Hello and welcome once again to the Sustainable Futures Report, this time for Friday 12th June.
There's a lot of news coming out of Australia. Thanks to all my listeners, patrons and correspondents over there. There’s news as well from Brazil, and news from the energy industry. More ideas for building back better as we get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. And given that governments are crucial to successfully challenging the climate emergency, I ask whether we can trust a government which rejects its own manifesto commitments.
Amid all this I haven't forgotten that Black Lives Matter. We are, it seems at a turning point and we must hope that this time it will be a turning point for real change. The aim of the Sustainable Futures Report is to preserve our planet for all and for everyone; a safe home for universal human rights to be preserved as well.
Great Barrier Reef
Colin Clarke, patron in Australia, directs me to a podcast about the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll find the link below in Sources. Graham Readfearn, activist and freelance journalist, explains how the coral has just gone through the worst bleaching ever, with reefs previously unaffected bleaching for the first time. What this basically means is that when the waters get too warm the coral dies. The animals and fishes which live on the reef disappear either because their food source is gone or because they can no longer hide from predators. And the whole place begins to smell.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, is a biologist and climate scientist specialising in coral reefs, in particular bleaching due to global warming and climate change. He is the inaugural Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. His paper published some 10 years ago warning that the reefs faced total destruction by 2050 was denounced as alarmist, but subsequent events have followed his predictions, only more rapidly. He has been regularly questioned and criticised by climate deniers.
This latest bleaching is the third such event in 5 years. Reefs need 10-15 years to recover. It is estimated that if we can limit warming across the globe to 1.5℃ then 70% to 90% of reefs will be lost. If we hold it only to 2℃ just 1% will remain.
Hoegh-Guldberg is one of the founders of the 50 Reefs Initiative to identify a number of reefs globally that have the best chance to survive the impacts of climate change and to subsequently use them to repopulate neighbouring reefs once ocean temperatures stabilise. Could be some time, as the ocean stores vast amounts of heat. There are some 375,000km2 of coral reefs across the world supporting the livelihoods of 500m people engaged in fishing, tourism and leisure.
The commitment of governments to the Paris Agreement will keep the increase in global heating 3 to 4°C, far in excess of the, safe, or fairly safe, target level of 1.5°C. 3 to 4°C is too much for reefs and too much for water supplies, for protecting forests and for avoiding violent weather.
It is global emissions which affect the Great Barrier Reef and the ecology of the whole world. The podcast ends with the message that the world needs to act. When was that not ever true?
And that brings us to Adani. Carol Dance drew my attention a while ago to the Adani Group’s proposed Carmichael Mine which some estimate will lead to the emission of 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon pollution over its lifetime. The project requires the building of a new railway and the expansion of port facilities which will be approached by ships passing through the Great Barrier Reef.
The Marine Conservation Organisation of Australia says, “The mine would drive massive industrial port expansion along the Reef coastline at Abbot Point. Over a million cubic metres of the seafloor would be dredged for a new coal terminal, threatening the habitat of vulnerable dugongs and turtles and dolphins. There would be hundreds more coal ships ploughing through the Reef’s waters every year, increasing the risk of accidents. Just one collision, one mistake or one spill could result in an environmental catastrophe in the Great Barrier Reef.”
Despite protests, German engineering giant Siemens will go ahead and build a rail signalling system, while Marsh Insurance brokers are under pressure not to arrange insurance for the project. Adani itself is under financial pressure as doubts are raised about the financial viability of its Abbot Point coal export terminal. Writing in The Print, David Fickling says that the Carmichael mine could be a white elephant. He suggests that the coal produced will be of a relatively low grade and unlikely to command a high enough price to service the investment. Fluctuations in coal prices on the commodities markets could make things even worse.
An article in The Conversation points out that, “Australia listened to the science on coronavirus. Imagine if we did the same for coal mining”
Apparently the project still has government support so the saga continues.
Elsewhere in Australia, Youth Verdict is an organisation of young people from across Queensland using their legal rights to fight for youth justice. They say,
“Our first case is taking Clive Palmer’s ‘Waratah Coal’ to court to stop his proposed climate-wrecking coal mine from destroying our human rights.
“It will be the first legal case ever launched in Australia by young people to fight coal and climate change on human rights grounds, and we must win. Our future depends on it.”
Clive Palmer is an Australian billionaire, high-profile character and one-time member of the Australian parliament. I’ve contacted Youth Verdict and hope to bring you an interview.
Woodside’s Burrup Hub proposal
Over on the north coast of Western Australia, Woodside Energy is planning to build an LNG hub on the Burrup Peninsula. Gas will be landed from a number of production platforms. The company is actively recruiting experts from the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen, Scotland. Gas is of course a cleaner fuel than coal, but the estimated lifetime emissions of 6 billion tonnes from the project dwarf even the pollution from Adani’s Carmichael Mine.
The Sydney Morning Herald described it as Australia's most polluting project and complained that approval was being sought by stealth. cleanslate.org.au sets out 10 reasons why the Burrup Hub should not go ahead. Find the link to their article on the blog.
