Friday, November 29, 2019

Offsets - taking it easy(Jet)

Offsets - taking it easy(Jet)
Hello and welcome to another edition of the Sustainable Futures Report.
I'm Anthony Day and this is the episode for Friday, the 29th of November. The week before last I was talking about carbon offsets - and all of a sudden everybody else is talking about carbon offsets, even Julia Hartley Brewer. You’ll hear her later. easyJet tells us that Tuesday 19th November was a historic date - was it though? And listener Ian Jarvis asked some pertinent questions which I’m going to try and answer.
First of all, why was 19th November historic? easyJet says that it’s because from then on the fuel for all their flights will be carbon-offset. In their announcement they didn’t claim that their flights were carbon-neutral, but the press didn’t hesitate to claim that for them. ITV, CNN, one mile at a time and euro news - among many others - put carbon neutral in their headlines. In fact, if you googled easyJet and carbon neutral you found a paid advertisement at the top of the page offering easyJet’s net-zero carbon flights. It’s gone now, but I copied it and you’ll find it on the Sustainable Futures Report blog. 
So is it true? Is the airline carbon neutral? Absolutely not. It’s the worst kind of greenwash as many in the media and the Twittersphere have rushed to point out. It’s not just greenwash, it’s irresponsible, because people who just read the headline will think it’s OK to fly. They will think that easyJet is carbon neutral so they can fly as much as they like without affecting the planet. The problem is that easyJet’s offsetting is not carbon-neutral. 
Yes, they will invest only in schemes accredited by The Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard, and these bodies will confirm that the schemes are properly operated. Despite all this, supporting wind energy production and safe water provision and similar schemes does not reduce the amount of emissions in the atmosphere by any amount at all. I’ve covered this before so I’ve put a detailed example at the end of this episode. Yes, easyJet is investing in preventing deforestation, but that does not have a neutralising effect either. It’s only if you plant new trees which actually absorb carbon as they grow or have some sort of mechanical systems with extract CO2 from the air that you can reduce the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. An average tree takes 30 years to absorb a tonne of carbon. An average weekend in New York adds takes a few days to create emissions about twice that. Mechanical CO2 extraction is little more than a fantasy at present.
The conclusion is that the cleanest aircraft is the one that never takes off. Selling that idea is next to impossible. People are used to air travel as the cheapest form of travel once you get over a few 100 miles. It’s cheap for the passenger but at a staggeringly high price for our children.
I ran a conference in Edinburgh last weekend. Where shall we go next year? came the question. Manchester? York? Cork? Top choices were somewhere in Spain or maybe Marrakech. Flights to Marrakech are advertised at £100 or less. I could make the journey by train, but the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier on its own would cost about £100 and the journey would take two days. Hard choices.
I won’t fly to Marrakech so I hope we end up somewhere near a railway station in Spain.
Those Questions
Water Vapour
Ian Jarvis asks, “What about the role of water vapour in global warming? Isn’t it by far the most important greenhouse gas and shouldn’t we be controlling it?”
Well, yes and no. Water vapour is indeed a very potent greenhouse gas, but it differs from the others in one important way. All the others remain as gases in the atmosphere at all times. Water vapour traps heat like any other greenhouse gas, but also condenses into water droplets at times, making clouds. Clouds can have a warming effect: you’re less likely to get a winter frost overnight if there’s cloud cover. Clouds also have a cooling effect: they reflect sunlight - and heat - back into space.
We do not directly affect the level of water vapour in the atmosphere but we do affect it indirectly. By warming the atmosphere through the effect of man-made gases we increase the capability of the atmosphere to hold water vapour, and the warmer the atmosphere the less that vapour will condense into clouds. The more we contribute to global heating the more water vapour and the more water vapour the more global heating. It becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
There are suggestions for a fleet of ships roaming the oceans spraying water into the air to encourage the formation of clouds and the dimming effect. It might work. Who would pay for it? Might it affect the weather, and with more effects in some countries than in others? If we try this experiment on the earth and it all goes wrong we won’t have a second chance.
Ian also asks, “Could we use faster-growing plants than trees to lock up carbon?” He suggests hemp and bamboo which can yield two crops per year. They can be transformed into paper or cloth. 
One of the issues with offsetting is that the carbon needs to be locked up for at least 100 years, because that’s about the time it takes for CO2 to be absorbed by nature. Even if the hemp and bamboo are processed into other products, they are unlikely to last as long as that. And if the fields need clearing and replanting twice a year it needs to be done without fossil fuel powered machinery. Trees need management, but far less than semi-annual crops. 
Land Management
“What about the good old meadow?” asks Ian. “I read some years ago that even a lawn absorbs a quantity of CO2 but for the life of me cannot recall any figures or other details.”
In August this year the IPCC published Climate Change and Land, a Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse gas fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems. 
They say:
“Land is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and plays a key role in the exchange of energy, water and aerosols between the land surface and atmosphere. Land ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable to ongoing climate change and weather and climate extremes, to different extents. Sustainable land management can contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change, on ecosystems and societies.”
“An estimated 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (2007-2016) derive from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).”
I’ve only skimmed the document, but the major concern is that climate change leads to the degradation of the the land. It urges that action should be taken to protect the land and explains that this can help with both mitigation and adaptation. 
