Where do I Start?
I’m Anthony Day. Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 20th March.
COVID-19 and Energy
It goes without saying that the big issue is still COVID-19, the coronavirus. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects the economic fallout to wipe out the world’s oil demand growth for the year ahead, which should cap the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.
But Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, has warned the outbreak could spell a slowdown in the world’s clean energy transition unless governments use green investments to help support economic growth through the global slowdown.
“There is nothing to celebrate in a likely decline in emissions driven by economic crisis because in the absence of the right policies and structural measures this decline will not be sustainable,” he said.
On we go
I'm no expert. All I know is that this pandemic will govern everything we do, for the next weeks, months and years. The situation is changing by the day, if not by the hour, so I’m not going to comment further, except to say that I think we will gain valuable lessons which will inform our approach to the climate emergency. I’m working on a new presentation on that theme, to be tailored for individual clients and presented as a live interactive video. The working title is “Lessons from COVID-19: staying in business, staying in profit and staying sustainable.” I’ll let you know when the trailer is ready and there will be special terms for Patrons who want to use it in their own organisations.
For today I’m falling back on cliches. Okay, they are cliches, but the fact that they've survived suggests there might be some truth in them.
Always look on the Bright Side.
There is a bright side although for the moment the dark side is seriously predominant. It will gradually get brighter, because we can be confident that This, too, will pass.
But the climate will still be an issue.
As always, the question with the Sustainable Futures Report is where do I start? With so much information coming in from all quarters it's difficult to know how to prioritise what to do or what to say.
“Start with the end in mind”,
is a well-known piece of advice. My end, my objective, is to make people aware of the seriousness of the climate situation so that we can all urge governments and leaders to take the international action which is the only way to conquer the climate crisis. At the same time I bring you news of work being done to meet the challenge and I also attempt to look at areas where much more action is needed.
This time, then, the topics I'm covering include good news and positive climate messages from the mining industry, from the EU, from the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority - even from Boris Johnson! There’s good news, too, about geothermal energy, cutting pollution and a possible end to the throwaway culture. The list of bad news is ever longer: Commuters committed to their cars, why trees are not the answer, threats to sue the government over continued use of fossil fuels, accelerating polar ice-melt and why wearing clothes can be bad for the environment. Let’s start with the bad news, so you’ve got something to look forward to.
Cars are a major source of pollution, both in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases and of particulates which reduce air quality. In the UK alone, bad air quality causes some 50,00 premature deaths each year. It’s disappointing therefore to learn from a report by the European Court of Auditors that Europeans are reluctant to give up the private car. They say: “Although cities have put in place a range of initiatives to expand the quality and quantity of public transport, there has been no significant reduction in private car usage.”
This is unsurprising, given that they found that in many cases it was always quicker to get to the city centre by car. In the immediate term it is going to be even more difficult to persuade people to use public transport while there is a risk of infection in crowded spaces. Much better to stay locked away in one's own private vehicle, and people will probably prefer that even if it takes longer to complete the journey.
Through the European Structural and Investment Fund, the EU has provided €16.3bn between 2014 and 2020 to change the way people move in cities.
The auditors complained that the money was taken but there was “limited take-up” on European Commission guidance on how to spend it. Money was being wasted on ill-fated projects, while city plans often lacked coherence. For example, in Poland, the report found parking penalties were lower than fines for not paying public transport fares. In Warsaw, cars were banned from the side of the road but it was still possible to park on the pavement.
A senior auditor said congestion cost the EU around €270bn a year and that funds provided by Brussels should be more tightly linked to plans to shift people out of their cars. It’s not going to be easy.
We’re urged to plant trees and it is by far the best way to take CO2 from the atmosphere and lock up the carbon, at least in theory. In reality there are problems.
In a wide ranging report to the RSPB by Ellie Crane, entitled “Woodlands for climate and nature”, she describes the complexity of the issue. It’s a report I’d strongly recommend you look at. There’s a link on the blog.
Trees are a store of carbon, but they take many years to grow and require careful management throughout that time.
Trees planted on peatland degrade that land as a carbon store, and release much of the carbon. In fact removing trees from peatland can have a positive effect on carbon storage.
