Friday, October 09, 2020

Absolute Zero


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Absolute Zero

Hello, I’m Anthony Day.

It’s Friday 9th October and in this week’s Sustainable Futures Report I’m looking at Project Drawdown, mentioned by Blair Sheppard of PwC in last week’s report. The UK prime minister this week set out his view of a green future and laid great emphasis on offshore wind. There’s good news and bad news on waste, and there are carbon-saving claims which may not be all they seem to be. The UK aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but also plans to open a new coal mine. Bill Gates is pessimistic about tackling climate change, Greenpeace is dropping rocks and the Earthshot Prize is announced.

Meanwhile, as weeks of wildfires come to an end in California there are forests still ablaze as far apart as Brazil and Ukraine and Storm Alex brings floods and fatalities to Italy and France. Last year Australia suffered its worst wildfires. Their 2020 wildfire season is just beginning.


Last week we mentioned a book called Drawdown. In fact there’s much more than a book. Founded in 2014, Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organisation that seeks to help the world reach “Drawdown”— the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. The Drawdown Review, just published, defines drawdown as a critical turning point. The review is the first major update since the original book was published in 2017.

The authors believe that drawdown, a far more demanding target than net zero, can be achieved by 2050 or even by the mid 2040s. They summarise 10 aspects of the project.

  1. We can do it. While governments and corporations are taking action, it’s nowhere near the speed or the scale required and emissions are continuing to rise. Nevertheless, many of the means to achieve the objective already exist.
  2. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no one simple solution. Success depends on coordinating the interdependencies between communities, industries, organisations and nations.
  3. Climate solutions have other benefits. For example clean air improves public health and green investment creates jobs.
  4. There is financial justification. The savings from doing things differently will outweigh the costs. This may involve the abolition or scaling back of existing industries. Unlike the UK coal communities in the 1980s, there must be a just transition.
  5. We must cut the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, which account for two thirds of global emissions. We must stop the subsidies to these industries.
  6. At the same time as reducing the sources of emissions we must reinforce the natural carbon sinks like wetlands, peat bogs and forests.
  7. We’re missing opportunities. For example to cut food waste, to move towards a plant-rich diet, to better to control refrigerants - some of the most powerful greenhouse gases - to spread reproductive healthcare and education more widely.
  8. The deployment of capital and policy will accelerate the process.
  9. The project involves many millions of leaders at all levels. Just as there is no single silver bullet, no single leader can make this happen. People in all levels in all organisations across the world must be informed and inspired to work towards the common purpose.
  10. Finally the aim must be to make possibility reality. When Greta Thunberg addressed the US Congress she said, “You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”

Sources and Sinks

The review then moves into detailed solutions which will reduce sources and support sinks. It starts by defining sources of emissions and existing sinks.

The big three for emissions are electricity generation (25%), food production (24%) and industry (21%), followed by Transport at 14%, Buildings (6%) and everything else(10%).

On the other side, 59% of emissions remain in the atmosphere, 24% are absorbed by plants and 17% by the oceans. 

The review looks at each of these categories in turn and in detail, and explains the actions that must be taken. The final section looks at social change and considers how climate change measures can improve society, with particular emphasis on health and education. 

In the closing pages they say, “…what may be politically unrealistic at present is physically and economically realistic, according to our analysis. There is a path forward for the world. The question is how to bring physical, economic, and political possibility into alignment.”

Boris Johnson

UK prime minister this week addressed his party conference with the slogan “Build Back Greener”. 

How far will his government go towards making the changes required for Drawdown? Let me quote from his speech:

I can today announce that the UK government has decided to become the world leader in low cost clean power generation – cheaper than coal, cheaper than gas; and we believe that in ten years time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country, with our target rising from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts. 

“We will invest £160m in ports and factories across the country, to manufacture the next generation of turbines.

“And we will not only build fixed arrays in the sea; we will build windmills that float on the sea – enough to deliver one gigawatt of energy by 2030, 15 times floating windmills, fifteen times as much as the rest of the world put together.

“Far out in the deepest waters we will harvest the gusts, and by upgrading infrastructure in such places as Teesside and Humber and Scotland and Wales we will increase an offshore wind capacity that is already the biggest in the world. 

“As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind…

“This investment in offshore wind alone will help to create 60,000 jobs in this country – and help us to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

“Imagine that future – with high-skilled, green-collar jobs in wind, in solar, in nuclear, in hydrogen and in carbon capture and storage. Retrofitting homes, ground source heat pumps. 

“…this government will lead that green industrial revolution.”

