Yes it's Friday.
I'm back to Fridays and this is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 31st May 2019. I hope you enjoyed your Bank Holiday weekend and/or half term and are ready to get back to the daily routine. No more public holidays until the end of August, although most of us will probably have a summer break before that.
It’s reported that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached 415 ppm for the first time in human history. The last time Earth experienced such a level there were trees at the South Pole.This month researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded a level of 415.26, which compares with only 300 ppm as recently as 1910. Even that was higher than it had ever been for 800,000 years. They say, “The alarming hockey stick trajectory of current CO2 ppm increases mean we basically have no idea how bad things could get if we don't stop adding to the problem at such an accelerated rate.”
Meanwhile, Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS) James Reilly – a White House-appointed former oil geologist – ordered that scientific assessments only use computer-generated models that track the possible impact of climate change until 2040, according to The New York Times.
Previously the USGS modelled effects until the end of the century, the second half of which is likely to see the most dramatic impacts of global warming. Clearly the administration not only dislikes fake news, it dislikes bad news as well.
In other news,
Opinions on climate change diverge in the US, the new Australian government takes climate-related decisions, the Greens advance in Europe and we hear a perspective from Rotterdam. Sea levels are rising, but oil companies deny any liability while some suggest we could ease the climate crisis by working shorter hours. And what about carbon offsets? It seems my scepticism may have been justified.
Met takes Hard Line
But first, following the Extinction Rebellion protest over the Easter, the Metropolitan Police have said that they want to prosecute all 1,300 demonstrators who were arrested. They have vowed that disruption at this level will not be allowed to occur again. This could be seen as a reaction by the police to the fact that the demonstrations took much longer to clear than expected and the total cost of the operation was some £7.5m. The Met’s image was not helped by footage of officers on duty skateboarding and dancing with protesters.
The fact remains that we have a difficult situation, indeed Extension Rebellion calls it a crisis situation. In their view the government is not doing enough to address the climate crisis or even to admit that there is a climate crisis, which is Extinction Rebellion’s first demand. How should citizens be able to influence the actions of the government? In the UK we have a problem that, at least until recently, the electoral system has delivered a ruling party with a substantial majority. This has meant that the Prime Minister and Cabinet have effectively ruled without having to consider public opinion or even to fight to get their legislation through Parliament. It has come to the point where individual citizens have taken the government to court for acting beyond its authority, or for not meeting its legal obligations. For example, after the Brexit referendum the government announced that it would give formal notice to the EU that the UK was leaving under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Gina Miller took the government to court and the judges upheld her contention that the government could not trigger Article 50 without the approval of the members of parliament.
The government lost the action and Article 50 was not triggered until after MPs had voted on it. On the other hand, campaigning legal group Client Earth have prosecuted the British government three times and are about to embark on a fourth action to insist that the government should meet European regulations on air quality. Each time so far Client Earth has won its action and each time the government has failed to comply with the court’s ruling. Effectively they are treating both the court and the people with contempt.
To take legal action against a government is hardly desirable and in any case is extremely expensive and delays are not unknown to the legal system. Faced with this situation Extinction Rebellion decided that the only way to get the government’s attention was to adopt a policy of civil disobedience. The government can ignore the activists or back the police in driving them off the streets. Extension Rebellion supporters have said that for every activist who is jailed there will be others to take their places. We cannot afford confrontation: there must be a dialogue, but it takes two to talk.
A report from the Yale Program on Climate Communication suggests that US voters are more widely split on climate change than they are on abortion or gun control. At least it’s clear that climate will be an issue in the 2020 election. Climate was an issue in the recent Australian election, but in a surprise result the environmentally-focused Labor Party failed to win. A major topic of disagreement was the development of a $2 billion coal mine owned by India's Adani Group. The project had been on hold, blocked by the Queensland government. Once the election results became clear Queensland dropped its objections and construction could start within weeks. Commentators suggest that legislators were afraid of a backlash in the forthcoming state elections if they continued to block the mine.
In another election, the elections to the European Parliament, the Greens made gains in most countries. They now have 69 members instead of 50, a significant increase but still a small proportion of the 751 seats.
