Hello I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, the 10th of April. Yes, this is the Sustainable Futures Report which ranks 140 among Apple news podcasts, in Taiwan.
This time I'm not talking about the green deal although it's a topic which I am determined to bring to you. I'm still trying to arrange one or more interviews.
In these very difficult times I thought I would try and inject some humour into the proceedings, so I searched online for Climate Change jokes. How depressing. Yes, there are lots of “jokes” and I've put that in inverted commas. The trouble is they are either ignorant, in bad taste, completely impossible to understand or just not funny. Mainly, all those things.
Two planets meet. The first one asks: "How are you?"
"Not so well", the second answered "I've got the Homo Sapiens."
"Don't worry," the other replied, "I had the same. That won't last long.”
"How long do we have?" asked a comedian at a fringe event at the UN General Assembly on Climate Change last year.
"10 years," said an audience member.
"This is so scary - let's talk about my ex-girlfriend instead,”
See what I mean?
So instead I'm going to talk about COP26, the way out of this pandemic and its effect on actions against climate change; coal mining, geo-engineering and global dimming.
Not a lot to say about COP26 of course, except that it's been postponed for a year. That's hardly surprising given that governments are preoccupied with the pandemic and the conference centre in Glasgow where it was to be held is currently being converted to the hospital. It was billed as the most important UN climate conference yet, with the objective of reviewing performance and setting new targets 5 years after the 2015 Paris Accord. It appears that the slowdown in industrial activity and corresponding reduction in atmospheric pollution and emissions may have bought us some time, although not a lot. Many conferences are now being transferred online. Is this not an option for COP26?
And after the pandemic?
According to Reuters it’s a good time to issue Green bonds, government borrowing to fund projects such as renewable energy and public transport. Germany had already planned to do this before the virus and has confirmed that it will go ahead. There’s hope that Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Britain will follow suit.
What will change once all this is over?
Camilla Watkiss of Climate Action says that the actions taken to suppress the spread of the virus have revealed what measures are possible in an emergency and that many experts are urging governments to apply the same momentum to the climate emergency. Experts, she says, believe that the pandemic exposes how we can do things differently.
It’s quite true: where there’s an overwhelming imperative actions can be taken almost overnight. In the UK we built a hospital in a week and re-nationalised the railways over a weekend. That doesn’t mean we could build HS2 in a week or complete Hinkley C nuclear power station by Easter, nor should we, but it does raise questions about the immense amount of time that these infrastructure projects seem to take, and are they really what we want and need? We have at least got time now to stand back and ask whether such projects are our true priority especially when we see the limitations imposed on our NHS by 10 years of austerity and under-investment and the even worse state of our social care system.
Health at the Heart
Watkiss quotes Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL and Chair of the WHO’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health.
We should continue to be “putting the likely impact on health equity at the heart of all policymaking.That would lead to better environmental policy, it would lead to better social policy, it would lead to better healthcare policy and better political policies,” he said. We cannot go back to ‘business as usual’, “We must not go back to the status quo, we cannot do that.”
“With Covid-19, everything [on austerity] went out of the window. It turns out austerity was a choice,” he said. “The government can spend anything [in the context of the coronavirus crisis], and they have socialised the economy.”
Co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Dr Gail Bradbrook, agreed. “Things that needed to have been done but weren’t to prevent the pandemic, are similar to the things needed to address the climate and ecological crisis.”
Extinction Rebellion have been urging governments to aim for net-zero emissions by 2025, Dr Bradbrook added: “We were told this was an “impossible target”, but the things happening right now are the things needed to hit a 2025 target. We can do the impossible. We have to.”
In the Guardian newspaper Jonathan Watts complains that rightwing governments have denied the problem and been slow to act. With coronavirus and the climate, this costs lives. Like global warming, but in close-up and fast-forward, the Covid-19 outbreak shows how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.
On these matters, competence and ideology overlap. Governments willing to intervene have been more effective at stemming the virus than laissez-faire capitalists. The further right the government, the more inclined it is to delay action and offload blame elsewhere. International comparisons suggest this could be making infection and death rates steeper.
He cites the US, Brazil and the UK as examples. He says that though not as extreme in his denial as Trump or Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson acknowledged the risk, but did little about it. In the first few weeks his government dithered.
