It’s an Ill Wind
It's another Sustainable Futures Report. I'm Anthony Day and it's Friday, 6th March.
COVID-19, the coronavirus, has got to be at the top of any agenda, but there’s also news about COP26, JP Morgan, Barclays Bank, wind power, climate denial and the coming of the Anti-Greta, a bar of soap and how’s your business coping with risk?
This week there’s an ill wind. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and this week’s wind is of course the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. It’s bad for most people, but there are some upsides as we’ll see in a moment. I think the most serious aspect of all this is the uncertainty. Nobody knows how it's going to play out and already markets are down and serious consequences are beginning to appear. We don't know how dangerous this virus is going to be or how far it will spread.
Back in 1918 Spanish flu killed more people than had died in the war. Times were very different then; there was limited understanding of the disease and no antibiotics to treat infectious side-effects like pneumonia. Governments decided that it would damage morale to tell the truth, and in the US and Europe reports of the disease were widely suppressed. Medical advice was ignored and not shared with citizens so there were no bans on public gatherings and parades. Soldiers returning from the front with the infection spread it widely through such events and it eventually killed some 50 million people across the world. That's a mortality rate of about 2 to 3%.
SARS, which broke out in 2003, is another coronavirus. The mortality rate for that was 10%, but the number of cases was very much smaller, less than 9,000, before the outbreak was stopped.
The present virus, COVID-19, has already seen more than 10 times the number of cases that occurred with SARS, with a mortality rate of 3%. That could be overstated, if not all cases are being recognised. If more people are actually suffering from the virus, then the percentage must be lower. We can only wait and see on that.
Most fatalities are occurring in patients with pre-existing health problems, but most people infected by COVID-19 experience relatively mild symptoms. Nevertheless, it’s wrong to treat it like seasonal winter flu. In the UK about 600 people die from winter flu each year, which is a lot less than a tenth of 1%. We just don’t know how far COVID-19 will spread, but for the moment the mortality rate looks much higher.
I don’t want to speculate about future outcomes because we can only really just watch events unfold. That doesn’t mean we can’t take action in our lives and in our businesses. Have you done a risk assessment and worked out all the different angles that your business could be impacted from? You know, the sort of studies that you will already have done for the climate crisis and for Brexit.
Planning for Risk
Down the line
Planning for risk is all about the supply chain - and the supply chain goes both ways. First, obviously, your suppliers. Motor manufacturer Jaguar has warned that a shortage of components from China could lead to lay-offs and suspended production in the next few weeks. They are by no means alone, but it’s not only manufacturers that are affected. British Airways and rival Ryanair have cancelled hundreds of flights as demand for travel drops amid fears about the spread of the virus. At the moment a very small number of locations worldwide are affected, but some people are still nervous about booking holidays. It’s likely that the cruise lines will lose business, with ships quarantined recently and fatalities among the passengers. It’s well known that norovirus can run right through a closed environment like a ship. Few will want to take that risk with COVID-19. Reluctance to travel is already affecting international conferences. I’m planning to go to one in Paris in August, but I certainly haven’t booked yet. What are the implications for COP26? This is billed as the most important COP yet, the one where countries are brought up to the mark to fulfil their Paris Accord obligations. We can’t afford it not to go ahead - the long-term stakes are much higher than the immediate coronavirus issues. Could COP26 be the first major international on-line conference? Surely we have the technology. Surely it’s a showcase that the web-conferencing companies can’t afford to miss.
Up the line
Supply chains go both ways, so while your supplies may be secure, your market may be depressed. On the other hand, if you’re a Jaguar dealer with customers but no cars you still have a problem. If the situation develops to the point that we are discouraged from visiting public spaces, high-street retailers will suffer significantly. It will be particularly bad for restaurants unless they can replace bookings with takeaway orders, but not all restaurant food is suitable for that. Supermarkets have seen an upsurge in orders for delivery and that trend is more than likely to continue. Supermarkets are already working together to ensure that a range of products will always be available to provide a balanced diet, while accepting that the number of product lines that they can offer is likely to be much reduced.
Is there any good news in all this? Well, reduced flights mean reduced emissions.
