Remember that the blog is at www.sustainablefutures.report and I try to include as many links as possible so that you can find exactly where I've got my stories from. Let me take a moment to remind you about patreon.com/SFR . You can sign up there to support my work from as little as a dollar a month. (Yes I know, but it’s an American site.) I'm very grateful to those patrons who already support me, from the UK, from the Netherlands and from Canada, among other places.
Let's start today with the Fourth National Climate Assessment issued by the US government last week. Let me quote from the Executive Summary:
“The climate of the United States is strongly connected to the changing global climate. The statements below highlight past, current, and projected climate changes for the United States and the globe.
“Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe. These trends are expected to continue over climate timescales.
This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”
Later on it says:
“Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet [around a metre] by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet [around 2.5 metres] by 2100 cannot be ruled out. Sea level rise will be higher than the global average on the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States.
“Changes in the characteristics of extreme events are particularly important for human safety, infrastructure, agriculture, water quality and quantity, and natural ecosystems. Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. (…)
“Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. Recent record-setting hot years are projected to become common in the near future for the United States, as annual average temperatures continue to rise.”
It goes on:
“Humanity’s effect on the Earth system, through the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation and the resulting release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, as well as through emissions of other greenhouse gases and radiatively active substances from human activities, is unprecedented. There is significant potential for humanity’s effect on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of such surprises.”
The Donald Disagrees
All this, of course, is in conflict with President Trump’s rejection of climate science. He has already said, and subsequently confirmed, that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Only two countries originally rejected the agreement: Nicaragua and Syria. Nicaragua’s objection was on the basis that the agreement didn't go far enough, but it changed its mind and has now signed up. At COP 23, the climate conference taking place this week in Bonn, Syria announced that it would also sign up. That leaves the United States on the outside, as soon as it can extricate itself. Unsurprisingly, President Trump is the only world leader not invited to the climate conference which will take place in Paris later this month, after COP 23.
According to the Independent, some are calling for the US to be excluded from COP 23 altogether.
USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp, doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6.
The Paris Accord demonstrates a near universal acceptance of the need to manage carbon emissions. However, in its annual review, the UN says the gap between carbon cutting plans and the reductions required to keep temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius is "alarmingly high”. It re-iterates the point that current pledges are insufficient to keep within the temperature limits agreed in the Paris climate pact.
According to the BBC, emissions from human activities involving burning fossil fuels have stalled since 2014, caused by a reduction in coal use in China and the US, as well as the rapid rise of renewable energy sources. Nevertheless, concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere surged to a record high in 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). Last year's increase was 50% higher than the average of the past 10 years.
Researchers say a combination of human activities and the El Niño weather phenomenon drove CO2 to a level not seen in 800,000 years, and they say this risks making global temperature targets largely unattainable.
The World Meteorological Organisation reports that levels of methane and nitrous oxide are also at record levels. You’ll remember that methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2.
…can mean More Ill Health
Medical journal The Lancet added its concerns about climate change to the debate this week. It says:
“Climate change is commonly discussed in the context of its future impact, but the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change by Nick Watts and colleagues, published on Oct 30, exposes the urgency for a response as environmental changes cause damaging effects on health worldwide now. The comprehensive Review describes the first results of a global initiative, which will annually report on indicators of climate change and its effects on health. One alarming finding is how rising temperatures have influenced the transmission of infectious diseases. Vectorial capacity of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus [I think those are mosquitoes] has increased since 1990, with tangible effects—notably, the doubling of cases of dengue fever every decade since 1990.”
Find the full text at:
What to do?
The eternal question - what should we be doing about it? Well maybe we should cut our personal emissions by all driving electric cars. But it’s not as simple as that. Some people questioning whether electric cars are truly cleaner than conventional internal combustion vehicles.
The Dirt on Electric Cars
The Financial Times (FT) reports that a large electric car can have much greater emissions than a small conventional car. This of course is taking into account life-cycle emissions. In other words the emissions involved in the manufacture of the vehicle and its final disposal, as well as any emissions created during its operational life. Low emission cars are commonly defined by the volume of emissions coming out of the exhaust pipe. Electric cars don't have an exhaust pipe so they are classed as 100% clean. The study quoted by the FT takes into account the emissions involved in creating the electricity to charge up electric cars. If this is coming from coal there are significant indirect emissions. The other major source of emissions is the actual production of the vehicle. Producing the battery for the electric car leads to emissions and there are also ethical doubts about the source of materials for the batteries. We have already spoken about conflict minerals such as cadmium and tantalum which come from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: mines which are defended by child soldiers. Remember falling whistles? Go to fallingwhistles.com and maybe donate something for Christmas.
Tesla's gigafactory in Nevada plans to rely on wind and solar alone to provide all the energy needed for its battery production. A serious problem with electric cars is range anxiety. The majority of people drive short journeys, rarely more than 80 or 100 miles per day. Nevertheless they want to be able to do those occasional longer journeys, which is why a 200 mile range is rapidly becoming an industry minimum standard. This means bigger batteries, more conflict minerals, more emissions in the production process and more weight for the car to carry around.