Ian’s lawn will certainly do more to absorb CO2 than bare earth, and even more still if he plants trees instead of grass. There’s a link to the full text of the report on the Sustainable Futures Report blog. 
The Guardian reports that Global heating is “supercharging” an increasingly dangerous climate mechanism in the Indian Ocean that has played a role in disasters this year including bushfires in Australia and floods in Africa.
Scientists and humanitarian officials say this year’s record Indian Ocean dipole, as the phenomenon is known, threatens to reappear more regularly and in a more extreme form as sea surface temperatures rise.
Of most concern are years in which the sea surface off the coast of Africa warms up, provoking increased rains, while temperatures off Australia fall, leading to drier weather.
It is similar to El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific, which cause sharp changes in weather patterns on both sides of the ocean.
The Production Gap
The Production Gap is the discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. A new report by academics from the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Centre for International Climate Research and others working with the United Nations Environment Programme examines the current global position. They say:
“Though coal, oil, and gas are the central drivers of climate change, they are rarely the subject of international climate policy and negotiations. This report aims to expand that discourse and provide a metric for assessing how far the world is from production levels that are consistent with global climate goals.”
A chart on the first page of the website shows that global emissions are currently around 30 GtCO2 per annum and on course to reach 40 GtCO2 by 2040.  To hold the temperature rise to 2°C means cutting emissions below 20 GtCO2 by that date. To achieve 1.5°C needs a cut to some 12 or 13 GtCO2. Key findings of the report include: 
“Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”
“The global production gap is even larger than the already-significant global emissions gap, due to minimal policy attention on curbing fossil fuel production.”
“Several governments have already adopted policies to restrict fossil fuel production, providing momentum and important lessons for broader adoption.”
This is another report which analyses the present situation and warns how business as usual will drive the world to destruction in only a few years. 
“International cooperation plays a central role in winding down fossil fuel production,” they say.
Some 190 countries came together in 2015 to sign the Paris agreement on controlling emissions and keeping global temperature increases below 2℃, yet their current policies will drive temperatures way higher than that. The risk is that the longer we continue to increase emissions in the atmosphere the greater the chance of setting off unstoppable feedback loops. Water vapour is only one example: methane released by melting permafrost and warming oceans is another.
Chinese Coal
Meanwhile in China coal-fired power stations delivering 42.9GW were opened in the 18 months to June. This substantially exceeded the 8GW of coal-fired capacity retired elsewhere in the world.
Christine Shearer, an analyst at the NGO Global Energy Monitor, said: “China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet.”
“China has a strong advantage that it is a global leader in solar and wind power, and last year it sold more electric cars than the rest of the world combined. China can become the world’s foremost clean energy superpower,” said Jeanett Bergan, the head of responsible investment at Norway’s largest pension fund, KLP.
At the moment China continues to be the largest developer of coal power both at home and throughout the world. It will take immense international pressure to persuade it to change course, pressure which is unlikely to come from the US or from Russia, and there aren’t any other countries strong enough to be heard. It is worrying, because a response I get all too often is, “Why should I do anything when anything I do is wiped out many times over by emissions from China?”
Good question, but at the very least, we have to lead by example.
Of course nuclear power is clean, or at least emissions-free, once it’s in operation. The Financial Times reports that continued delays at the new plant at Flamanville are trying the patience of the French president. France has the biggest fleet of nuclear stations in Europe, many of which are coming up for retirement. The question is whether they will be replaced or supplanted by renewables. In the meantime new stations are not to be built until the Flamanville plant is up and running to prove that its new design can work. 
Last week there was a 5.4 earth tremor in the Rhone Valley where four nuclear stations and a fuel processing plant are located. It was not strong enough to do damage, but three off the stations have been closed for safety checks. Another question mark hanging over France’s nuclear future. 
And Finally…
Oxford Dictionaries declares 'climate emergency' the word of 2019. (Isn’t that two words?) Anyway this must reflect the fact that we’re hearing about it and thinking about it more and more. Let’s hope that in 2020 those with the power will stop thinking and start acting.
Before I go…
I’ve added a couple of footnotes about types of offset and easyJet and my latest conversation with Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk Radio.
Types of offset
There are two types of offsets - extractive and preventive. Extractive offsets take emissions out of the atmosphere. Preventive offsets stop emissions being added to the atmosphere. They stop the level rising, or rising as fast, but preventives do nothing to reduce the existing level.
As an example, think of a bath half full of water. The water represents the emissions. If both taps are running the level will rise. If you take the plug out and the pipe is large enough the water will run out as fast as it’s pouring in. The level of water will not rise and the inflow is neutralised.
That’s an extractive offset. The plughole represents the trees which can absorb CO2 as they grow. You’ll need a lot of trees.
Now consider that the bath doesn’t have a plug, so the water’s not flowing out. easyJet operates one tap and a community in Africa operates the other tap. easyJet offers to pay the Africans to turn off their tap. The flow of water, or emissions, is cut, but the level in the bath continues to rise, albeit more slowly. The water from easyJet’s tap, its emissions, continues to flow. This is a preventive offset and it does not deliver neutrality.
One Engine
More on easyJet. It says it will save fuel by using only one engine when taxiing. That will represent a minute proportion of the total fuel used on a flight and will it really be a saving? Surely it takes just as much energy to push the aircraft along the taxiway, so that one engine must have to push twice as hard!