Short on Detail

The general comments to the whole of Mr Johnson's speech were that it was broad on vision but short on details. Beyond offshore wind power, virtually nothing was said about achieving climate goals. Of course the installation of the wind turbines he described would be a substantial step towards net zero. 

Aurora Energy Research calculates an investment of £50 billion would be needed to get to the point of powering the whole nation from wind by 2030. Quite a lot more than the £160 million that the Prime Minister mentioned. Of course it is not intended that the public sector should fund this development, so that amount can be seen as a catalyst invested in improvements to infrastructure. Although we lead the world in offshore wind, we do not manufacture the turbines. They have to be imported. To achieve the targets it will be necessary for the equivalent of one turbine to be installed every weekday for the whole of the next ten years. An important role of government will be to ensure that new seabed licences are rapidly delivered, as well as contracts to purchase the power that will make the turbines viable.

Sizewell Controversy

Writing in Private Eye magazine, Old Sparky reports that there is controversy in Suffolk over plans by Scottish Power Renewables to build infrastructure to bring ashore the power from a new offshore windfarm. There will be a 6 mile cable corridor and two large new substations. These works would cut across a stretch of Heritage Coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a special protection area and a site of special scientific interest. Close to the site is Sizewell where the existing nuclear power station already has a massive grid connection. Locals do not understand why Scottish Power Renewables does not use this as its connection point. A large increase in the number of offshore windfarms can only make problems like this more common.


The Conservative party is of course politically opposed to onshore wind power. While winds may be stronger out at sea, the construction of windfarms on land is cheaper, maintenance is easier and grid connection is generally simpler. But not politically acceptable.


Plastic-eating enzyme

Yes, there’s news about waste. First, The Guardian reports that a super-enzyme that degrades plastic bottles six times faster than before has been created by scientists and could be used for recycling within a year or two. They are also developing a version which could deal with cotton and combining the capabilities of both in a single organism could permit the recycling of multi-fibre fabrics containing both cotton and polyester. 

Hazardous waste returned

The bad news on the waste front comes from Sri Lanka, which returned 21 containers of hazardous waste to the UK last week. The shipment had been described as mattresses, carpets and rugs for recycling but was found to contain plastic and polythene waste. This is not the first time that waste has been returned to the UK. The whole issue is problematic, with local councils short of space for landfill and with limited recycling facilities receiving a constant stream of refuse for disposal. Brokers offer to ship the material abroad, insisting that everything meets the relevant regulations. Councils have no money to send inspectors to these remote locations to verify this and all too often organised crime takes the money, takes the waste and dumps it. 

Circular Economy

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We can tackle this problem if we can redirect consumer spending to services rather than goods and if we can redesign products so that they can be absorbed into the circular economy and be repaired, refurbished, remanufactured, repurposed and eventually reduced to their component materials for recycling.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation continues to promote the circular economy. After Brexit the UK will presumably no longer be involved in the European Circular Economy Action Plan. It will be interesting to see what the government puts in its place.

Fires across the world

36 people died in California’s wildfires which burned some 2 million hectares. President Trump blamed it all on poor forest management and said he didn’t think that science knew about global warming.

More than 17,000 wildfires have been recorded since the start of the year in the Pantanal, Brazil’s tropical wetlands. Thousands of animals, from jaguars to crocodiles have died. The Amazon, too, has seen an exceptional year for fires. The Pantanal is home to 656 species of birds, 159 species of mammals and 98 species of reptiles. After the fires, those animals that survived found there was nothing to eat. Volunteers are trying to bring them food and to rescue and treat injured animals. One volunteer said, “Some people have been saying that there are fires in the Pantanal every year. Yes, it’s true that every year, there are a few isolated fires. But they are controllable. This year, the fires were out of control. We’ve never seen so many animals die. The worst-affected were the reptiles and the amphibians. They usually seek refuge in holes in the ground. And then when the fire comes, they end up trapped.” An international disaster, but surprisingly little media coverage.

The New York Times reports an added dimension to wildfires raging in Ukraine. Because the area is a war zone the flames are setting off abandoned ordnance. Firefighters are at risk from landmines set off by the heat and they cannot use aircraft to douse the flames for fear that they will be shot down.

At the other extreme, parts of Italy and France have suffered  Storm Alex, with severe floods causing death and destruction to property. A macabre twist to the story came when floodwaters washed corpses from their graves.