Solar and Hydrogen
More positive news comes from Western Australia where there is a proposal to generate hydrogen using solar power. This has been covered in detail by patron Dave Borlace in his video blog which I mentioned to you recently. Find it on Patreon or on YouTube at just have a think. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRBwLPbXGsI2cJe9W1zfSjQ
Nothing is simple, of course. The sunshine in Australia’s deserts is clearly ideal for generating solar power. The problem is that if you intend to do this by electrolysis you need substantial quantities of clean water. There's not a lot of this in the desert. The good news is that research is progressing towards using seawater for electrolysis. Hydrogen produced from clean water releases only oxygen as a byproduct. Seawater presumably leaves other residues. The alternative is to strip hydrogen out of natural gas, but this leaves CO2. The industry claims that carbon capture and storage will solve this problem, but CCS is not operating successfully at scale anywhere in the world.
This is demonstrated by a recent case where oil and gas company Chevron faced the possibility of having to pay for offsets worth more than $100m for carbon dioxide emissions released at a delayed carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in northern Western Australia.
The state government last week ruled against Chevron over an emissions condition that applies to the company’s large Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) development on Barrow Island in the Pilbara region.
While Siemens gets criticised for supplying part of the infrastructure for Adani’s Carmichael mine, on the other side of the world it has signed up to a project to produce green hydrogen, working with Uniper Energy, an energy company based in Düsseldorf, Germany. Green Hydrogen is defined by the partners as hydrogen from renewable resources. A graphic with the Climate Action article seems to indicate that electrolysis will be used, not natural gas reprocessing. Details are sketchy at the moment.
The big success story in renewables has of course been in solar power, with the cost of Solar Panels dropping by 86% between 2009 and 2017. The hunt is on for new materials to improve the efficiency of the panels even further. Perovskite is the current front runner. (it’s named after a Russian count who discovered it.) It’s a calcium titanium oxide compound. Perovskite captures energy from a different part of the wavelength of sunlight than silicon, and company Oxford PV plans to layer it on top of silicon, to maximise electricity generation. They are therefore enhancing the established silicon PVs rather than competing with them.
Perovskites can be printed on to a surface with an inkjet printer and Swedish construction firm Skanska is working to apply perovskite layers in building panels.
The theoretical maximum efficiency of silicon PV is around 30% but using a combination of materials including perovskite could raise this to 47%.
Insolight, a Swiss startup, has taken a different tack - embedding a grid of hexagonal lenses in a solar panel's protective glass, thus concentrating light 200 times.
The key question is whether these new technologies will be cost-effective and whether they will last as long as the expected 25 year life of silicon panels.
Coronavirus effect on fossil fuel industry
There’s a new report from Carbon Tracker. Kingsmill Bond, Carbon Tracker Energy Strategist and report author, said: "We are witnessing the decline and fall of the fossil fuel economy. Technological innovation and policy support is driving peak fossil fuel demand in sector after sector and country after country, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this. We may now have seen peak fossil fuel demand as a whole. This is a huge opportunity for countries that import fossil fuels which can save trillions of dollars by switching to a clean energy economy in line with the Paris Agreement. Now is the time to plan an orderly wind-down of fossil fuel assets and manage the impact on the global economy rather than try to sustain the unsustainable.”
Are governments listening?
Plus ça change, plus c’est business as usual. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reports that levels of health-harming air pollutants in China have exceeded concentrations at the same time last year in the past 30 days, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. This includes PM2.5, NO2, SO2 and ozone. Air pollutant levels plummeted during the national lockdown in February, bottomed out in early March and have now overshot their pre-crisis levels. Europe is expected to follow suit.
CREA’s Rebound Tracker - link on the blog - monitors air quality in principal Chinese cities in real time. Whether these pollution levels are permanent, it points out, depends on whether we have a green recovery.
Meanwhile, news from Russia seems particularly muted. There’s not a lot in the press about the oil spill in the arctic region, but 20,000 tons of diesel have leaked out of a power station up there. The BBC reports that it has polluted a large freshwater lake and there is a risk it could spread into the Arctic Ocean. Emergency teams are trying to contain the oil, which has now travelled about 20km (12 miles) north of Norilsk from a collapsed fuel tank.
It is the worst accident of its kind in modern times in Russia's Arctic region, environmentalists and officials say.
It's ironic that global warming is partly caused by burning fossil fuels such as diesel and global warming has led to the melting of permafrost which until recently was seen as a rock solid foundation. In this case, as the permafrost melted in unseasonably warm weather the storage tank collapsed and the oil escaped. Once in the Arctic Ocean who knows where it will go? I'm really surprised there has not been more concern about this or are we just becoming inured to such disasters? After all, President Putin has declared a state of emergency.
News from South America. Accelerating deforestation places Brazil, which has 60% of the Amazon rainforest within its borders, at the heart of the struggle to prevent runaway global heating. That is because the Amazon is the planet’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and plays a crucial role in the water cycle, as well as providing a home to more species than anywhere else on land.