Now here’s my chat with Julia.

Will I ever persuade her to fly less?

As I close I notice there’s a Channel 4 debate on the climate crisis tonight, featuring all the political parties except the Conservatives and the Brexit Party who have declined to take part. I believe that there will be a similar debate in my local constituency later this week, also without a Conservative representative. Make of that what you will.

And that is it for this week, but before I go thanks for listening, thanks for your ideas, thanks for being a patron - if you are - send more ideas to and there will, I’m sure, be another Sustainable Futures Report next week.
Bye for now!


Can carbon offsets tackle airlines’ emissions problem?
Ian’s questions
Global heating supercharging Indian Ocean climate system
Fossil fuel production on track for double the safe climate limit

China's appetite for coal power returns despite climate pledge

Oxford Dictionaries declares 'climate emergency' the word of 2019


Advert which no longer seems to appear


Friday, November 22, 2019

Which Way Now?

Which Way Now?
Image by Arec Socha

It's the Sustainable Futures Report, I'm Anthony Day and it's Friday, the 22nd of November. Soon be Christmas, but I'm already thing thinking about New Year’s resolutions. No, not mine, I'm going to ask all the people who have been interviewed on the Sustainable Futures Report this year what they think we should do in 2020. That will make the first episode for January. It will come out on the 3rd. I'll tell you all about it later. 
This Week
In the news this week, some capitalists seem to be having doubts about capitalism, the European investment bank is having doubts about fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency has doubts about coalmines, the Lancet gets to the heart of the matter and the BBC does Climategate.
Thank you all for listening. I know I say that every week but I had a bit of a shock on Friday. Normally the number of hits spikes sharply upwards on publication day, but this last week, nothing. Nothing at all. In fact the stats counter on the hosting website had broken down. You were listening, but I just didn’t know. Back to normal after 36 hours. Thanks for listening - I knew you would be. Please tell your friends. It’s my dream to go viral, but maybe that will just remain a dream. I may not have tens of thousands of listeners, but it’s the quality of them that counts. And the feedback. Thanks for your message, Shane. And Ian.
Which Way Should We Go?
A friend sent me a link to David Attenborough’s trailer for Blue Planet ll. It’s as compelling as ever. But in a way it's confusing too. Blue Planet ll showed how we are polluting our planet. How rubbish, largely plastic, finds its way into the oceans, traps sea creatures and poisons their habitat. How plastic breaks down into microparticles which are absorbed by fish; how the oceans are becoming more acid and the coral is dying. It’s a crucial issue. The trouble is that there are two crucial issues. We need to deal with pollution and rubbish and abandoned plastic to keep our planet safe to live in. At the same time we need to do everything we possibly can to cut carbon emissions, because rising emissions lead to rising temperatures, extreme weather events and serious risks to global agriculture. If we can’t feed the world… - well, no-one wants to think about that.
Avoiding plastic bags, refusing plastic straws, reducing, re-using and recycling all help to cut the pollution problem, but that alone will never save us. Mind you, dealing only with carbon emissions and ignoring pollution will leave us in a pretty horrible state as well. We’ve got to deal with both.
Controlling Plastic
Let’s look at what we can do to get plastic under control. Is plastic production going to increase sixfold by 2050? I know I read it somewhere. Even if that’s wrong and it will only double, that’s still an awful lot of potential pollution. We need to control it and that means governments need to control it. That means regulation, which is anathema to some people. Plastic pollution is anathema to me and it’s certain death to parts of the environment, so I think regulation wins. Producers or companies selling products incorporating or wrapped in plastic should be responsible for the costs of collecting and recycling it. At present local authorities are responsible for dealing with all this waste, but why should they be? Surely it's a hidden subsidy to the producers if they can just ship it out and forget it.
Plastic products should be licensed. Surely we should outlaw all those packets marked “Not currently recycled”. Other packets say “Check local recycling”, which clearly reveals that there is no consistent recycling policy across the UK. (Even the different colours of the bins mean different things to different authorities, but don’t get me started on that.) We need a national recycling policy.
Authority A may not recycle plastic B because there is not a suitable facility in its area. That must change.
There is a relatively small number of plastics in use. Suppliers should be licensed and charged a levy in line with the cost of processing the waste they create. Totally unrecyclable plastic should be banned. Of course not all plastic is single-use and thrown away in a week or less. Look around at your computers, your phones, your furnishings, your clothes - even your car. They all contain plastic. It may be years before they are discarded or recycled, but they should still bear a levy. After all, the supplier will have the advantage of paying today’s price for disposal which may not take place until well into the future.
