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I'm Anthony Day, it's Friday, 1st March (or earlier if you’re a patron) and welcome to the latest episode of the Sustainable Futures Report.
This week it’s mainly about carbon. Carbon emissions, carbon capture, US government carbon policy, cutting carbon by getting rid of gas, a carbon-cutting stealth tax with the very best of intentions and a new carbon-reducing diet which is not designed to make you slim. There’s news about fracking, palm oil, insects and cheese, and a review of that book I mentioned last time: The Uninhabitable Earth.
My last episode was a bit of a polemic. Climate change is real, climate change is dangerous, stopping climate change is our responsibility. I know that if that is the constant message of the Sustainable Futures Report you’ll get bored, fed up and you’ll stop listening. I won't ignore climate change because it is important, but the Sustainable Futures Report will continue to bring you news of technologies, research, policies and business actions which will mitigate climate change or help us to adapt. Sustainability is a vast topic and while our survival depends on managing the climate, we need to nurture our planet within it, and make sure it will always be a nice - and sustainable - place to live in.
Growth in carbon emissions
Last December, at the UN’s COP24 climate summit at Katowice in Poland the Global Carbon Project issued its emissions forecast for 2018. Preliminary data showed that output from fossil fuels and industry would grow by around 2.7% in 2018, the largest increase in seven years. The rapid increase in 2018 CO2 output followed a smaller 1.6% rise in 2017. Before that, three years of flat emissions to 2016 had raised hopes that emissions had peaked. The world is clearly deviating from the path to the planned 80% reduction by 2050.
William Happer heads US climate change committee
Now we have news that a climate change denier who once compared the “demonisation” of carbon dioxide to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany is set to lead a White House panel assessing whether global warning poses a threat to US national security.
William Happer, a senior director for the National Security Council and former physics professor at Princeton University, rejects mainstream climate science and has claimed a rise in carbon emissions should be viewed as an asset rather than a problem.
Happer is described by the Heartland Institute as “one of the most prestigious climate scientists in the world,” although he is elsewhere described by them as “a specialist in modern optics, optical and radio frequency spectroscopy of atoms and molecules, radiation propagation in the atmosphere, and spin-polarized atoms and nuclei.” Not exactly the same thing.
The Heartland Institute, by the way, is a leading financial supporter of climate change denial. It rejects the scientific consensus on global warming, and says that policies to fight it would be damaging to the economy. In the past it has worked with the tobacco company Philip Morris to attempt to discredit the health risks of secondhand smoke and to lobby against smoking bans.
Happer himself has spoken extensively on climate change and CO2 and believes that more CO2 would envigorate plant life. Among other things, he has said,
“I would like history to remember me as an honest scientist. Along with many like me, I am trying to explain to my fellow Americans the serious damage that will be done to us, and indeed to the whole world, by cockamamie policies to 'save the planet' from CO2.”
“We have no more ability to prevent climate change than King Canute had to stop the tide from rising. All the observational evidence is that CO2 has a relatively small effect on temperature. Changes in the Earth’s temperature will continue to be dominated by natural causes, whether we increase CO2 concentrations, by continuing to burn fossil fuels, or whether we permit a nightmarish police state to stop emissions of CO2, and punish 'deniers' as some in the alarmist camp demand.”
His views are not accepted by the majority of the scientific community, but for the moment he is in charge of US climate policy, at least at the Federal Level.
CCS at Drax
If you agree with William Happer, you don't have to worry about CO2. However, if you are running the U.K.'s largest and dirtiest power station you do.
It was announced earlier this month that Drax Power has started to capture carbon at its plant in North Yorkshire. That's very interesting because of course Drax has received Government subsidies for being a clean operation because it burns biofuel. That biofuel is wood pellets imported from forests in the United States. Because these forests are growing and absorbing CO2 as they do so, the process is considered to be close to carbon-neutral. Whether or not it is, is open to question, and while the American forest may be absorbing CO2 the plant at Drax is certainly emitting CO2. Hence the project to capture it. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has long been the philosopher's stone, or the ultimate solution to cleaning up power generation from fossil fuels. No commercial scale carbon capture and storage scheme is currently in operation. It looks as though Drax has achieved carbon capture, but the key issue now is the storage bit. What are they going to do with it? And how far will the energy required for the carbon capture and storage process reduce the overall efficiency of the plant? Some have suggested an overhead of as much as 20%.
