It’s Getting Serious
More than 2,500 years ago, Pericles reminded his fellow Athenians: “We may not be able to predict the future, but we can prepare for it”.
It looks like we should be preparing for more extreme weather like the extremes we’ve seen across the world in the last few days. Does the future lie in trees or in peat bogs, or in the US, where President Donald Trump claims his country leads the world on environmental issues? Greta Thunberg has had her biggest compliment yet while legal action over the climate crisis takes place in some 28 countries and the wind seems to be changing for the British Conservative Party. Despite all this there’s reason to hope. Go to climateoptimist.org and find out why. If you want to follow up on any of the stories you can find where I’ve got them from by going to the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report.
Sustainable Futures Report Forum
Yes, I'm Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 12 July. This week saw the first online discussion with three patrons of the Sustainable Futures Report. We covered a range of topics with a range of opinions. I recorded the session and the participants have agreed that I can share this with you in a future episode. That will come up in the next few weeks. You can find out about being a patron at patreon.com/sfr.
This time I'm going to start with CO2 and with a new article in Nature entitled “Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardise 1.5°C climate target”
Mark Lynas wrote a book called 6 Degrees which explained how the planet would change if the earth warmed by two degrees, or by three degrees and by each degree, up to six degrees. He’s recently been commenting on this report in Nature which analyses our progress towards using up our global carbon budget. The theory is that we can only put so much more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere before we reach the point at which climate change will be out of control and completely irrecoverable, as temperature rises beyond the safe 1.5°C to catastrophic levels.
In this Nature article the authors calculate that existing and planned fossil-fuel-powered plants, mainly electricity generating stations, will emit some 850 Gt CO2 over their planned lives. This amount is in excess of the maximum we can emit if we are to keep the temperature increase within the 1.5°C limit. Of existing emissions, China, the USA and the EU28 countries represent approximately 41 per cent, 9 per cent and 7 per cent of the total, respectively. The authors suggest that little or no additional CO2-emitting infrastructure can be commissioned, and that infrastructure retirements that are earlier than historical ones may be necessary, in order to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. This seems optimistic given that it is generally accepted that even if fully achieved the Paris targets will still allow warming in excess of 3°C. They suggest that existing plants could be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology. It’s a very popular solution, but still to be successfully implemented on a commercial scale. There may be other ways of mitigating emissions, but before we get to that let’s look at the current consequences of climate change.
In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, Mami Mizutori, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on disaster risk reduction, spoke of one climate crisis disaster happening every week. She said these smaller-scale events—including intense heatwaves, storms and flooding—were often overshadowed by catastrophic disasters like India’s water shortage and the pair of cyclones that devastated Mozambique earlier this year.
She emphasised that small-scale climate crises are happening much faster and more frequently than previously predicted. It’s essential, therefore, for governments to stop viewing climate change as a long-term issue and instead start investing in “adaptation and resilience” measures designed to curb the effects of ongoing lower-impact events.
“This is not about the future, this is about today.”
Examples of small-scale crises, undoubtedly traumatic for those affected, include dangerous flash floods which hit Washington DC area this month. The subway was threatened with flooding, motorists had to climb on top of their cars and wait for rescue while emergency services warned commuters to stay off the roads. At the same time heavy rains in Japan caused flooding and landslides and at least two fatalities.
In Guadalajara, north of Mexico City, a summer hailstorm left ice piled two metres deep. Hail is not unknown in the city in summer but a storm like this had never been seen before. Fortunately the storm seems to have happened overnight, so no casualties were reported. However, nearly 200 homes and businesses reported hail damage, and at least 50 vehicles were swept away by the deluge of ice in hilly areas.
Meanwhile Anchorage in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, has been enjoying a heatwave. Temperatures reached 32℃ (90°F) which is a lot hotter than almost anywhere in England this summer.
Of course you can’t point to any of these events and say it proves climate change is happening. You can say that if climate change is real these are exactly the sort of events that we would expect to see.
What’s to be done?
Do we ban all those planned power stations and close down most of the rest? How do we explain it to the billions of people whose daily lives would be impossible without electricity?
Tree planting 'has mind-blowing potential' to tackle climate crisis according to the authors of a paper in the journal Science. Taking a global perspective, they conclude that ecosystems could support an additional 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest. This would represent a greater than 25% increase in forested area, including more than 500 billion trees and more than 200 gigatonnes of additional carbon at maturity. Such a change has the potential to cut the atmospheric carbon pool by about 25%.