Getting it Sorted
A major problem with plastic recycling is sorting it all out before processing, because different plastics need different processes. If one mismatched bag contaminates a batch of another type of plastic it might mean the whole lot has to go to landfill. Sorting it out isn’t easy. Certainly not at home. We can’t have a dozen different containers for our different plastic wastes. Lots of plastics have recycling symbols on them but many don’t and those that do can be really difficult to read. Many people can’t be bothered and who can blame them?  
The Invisible Barcode
We have to move the sorting down the line to the recycling facility, and news from the food packaging industry shows how this could be possible. Here’s a quotation from the Interpak international convention website:
“Experts agree: before long packaging designers will be allowed to let their creativity roam free again without having to take the, at times disturbing, element of black and white barcodes into consideration. A new development by Oregon, highly praised by experts, replaces conventional barcodes with invisible watermark grids. The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is encoded and applied - complete with plenty of additional information – to the packaging many times over. While the human eye cannot see the Digimarc Barcode developed by the technology company of the same name, camera scanners fitted with special software capture the product details instantly. This means article number and price are captured without a delay thereby making hitherto unknown communication possible between merchandise, retailers and shoppers.”
In other words, the checkout operator no longer has to twist the package round to find the barcode, or to pull it tight so it will scan. And this invisible code can be read not only at the checkout, but also in the recycling centre. Presumably even torn fragments of plastic wrapping will bear the codes, so every bit of waste can be accounted for.
Of course all this implies investment by suppliers, shops and recycling centres. If there isn’t a business case they won’t do it. If there’s an environmental and public health case they should be required to do it.
In your supermarket?
Let me know if this system comes to a supermarket near you. Let’s hope it comes more quickly than those sticky blocks that were supposed to replace the plastic rings that hold beer cans together, and also trap turtles, seals and other marine animals. 
Plastic Economy Global Commitment
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published its report on the plastic economy global commitment last month. “The report,” they say,  “provides an unprecedented level of transparency on how almost 200 businesses and governments are reshaping the plastics system.”
It describes the progress being made, including:
  • Companies set out actions to eliminate problematic plastic packaging, and increase the use of recycled plastic in packaging by more than five-fold by 2025, equivalent to keeping 25 million barrels of oil in the ground every year
  • Unilever, Mars, Incorporated, and PepsiCo announce significant reductions in virgin plastic use by 2025
  • Analysis carried out for the report shows that on average around 60% of business signatories’ plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable today. Through the Global Commitment, they have committed to making this 100% by 2025
  • Government signatories including France, Rwanda, the UK, and the cities of São Paulo (Brazil) and Austin (USA), are putting in place policy measures that include bans, public procurement, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, fiscal measures, and incentives for research and development.
It goes on, “This announcement is an important step in the Foundation’s mission to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. Launched in 2018, the Global Commitment now includes over 400 signatories, which are aligned on a path to build a new plastics economy. Business signatories, including companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, are working to eliminate the plastic we don't need, to innovate so that all plastic we do need is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and to circulate all the plastic we use.”
Capital News
Last week the Financial Times City Network presented a debate on whether capitalism could fix climate change, and Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, delivered an address in which she called for wholesale reform of the current economic system to avert global disaster. And some of the attendees seemed to get the message. The chief executive of Fidelity International said, “The world must end our obsession with ever-increasing GDP,” while the view from Allianz Global Investors was that capitalism in its current form was “borrowing from the future while destroying the environment”. 
The surprisingly outspoken interventions from two of the City’s best known asset managers reflected a wider view among contributors to the debate that business and government must urgently improve their response to the growing evidence of environmental catastrophe. “Solving climate change through inclusive capitalism will define our generation,” said the chief executive of Legal & General, another big asset manager. 
“A step in the right direction,” says Patron Manda Scott, “but still a long way to go.”