Driving Down CO2
Drax is not alone. The Department for Transport is clearly trying to cut carbon emissions as well.
Writing in February’s Oil Market Report, James Spencer of Portland Fuels describes how the Department has introduced measures to increase the use of biofuel blended with diesel for road vehicles. Some of the steps appear to go too far. Is there enough biofuel available? Can that level of biofuel be used without invalidating engine warranties? If operators cannot meet the targets they have to pay more for their fuel. Spencer supports the civil servants for taking important actions while the rest of government is paralysed by Brexit uncertainty. If they are pushing the boundaries the market will have to respond. Read the full article at https://portland-fuel.co.uk/market-reports/
Meanwhile there are problems for Fracking
Cuadrilla has said it had only been able to frack 5% of its well near Blackpool in the north of England because of the rules, and warned commercial fracking was not viable under the UK’s regulatory regime. These rules require fracking to be suspended for a period if it triggers earth tremors at 0.5 on the Richter scale or more. Tremors at that level are undetectable by humans and cause no surface damage.
Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the fracking company Ineos, has called for the safeguards on earth tremors caused by fracking to be relaxed. That’s the same Jim Ratcliffe who has recently relocated to Monaco and is expected to save up to £4bn in tax as a result.
A correspondent to the Northern Echo points out that the calls for relaxing regulations must come as a concern to North Yorkshire MP Kevin Hollinrake, who supports fracking but has repeatedly said he would only support fracking if monitored by “gold standard” regulation.
The question still remains whether fracking can be done safely and economically. Scotland’s government, as well as those of France, Germany, and Ireland (among others), have banned fracking in the firm belief that it can’t. The current low gas prices aren’t helping the economic case either.
UK Housing - Fit for the Future?
Last week the UK’s Climate Change Commission published a new report ‘UK housing: Fit for the future?’, and warned that the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets would not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings.
In addition they said that emissions reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes had stalled, while energy use in homes – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017.
It also pointed out that the chopping and changing of UK Government policy had led to a skills gap in housing design, construction and in the installation of new technologies.
“The way new homes are built and existing properties are “retrofitted” with energy efficiency measures often falls short of stated design standards, deceiving householders and inflicting costs on the future,” the committee said.
“Ensuring existing homes are low-carbon and resilient to the changing climate is a major UK infrastructure priority, and must be supported as such by the Treasury.”
The press is frequently selective in reporting stories. On this occasion the main thing we heard about was the recommendation that by 2025 new homes should no longer be fitted with gas boilers for heating or gas hobs for cooking.
This will of course reduce emissions from homes, but given that the nation’s housing stock is replaced very slowly over time, with a significant proportion of properties more than a century old it will take a very long time before regulations affecting only new homes will have a practical effect. Hence the committee’s emphasis on retrofit, which on this occasion passed the press by.
Let’s hope that the Treasury can be persuaded to support the Committee’s recommendations, but with a current government which is very reluctant to spend any money even if a return can be demonstrated, ..…
The Planetary Diet
Another way to cut global CO2 emissions could be by adopting the Planetary Diet.
This diet is not designed to make you slim or to make you healthy and it doesn't come with any recipes. It was announced in the scientific journal The Lancet, and its purpose is not just to safeguard the health of you or me, but to safeguard the health of the planet and the global population. It aims to meet SDG No 2 Zero Hunger, and to achieve this within the climate goals and emissions reductions of the Paris Agreement.
According to the authors, although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
They claim that Dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10·8–11·6 million deaths per year, a reduction of 19·0–23·6%.
