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Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report. I'm Anthony Day and this is the edition for Friday, 7th November 2018.
This week I wanted to make water my theme. We’ll come to that, but the big news of course is COP24. It's the annual United Nations climate change conference held this year in Katowice, Poland. It's ironic that as the conference opened President Macron of France, faced by the increasing violence of the gilets jaunes protests, agreed to suspend the planned increase in diesel prices which were intended to protect the planet by reducing demand and reducing emissions.
Meanwhile, the opening keynote speaker was television naturalist Sir David Attenborough whose message was widely reported.
“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.”
He went on to explain,
“At this crucial moment, the United Nations has invited the world’s people to have their voice heard, by giving them a seat. The People’s Seat; giving everyone the opportunity to join us here today, virtually, and speak directly to you the decision makers…..
“…The world’s people have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out.
“They want you, the decision makers, to act now. They are behind you, along with civil society represented here today.
“They want you, the decision makers, to act now. They are behind you, along with civil society represented here today.
“Supporting you in making tough decisions but also willing to make sacrifices in their daily lives.
“The People have spoken. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of our civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend, is in your hands.”
He explained the UN’s ActNow.bot. This is an interactive app based on Messenger and when you click on the Get Started button it comes back with this personalised message:
“Anthony, you have the power to tackle climate change. Small changes can make a big difference if we all work together. The United Nations has identified 10 key actions that you can take in your daily life and record here. Our collective actions from around the globe will be presented to world leaders at the UN Climate Summit in September 2019.”
The 10 actions, with detailed explanation of each, are:
Eat meat-free meals, turn the lights off, drive less, use energy saving light bulbs, refill and re-use, have a 5-minute shower, buy local produce, bring your own bag, unplug, recycle.
Simple enough, and small enough individually, but if we all do it there is vast strength in vast numbers. Not sure that I will go back to the site to record all my actions, though. Will people do that?
The People’s Seat
The People's Seat which Attenborough mentioned is a new UN campaign that will allow people from around the world to watch and have their voices heard during the climate summit COP24 which is now on. To do that you tweet using hashtag #takeyourseat. This use of Twitter along with the ActNow.bot on Messenger is presumably aimed at a younger demographic. Apparently the campaign has been running for a while and if you google People’s Seat you’ll find messages about climate change from all over the world.
The conference continues until next Friday 14th December, so I’ll comment on it again after that.
Oh, by the way, Katowice, where the conference is being held, is in the heart of Polish mining country. JSW, a majority state-owned corporation and the European Union's largest producer of high-quality coking coal is one of the major sponsors of COP24.
Let’s talk about water.
Water is one of the main issues of sustainability. Clean water part of the United Nations sustainable development goals. It's crucial to life and it's bound up in so many ways in the cause and effects of climate change.
Today I want to look again at how water affects us all. From the polar ice caps to the thermohaline circulation and the Gulf Stream; from floods to droughts to mudslides.
First, let’s look at the poles. At both the North and South poles there are major masses of ice. The principal difference is that most of the Arctic ice is floating on the sea, so that if it melted it would not change sea levels. This is similar to the ice cube in your gin and tonic which may melt but won't cause your drink to overflow the glass. There is a significant amount of ice covering the Greenland landmass, and this would add 7 metres to sea level if it melted.
In the Antarctic the ice sits on land. The Antarctic icecap contains about 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. Antarctica is covered with ice at an average of 2,150 metres thick. If all of the Antarctic ice melted, sea levels around the world would rise about 61 metres.
We talk constantly about global warming, so how likely is it that this ice will melt? Stuff, a magazine based in New Zealand, warns that Polar ice sheets may 'collapse' even if global warming is limited to the Paris Agreement target of 2℃. It quotes an article in Nature Climate Change which predicts that the threshold for irreversible ice loss in both Greenland and Antarctica is somewhere between 1.5 and 2C global mean warming.
We're already at a bit more than 1C warming.
Professor Christina Hulbe, from the University of Otago School of Surveying, said the work had "one clear message: we are very close to triggering irreversible change in Earth's polar ice sheets”.
In June this year, analysis showed that the rate of melting in Antarctica had tripled since 2012. Associate Professor Rob McKay, from Victoria University of Wellington's Antarctic Research Centre, said after the tipping points were reached at each polar ice sheet, "retreat potentially becomes unstoppable”. The more we overshoot the 1.5C target, the more rapid this accelerated ice sheet melt will be, but it won't happen overnight. It’s expected to take hundreds or thousands of years.
No grounds for complacency. As long as Antarctic ice is melting, or just slipping off into the sea as icebergs, sea levels are rising.
The National Geographic reports that the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been 3.2 millimetres a year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years. Even 32mm per decade doesn’t sound a lot, and it isn’t very much in calm conditions. However, let’s take an example.
Let’s assume that the Thames Estuary has an area of about 700km2. That’s 700,000,000m2. If the sea level rises by 32mm in 10 years that’s an extra 22m tonnes of water. When there’s a storm surge or a high wind driving up the river that’s an extra 22m tonnes of water pushing against the Thames Barrier or flooding into coastal towns. Now consider how much more water there will be across the oceans of the world as sea levels rise. The total area of global oceans is about 360mkm2. You can do the maths.