The Lancet
“Our response to climate change today will determine the world we live in tomorrow.” 
That’s the opening sentence of the video which launches the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change. It looks at the future for children born today and whether they will thrive or just survive. It warns about air pollution with irreversible damage to young hearts and lungs, food insecurity and malnutrition, heatwaves, storms, disease, mass migrations and social breakdown, which will occur if business as usual on its present path drives a 4℃ temperature rise.
The report itself starts withe the headline:
“An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response.”
It reinforces the urgency of the situation we are in, and while it urges action by individuals and business, it underlines the importance of action by governments. Watch the video, read the key messages or download the whole report. The link is on the blog.
Meanwhile the British Prime Minister continues to refer to climate activists as “crusties” and to avoid them whenever they stray on to the campaign trail. The climate crisis was hardly mentioned in this week’s party leader debate.

On the Energy Front…
The Guardian reports that the European Investment Bank (EIB) is preparing to end investment in oil, gas and coal projects from 2021 and to become the world’s first ‘“climate bank”. 
“Climate is the top issue on the political agenda of our time,” said the bank’s president, Werner Hoyer. “We will stop financing fossil fuels and launch the most ambitious climate investment strategy of any public financial institution anywhere.”
Under its new policy, the bank will end all lending to fossil fuels within two years and align all funding decisions with the Paris climate accord. Energy projects applying for EIB funding will have to show they can produce one kilowatt hour of energy while emitting less than 250 grammes of carbon dioxide.
Contrast this with the UK’s Green Investment Bank. The present government removed all the bank’s obligations to invest principally in green and low-carbon projects and then sold it off.
The International Energy Agency reports that methane emissions leaking from the world’s coalmines could be stoking the global climate crisis at the same rate as the shipping and aviation industries combined. They estimated that the amount of methane seeping from new and disused coalmines may have reached just under 40m tonnes last year.
I wonder if fugitive methane was taken into account when permission was granted for the new coal mine to be opened  in Cumbria. Or if the Australians will take it into account. The trouble is that the whole issue of emissions is bound up with enormous industries which affect the lives of us all. Because we’ve left it so late it’s going to be close to impossible to take the necessary action to control emissions without disruption to communities across the world.

On the energy front there’s more about coal in China and ongoing problems with EDF’s Flamanville station. I’m holding that over until next time.

In Australia
We heard from friends visiting Australia. They were in Sydney this week. They told us that they could smell smoke and the BBC reported that Sydney residents were warned about severe fire danger, as temperatures soared to 37C (98.6F) in the city's west. 
Parts of the city recorded air pollution levels at eight times higher than the national benchmark.
Health officials advised people to stay indoors and avoid physical activity. They also shared first aid guides on how to help asthma sufferers and others with respiratory problems.
"The smoke is likely to hang around for the next few days," warned the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Although it’s still spring, Perth in Western Australia has already experienced 40℃. There were fires in WA, too, near Geraldton some 250 miles north of Perth. 
The summer heat is still to come.
And in other news…
Last week I mentioned that it was 10 years since thousands of emails were hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and made public. Just after I uploaded the episode the BBC presented Climategate: Science of a Scandal. The programme looked in detail at how the emails were selectively released and used to attempt to discredit the science. How spokespeople with important-sounding titles but no qualifications were put up to denounce the academics. How some of the scientists received death threats; some were told to watch out for their wives and children. No wonder some of them were still visibly upset after 10 years. Three independent enquiries found there was no malpractice of any kind. Watch the programme. You’ll find it on iPlayer. Link on the blog.
Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, finalised arrangements to sell off part of itself to investors this week, as expected. It won’t be selling as much as originally expected; only 1.5% against estimates of as much as 5%. The price is disappointing as well, valuing the company not at the hoped-for $2trn but no more than $1.7trn. And the what will the Saudis spend their money on? To reform their economy, and that may include investing in renewables.
It’s an Ill Wind
“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, says the proverb. Climate Action reports that a team at Princeton University, has found that as average daily wind speeds are picking up across the globe, it is helping wind power generation. Writing in Nature Climate Change,  they showed that while wind speeds decreased by about 2.3% per decade beginning in 1978, since 2010 wind speeds have increased at a rate that is nearly three times faster.
This is having an impact on renewable power. The researchers calculated that a typical wind turbine receiving the global average wind would have produced about 17% more energy in 2017 than in 2010.
Using climate indices to project future wind speeds, they found this trend is set to continue, predicting a 37% increase by 2024.
So climate change isn’t all bad. Just mostly.
Looking Ahead…
I’m Looking Ahead. I’m sending this message to prominent people in sustainability:
“Finally the world seems to be realising that we have a climate crisis and it’s serious. In not more than 100 words, what should we do in 2020? Please let me have your answer, either in written form or as an audio clip which you could record on your phone and send to" 
Let me have your answers, too.
These answers will make up the episode for 3rd January 2020

