Yes I'm back. I'm Anthony Day. This is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 6 September. Autumn already. Time to face new challenges.
Green, but increasingly red.
That was a comment a while ago posted about the Sustainable Futures Report. The correspondent was concerned that I was straying into politics. The truth is that everything is political. While we can all do something towards solving the climate crisis it is only governments and politicians who can make the changes of a magnitude that will make a difference. We are talking about system change, after all.
I know that many of you listening to the Sustainable Futures Report are not in the UK. I think that even you will have noticed that UK politics are in some turmoil at the moment. In fact this has been going on for three years but is finally approaching a denouement. I say finally, but everything may well have changed by the time you hear this.
Anyway, the latest situation is that our new prime minister has sought and received the authority of the Queen to prorogue or suspend Parliament. Of course she couldn't refuse, but that's another story. The point at issue is that this will allow the Prime Minister to govern without parliament, and allow him to complete Brexit – the U.K.'s departure from the EU – as he chooses. I happen to believe that leaving the EU would be a disaster, but I'm more concerned that if this Prime Minister can sideline parliament then any Prime Minister can do it on any issue. That's the reason I spent Tuesday in London with York for Europe and the York Remain Voice Choir. I hope you saw us - and heard us - on the evening news, on BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
Brexit is a sideshow by comparison with the climate crisis. While Brexit dominates UK politics, little of significance will be done on climate change or on the many other issues that have been neglected over the last three years. Worrying also is the fact that many prominent Brexiteers are vociferous climate deniers. If I’m being political in opposing them, then so be it.
In the climate crisis news this week: the Amazon fires, why they’re not the only fires, why they may not be as bad as you think and why they may be much more serious in ways you don’t expect. The future for the consumer society. Prof Sir Ian Boyd, retiring chief scientific advisor at Defra, has set out his thoughts, which look very much like system change to me. And the flying prince. Are carbon offsets making his travel carbon neutral?
The fires in the Amazon have been making big news over the last couple of weeks. They are destroying the rainforests aren't they? They are threatening an area which produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, aren’t they? The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the Earth, isn’t it? Well, and yes and no. I strongly recommend that you listen to More or Less, a statistics programme on BBC Radio 4 which is available online and has carried out a detailed analysis of the situation. They spoke to Daniel Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute, who explained that the fires that have been identified by satellites are not burning rainforest. Generally the rainforest doesn’t burn, because it’s so damp and humid. What can happen is that low-level fires can burn the leaf litter on the forest floor and this can scorch the trunks of the trees and kill them off. These fires are not visible from space and their effects are only evident once the trees have died off, which may take a year or more. The first point, then, is that the fires may be more extensive than we know at present.
Now you see it…
The fires that we can see from space are occurring on land which has been cleared. It's common practice for farmers to burn off weeds. Where land has been recently cleared the trees are left to dry out and then are burnt. One of the major consequences of these fires is smoke and soot in the atmosphere, leading millions of people to seek treatment for respiratory diseases. Smoke from the fires caused São Paulo – which is more than a thousand miles away from the Amazon – to be “plunged into an apocalyptic darkness” on 19 August. The new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has taken a very hard line on the Amazon, weakening the Brazilian environment ministry and turning a blind eye to illegal logging and deforestation. He sees the Amazon as a resource to be exploited by miners, farmers and loggers. As I reported recently, when the Brazilian satellite monitoring agency revealed significant increases in the rate of deforestation the president denied that it was true and the director of the agency was dismissed.
What’s the Truth?
Does the Amazon produce 20% of the world’s oxygen? It depends how you calculate it, but according to Daniel Nepstad it consumes a lot as well and the net effect is more or less neutral. He sees the most important function of the forest as its cooling effect. As every drop of water transpired by the trees evaporates it cools the atmosphere. The effect of this across the whole forest is enough to have an effect on the climate of the whole world.
Support the Locals
Let’s not forget the consequences of the fires and the deforestation policies for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. They see their homes, their food sources, their way of life destroyed. Tribes that have been at war for generations are coming together against a common enemy. Surely the global community should take their part, in our own interests as well as theirs.