View from Rotterdam
From time to time I mention the oil market reports from James Spencer of Portland Fuel. At Easter he visited the Netherlands and he writes of a trip to Rotterdam’s Europoort. He says, “To travel the 40km from the mouth of the Rhine (Nieuwe Mass) to the centre of Rotterdam is akin to visiting some kind of industrial wonderland and really has to be seen to be believed – no written description can ever do justice to the sheer scale of the place. Here is Europe’s largest container port, cheek by jowl with oil processing, steel works, power stations and every possible mode of transport going. As you drive inland, sometimes it feels that there are more barges travelling down the Rhine than there are vehicles on the road. Add to that the Freight trains that pass every 5 minutes, more wind turbines than you can shake a stick at, tunnels, bridges and concrete causeways in every direction, and you have one of the most exciting, vibrant industrial areas on the planet.”
He goes on to describe how oil and petrochemicals are at the heart of all this, how the area supports some 400,000 jobs - mostly highly skilled and highly paid - and how Europoort is fundamental to the Netherlands’ economic prosperity.
At the other end of the earth, in Australia, one of the election campaign slogans was “There will be no jobs on a dead planet”.
We have to decarbonise, but these two extremes demonstrate how incredibly difficult it will be to move away from fossil fuels, while preserving jobs, communities and ongoing economic stability. All of this should have been planned 30 or 40 years ago. Time is much shorter now and effective action will be much more difficult and disruptive. It will take competent, far-sighted and determined politicians to achieve it. I hope we can find some.
Politicians in Australia have clearly failed to step up to that plate. Politicians in the US have turned their backs on the Paris Agreement and are pretending it will all go away.
Sea Levels Rising
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of sciences of the USA casts doubts on predicted levels of sea level rise by 2100. Previously it was expected that levels would increase by no more than 1m by the end of the century, but the researchers now find that a global total Sea Level Rise exceeding 2m by 2100 lies within the 90% uncertainty bounds for a high emission scenario. This is more than twice the upper value put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the Fifth Assessment Report. They make the point that the contribution of melting ice-caps to rising sea levels is extremely hard to predict, but they believe that their calculations indicate that adaptation measures should be reviewed and revised to cope with increased risk. As David Attenborough pointed out in his recent documentaries, 600 million people live in coastal communities less than ten metres above sea level. This includes many of the richest and most important cities in the world.
Climate Liability News reports that the oil companies argue that cities cannot sue for climate liability.
Industry trade groups, several law professors, a free-market legal think tank, the U.S. government and 18 states have rallied behind five major oil companies in fighting a major climate liability lawsuit. They filed a flurry of briefs supporting the companies against claims by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland that seek to hold the oil companies accountable for the costs of adapting to sea level rise and other climate impacts. Among other things they argue that the issue is political and that that the courts have no power to rule on political issues. This is similar to the line taken by the US government in the Juliana case. Remember the Juliana case? I haven’t mentioned it for a while, but it’s still going on. It’s a case where a group of young people are suing the government for ruining their life chances by allowing the oil companies to operate in a way which poisons the planet. Juliana is four years older than when the action started. The government is continuing to use all possible legal means to get the action struck out and to prevent it from ever coming to trial.
In the other case Exxon alleges that two state attorneys general are violating its First Amendment right to express its opinion on climate change. Chevron has taken a similar position.
Two things are clear.
1- San Francisco and Oakland will need to spend billions on flood protection.
2 - The works will probably be finished long before the case is decided.
What can I do?
What can we do to do our bit to tackle the climate crisis? That’s a constant question, but here are two suggestions:
“The Ecological Limits of Work” published by Autonomy Research suggests that we should drastically cut the working week. Author Philipp Frey draws on previous research showing that every reduction in the working week yields a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions, and that the sustainable level of working hours is very much less than the current 40. In fact his calculations support a working week of less than 10 hours.
Frey says, “I would [thus] argue that the climate crisis calls for an unprecedented decrease in the economic activity that causes GHG emissions, and this confronts us with, [to adapt Paul Lafargue’s phrase,] the ‘necessity to be lazy’. If ecological sustainability requires an overall decrease in material consumption, a vast expansion in terms of leisure time and thus an increase in “time prosperity” would be less of a luxury and more of an urgency.”
He accepts that cutting the working week alone will not have the desired effect on emissions and must be accompanied by other policies. For example, manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction should give way to employment in service professions and green jobs such as reforestation operations.
From my reading of the paper I cannot see whether the reduced working week is expected to pay the same income as the current week. If not, no-one will be able to afford to cut their hours. If so, won’t this make production impossibly expensive? It’s an interesting idea. I’ll try and track Philipp Frey down and ask him some questions.
