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This is Anthony Day with the last Sustainable Futures Report for 2018. It's Friday, 21 December and only about 2 1/2 shopping days left to Christmas. I promised to tell you about the Carrington Event but before I do that let's get up-to-date on COP24. Last Friday I said that the conference would draw to a close as the Sustainable Futures Report was published. In fact that didn't happen. Discussions went on far into the night, continued into Saturday and a final communiqué was not issued until Sunday. It must have been with a sense of relief, but the chairman of the event showed that Mrs May is not the only one with nifty moves as he danced on the table in celebration.
What has it all been about, and what is there to celebrate? COP24 is part of the annual series of United Nations climate change conferences. The objective of this one was to review the situation following the signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015 and to set the path for achieving its goals.
As I reported two weeks ago, Sir David Attenborough opened the conference with a warning.
“Right now,” he said, “we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years.
“If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
It’s generally agreed that to stop climate change or at least to slow it down and avoid its most serious consequences we need to cut global emissions of greenhouse gases and in particular of CO2. COP24 produced a rule book setting out regulations that will govern the nuts and bolts of how countries cut carbon, provide finance to poorer nations and ensure that everyone is doing what they say they are doing.
It took long, hard-fought negotiation. At one stage Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, and now their lead negotiator, made an impassioned plea for urgent progress on cutting carbon.
"It's just madness for us to allow global CO2 levels (in the atmosphere) to go beyond 450 parts per million, and temperatures to shoot past 1.5 degrees," he told a press briefing last Thursday.
"That can still be prevented. If we come together on the basis of the emergency facing us, we can do it.
"Every country at this summit will have hell to pay if we don’t.”
Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, flew back to Poland to try and push COP24 to a successful conclusion.
He warned negotiators that failing to increase efforts on climate change would be "not only immoral but suicidal" for the planet.
Finally getting 196 nations to agree was some achievement, and it was achieved more than a day later than intended. Nevertheless it was seen as an unwelcome compromise for some. Quoted in The Independent, Jennifer Morgan, executive director at Greenpeace International said, “People expected action and that is what governments did not deliver. This is morally unacceptable.” She warned that the agreement lacked ambition and clarity on key issues, including financing for climate projects for developing countries.
The Youth View
CNN reported that Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student from Sweden, captured the attention of the world when she shamed climate change negotiators.
"You are not mature enough to tell it like is," she said, "Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don't care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
The IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise above 1.5C, made headlines when it was launched last October and the intention was to officially welcome it at COP24 as part of the conference proceedings. You’ll remember that the report stated that a 1.5℃ increase was the maximum safe level, but that the world was currently on course to 3℃. In the event, the welcome was opposed by fossil-fuel producers the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. The final statement compromised by acknowledging simply that the report had been submitted in a timely manner.
Carbon Credits and Compensation
Key points at issue in the discussions were the management of carbon credits and the compensation to those developing countries already affected by rising sea levels due to climate change. Developed nations were afraid that compensating such countries would be an admission of liability and leave them open to legal claims for damages.
The issue of carbon credits remains unresolved. Emitting nations like the US failed to agree and Brazil which would claim credits for the largest carbon sink in the world, the Amazon rainforest, was also unable to reach agreement. Whether a market-based carbon trading system is an appropriate solution is questioned by many. These issues have been deferred to next year’s conference.
The Guardian’s view on COP24 is that while climate talks continue, there is hope. Yes, but we’ve been talking since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. To be fair we’ve been acting as well, just not enough.
COP25 will take place in Chile in November 2019. Brazil withdrew its offer to host the event. Hardly surprising in view of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s climate scepticism.
And the good news…
Some good news is that although President Trump has committed to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, this cannot be done before 2020 for legal reasons. Meanwhile many US states are adopting policies in line with the Paris Agreement, regardless of Federal policy.
And so to the Carrington Event..
On 2nd September 1859 telegraph operators found sparks coming from their equipment. One man received a shock which threw him across the room and in other places the paper caught fire. In several telegraph offices they disconnected the batteries, but then found that they could send messages as normal. The line between Portland and Boston operated like this for two hours. At the same time a massive aurora was seen in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Of course the aurora is normally only seen in polar latitudes, but now it extended to the tropics.