President Bolsonaro initially suggested that NGOs had deliberately set the forests on fire in order to embarrass his government. He rejected the $22m that politicians attending the recent G7 summit in Biarritz pledged to help fight the fires. Can the world afford to stand by and let this destruction continue?
Meanwhile in Africa…
It’s claimed that attention to the Amazon leads the world to overlook the fact that there are far more fires in Africa. But it’s not the same thing. Writing in Quartz Africa, Colin Beale, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, University of York, says:
“Fire is an essential part of the savannah The first thing to know is that the impact of a wildfire depends more on where and what it is burning, than on how big it is, or indeed how many fires there are.
The vast majority of the African fires currently burning seem to be in grasslands, in exactly the places we expect to see fires at this time of year. These fires are usually lit by cattle farmers as part of their traditional management of the savannahs where their animals graze. Some fires are started to stimulate new growth of nutritious grass for their animals, others are used to control the numbers of parasitic ticks or manage the growth of thorny scrub.
Without fires, many savannahs (and the animals they support) wouldn’t exist, and lighting them is a key management activity in many of the iconic protected areas of Africa. For instance the Serengeti in Tanzania is known worldwide for its safari animals and awe-inspiring wildebeest migration – and our work shows that around half of its grasslands burn each year."
…and in the Arctic
Most fires both in the Amazon and in Africa therefore are deliberately started by humans as part of land management. BBC News reports that wildfires are ravaging parts of the Arctic, with areas of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada engulfed in flames and smoke.
Satellite images show how the plumes of smoke from the fires, many caused by dry storms in hot weather, can be seen from space.
While wildfires are common at this time of year, record-breaking summer temperatures and strong winds have made this year's fires particularly bad.
They are now at "unprecedented levels", says Mark Parrington, a wildfires expert at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (Cams).
Gargantuan forest fires in Siberia, which burned for more than three months, created a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union. More than four million hectares of Siberian taiga forest went up in flames, the Russian military were deployed, people across the region were choked by the smoke, and the cloud spread to Alaska and beyond. Fires have also raged in the boreal forests of Greenland, Alaska and Canada.
Though images of blazing infernos in the Arctic Circle might be shocking to many, they come as little surprise to Philip Higuera, a fire ecologist at the University of Montana, in the US, who has been studying blazes in the Arctic for more than 20 years. “I’m not surprised – these are all the things we have been predicting for decades,” he says.
You can see satellite pictures of wildfires in Canada on the Business Insider website. Link on the blog.
Closer to home, about 1,000 holidaymakers had to evacuate resorts in Gran Canaria this week to escape wildfires. Last month, campers had to abandon their tents due to a fast-spreading blaze in southern France during a heatwave.
In the UK, the Fire Brigades Union says there have been 10% more callouts this year, which has overstretched emergency resources.
The Flying Prince
Last time I shared my interview with you when Mike Graham of Talk Radio wanted to talk about the Royals and how Elton John had lent them a private jet but paid for offsets to make the flight carbon neutral. Mike Graham raised a number of questions which I couldn't answer, but I've done some research since.
Let’s look first at what carbon offsets are. When a plane burns fuel one of the byproducts is CO2, which as we know is a greenhouse gas. The logic of offsets is that if you pay for something which absorbs an equivalent amount of CO2 to the CO2 emitted by your flight then your flight is carbon neutral. The most common offset is planting trees, because as trees grow they absorb CO2 and lock it up until the tree is finally cut down and burnt or allowed to rot.
The organisation which Elton John used, https://www.carbonfootprint.com, promotes other projects as well. For example, they bring fresh water to remote communities in the third world. This means that the people no longer have to boil the water before drinking it so they don't have to light fires to boil the water: fires which would emit carbon dioxide. They also provide these communities with more efficient cooking stoves, producing lower emissions.
Validating the Schemes
“How do we know that this money is actually spent on the these projects?” asked Mike Graham. The projects in this particular case meet the Verified Carbon Standard administered by a non-profit organisation called Verra based in Washington DC. They say:
“Verra is committed to helping reduce emissions, improve livelihoods and protect natural resources across the private and public sectors. We support climate action and sustainable development with standards, tools and programs that credibly, transparently and robustly assess environmental and social impacts and enable funding for sustaining and scaling up these benefits. We work in any arena where we see a need for clear standards, a role for market-based mechanisms and an opportunity to achieve environmental and social good.”