Satellite imagery from above Wuhan in China, the site of the original outbreak, shows a dramatic reduction in Nox in the atmosphere. Due of course to the enforced closure of many factories in the area. Which in turn gives global customers supply-chain problems.
Could people get used to a life which involves consuming less and avoiding foreign travel, or will we see a rebound once all this is over?
Banking on Fossil Fuels
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that bankers JP Morgan Chase pumped billions of dollars into the oil industry in the years following the Paris agreement. The Rainforest Action Network released a 2019 report claiming that the US banking giant provided the most fossil fuel firm financing of any bank from 2016 to 2018.
JPMC also issued a report in 2019, called Understanding Our Climate-Related Risks and Opportunities. In it, the chairman and CEO says, “…we are halfway to fulfilling a commitment made in 2017 to facilitate $200 billion in clean financing by 2025.” But he goes on to say that the company will continue to invest in fossil fuels.
Last week however, in a report to clients seen by the BBC, the bank’s economists comment on the climate situation saying,
‘We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened.’
Carbon emissions in the coming decades ‘will continue to affect the climate for centuries to come in a way that is likely to be irreversible,’ they said, adding that climate change action should be motivated “by the likelihood of extreme events.’
“It is a global problem but no global solution is in sight,” the report added.
Now investmenteurope.net reports that “JPMorgan Chase will not finance oil and gas extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or continue financing several coal-related enterprises across the world. The bank will also facilitate $200bn in environmental and economic development deals as part of a series of new climate-change initiatives it will implement. The bank has faced years of criticism from environmentalists for its relationships with fossil-fuel companies.”
The New York Times reports that this has caused concern in Alaska, as JPMC becomes the second large U.S. bank to say it would not support future oil and gas projects in the Arctic.
Meanwhile in the UK, Greenpeace prevented some 100 branches of Barclays Bank from opening this week. They blocked the doors to prevent staff entering in protest at the bank’s role as the biggest funder of fossil fuels in Europe.
"Barclays must stop funding the climate emergency, that's why we've taken action today. From floods to bushfires and record heat in Antarctica, the impacts of this crisis are staring us in the face," said Morten Thaysen, climate finance campaigner at Greenpeace UK.
Will Barclays take a sheet out of the JP Morgan book? I’m sure Greenpeace will not let up until they do.
And now for some good news…
Or fairly good news, anyway. Four years ago the government excluded new onshore wind farms from the Contract for Difference Scheme (CFD) which offered guaranteed prices to generators of low-carbon electricity. Offshore wind continued to benefit, but onshore development ceased overnight. Offshore wind farms are currently accepting prices below £40 MWh, vastly cheaper than the new nuclear site under construction, for the moment, at Hinkley C. That plant has a guaranteed index-linked price and if it were producing today it would receive £102 MWh. Onshore wind is calculated to be viable at lower prices even than offshore wind, so it was perverse policy to stifle it, driven by government supporters who thought the turbines looked unsightly. They were also concerned that the turbines were a danger to birds, and that is certainly something that must be taken into account when siting wind farms.
This week the prime minister announced reversal of the policy, so onshore wind can compete in the way offshore wind has. This will open up opportunities for new wind farms and increase the UK’s renewable energy generation. Not a bad idea to demonstrate a move towards the nation’s Paris agreement and 2050 targets, especially in a year when the UK hosts COP26.
I said fairly good news. Wind farms will still have to go through the planning process. Before the withdrawal of the CFD payments for onshore wind the government line was that if plans went to a public enquiry the presumption was that they would be refused. It is not clear whether that policy has changed.
Climate Denial and the coming of the Anti-Greta,
An article in nexus media news is headlined:
“The Fight Against Racism Shows How to Combat Climate Denial. The only response to wilful ignorance is shame.”
Jeremy Deaton explains that,
“There are important parallels between racism and climate change denial. Both ideologies were cultivated to protect the interests of a wealthy elite, and both continue to undermine the interests of the working class. Both are a form of wilful ignorance, and both might be treated with the same remedy – shame.”
To end the debate, he says, citizens concerned about the steady rise in temperature should decide that climate denial, like racism, has no place in the public square. It should be socially unacceptable. It sounds like a denial of free speech, but he quotes an American TV programme, Meet the Press, and recounts how one episode featured a representative of the American Enterprise Institute who presented information which was proved to be false. Since then the host has decided to exclude all climate deniers, on the grounds that the science is settled. In future he will no more invite deniers to take part than he would welcome racists. These issues are settled.