Things could be much worse. NASA predicts that sea levels could rise by 65cm by the end of the century and says that that could be a conservative estimate. It seems that the difference is accounted for by the expansion of water as the world warms, and by differences in modelling techniques. Ice-melt prediction is a relatively young science. Some researchers believe that the Greenland Ice sheet will completely melt by 2100, releasing enough water to submerge London. And if that happens many other cities and countries will be affected as well.
According to the US ocean service, in the United States, almost 40 percent of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas, where sea level plays a role in flooding, shoreline erosion, and hazards from storms. Globally, eight of the world's 10 largest cities are near a coast. The UK Climate Projections report, issued last month by the Met Office, warns that the most serious consequences for the UK will be increased flooding. Environment Minister Michael Gove (at the time of writing) says that flood defences can only go so far, and some areas will have to be permanently evacuated.
The water in the oceans is in constant flux. There are local currents driven by the wind but there is a much larger flow called the thermohaline circulation. The North Atlantic current, including the Gulf Stream, flows from the Caribbean to the northeast above Scandinavia. As it reaches the higher, colder latitudes it begins to freeze, and as the ice forms the salt in the water is left behind, making it denser. Denser water sinks to the bottom of the ocean and begins to flow south across the ocean bed. On the surface, more water is drawn in to replace the water that has sunk. This is the start of the thermohaline circulation: thermo, relating to the heat and haline, meaning saltiness.
Forbes Magazine reports on the work of researchers at the Swire Institute of Marine Science and the University of Hong Kong. They studied sediment and fossils off the coast of Canada to reconstruct ocean circulation in the past and to compare it with where it is today. The team, which published its findings in Geophysical Research Letters, found a dramatic weakening of ocean circulation during the last century. The concern is that increasing numbers of icebergs flowing off Greenland are changing the salinity of the water and effectively creating a freshwater cap. This is slowing down the sinking process, which in turn slows down the current, and could eventually block it.
Why does this matter?
The clue is in the thermo bit. The current crossing the Atlantic is bringing warm water, which affects the climate. It’s the reason why winters in London are much milder than those in New York, even though London is 11 degrees of latitude further north. A slowing of the current could perhaps have been the cause of the Little Ice Age in Europe. This period, lasting from around 1300 to 1850 AD marked bitter cold conditions, famine, drought, and widespread population decline. Nobody can say for sure. Equally nobody can say when or whether it will happen again. If you believe in the precautionary principle, it’s another strong argument to take every measure to attempt to keep global warming down to 1.5℃ or less.
More to come
There’s an awful lot more about water. I haven’t discussed clouds, or floods, or droughts, or drinking water or sewage, but I’m going to leave those topics for another time.
There is a vast amount of information on the web and you’ll find a selection of links on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report .
And in other news…
I got a press release this week from the Group of 78 (G78) which apparently is a non-governmental organization, founded in 1981, dedicated to the promotion of a progressive foreign policy based on principles of sustainable peace, justice, and global survival in the face of contemporary challenges. Its report Meeting the Climate Challenge: Accelerating the Transition to a Post-Carbon World, G78 Conference Report and Policy Recommendations, is the outcome of a policy conference held in Ottawa September 28-29.
Anyone can become a member of G78 and the number refers to the 78 Canadians who originally set up the organisation.
The report and the press release call for stronger international actions to avert catastrophic climate change. G78 hopes that international leaders and decision-makers will commit to such actions at the UN’s COP24, which is currently in session. I hope so too, and I’ll report on that in the Sustainable Futures Report for 21st December.
Action is certainly needed. The BBC reports that CO2 is sharply up in 2018 due to the use of cars and coal. China is boosting the use of coal to drive its economy. In other areas, including the UK, gas prices have risen making coal more competitive for generating electricity. In the UK the chancellor froze fuel duty for the 9th year in a row recently. Cars are getting bigger and drivers have little concern for fuel economy or emissions levels. They can perhaps be forgiven for being sceptical about all this after the diesel-gate scandal - the deliberate modification of cars to defeat emissions tests. Meanwhile, as I said at the beginning, President Macron’s attempt at cutting fossil fuel use by raising prices led to two weeks of riots in the streets across France and he’s had to back down.
We live in difficult times!
That's it for another week.
Thanks for listening and thanks to my patrons for all their support. You can find out about being a patron at patreon.com/SFR.
Patron Iain Duke got in touch and suggested I should look at the conflict between development and ecological footprint reduction. Thanks, Iain, I’ve got that down for early next year. And if you’ve got any ideas or opinions on that please share. I’m on email@example.com.
Next week I’m going to have a look at all the topics I’ve covered in 2018 and see whether there are any significant updates you should know about. On 21st December I’ll look at what happened at COP24 and I’ll also talk about the Carrington Event. Could it happen again?
That’s it for this week.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.