“Burning wood for energy releases carbon to the atmosphere,” she says. “Unlike burning fossil fuels, this does not increase the total amount of atmospheric carbon in the long term. However, forest-based bioenergy cannot be considered carbon neutral because the payback time until the carbon is reabsorbed can be very long, particularly when living trees are felled for biomass.”
“Replacing coal or gas with biomass for electricity generation is likely to significantly increase emissions per unit of electricity generated.”
And yet Drax power station claims to be one of the greenest sites in Britain, and receives massive government subsidies on that basis.
Harvested Wood Products (HWP) can be a continuing store of carbon after they have been removed from the forest, but how long that carbon stays locked up depends on what the products are used for.
The British government has pledged to plant 30 million trees per year, raising the U.K.'s forest cover from 13% to 17%. Skilled tree-planters - mainly Australians and Canadians - are already at work and can plant one sapling every four seconds or up to 4,000 per day. That’s the first step. Some 25% are likely to die in the early years and the forest has to be carefully managed and thinned so that trees can reach their full potential. They not only absorb carbon dioxide but they also release it through respiration. Until trees reach maturity the amount they absorb exceeds the amount they emit, but once they are mature they store the carbon but don't add to it. The forests continue to need management, because if they are simply allowed to decay the trees will die, rot and the carbon will be released again into the atmosphere. If the timber is harvested the use that’s made of it determines how long it continues as a carbon store. CO2 persists in the atmosphere for up to 100 years, so be effective trees need to lock carbon away for that length of time.
Talking to the BBC, Prof Rob MacKenzie, of the University of Birmingham says it would be a "disaster" if governments and companies rely on forests to "clear up the mess" of carbon pollution.
An article in the journal Nature warns that the rate at which carbon is absorbed by the Amazon forests is in decline. At the moment the rate in African forests is stable, but there are signs that it too will decline in the longer term.
It’s too tempting for people to believe that buying a few trees can make up for flying away on holiday. Things just don’t work like that. The government’s 30 million trees are no substitute for cutting carbon emissions at source. Increasing fuel duty, which the Chancellor decided not to do in last week’s UK budget, would have had an immediate effect. As it happens, of course, the dramatic drop-off in flying and all forms of travel are having a much greater effect without the need for a fiscal scourge.
The small problem of plastic
Plastic microfibres make their way into the oceans and pollute insidiously because they are so small that almost every organism can absorb them. Plastic microfibres are released and washed away to the sea every time we wash our clothes. They are too small to be trapped by sewage treatment plants. But surprising research from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Plymouth suggests that wearing causes more fibres to be shed than washing.
Researchers compared garments made of four different types of polyester fabric. The results implied that a wearer could emit 300 million polyester fibres in a year by washing their clothes and 900 million fibres to the air just by wearing them. The chosen fabrics had different effects: the worst was found to be a polyester-cotton mix. The tightness of the weave and the construction of the garments also affected the extent to which fibres were lost. The researchers concluded that microfibre pollution has been significantly underestimated as fibres shed into the air have been previously ignored.
The conclusion appears to be that it’s best to avoid polyester in favour of other materials. Given polyester’s versatility and cheapness that’s another message that will be difficult to sell.
And in other bad news…
…ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica is accelerating.
Ice at the poles is monitored by IMBIE, the ice sheet mass balance inter-comparison exercise. IMBIE was established in 2011 as a community effort to reconcile satellite measurements of ice sheet mass balance. It is a collaboration between scientists supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It is led by Prof Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds in the UK and and Dr Erik Ivins at NASA.
The Greenland Ice Sheet holds enough water to raise mean global sea level by 7.4m, while the ice sheets of Antarctica hold enough water to raise global sea level by 58m.
In a recent press release the organisation reports that Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice six times faster than in the 1990’s and are both tracking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case climate warming scenario. Left unchecked, this will lead to an extra 17 centimetres of sea level rise by 2100.
In their Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global sea levels would rise 53 centimetres by 2100, and it’s estimated that this would put 360 million people at risk of annual coastal flooding. But the IMBIE Team’s studies shows that ice losses from both Antarctica and Greenland are rising faster than expected, tracking the IPCC’s worst-case (“high-end”) climate warming scenario.