What’s the Problem?
So far, so good but there are many problems.
How are flight emissions calculated?
In detail, taking into account the known fuel consumption of aircraft used on the chosen route, the number of landings and take-offs on long-haul journeys and the number of passengers on board. Business Class and First Class passengers are assumed to have a greater carbon footprint as they take up more space per person. This gives basic CO2 emissions, but some claim that radiative forcing should be taken into account. What’s that? Radiative forcing is the effect of all the other emissions that aircraft make, together with contrails. These also have a warming effect, and to take this into account the basic footprint should be multiplied by something between 1.7 and 2.2 times.
How is CO2 valued?
Each offset programme will have its own calculation. It will assess how much CO2 each project will absorb, estimate how much the project will cost to run and from this calculate a cost per tonne, including the overall cost of running the schemes. Costs per tonne vary widely between projects even within the same scheme.
How quickly will emissions be offset?
This is a key problem. Your flight may be over within 24 hours but it can take a tree 30 years to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon. That tree needs to survive for 100 years, because CO2 emitted by a flight will remain in the atmosphere for at least that time.
So can the prince’s flights be carbon neutral?
In a word, no. ‘Offsetting is worse than doing nothing,’ according to Manchester university professor Kevin Anderson. In fact he says it “almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.” He’s concerned that there can be no guarantees that projects will be maintained for the 100 years needed to ensure that they are effective. If people believe that offsetting makes flights carbon neutral they will fly more without thinking about it. There will be more carbon emissions. There will be more global warming.
Some schemes have failed in a very short time, so travellers’ good intentions have more or less gone up in smoke. Some schemes would have happened anyway, so offsets have not added anything to global CO2 reduction.
Writing in ProPublica, environmental journalist Lisa Song echoed Kevin Anderson’s view. She reviewed carbon offset projects around the globe. She found that they hadn’t offset the emissions they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed – or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. ‘Ultimately, the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last,’ she concluded.
The message is clear. Whether you’re a prince - or a pauper - the responsible thing to do is not to fly.
Until last month Sir Ian Boyd was Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews. In an interview with BBC News he explained his views on how people need to radically change how they live, using less transport, fashion, materials, and consuming fewer “luxury” foods like red meat, in order for the UK to meet its target to halt greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Sir Ian suggested that the UK was in a good position to show the world how to achieve Net Zero, but argued that persuasive political leadership was needed to carry the public through the challenge.
He said the public had little idea of the scale of the challenge from the so-called Net Zero emissions target, and that the conundrum facing the UK - and elsewhere - was how we shift ourselves away from consuming.
Asked whether Boris Johnson would deliver that leadership, he declined to comment, but Johnson has already been accused by environmentalists of talking up electric cars whilst planning a cut in fuel taxes that would increase emissions and undermine the electric car market.
Sir Ian said polluting activities should incur more tax. He believes the Treasury should reform taxation policy to reward people with low-carbon lifestyles and nudge heavy consumers into more frugal patterns of behaviour.
Emissions won't be reduced to Net Zero while ministers are fixed on economic growth measured by GDP, instead of other measures such as environmental security and a relatively stable climate, he argued.
All good ideas, but probably not very electorally popular. Probably not understood by most of the UK electorate. We’re going to have an election in the UK soon, but it’s likely to be a single-issue election with profound consequences for the country and irrelevant to the climate crisis of our time.
This must be true because I read it in the paper. It's well known that in America they use more energy for air-conditioning in the summer than for heating in the winter. A visiting Brit found her office in New York far too cold and asked the facilities manager if anything could be done. “Sure thing, m’am” he said, and brought her an electric heater.
And that's it for another week…
Thank you for listening. I'm Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday the sixth of September. Thank you as always to my loyal patrons who contribute to the costs of bringing this podcast to you. It will always be free, and there is no advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. Find out more at www.patreon.com/sfr
There will be another episode next week, quite an important one. It'll be published on Friday the 13th.
Until then enjoy everything you're doing. (As long as you’re not flying)
Bye for now.