Sunspots and auroras
A day earlier British astronomer Richard Carrington was monitoring sunspots and tracing them on a screen. Suddenly he saw two intensely bright areas, and rushed out of the room to get someone else to come and have a look. By the time he got back they had gone.
What he had seen were solar flares associated with a Coronal Mass Ejection: an eruption on the surface of the sun. Visible light from the flares travelled to the earth and arrived after 8 minutes and 20 seconds as it always does. The highly magnetised plasma, driven by the solar wind, took some 17 hours to arrive. As it met the Earth’s magnetic field it generated auroras so powerful that people could see to read by them. Others thought the world was ending and were seriously overcome.
In 1859 electricity was uncommon and telephones were unknown. Messages were sent in Morse code along copper wires. These wires became collectors as the solar storm hit, providing enough power to run the system or in some cases to cause injury and damage.
Could it happen again?
The obvious question is could it happen again? And the answer is yes, it already has. On March 13th 1989 a solar storm hit the Earth. This time it took two and a half days to arrive after the solar flare was seen. The storm was smaller than the Carrington Event but still caused brilliant auroras and disrupted radio reception. Some people thought nuclear war had started and that radios were being jammed by the Russians. In the 130 years since 1859 a massive electricity infrastructure had been built and every wire was affected by the magnetic cloud engulfing the Earth. In Quebec it was too much for the electricity grid which tripped, and much of the province was blacked out for 9 hours. A number of satellites were also disabled for a time.
In 2012 a Coronal Mass Ejection every bit as big as the Carrington event occurred, but fortunately on a side of the sun facing away from the Earth, so everything was ejected harmlessly into space. Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, along with colleagues from NASA and other universities, published a seminal study of the storm in the December 2013 issue of the journal Space Weather. Their paper, entitled "A major solar eruptive event in July 2012," describes how a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) tore through Earth orbit on July 23, 2012. Fortunately Earth wasn't there. Instead, the storm cloud hit the STEREO-A spacecraft.
According to NASA…
“Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology. They begin with an explosion--a "solar flare"—in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side-effects of this "solar EMP" (electro-magnetic pulse) include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors. Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive. Moving only slightly slower than light itself, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections), billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth divide. Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”
It’s all based on the simple physical fact that if you bring a magnetic field close to a conductor and away again it induces an electric current in that conductor. That’s why telegraph operators were able to continue to work even after disconnecting their batteries; the fluctuating magnetism of the solar storm induced current in the telegraph wires. A very big magnetic field induces a very big current. I’m not sure that unplugging things from the wall will necessarily save them. Reports at the time of the Carrington Event talk of currents induced in the Earth itself. Your smartphone has conductors in it; so does your laptop, all your kitchen appliances, your TV - even your car. Power surges can destroy delicate electronics.
Safeguarding the Infrastructure
One of the major vulnerabilities is large electricity transformers at substations and power stations. If these cannot be successfully disconnected and shielded in the face of a solar storm an induced power surge in the overhead lines could cause them to be irreparably damaged. Some of these units cost millions of pounds and would take months, if not years, to replace.
In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled "On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events." In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.
The answer: 12%. Roughly 8:1 against. Let’s hope he’s wrong.
Other scientists have calculated that nothing like the Carrington event had occurred in the preceding 500 years, but while a repeat event may be likely to happen there is no way of calculating exactly when it might happen again.
And that’s it for 2018
I’m going to leave it there for 2018 and wish you a very merry Christmas. But I don’t want to leave on a pessimistic note, so here’s a story I brought you back in March.
A farmer near Aberdeen in Scotland was concerned that a non-native mammal had invaded his land. He called the police and told them that he thought that he’d seen a tiger. The police asked all the local zoos to check whether they had lost a tiger and they sent an armed response unit. They cornered the suspect in a barn and discovered it was a very large cuddly toy.
As I finish this I’ve just been asked to go on Talk Radio to talk about the latest government green policies and then I’m off to record an interview for the first episode of 2019. I’ll publish that around the middle of January, and I might publish the Talk Radio interview as a special bonus just before.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the last Sustainable Futures Report for 2018.
Did I say Happy Christmas?