The solution does not look easy. The report says that transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and a greater than 100% increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
The reference diet which the report’s authors publish aims to deliver 2,500 calories per day to each adult. The recommendation is heavy on fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, but with no more than 14g of pork, beef or lamb, 58g of chicken or 100g of fish per day.
But exactly how practical is such a diet? Sam Bloch of Yes Magazine examined the report in depth. He finds widespread criticism of the diet, although some of the critics may not be totally unbiased. The study’s lead author has been accused, he says, of pushing outdated nutritional science—in particular, recommending a diet low in saturated fats, which the report calls for in the form of less beef, eggs, and dairy. That’s upset the animal agriculture industry, and dietitians and paleo freaks aren’t having it, either. Others have accused the authors of misunderstanding available resources for agriculture and sustainable food production, and called the funders out-of-touch, hypocritical Norwegian billionaires.
Bloch went further and tried the diet for himself for a week but found it both difficult and expensive.
He said: “Because I tried hard not to eat something if I didn’t know the amount of every ingredient it contained, I cooked almost everything I ate. I weighed everything on a kitchen scale. I didn’t eat with friends. When they got pizza, I ate wheat berries and black beans out of a reused yogurt container. When they drank beer, I had water.”
He also said that some of the whole foods that he had to buy came at premium prices, like a wholegrain loaf without additives at $7 instead of $3.99 and chicken stock without added flavours, sugars, or yeast at $7.39 instead of $2.
Maybe central New York was not the best place to try the experiment. In a place where wide varieties of exotic foods are available and expected, it could be that basics are more expensive because they are less demanded or more highly priced because they are fashionable.
“The numbers for red meat sound small to a lot of people in the UK or US,” said Harvard University professor of nutrition Walter Willett, who worked on the project.
“But they don’t sound small to the very large part of the world’s population that already consumes about that much or even less. It is very much in line with traditional diets.”
It’s going to be a very hard sell to persuade people in the affluent West to adopt an unexciting diet, especially if it’s going to cost them more. The thing about food is that while some don’t have enough, others enjoy the experience of consumption - like consumption of many other things for pleasure, not out of pure necessity. Granny used to say, “Finish everything on your plate. There are starving children in the world who would be glad of that.” True. But do we really care?
The report is currently available for free download from The Lancet website.
The Problem with Cheese
The planetary diet does permit a small amount of cheese, but an article in last week’s New Scientist magazine by Graham Lawton raised doubts. The global annual production of cheese is some 22m tonnes and growing. Lawton suggests that cheese and butter are as bad if not worse than meat when it comes to global warming and animal welfare. Cows belch out vast amounts of methane which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, producing a kilo of beef emits an average of 26.5kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. Producing a litre of milk requires 1.3 kg of CO2 but cheese takes 10l of milk for each kilogram and averages out at about 9.8kg of CO2e. Some cheeses can cause emissions of more than 16 kg of CO2 per kilo of cheese. Research in Finland is looking for the zero carbon cow. Methane belched in the fields cannot be trapped, but researchers have managed the pasture so that the grass becomes a carbon sink, absorbing up to 3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. They are also attempting to breed less flatulent cows, to improve their feed and to trap any methane emitted in cowsheds. Manure can be used as biofuel as well, although all these measures still only offset about half of the greenhouse gases produced.
Cheese is made from milk, milk comes from cows and the only way to keep cows lactating is to keep them permanently pregnant. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated every year. Calves are removed from their mothers at birth either to be bred as more dairy cows or to go immediately to slaughter. Dairy cows last for 3 to 7 years before they go to slaughter, although the natural lifespan of a cow is nearer 20 years.
As Graham Lawton says in his article in the New Scientist,
“The only easy way to reduce the environmental impact of dairy food is to intensify the farms, but that intensifies the welfare problem.. …If you're concerned about the environmental and animal welfare impacts of dairy you have to cut down or renounce it entirely.”
And in other news…
A report published in the journal Biological Conservation entitled, “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers” by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, Kris A.G. Wyckhuys, led to anxious headlines in the press.