According to the American Union of Concerned Scientists 42 percent of US households could use a battery-electric or plug-in electric vehicle, and all households could use a hybrid-electric vehicle. Doing so would save drivers billions in fuel costs and greatly reduce the amount of global warming pollution emitted.
In fact, widespread adoption of electric cars and trucks could save 1.5 million barrels of oil a day by 2035. To get there, the US needs smart government policies that incentivise investment in clean vehicle technology—helping move America toward a cleaner, safer, future.
The on-line journal Shrink That Footprint firmly defends electric cars in a detailed report. You can find it at shrinkthatfootprint.com. The authors do admit, however, that the key factor is the source of the electricity and that in some places an electric car is no cleaner than one that runs on conventional fossil fuels.
Scientific American magazine gets in on the debate as well, with the headline: “Electric Cars Are Not Necessarily Clean”
Some manufacturers are clearly aiming for the greenest of the green. The body of BMW’s i3 electric car is made from carbon fibre using hydroelectric power in Washington state. It is assembled at a wind-powered plant in Leipzig, where it is fitted with seats made from recycled bottles and coloured by dye from olive leaves. The door panels and dashboard are made from kenaf plants and eucalyptus wood. Even the key is made of castor beans. (Kenaf? Yes, I had to look it up too. It’s a vegetable fibre like jute.)
The overall consensus seems to be that it's a good thing to drive an electric car as long as it's a small one and you recharge it from your solar panels or from another source of renewable energy.
There’s news this week that the city of Paris plans to install sparkling water dispensers in every one of its 20 arrondissements. Sparkling water will be freely available to all. There have been eight dispensers in the city since 2010 but this expansion comes in order to keep the citizens of Paris hydrated and to discourage the use of plastic bottles. Will your city follow where Paris leads?
Talking of plastic bottles, how precious is plastic? I've just come across a website called preciousplastic.com . The aim of the organisation behind it is to build neighbourhood plastic recycling units in old shipping containers which can be installed almost anywhere in the world. Some are already up and running and they take scrap plastic donated by the public, sort it, shred it and recycle it. They can make filaments for 3-D printers, they can make poles and bars, they can make hand grips for climbing walls, they can make plates and dishes. All this from material which otherwise would be burnt or landfilled as rubbish. The website goes into great detail to explain exactly how to site a container and to set up your own plastic recycling plant. Looks quite tempting to me. I'll find out more and keep you informed.
Clearing the Air
Another organisation trying to clean up is Client Earth. I’ve mentioned Client Earth before. It describes itself as “activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet.” Client Earth is taking legal action against the UK Government for a third time over its persistent failure to deal with illegal air pollution across the country. Anyone following UK politics will probably not be surprised that the government has not been effective on this issue. With a minister having talks with a foreign government and keeping them secret from both her own department and the prime minister, (whoops -she’s just resigned!) with the foreign secretary making unguarded remarks which could double the sentence of a UK subject imprisoned abroad on political charges, with the defence minister forced to resign for sexual impropriety and open disagreement in the cabinet over the approach to Brexit, it is surprising that anything gets done at all. That doesn't change the importance of the air-quality issue. 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK as the result of bad air quality. I reported recently on the T-charge introduced by Transport for London as a surcharge on the congestion charge to be paid for older and dirtier vehicles entering the central area. I commented at the time that Transport from London had used the phrase, “London's dangerously polluted air.” They are certainly taking it seriously. Client Earth firmly believes that the government is not. It is a matter of concern that the judicial system can issue an injunction against the government and the government can simply choose to ignore it. If the government does not respect the law how can it expect others to do so?
Juliana’s new friends
Do you remember the Juliana case? It’s been rumbling on for some years now. It's an action against the US government by a group of children and young people who want to hold it to account for prejudicing their life chances by allowing industries such as the coal industry to create dangerous pollution. Ruling on the next stage of the action is expected early next year. Meanwhile other litigants are following a similar path.
Two Philadelphia-area children are suing President Donald Trump and two of his climate skeptic cabinet members, Energy Sec. Rick Perry and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, to try to stop them from rolling back existing environmental protections including the Clean Power Plan.
The plaintiffs, ages 7 and 11, are backed by the Clean Air Council, Philadelphia's oldest environmental non-profit. The complaint alleges that the Trump administration's reliance on "junk science" to undo climate regulations are a threat to the young plaintiffs and other U.S. citizens.
This one too, will probably run and run. Didn't somebody once say that justice delayed is justice denied?
As I mentioned earlier, COP23, the UN climate conference started this week in Bonn, Germany. Martin Baxter, chief Policy Advisor of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment is there and he told me what's been going on. This interview was done by phone. Apologies for the sound quality.
[audio only - sorry, no transcript this time]
And that's it for another week.
I’m Anthony Day, that was the Sustainable Futures Report . Thanks again to my patrons and if you're not yet a patron just go across to patreon.com/sfr and sign up.
There will probably be another Sustainable Futures Report next week but as we go into December I may reduce the frequency. This is partly because I've got a lot on, and partly because I'm sure you'll have a lot on as we run up to Christmas.
Anyway, thanks for listening to this episode.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report,
I'm Anthony Day
and that's it for now.
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