The pandemic has proved that delays are deadly and expensive. If we are to avoid a cascade of future crises, governments must think beyond a return to business as usual. Our conception of what is “normal” will have to change. We’ll need to invest in natural life-supporting systems such as a stable climate, fresh air and clean water. In the past, those goals have been dismissed as unrealistic or expensive, but recent weeks have shown how quickly the political compass can shift.
Climate and Coronavirus
In the MIT Technical Review James Temple claims that the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change. He believes that emissions are likely to rise again as soon as the economy bounces back. In the meantime, if the virus leads to a full-blown global pandemic and economic crash, it could easily drain money and political will from climate efforts. There could be a shortage of capital for green projects, a shortage of equipment for renewables as China’s industry gets back to normal and the collapse of the oil price will make the running costs of conventional cars highly competitive with electric.
Writing for the Ethical Corporation, Amy Davidsen says, “Electric vehicles are crucial in addressing the global climate crisis. Transportation emissions represent 29% of all US global warming emissions, the largest source of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. As we begin the critical decade for climate action, where global emissions must be cut in half by 2030 to limit the worst impacts of a warming planet, transitioning away from polluting vehicles to clean electric transport will be a key part of the solution.”
Electric vehicles are cleaner than internal combustion engines, regardless of the type of electricity used to charge the vehicle because the engine is more efficient and there are no exhaust pipe emissions.
“While great progress is being made, one of the biggest obstacles to the electric vehicle transition is a lack of vehicle supply and models from automakers, particularly in the US,” she says.
Who’s in Charge?
The US has problems because of divided responsibility between the States and Federal government. Emission standards are rolled back at the centre while New York legislates for an all-electric fleet and New Jersey adopts similar legislation to help secure its 100% clean energy goal for 2050. Meanwhile California is taking the federal administration to law over its attempt to ease up on fuel efficiency rules. No wonder the carmakers are confused.
Away from health issues life goes on. The UK government still has to make a decision on permitting a new deep coal mine in Cumbria to go ahead. Coal pollutes, but coal mining will bring jobs to a depressed area. This is industrial coal for steel-making. If we don’t mine it in the UK we’ll have to import it from Russia or Poland - or give up making steel, which will cost jobs.
I’m glad it’s not my decision.
As industrial activity declined and the Chinese closed their factories in Wuhan, NASA satellites were able to observe significant fall in airborne pollution, particularly nitrous oxide. There have been reports suggesting that improved air quality has led to the avoidance of far more premature deaths than the number caused by COVID19, but as the factories re-open the level of pollution is rising again.
“Normal” emissions include CO2 and nitrous oxide and other things like black carbon, dust and sulphates. These give rise to the global dimming paradox. Particulates and sulphates in the atmosphere reflect sunlight back into space and therefore have a global cooling effect. Unlike green house gases, which persist in the atmosphere for up to a year or more, these pollutants fall out in days. Their dimming, or cooling effect can therefore be lost very rapidly. Some researchers believe the effect could be as much as 0.5 or even 1.0℃.
E&T, the house journal of the Institution of Engineering and Technology reports that “Climate change risk could be mitigated with the right dose of geoengineering”. They refer to a study by scientists at UCL and Harvard who suggest that even a crude method, like injecting sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere, could reduce many important climate hazards without making any region obviously worse off. Adding more sulphur dioxide increases global dimming and increases the cooling effect. Previous studies have suggested that injecting SO2 into the atmosphere could have a beneficial effect for some areas of the earth, but could devastate others. These scientists now say that that’s unlikely to happen. Let’s hope they’re right, because we have only one earth.
The truth of the controversy is far from clear. There’s a detailed analysis on scientistswarning.org. This includes a video by Dave Borlace of Just Hav¬e a Think, which explains the issues very clearly and analyses the principal scientific papers. It’s a 14-minute session and I strongly recommend you watch it. It’s on youTube, on Patreon and accessible via the link on the Sustainable Futures Report blog.
I did say to start with that I’d been looking for some jokes. Not much here, I’m afraid. It’s trite to say that this, too, will pass, but eventually it will. I trust you’ll keep safe and healthy, and that we’ll be able to build a better future for all once all this is over.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
And I fully intend to bring you another next week.
- As Europe fights coronavirus and climate, is 'green stimulus' the way? (Reuters)
- The need for speed in going all-electric to lead the climate decade
How governments react to disasters
Coronavirus bad news for climate change
Geoengineering and global dimming