Professor Shepherd said:
“Every centimetre of sea level rise leads to coastal flooding and coastal erosion, disrupting people’s lives around the planet.
“If Antarctica and Greenland continue to track the worst-case climate warming scenario, they will cause an extra 17 centimetres of sea level rise by the end of the century.
“This would mean 400 million people are at risk of annual coastal flooding by 2100.
“These are not unlikely events with small impacts; they are already underway and will be devastating for coastal communities.”
Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, Professor of Glaciology at the University of Iceland and lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, who was not involved in the study, said:
“The IMBIE Team’s reconciled estimate of Greenland and Antarctic ice loss is timely for the IPCC. Their satellite observations show that both melting and ice discharge from Greenland have increased since observations started.
“The ice caps in Iceland had similar reduction in ice loss in the last two years of their record, but summer 2019 was very warm in this region which resulted in higher mass loss. I would expect a similar increase in Greenland mass loss for 2019.
“It is very important to keep monitoring the big ice sheets to know how much they raise sea level every year.”
On the blog you’ll find a link to the IMBIE press pack.
It includes papers, photos, the press release and videos of the changes in Greenland and Antarctica and a clear explanation of the consequences.
The problem is clear. Now we need immediate action to combat this threat.
What can I do?
Listener Esteban Eles Vega sent me a link to an article entitled, “Quit Obsessing About Climate Change. What You Do or Don’t Do No Longer Matters.”
“Quit worrying about going vegan, or recycling, or riding a bicycle to work, or buying a Tesla instead of that Ford F-650 pickup you’ve always wanted in order to save the planet,” says author, Glen Hendrix. “You’re off the hook. It’s out of your hands. You can do these things if it makes you feel better, but they are not going to change the big picture. Whatever you do does not matter.”
He goes on, “This is the most pivotal point in the history of man. We only get one shot at this. If we blow it, we won’t get a comparable situation for millions of years, if ever. If mankind does have a world-wide civilization by then, we will have forgotten all of this — this choice we had. Save the planet or just get along and ignore it until it is too late. Scientists are saying our planet is doomed and all I hear on the news is everything but that. We are a society in denial, trying to collectively whistle past the graveyard. Our weather men won’t even talk about it on the local news. It might be construed as political. It might upset people. We are so polite and civilized in our denouement.”
His point is that we can’t do anything, not you or I. And he firmly believes that “people with money and power, the people with the means to do something, just don’t care. They would have to give up some of that money and power to change things. They figure they won’t be around to suffer the consequences of climate change anyway, so they just don’t give a damn.”
Pretty depressing stuff. If I believed that I wouldn’t bother to publish the Sustainable Futures Report each week. Yes, Governments need to act. Yes, we can change future outcomes. And Guardian columnist George Monbiot calls government to account: “Already,” he says, “the Heathrow decision [the refusal to allow a third runway] is resonating around the world. Now we need to drive its implications home, by suing for survival. If we can oblige governments to resist the demands of corporate lobbyists and put life before profit, humanity might just stand a chance.”
Spread the word!
Meanwhile, looking on the Bright Side…
That’s enough pessimism for this week. Listen to this clip:
That’s Seamus O’Regan, Canadian Minister of Natural Resources, speaking at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada Convention, the world’s biggest mining conference. He’s telling the audience, which must include those who mine coal and those who exploit Canada’s vast tar sands, that the country’s objective must be net zero. Thanks to Patron Eric de Kemp for bringing this to my notice.
Across the world there is pressure for an EU climate target for 2030 to be established. In a letter to the EU’s top official on climate action, Frans Timmermans, a dozen EU member states say “the EU can lead by example and contribute to creating the international momentum needed for all parties to scale up their ambition” by adopting a 2030 EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction target “as soon as possible and by June 2020 at the latest”. This comes, of course, in the year of COP26 which we hope will still go ahead in November as planned. It's the United Nations conference where nations will report on their five-year progress since the 2015 Paris Agreement and set out their objectives for handling the climate crisis in years to come.
The EU’s proposed regulation says:
- By September 2020, the Commission shall review the Union’s 2030 target for climate …and explore options for a new 2030 target of 50 to 55% emission reductions compared to 1990. Where the Commission considers that it is necessary to amend that target, it shall make proposals to the European Parliament and to the Council as appropriate.