Plummeting insect numbers 'threaten collapse of nature’ - The Guardian
‘A different dimension of loss’: inside the great insect die-off - The Guardian again
Insectageddon: a global crisis of insect extinction and population decline - stuff.co.nz
Insect Apocalypse: 40% of world species threatened with extinction, report finds - euronews
The Insect Apocalypse Is Here - New York Times, and many more.
Based on a comprehensive review of 73 historical reports of insect declines from across the globe, the work reveals dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world's insect species over the next few decades. Common species such as butterflies and dung beetles are among the most affected.
The authors recommend that a rethinking of current agricultural practices, in particular a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices, is urgently needed to slow or reverse current trends. Climate change is also recognised as a driver of decline, particularly in tropical regions.
The statements that drove the headlines included these:
“The pace of modern insect extinctions surpasses that of vertebrates by a large margin.. . …it is evident that we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods (Ceballos et al., 2017; Raup and Sepkoski Jr, 1986). Because insects constitute the world's most abundant and speciose animal group and provide critical services within ecosystems, such [an] event cannot be ignored and should prompt decisive action to avert a catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems”
You remember that a few weeks ago (18th January) I interviewed Chris Thomas, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of York and a Fellow of the Royal Society. At the time he told me that he was relaxed but not complacent about the pace of extinction in the natural world. I asked him for comment.
“No I don't totally agree - and I am in the process of writing up my response. Many species are declining, but the extrapolation to complete biomass collapse and mass extinction within a century seem to go beyond the current data.”
It will be interesting to see how this scientific debate develops. It might still be a good idea to reform agricultural practices and manage pesticides more closely in the meantime.
A note on palm oil.
You'll be aware the palm oil is present in a wide range of products which we all buy, from food to toiletries. Wide areas of forest have been felled and burnt to clear land for palm oil plantations. This has led to smog which has been blown across international borders and affected cities hundreds of miles away. Clearing forests has destroyed much of the habitat of the orangutan which is now classed as critically endangered. Do you remember the controversy about frozen food retailer Iceland’s Christmas commercial? It was covered in the Sustainable Futures Report for 16th November 2018.[I’ve put a link on the blog] Banned because it was too political. Iceland has since been in trouble because people are claiming that they haven’t removed palm oil from their own brand products as promised.
But there’s another dimension to this story. A recent programme on BBC Radio 4 explained how palm oil was adopted by the food industry to replace transfats which were getting a very bad press a few years ago because they were thought to raise the risk of coronary heart disease. Now palm oil is demonised because it has led to the destruction of forests, so many people will reject products which contain it.
But there’s a problem, said the BBC. We are where we are. If we kill demand for palm oil the existing plantations could become derelict. The forests won’t come back. And here’s the rub: palm oil trees produce four times as much oil per hectare as other vegetable crops, so to replace existing palm oil production with substitutes will take four times as much land. And existing palm oil plantations may well not be suitable for other oil-producing crops.
Nothing’s simple in sustainability, is it?
We're getting towards the end and I haven't said a thing about the weather. February in the UK has seen record-breaking high temperatures, but maybe it's just a blip. Like the freezing weather from the Beast from the East which hit us last year. But the trend is rising, and this morning I hear that Saddleworth Moor on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire is ablaze. Fires burnt there for weeks last summer, but in February?
I promised you a review of The Uninhabitable Earth, a book I told you about last time. I'm afraid I've run out of time and I'm going to have to carry it over until next week along with all the other things which I've been meaning to cover. Well sustainability is such a wide field. It's all important, which is very frustrating.
Anyway thank you for listening. A particular thank you to my patrons for supporting my work on the Sustainable Futures Report. With a monthly donation of $1 upwards they help me pay for hosting this podcast, the books I need to read to keep myself up-to-date, the pictures to illustrate the blog and my monthly donation to Wikipedia. Thanks to you all.
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I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There'll be another one next week.