And finally…
Last week’s episode was about carbon offsetting and listener Ian Jarvis came back with a number of questions. What about the role of water vapour in global warming? Could we use faster-growing plants than trees to lock up carbon? How does land management affect carbon emissions? All good questions. I’ve got some ideas but I’ll expand my research and get back to you next time. 
Meanwhile easyJet announced this week that it was offsetting all the fuel used by all its aircraft with immediate effect. Julia Hartley Brewer of Talk Radio wanted to know what I thought. You’ll hear that next week as well.
And if you’ve got some questions, or better still some answers, please do get in touch. 
And that’s it…
As I’ve mentioned before, the Sustainable Futures Report comes to you without advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. I do benefit from the generosity of my sponsors. They pledge to donate a monthly amount, from $1 upwards, which helps to cover my hosting and transcription costs. If you are already a patron your support is much appreciated. If not, you could sign up at If you do, you’ll get a shout-out, a unique metal badge and my sincere gratitude. I’ll also give priority to any issues you think I should address and you’ll usually get each episode at least one day in advance of Friday publication.
And yes, that’s it for another week. I hope there will be another episode next week but I’m out all day on Monday, at a conference all day on Wednesday and at the dentist on Thursday, and I do have a life outside the Sustainable Futures Report. Tuesday is clearly going to be busy. 
Let me leave you with the thought that as cities across the world are choked with increasing air pollution a new car is launched. An electric car? A hydrogen car? A zero-emissions car? No, the DBX from luxury manufacturers Aston Martin is a petrol car. It costs from £158,000, will reach 180mph and emits 269g of CO2 per kilometre, more than twice the European average. 
We’ve still got a long way to go to get the message through. Statutory limits on emissions would be a good start, but let’s not be silly. 
Bye for now!

Blue Planet

Invisible Barcodes

Plastic Economy Global Commitment


The Lancet

Fossil Fuel
European Investment Bank to phase out fossil fuel financing

Methane emissions from coalmines could stoke climate crisis – study


And in other news


Saudi Aramco flotation is a failure before it has even begun

Renewable energy: climate crisis 'may have triggered faster wind speeds'