Green activists say that a 50 to 55% reduction is not sufficient to enable achievement of net zero by 2050. The regulation is open for comment until 1st May. Find the link on the Sustainable Futures Report blog and send them your feedback.
Dissent and Denial
Boris Johnson has been urged to publicly declare climate deniers as wrong in order to secure the UK’s standing in vital UN climate talks at COP26 later this year. Nothing has been heard from him on this, although he probably has other things on his mind at present. Climate deniers with links to the Tory party, including the Global Warming Policy Foundation, are close to a number of front-bench ministers. It doesn’t help to learn that Business Minister Alok Sharma, who has been put in charge of COP26 by the prime minister, has voted against a number of climate-friendly issues in the past. Lobbyists in Brussels are urgently seeking to reduce the impact of the new law. Hang on - I thought this was good news.
FCA takes a view
Well it must be good news that the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority is likely to require large firms to account for their impact on the planet in future. Its plans are expected to draw heavily on the climate recommendations set out by the by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), a voluntary framework for companies that is considered a global gold standard for climate disclosure. The rules should be ready for implementation by the end of the year.
An article in EOS Science News - another link from Eric de Kemp - describes how Canadian researchers are investigating the potential for geothermal energy. Geothermal power plants have small footprints (unlike hydropower plants), low emissions, and direct-heat-use opportunities, but most important, they provide stable baseload power, unlike intermittent wind and solar sources. On the other hand, suitable sites are difficult to find. They need high temperatures and must support sufficient flow rates of heat-carrying fluids to make exploitation viable. The Geological Survey of Canada is currently investigating the area around Mount Meager, Canada’s only active volcano, developing novel tools and techniques to locate suitable sites. Let’s hope they can find so much energy that there will no longer be any need to exploit the Alberta tar sands. Come on - there must be some there. We’ve even got geothermal energy in the UK, and we haven’t got any active volcanoes!
And in other news…
Don’t throw it away!
The BBC reports that new rules could spell end of the 'throwaway culture’. Traditionally we take, make and discard. We grow or mine resources, incorporate them into products and throw them away when we’ve finished. Then we start all over again. It’s the whole argument of the circular economy that at one end of the process strategic materials are being over-exploited and at the other end we’re creating waste and pollution.
Now the European Commission is planning rules that will ensure products are designed and manufactured so they last - and so they're repairable if they go wrong. It is likely that the UK will follow suit, even after Brexit. Instead of reduce, re-use, recycle, products should be designed so that they can also be refurbished, repaired, remanufactured and even repurposed, before being broken easily down into their components and materials for recycling.
Something in the Air - or not.
Good news from China. The industrial shutdown brought on by COVID-19 has cut deaths caused by air pollution by tens of thousands. Compare this with a total of 3,000 deaths from the virus. Forbes magazine quotes a report which claims that the shutdown has saved 77,000 lives. Will we ever go back to business as usual?
That's the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, the 20th of March. Quite wide-ranging and a bit disjointed I'm afraid. Next time I'm going to look at what the climate crisis means for Africa. It's been pointed out that the Sustainable Futures Report tends to focus on the wealthy west. Consequences of climate change may be felt more acutely in the developing nations and consequences will arrive earlier. So I'll do my research and see what I can find. If you've got information on this to share I'm always ready to hear. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm fortunate in that preparing this podcast doesn't require me to leave my desk, so there is nothing in the present environment to prevent me from continuing week by week. As long as the broadband holds up, of course.
That's it for this week.
Now wash your hands.
Coronavirus poses threat to climate action, says watchdog
European commuters still choose cars and congestion over public transport
Report from the European Court of Auditors
The government must abandon its fossil fuel power projects. If not, we’ll sue
Trees on commercial UK plantations 'not helping climate crisis'
Report to RSPB
Tropical forests losing their ability to absorb carbon, study finds
Greenland video : https://youtu.be/CqyLfkSuqlw
Well at least we are hearing the right things...
This was at this weeks world biggest mining and mineral exploration conference in Toronto PDAC 2020.
EU member states call for 2030 climate target
Boris Johnson urged to speak out against climate deniers
City watchdog may demand UK's top firms reveal climate impact