“This highlights global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date,” they say. “However, climate change will alter this potential tree coverage. We estimate that if we cannot deviate from the current trajectory, the global potential canopy cover may shrink by ~223 million hectares by 2050, with the vast majority of losses occurring in the tropics. Our results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through global tree restoration but also the urgent need for action.”
The Bonn Challenge is an example of others thinking the same way. The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. It was launched in 2011 by the Government of Germany and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and later endorsed and extended by the New York Declaration on Forests at the 2014 UN Climate Summit.
Another organisation is TreeSisters. They say, “TreeSisters exists to elicit collective responsibility for planetary restoration at the grass roots level with a focus on women and tropical reforestation. We are growing a global network of women who donate monthly to fund the acceleration of tropical reforestation as an expression of collective planetary care.”
“We envision a world in which it is normal for everyone to protect and restore our planet.”
I think we might all agree with that.
The Flow Country
There could be something even better than forests for trapping carbon. In the north-east of Scotland is the Flow Country. “The Flow Country” is an area of deep peat, dotted with bog pools, that forms the heart of the Caithness and Sutherland peatlands. Covering about 200,000 hectares, it’s more than twice the size of Orkney. Altogether, this corner of Scotland holds more than 400,000 hectares of blanket bog, making it the largest expanse of this remarkable, wild habitat in Europe.
All green plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use the carbon to build the plant’s structure. When the plants die, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere – unless the plant material is preserved in some way.
For the love of peat!
That’s why peat bogs are so important as a defence against climate change. Because the moss and other plants don’t decay, bogs act as a carbon store or “carbon sink”. It is a slow process: forests can store carbon more quickly than peatland, but most of it is released when the trees rot away or are burnt as fuel. Many peatlands have been growing undisturbed for thousands of years, so although they cover just 3% of the world’s land area, they hold nearly 30% of all the carbon stored on land. The Flow Country’s peat bogs alone store about 400 million tonnes – more than double the amount in all of Britain’s woodlands.
But if the bog dries out, the carbon will be released as carbon dioxide, adding to the effects of climate change. It’s been estimated that the carbon stored in Scotland’s peatlands represents 100 years’ worth of the country’s emissions from burning fossil fuels: it would be disastrous if it was released.
Clearly we need our forests and we need our peat bogs as well. We need to preserve them and to expand them when and where we can.
In Ireland there are three peat-burning power stations. Somebody should tell them.
No1 in the World
This week President Donald Trump made a major statement on the environment, claiming that the US continued to be an environmental leader, and was criticised for being economical with the truth.
For example he said, “And today, the United States is ranked — listen to this — number one in the world for access to clean drinking water — ranked number one in the world.” And later he said, “… for the first time in nearly 30 years, we’re in the process of strengthening national drinking water standards to protect vulnerable children from lead and copper exposure — something that has not been done, and we’re doing it.”
NBC News Factcheck responded, “the rule has been revised previously and the major overhaul Trump is referring to has been in the works at the EPA for more than a decade. And his speech, in which he touted his commitment to clean drinking water, omitted his administration’s efforts to relax water safety regulations elsewhere.”
Trump also claimed, “Since 2000, our nation’s energy-related carbon emissions have declined more than any other country on Earth. Think of that. Emissions are projected to drop in 2019 and 2020.”
I've not been able to find a complete series, but I found figures which show that US emissions did indeed decline from 2000 to 2014. Given that the country’s emissions per capita were greater than those for almost any other country it is not surprising that the reduction has been significant in absolute terms. It has not been so significant in percentage terms, and still remains one of the highest in the world. The Washington Post reported that emissions actually rose by 3.4% in 2018.
Closer to home…
You don't actually have to go far from home to find governments under fire for inaction on climate change. While the British government recently announced its intentions to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 the Committee on Climate Change issued a report this week warning that the UK Government must show it is serious about its legal obligations to tackle and prepare for climate change. “UK action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging far behind what is needed, even to meet previous, less stringent, emissions targets,” it said. “Over the past year, the Government has delivered just 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track.”
There’s a link to the report on the blog.
The committee chairman even went so far as to say that ministers were acting like the hapless characters from Dad's Army. (For our overseas listeners that’s a long-running TV comedy about elderly part-time soldiers defending the home front during the last war.)