The Guardian reports that twenty-eight years ago, in June 1992, the UN framework convention on climate change was opened for signature in Rio de Janeiro. But since Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office 18 months ago his government has sabotaged years of work by environmentalist and indigenous activists aimed at protecting the rainforest, and instead fanned the flames of its destruction by illegal loggers, miners and cattle ranchers. In the year to July 2019, losses rocketed to 9,800 sq km and research predicts that the rainforest is on course for a tipping point that would see it become a carbon emitter in the mid-2030s. Now there are fears that the coronavirus pandemic may speed this up.
They say, “This week, the Guardian reported that UK banks have provided more than $2bn (£1.5bn) in backing to companies linked to deforestation. Those institutions must now come under pressure, along with US investors such as BlackRock. So must politicians and regulators.
“It will take a huge international effort to preserve the Amazon rainforest. Agribusiness is responsible for more than one-fifth of Brazil’s GDP. If the cattle industry is to face curbs, there must also be incentives. International trade and climate negotiators have their work cut out. There is a job to be done by public opinion too.”
After the pandemic, the recovery.
Last week I commented that a large number of organisations seem to have adopted “build back better” as their slogan. I've since found that there is in fact an organisation and website with that title. Build back better steering group consists of:
Green New Deal UK
Greener Jobs Alliance
PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union)
UKSCN (UK School Climate Network)
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants
New Economics Foundation
Friends of the Earth
…and is supported by a large number of other organisations from the New Economics Foundation to Health Poverty Action and the Basic Income Conversation.
They say, “The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down, exposing major weaknesses in our economy and the deep-seated inequalities in our society that mean the most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest.
“But what we do next could change everything. As the world recovers, we have a chance to reset the clock and build back better than before.
“We need something new.
“We need a new deal that prioritises people, invests in our NHS and creates a robust, shockproof economy that is capable of tackling the climate crisis.”
They go on to explain their five fundamental principles which you can find at buildbackbetteruk.org You can also sign up to join their virtual rally.
Angus Taylor, the Australian Energy Minister, wants taxpayer money invested in fast-start gas projects to drive the post-pandemic recovery. Some would call that building back bad. Don’t worry, they’re going to use carbon capture and storage. (CCS)
I seem to remember a quote from someone who said that if industry was CCS-ready, but just waiting for the technology, then his bedroom was time-travel-ready. Just waiting for the technology.
Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot explains how the British government has introduced legislation to relax food safety and hygiene standards that we have been subject to as members of the EU. When the transition ends at the end of the year the UK will be free to import food from the US, including chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-fed beef and vegetables which may have been treated with any of the 72 pesticides currently banned in the UK. And this is directly contrary to promises made in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto little more than 6 months ago.
This cannot be in the interests of the population at large, so can we rely on such a government to take robust and appropriate action to deal with the climate crisis? Or will it just wait and see until it’s too late, as it seems to have done with the coronavirus?
And of course we need the Orbans, the Bolsonaros, the Trumps and all the rest to take robust and appropriate action as well.
And on that cheerful note…
…I leave you for another week. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being a patron, if you are. Thank you to all who sent in ideas and information. I’m always open for more and you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
Great Barrier Reef
Adani Campaign (notes from Carol Dance)
- German engineering giant Siemens will go ahead and build a rail signalling system for Adani despite protests.
- Campaign for Marsh insurance broker not to seek insurance for the mine is ongoing. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/campaign-grows-stop-marsh-insurers-helping-adani
- The deteriorating financial state of the Adani Group and its Abbot Point coal export terminal raise serious questions about the ability of Adani to keep using its own money to finance its debt burden of over $1 billion Adani has to either refinance or repay. Adani has already delayed the refinancing of one of its bonds, causing Abbot Point to be downgraded, and has confirmed it will pay back another bond worth $100 million out of its own pocket this week.
- Downgrades and refinancings: Fitch Ratings downgraded the Abbot Point coal export terminal from BBB- to BB+ (sub investment grade) with a negative watch, suggesting the port’s credit rating could degrade further. The downgrade was triggered by Adani’s postponement of an attempt to refinance a US$140 million bond due in September 2021. Adani’s inability to refinance its bond externally appears due to increasing investor concerns about coal assets, including the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the coal industry.
Woodside’s Burrup Hub proposal
This huge gas project planned in Western Australia has staggering potential to impact emissions. 'This single mega-project exposes the Morrison government’s gas plan as staggering folly.’ (The Guardian) By the end of its life in 2070, the project and the gas it produces will emit about six billion tonnes of greenhouse gas. This project alone exposes as a furphy the claim that natural gas is a viable transition fuel.
Solar and Hydrogen
After the 'sunrush': what comes next for solar power?
Coronavirus effect on fossil fuel industry
Air pollution rebounds
Brazil and the Amazon: don’t look away
Build back better https://www.buildbackbetteruk.org/
Build back bad
Fast-start gas Angus Taylor (Energy Minister) wants taxpayer money invested in fast-start gas projects to drive the post-pandemic recovery. His government plans to extend the emissions reduction fund to fossil fuel projects using CCS. There is a barrage of objections to this plan.