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Carbon Offset Question

The Carbon Offset Question

Can carbon offsets make your activities carbon-neutral? That's the main theme of this week’s Sustainable Futures Report. Yes it's Friday, the 15th of November and I’m Anthony Day. Welcome to this episode and thank you for listening.
This Week
Carbon offsetting has been in the news this week and I've been working on an analysis of the pros and cons for a client. What's the answer? Well, it's certainly not simple as I shall attempt to explain. And then, in other news, I look at the Shell Prélude, the Aramco share offer, a new oilfield in Iran, tree planting in Turkey, and what looks like a U-turn on fracking in the UK less than a week after a moratorium was announced. And in Australia the extent and intensity of the wildfires almost defies description. Is climate change to blame?
The Carbon Problem
For centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere - mainly CO2 - were at about 280ppm (parts per million). By 1990 the level had reached 354ppm and 405ppm by 2017. The earth emits and absorbs CO2 naturally, and has kept the level in balance for the last 10,000 years. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution humanity has been adding more GHG to the atmosphere than the world can absorb, by burning fossil fuels and by managing the land. The concentration has grown and continues to grow. The more CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the stronger the greenhouse effect drives global heating. At the time of the Paris Agreement scientists warned that increasing GHG would lead to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures and every effort should be made to limit it to 2℃ or even better, 1.5℃. 
Many activities and industries lead to the emission of CO2 - from driving to flying to generating electricity to heating the home to manufacturing to ploughing the land and cooking the lunch. Some of these things can be done more efficiently, but some of them will always emit CO2. Hence the idea of offsets.
The theory of offsets says that if you emit CO2 but sponsor an activity which reduces emissions by an equivalent amount then your activity is carbon-neutral. In 1997 the UN established the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which promotes and validates offsetting projects, principally in developing nations. The CDM sells Certified Emissions Reductions (CER) at so much per tonne, depending on the type of project, and individuals and organisations buy these to offset their emissions. So far, so good.
The problem with these schemes is that they are what I define as “preventive”. For example, an offsetting project could involve providing communities with efficient cooking stoves to replace polluting open fires. The amount of CO2 emitted by the community is cut. An emitter buys a CER which represents that reduction and the money goes to pay for the new stoves. The problem is that while the project emits less, the emitter still emits the same amount, so there is a net increase in atmospheric CO2. Nevertheless, the UN considers that an organisation which buys enough CERs to match its emissions is carbon-neutral.
Contrast this with an offset scheme which plants trees. Trees do absorb carbon and lock it away, although the “average” tree takes 30 years to absorb one tonne. In this scenario, if you emit 1t but plant enough trees to absorb 1t then the net effect on atmospheric carbon is zero. You are truly carbon-neutral. I call such schemes “extractive” because they physically remove CO2 from the atmosphere. There are currently no forestry schemes approved by the UN’s CDM. Undoubtedly there are problems with relying on trees. While it takes 30 years to absorb 1t, a return flight to NY emits nearly 2t in a matter of days. The trees need to stand for 100 years or more - the time that CO2 persists in the atmosphere - but there are examples of plantations cut down and burnt well before that and of trees sold more than once. Then there’s the question of “additionality”, which applies equally to preventive schemes. Would these trees have been planted anyway? Has your contribution truly made a difference?
Something in the Air
This week BBC Panorama looked at emissions and offsets in the aviation industry. If you have access to iPlayer it’s well worth watching. As the UK gets its emissions under control, aviation is set to account for the largest proportion. Aviation is expected to quadruple worldwide and with zero-emission planes away over the distant horizon, emissions will grow as well. What will they do? 
Where there’s muck there’s fuel
A spokesman from Velocys explained how they were making aviation fuel from household rubbish, and claimed that this was delivering an aviation industry with net zero carbon emissions, although a professor from Manchester Metropolitan University suggested that the industry would not have the capacity to displace fossil-fuel kerosene for decades. And how does this new fuel achieve carbon neutrality? I think it must take into account the fact that rotting household rubbish generates methane, a GHG many times more potent than CO2. The new fuel burns with exactly the same emissions as conventional fuel, but if the methane has been eliminated in the process then net emissions are reduced. There will still be emissions. There will still be a net addition to atmospheric GHG. It’s not carbon neutral. To me it sounds a bit like the logic which says that Drax power station is now one of the cleanest sites in the country, even as they desperately try to get Carbon Capture and Storage to work.
Forest Flyers
If you fly RyanAir you are given the opportunity to donate £1 or €1 towards protecting the environment. The company invests in a project to monitor whales, a project to provide clean cooking stoves to villagers in Uganda and is growing forests in Portugal and Ireland. All these are good things, but only the forests are true offsets and the people at the BBC calculated that Ryanair’s forests would absorb only 0.01% of its emissions. Apparently, to absorb it all would take an area of forest equivalent to 12% of the UK. 
In a Word
A remark from a representative of IATA , the International Air Transport Association, summed it up for me. He said, “Flying is not the enemy: CO2 is the enemy.” That sounds to me a bit like the mantra of the US National Rifle Association: “Guns don’t kill people: people kill people.”
Avoiding Complacency
The major problem with any offset scheme is that it gives people a false sense of security. It is tempting to believe that as long as you buy enough offsets you can go on flying, driving, turning up the gas central heating and lounging under your patio heater as much as you like.
That’s just not true.
Act Now
What can we do? We can fly less, obviously. Drive less and drive a smaller car if you can. Insulate your home and/or keep it at a lower temperature. Eat less meat. Reduce, re-use and recycle. Governments have an essential role. If there’s no public transport people have to drive. Governments could subsidise home insulation. It will keep people warm for a lower cost and reduce our dependence on energy, including imported coal and gas. It would also create jobs and deliver tax revenues. 
I wrote a book many years ago with the subtitle “How to drive a 4x4 and still save the planet.” 
“How do you do that?” people asked me. 
You drive it very, very slowly or not at all.
And in other News…