In response, the chair of the Environment Agency said,
“We welcome the Committee’s recognition that our draft strategy is taking the necessary and ambitious steps needed to be a climate resilient nation. We will be working with government and our partners to finalise the strategy later this year and will be taking the Committee’s advice into account.”
Well, as long as they do.
And in other news…
Compliments to the Protestors
This week Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of Opec, said he believed that the campaigns by groups like the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion could be the “greatest threat” to the fossil fuel industry.
Greta Thunberg welcomed his remarks as their 'Biggest compliment yet’. There’s no doubt that governments and corporations are taking notice. The next challenge is to spur them into action.
Maybe legal action is the spur.
A new report from the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics finds that in the last 12 months climate change cases have been brought in at least 28 countries around the world, and of the recorded cases more than three quarters have been filed in the United States. While most defendants are governments, lawsuits are increasingly targeting the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies. Climate change-related claims are also being pursued by investors, activist shareholders, cities and states. Human rights are increasingly the foundation for these legal actions, but science, demonstrating causality, is increasingly accepted by judges.
The authors warn that as yet there is insufficient evidence of the impacts of climate change litigation, but they believe it could encourage private companies and investors to give greater consideration to climate risk.
In energy news, there continue to be problems at Flamanville, site of EdF’s new nuclear power station. You’ll remember that it’s a new design, the same as the plant that they are building at Hinkley C in the UK. At Flamanville the plant is already years behind schedule and billions over budget. There have been recurring questions over the integrity of the containment vessel and the security of some of the welds. Now an independent audit has been ordered into the entire European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) project and commissioning of the plant has been deferred once again.
An article in The Economic Times of India expresses concern about the Jaitapur nuclear power plant, planned to use six reactors of the type under construction at Flamanville when contracts were signed in 2008. Like Flamanville, like Hinkley C, like a similar project in Finland, this station is way behind schedule. Why, they ask, was this untested design ever approved? Currently, an Indian designed reactor costs about 2 million euros per MW, translating into Euro 3.3 billion for 1650 MW set. Flamanville has already breached Euro 11 billion for the same capacity and Jaitapur is planned to have six of these units. There is strong environmental opposition to the project as well, but it is surely cost which will put an end to nuclear power throughout the world. Not just the escalating cost of construction, but the enormous cost of decommissioning. This has either got to be recovered in the electricity price or borne by taxpayers for decades to come.
And there’s more…
A couple more stories to close. The Guardian reports that toilet paper is becoming less sustainable. With the increasing use of quilted tissue the manufacturers are using less recycled paper and more virgin woodpulp in their products. Apparently in the UK we use 127 rolls per head per annum, which is significantly more than most other European nations. While a lot of rolls have got the FSC certificate on the packaging, if you look closely it usually says “mixed sources”. Have a look next time you buy.
Stella McCartney suggests that we shouldn’t be washing our clothes - at least not as often. She says that dirt should be allowed to dry and then brushed off. Lingerie should be hand-washed or put in a lingerie bag if you must put it in the machine. Why not wash? Because washing, especially machine washing, damages garments, wears them and misshapes them. And most important of all, washing acrylics and other man-made fabrics releases millions of microfibres which go down the drain, pass through the filters at treatment plants and end up in the oceans. Prof Andrew Groves, head of the fashion design course at the University of Westminster, tells BBC News that the friction in washing machines is what gets rid of the stains, but is also what distorts a garment's shape and colour. And Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi’s, tells us that he’s never washed one of his pairs of jeans in the 10 years he’s owned them.
Next week Extinction Rebellion starts another round of demonstrations across the United Kingdom. They aim to bring their message to the authorities by deliberate acts of civil disobedience. In the UK we can do this in the knowledge that we will not be sprayed with teargas, baton-charged or driven back by police horses. Compare this with the situation in other countries and in particular look at the forbiddenstories.org website. This describes how journalists investigating corruption and violation of environmental laws by international organisations face harassment, violence and murder.
The stakes are high on both sides of the climate crisis. Let's make our numbers overwhelm the denialism of vested interests.
And on that sobering thought, that's it for another week. I'm Anthony Day. Thank you for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report.
As I told you at the start, this week we held the first Sustainable Futures Report online forum. Three patrons joined me to discuss whether public opinion was reaching a tipping point and wide range of connected issues. I plan to publish the recording as an episode shortly. If you would like to take part in a future debates have a look at patreon.com/sfr where you’ll find all the details.
And that is it for this week.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
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