Another publication from Autonomy, “The Shorter Working Week: a powerful tool to drastically reduce carbon emissions” adds to the discussion. Find a link to this on the blog.
The second suggestion of what we can do is carbon offsets. They seem to have dropped out of favour recently. Time was that when you booked a flight you were invited to buy some trees to offset the emissions you were going to create. The whole logic of Drax power station’s conversion to biomass burning is based on the theory that all the wood that is consumed is offset by new growth which absorbs an equivalent amount of co2. In the case of Drax, that new growth is in the US where their wood pellets come from, so they are trying again to develop carbon capture and storage to take away and sequester all the co2 which is actually emitted by the burning the wood on site.
I’ve always been sceptical of carbon offsets. After all, it will take years for a tree to absorb the equivalent co2 to the amount that your flight could have emitted in an afternoon. And if you plant trees and you don’t go flying you are actually reducing the global co2 load. But if you plant trees, unless someone looks after them for 100 years they won’t absorb and lock away the expected co2.
Now ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in the US presents “An Even More Inconvenient Truth - why carbon credits for forest preservation may be worse than nothing.” Their researchers in Brazil found that plantations intended to act as offsets had either not been planted or had never offset as much carbon as intended. On a global scale a 2016 report found that 85% of offsets had a “low likelihood” of creating real impacts. This is partly because the money charged for the carbon offsets was not enough to manage the planting schemes.
An alternative approach to planting new trees is to pay developing countries for not cutting down forests. The UN formalised the concept as REDD, or Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The UN supported pilot programs, as did the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Non-governmental organisations and private companies funded hundreds of small-scale offset projects, and a few countries launched “results-based” programmes, which reward preservation without generating offsets.
Unfortunately there is no central authority to deal with the varieties of REDD that now exist. No one has done a comprehensive assessment of how effective these programmes actually are. In some cases investigators found that REDD was simply layered onto existing conservation plans, reducing it to a “logo to attract financing.”
When a tree is destroyed, all the carbon accumulated over its lifetime is released back into the atmosphere. CO2 persists in the atmosphere for about 100 years, so to truly offset carbon emissions the trees that are bought as offsets must live for at least 100 years. Many don’t.
In 2014, FIFA bought a batch of credits to help fulfil a sustainability pledge it made before the World Cup in Brazil. The offsets came from a project launched by the Paiter-Suruí tribe in the Brazilian state of Rondônia . The project aimed to cut deforestation in highly logged areas along the territory’s borders, and it received funding from USAID. But some members of the tribe, disillusioned by the amount of money going to international groups for logistics management, colluded with loggers and anti-REDD activists to sabotage the project.
The project sold 250,000 credits. It was suspended last year, after the loggers destroyed more trees than all the credits sold.
Similar stories come from Cambodia and other parts of the world.
Let’s not forget that if carbon offset projects worked perfectly and locked up an amount of carbon equivalent to the amount emitted by the organisations buying the offsets we would only be in exactly the same position as we were before. Carbon offsets are too often seen as a cheap “Get out of jail free” card, allowing polluters to pay some money and go on polluting. Trees are one of the best ways of extracting CO2 from the air. We need more trees, we need to halt deforestation and we need industries to re-engineer themselves to stop pollution at source. No-one should be allowed to ease their conscience on the back of the offset myth.
And finally, did you send me a book? Somebody did. It came in the post last week. I think it’s my book and I must have lent it to someone who’s decided to return it. No note. But if it was you, thank you very much. The book by the way is “Enough is Enough, Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill. It’s a good read. You can borrow it if you if you like.
Next week I’ll be talking about waste, particularly electronic waste, an idea suggested by patron Shane. Two more patrons have recently joined so here’s a shout-out for Gordon Kinnear and Darren Paris. Thank you and thanks to all my patrons for your support. If you’re not yet a patron and would like to be one, just pop across to patreon.com/sfr where you can support the Sustainable Futures Report for as little as $1 per month. Your ideas and comments are aways welcome, either via Patreon or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Date for your Diary
Before I go, here’s a date for your diary - 26th June. On that date The Climate Coalition and Greener UK are organising a mass lobby of the Westminster parliament to urge the government to act on the climate emergency. I’m hoping to be there. Details at thetimeisnowmap.co.uk.
That’s it for another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for your support.
There’ll be another episode next week.
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Climate crisis more politically polarizing than abortion for US voters, study finds