“The science is settled” is a denier’s battleground. “No it’s not,” they cry. In the interests of balance you’ll find a link to “What I Learned about Climate Change: The Science is not Settled” by David Siegel, and his summary, “Climate Change for Dummies” (that’s not the official “for Dummies” book) on the blog. Siegel has carried out extensive research which he says has turned him from a believer into a denier. You’ll find extensive comments after the articles, most disagreeing with his claims.
My position is that we should act as if the science is settled. If we’re wrong, we’ll still have made the world a better place.
But maybe there’s nothing to worry about after all…
[Naomi Seibt on YouTube]
19-year-old Naomi Seibt tells us that the world is not ending because of climate change and we are not destroying the world. She mentions science, but doesn’t actually mention where it’s coming from. Greta, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
Let’s not spend time arguing about the minutiae of who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s put our energies into changing the world. Some people will benefit immeasurably while others will find business as usual is no longer practical or possible. But humans are surely the most adaptable species. Let’s rise to the challenge and make change for the better.
I was idly reading a packet the other day and this was the list of ingredients:
Sodium palmate, sodium tallowate, sodium palm kernelate, Aqua, glycerin, stearic acid, parfum, sodium chloride, citric acid, tetrasodium EDTA, etidronic acid, sine adipe lac, Olea European fruit oil, aloe barbadensis leaf juice powder, alpha-isomethyl ionone, benzyl salycilate, butylphenyl methylpropional, citroneliol, coumarin, limonene, linalool, Cl47005, Cl61570, Cl77891.
What was it? A bar of soap. Palmolive naturals.
Looking at a liquid soap dispenser, it seemed to have a list of ingredients just as long. One of the main pieces of advice to avoid getting coronavirus is to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds several times a day. 20 seconds. That’s as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice over. Apparently Jacob Rees-Mogg has decided to sing the National Anthem instead. Soap and water. Remember, soap doesn’t come in a single-use plastic bottles. No waste there. I know we all use shower gel these days, but soap works in the shower, too. Costs significantly less as well.
Hand sanitisers are fine and useful when there is no soap and water, but they’re no better. Just wash your hands with soap and water and dry them with one paper towel – there is a TEDx video which shows you how to do it with just one towel – and use that towel to turn the tap off. If you're using a public facility, it makes sense to use that towel to open the door as well.
While we’re on the subject of avoiding infection, you’re advised to stand away from people and if you’re French you’re advised to avoid kissing in greeting, but I expect that that is good advice for other nationalities as well. Face-masks are of little use as infection can be absorbed via the eyes and face-masks are rarely a perfect fit. Public Health England advises they should only be used in a clinical situation, and a number of advertisements for face-masks have been banned for containing misleading statements. It’s a good idea to avoid travelling on overcrowded public transport but many people just won’t have that option. If you cough or sneeze, they say, sneeze into a paper tissue or your elbow.
And don’t panic buy! As I close, pictures come in from Perth WA of empty supermarket shelves - no tinned tomatoes, noodles, rice, flour, soap, tissues, hand sanitiser or breakfast juice. And that is presumably in response to the one death which took place in Perth of a passenger from the Diamond Princess cruise liner. What will happen if there’s actually a coronavirus outbreak?
And that’s it…
That’s it for this week. 51 coronavirus cases in the UK as I write, but maybe many more by the time you hear this. We are in uncharted waters. I suppose the good news is that you'll never get infected from a podcast, so thank you for listening, and if you’re quarantined there are nearly 300 back episodes to catch up on. Seriously, though, stay safe. If we can cope with this emergency, assuming it becomes an emergency, it will give us vital experience for coping with the climate crisis.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
How to use one paper towel - there’s a TEDx talk on that. https://youtu.be/2FMBSblpcrc
Dramatic fall in China pollution levels ‘partly related’ to coronavirus
Vital Cop26 climate talks could be derailed by coronavirus
J P Morgan and Barclays
'Anti-Greta' teen activist to speak at biggest US conservatives conference
The Guardian view on an energy U-turn: the winds of change