The major news has got to be the wildfires in Australia. The fire season has come early, the fires are covering a wider area and are more intense and some say it will be months before they are all dealt with. Meanwhile it is still Spring in Australia: the hotter summer months are still to come.
Inevitably the question, “Is climate change to blame?” Has been raised. Prime Minister Scott Morrison came to power in the surprise result to an election earlier this year, defeating his opponent who was urging the nation to do more about climate change. When asked about it this week Morrison sidestepped the question while when asked the same question, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters: "Honestly, not today.” Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack dismissed climate change as the concerns of "raving inner-city lefties" who were ignoring the needs of rural Australians.
Not a really useful debate.
Fossil Fuels
Of course the Australian economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. It’s the largest exporter in the world of coal, accounting for nearly 40% of global coal exports. Floating 125 miles offshore is Shell’s Prelude, the largest ship in the world, which contains a complete gas processing plant. It’s anchored above the gas well and can process and offload product directly into tankers. There’s no need to ship the gas ashore for processing and no need for harbour facilities to load the tankers. It can process 5.3 million tonnes of liquefied products per annum, but at a reputed cost of some $12bn they will want to keep it operating for many years to recover the investment.
More Oil  
There’s immense money in oil. Oil shares are the bedrock of many a pension scheme, giving reliable returns, year after year. The global economy is founded on oil and even though we are poisoning the planet with GHG emissions we can’t stop using oil overnight. In fact transitioning away from it in 20 years would be difficult and in 10 years near impossible. Imagine the social breakdown if transport just stopped. No way to get to work, no deliveries of food to the shops, no ambulances and no supplies to hospitals, and all the other things that wouldn’t happen. We do need to make a start on this transition, though.
Share Offer
Meanwhile Saudi oil company Aramco is offering investors a share in the company. Aramco is reportedly selling between 1 and 5 percent of its equity with a target valuation of the whole company of between $1.3 trillion and $2 trillion. This makes it the largest offering of its kind, ever. Aramco is the world’s most efficient and most profitable oil producer. Who wouldn’t invest? Well I know a lot of ethical investors wouldn’t. In fact in a letter sent last month to bank chief executives, including the bosses of HSBC and Goldman Sachs, 10 environmental groups warned that the listing would hinder the battle against greenhouse gas emissions and human rights abuses.
The environmental non-governmental organisations, including Friends of the Earth US, and Oil Change International, warned that the listing would lead to “the biggest single infusion of capital into the fossil fuel industry” since the Paris climate accord in 2015.
The letter also raised concern over the banks’ eagerness to help raise billions of dollars for Saudi Arabia, “given the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi regime”. 
And in Iran
Oil is money and oil is power. This week President Hassan Rouhani of Iran announced that the country had discovered a new oilfield containing 53 billion barrels. This increases its reserves - already large - by about 30%. The president said this would strengthen the country’s position in the face of ongoing American sanctions.
With such high stakes it’s little wonder that climate deniers are continually pushing their agenda and opposing regulation. One of the world’s leading climate experts, Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, complains that there is a move to confuse and to deflect people from what’s important. Yes, it’s a good thing to change diets and travel choices and to turn down the heating at home but that does not remove the need for action by governments and radical policy changes.
It’s 10 years since thousands of emails were hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and made public. They were selectively misinterpreted and used to claim that scientists were falsifying the figures and that climate change, if not a hoax, was vastly exaggerated. This all came out just before the Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15), long considered one of the least successful. Whether the conference was actually damaged by the campaign is still in dispute, but this won’t have upset the deniers. It is a constant battle to counteract those who want to rubbish and confuse climate science, not helped by the fact that nothing in science, as in life, is ever 100% certain.
Apparently there is nothing certain about fracking. We did hear last week that the government had introduced a moratorium on fracking in England, bringing it in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, amongst other countries. On 4 November, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published a response to a consultation on shale gas exploration which appears to contradict the new policy. It warns firms that the Government is generally opposed to fracking but does not rule out accepting new applications.
The government’s response to the findings of the consultation document says: "It should be noted that the Government has made clear that on the basis of the current scientific evidence, and in the absence of compelling new evidence, it has taken a presumption against issuing any further Hydraulic Fracturing Consents. While future applications will be considered on their own merits by the Secretary of State in accordance with the law, the shale gas industry should take the Government’s position into account when considering new developments.”
Plus ça change, as I’m told the French say, plus c’est la meme chose. Although we probably won’t be allowed to say that after Brexit.
Before I go…
Good news from Turkey. This week the citizens got together and planted 11m trees in one day. By planting 4.5B saplings over last 17 years, said President Erdogan, the breadth of Turkey’s forest has expanded to 22.6M hectares.
That should lock up quite a lot of carbon.
And Finally…
Have you seen the Sainsbury’s Christmas Commercial? No, I didn’t mean to either, but these things can be hard to avoid at this time of year. I noticed that the horse-drawn delivery van was emblazoned on all sides with the legend “Zero Emissions”. I wonder what they fed the horse on to achieve that.

And with that thought I leave you. I'm Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m sure there will be another one next week. If you’ve any ideas as to what it should be about please get in touch via 
Thanks for listening, thanks for being a patron and thanks in particular to James Spencer for supporting the research behind this episode.
Until next time.

Offsets and Warming
GHG levels’s-greenhouse-gas-index-up-41-percent-since-1990
'Greta Thunberg effect' driving growth in carbon offsetting

Shell Natural Gas
More Oil
Bidding for 'milestone' sale of Aramco shares set for next week
New oil in Iran
Climate change deniers’ new battle front attacked

Climategate 10 years on: what lessons have we learned?
Fracking Consultations
Turkey plants trees

Sainsbury’s Christmas Commercial