And In Other News…


Inequality is a growing problem. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report the top 1% of the world’s population own 44% of the world’s capital. A report from the Stockholm Environmental Institute and Oxfam shows that over the 25 years to 2015 that 1% have been responsible for 15% of global emissions while the poorer 50% of global population accounted for only 7%. That’s 74 tonnes per head per annum for the rich and just 0.69 for the poor. Oxfam’s conclusion is that while there is clearly a limited carbon budget, a limit to the total emissions that can be released without causing irreparable damage to the planet, such emissions as remain should come from activities helping the poor and not indulging the rich.

Going Green

A company that produces meatless products has been running television commercials with the tagline:

 “If you care about climate change, take a step in the right direction with new Quorn…” 

The implication was that by using the product consumers were reducing their carbon footprint.

Complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Agency who ruled that the advertisement should be withdrawn because it was misleading consumers - although it had been on screens for at least four months. No basis was given to justify the claim in the advertisements that consumers would reduce their carbon footprint by using the product. The manufacturers were naturally unhappy because they had received carbon footprint certification from the Carbon Trust and they said they were consequently obliged to continually reduce their carbon footprint. Good intentions, but they overstated the case. There’s a narrow line between truth and greenwash. 

Greenpeace dropping rocks

Greenpeace has been dropping large boulders on to Dogger Bank in the North Sea. The area is nominally protected, but Greenpeace are taking this action to prevent trawlers from fishing there illegally. Bottom trawlers scour everything from the seabed and cause massive destruction. While this is permitted in some places, Greenpeace are laying these rocks to prevent trawling in what is designated a protected area. They undertake to remove these rocks if the government enforces the regulations. The response from the Ministry is that they will be better able to take action after Brexit. To emphasise their point, this week Greenpeace delivered a sculpture to the office of the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. It takes the form of a 1.5 ton rock and it will take a crane to remove it.

New Coalmine

News from Cumbria this week that the council has approved the development of a new deep coalmine. I’ve reported on this in the past and I thought it was refused and all over, but apparently not. The mine will produce metallurgical coal for use in steel mills and chemical plants, and not for power stations. In any case almost no electricity is now generated from coal.

The mine’s output will displace imported coal and a strong argument from the operating company is that if we need this coal, better that it comes from British mines and supports British jobs. Is there any way of making steel without coal? Can the CO2 be captured from the steelmaking process? Get in touch if you know the answer.

The project still has to receive government approval, and according to the Guardian that will come from the Housing Minister, Robert Jenrick. Seems odd that the housing minister has that responsibility.

Bill Gates

In an interview this week with Bloomberg Bill Gates said “The pandemic illustrates that government didn’t look out for us despite the warnings that were out there. Climate fits that same paradigm. Sadly, the problem gets worse and worse, and there isn’t a solution like a vaccine where you can spend tens of billions of dollars and bring it to a close. No, climate change is much harder. The damage that will be done every year will be greater than what we’ve seen during this pandemic.” 

And Finally, some are more optimistic.

EarthShot Prize

Prince William has launched The Earthshot Prize to incentivise change and help to repair our planet over the next ten years.

The announcement says, “Taking inspiration from President John F. Kennedy’s Moonshot which united millions of people around an organising goal to put man on the moon and catalysed the development of new technology in the 1960s, The Earthshot Prize is centred around five ‘Earthshots’ – simple but ambitious goals for our planet which if achieved by 2030 will improve life for us all, for generations to come.

“The five Earthshots unveiled today are:

  • Protect and restore nature
  • Clean our air
  • Revive our oceans
  • Build a waste-free world
  • Fix our climate

“Each Earthshot is underpinned by scientifically agreed targets including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and other internationally recognised measures to help repair our planet.”

You can see videos explaining each Earthshot on the website.

Every year from 2021 until 2030, Prince William, alongside The Earthshot Prize Council which covers six continents, will award The Earthshot Prize to five winners, one per Earthshot. The £1 million in prize money will support environmental and conservation projects that are agreed with the winners. 

If it does nothing else, Earthshot will help to keep the climate and environmental challenges in the public eye.

And that’s it…

…for another week.

I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you for listening, and if you are, thank you for being a patron.

There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week.


New super-enzyme eats plastic bottles six times faster

Rubbish sent back


Corpses washed from cemeteries in France-Italy floods


US West Coast fires: Trump fans flames of climate row in California 

Stockholm Environment Institute 

World's richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%

Circular Economy 


Bill Gates 

Greenpeace Fishing

Artist's 1.5-tonne protest over illegal fishing 

PM Outlook

PM to unveil plan to power all UK homes with wind by 2030

Climate: The week Boris Johnson turned green, or did he?

PM pledges millions for wind power revolution 

What did Boris Johnson's speech really mean?

Coal Mine

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