Tuesday, 7 June 2011

It’s time to get serious

I have in front of me a great heap of newspaper cuttings from the last week or so and, taken together, they paint a grim picture that tells us one thing: if we weren’t serious about sustainability until now, then now is the time to get serious.

But I start just a little further back with an article in New Scientist. Under the heading ‘Renewable oil?’ (21 May print copy; 18 May on their website – full article accessible only to subscribers)  the author writes:
Biofuels have been around for a while. [This] system is an unusual member of the "third generation" of the technology. The first-generation fuels stalled largely because they had to compete with the food industry. Their feedstock, a mixture of sugars, starches and oils, came from sugarcane and corn. The second generation produced fuels from inedible cellulose and non-food crops, which are difficult to break down cost-effectively into the simple molecules found in fuels. The latest biofuels are derived from microbes that can live on land unfit for crops and generate nearly engine-ready chemicals . . . But what works in theory might not work in practice: so far no company has been able to mass-produce fuels using engineered microorganisms . . . Promising as these technological advances seem, commercial success is not guaranteed.
The whole approach of the biofuels industry being discussed here is to try to find the ‘magic’ system – the one that will allow us to continue business as usual by other means, so that we can continue to drive our cars and fly our planes as if there were no problem. But there are problems – plenty of them – and business as usual by other means is not an option.

So now I move to the end of last month. On 30th May The Guardian  carried an ‘exclusive’ headlined ‘Worst ever CO2 emissions leave climate on the brink’:
Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency. The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions . . . John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said time was running out. "This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world's last remaining reserves of fossil fuels – even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don't put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them."
Government repesentatives are currently meeting in Bonn, for the next phase of climate change talks, but there is little hope of breakthrough

Damian Carrington, on his environmental blog, writes, ‘Time to re-engineer the world economy right now’
After the banking crisis of 2008, the cooling of the global economy had appeared to have given our wheezing, warming world pause for breath. As GDP went into reverse, so did energy use and the pumping of planet-heating gases into the atmosphere. Attempts to agree global action went into reverse at the same time . . . But while the global economy has roared back to life, the UN's negotiations remain on life support, and with little hope of recovery.

Two truths emerge from this mismatch. First, the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide must be broken. The world's economy runs on energy, and while most of that power continues to comes from coal, oil and gas, global GDP and carbon emissions will be bound together in lockstep. The latest data show a near perfect correlation, and that shows how little impact, in a worldwide context, renewable and nuclear power is making.

Second, the rich industrialised world and the poor developing world must align their hopes and fears: they inhabit the same planet. All nations are united in understanding that unchecked climate change poses a grave threat in every part of the world.
Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the moves to reduce dependence on nuclear raise the prospect of burning more oil and coal to keep the electricity supply going, on which all our lives, in the developed world, depend.

At this exact moment, the UK government is accused – by a coalition of green groups – of caving in to the Cananda lobby by stalling on the tar sands ban. Britain is being accused of undermining a European-wide drive to ban forecourt sales of petrol and diesel derived from the carbon-heavy tar sands of Canada. Canada's tar sands are the world's largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia but can require up to three times the amount of greenhouse gases to extract from the earth. They often need steam to be injected into the heavy bitumen before it can be broken up and brought out of the ground – unlike traditional oil extracted through drilling a well.

Campaigners, who also fear the 'fracking' process will poison underground aquifers, have long claimed that fully exploiting Canada's tar sands alone would be sufficient to take the world to the brink of runaway climate change.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we have our own ‘fracking’ controversy: the explorations into the shale gas deposits near Blackpool are reported to have triggered an earthquake there, as well as raising local people’s fears of water pollution from the methane released in the extraction process. 

As if this were not enough Steve Bolze, from General Electric’s power and water division,  predicts that a glut of cheap gas will undermine investment in renewables. Gas is being positioned as a low-carbon fuel – burned in a power station, it produces about half of the carbon associated with coal. However, this is not the whole story; a recent study showed that shale gas (the most common form of unconventional gas) produces as much carbon as coal, because of problems with its production.

Again, the point is that we have to move beyond the search for business as usual by other means.

And the day after all of this was reported, the next issue to come to the fore was food – again. British companies are buying up agricultural land in Africa to grow ‘2nd generation’ biofuel crops, and Oxfam reports on increasing food insecurity in poor parts of the world as a result of climate change. The UN warns of impending food riots as current drought conditions push prices up, and calls for regulation to stop commodity traders speculating on food prices, increasing costs for the poor while making vast profits for themselves.

On the political and economic front, European airlines are predicting a trade war with the US, Russia and China if the EU goes ahead with a carbon trading scheme that will include airliens, and increase prices for passengers and freight.

And Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, moves from the financial pages to the main ‘Comment’ slot with a piece on what he calls the ‘triple crunch’:
. . . it takes an emergency to lift policy makers (and the public, for that matter) out of the default setting of complacency and torpor. The prevailing belief is that the global economy had a narrow escape in late 2008 but has emerged pretty much unscathed. Job done. Time to go back to sleep. Only wake us again if there is another chance that the banks might run out of money. Actually, as the news from the past few weeks has illustrated, it could be worse than that. It is not just that the global economy remains severely unbalanced or that it is business as usual in an unreformed financial sector. It is not even that the euro area could trigger the sort of mayhem last seen in the autumn of 2008. It is that oil prices have been rocketing and greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year. There is the potential there for not just one crisis but three: a situation where the ATMs freeze up, the planet warms up, and the lights go out.
The three components here are an economy in serious difficulty, Britains’s dependence on imported energy, and climate change.
So that's the triple crunch. It's not pretty but there are at least four possible choices. Choice one: do nothing because modern financial capitalism is robust and self-correcting, there is more oil in the ground than we think, and global warming is a fantasy. Possible, but given that it was the same mindset as prevailed in financial markets pre-2007, fraught with risk.

Choice two: argue that there is an incompatibility between growth and sustainability, so the big developing countries cannot hope to aspire to western levels of consumption, which need to be reduced anyway. Perhaps true, although the deep green road map for getting from A to B is somewhat sketchy and currently lacks political support in both the developed and developing worlds.

Choice three: bring human ingenuity to bear by investing heavily in new forms of low-carbon green growth while at the same time negotiating a binding global climate change deal. Tough, expensive, and open to the objection that green growth is pie in the sky.

Choice four: file under "too difficult" and hope it is not too late to respond when the crisis breaks.
Eiott ends by saying:
Personally, I'd go for choice three, while accepting that choice four looks most likely and that choice two may eventually be forced on us anyway.
His preference comes at the same time as a call from the UN to ramp up technology that will suck CO2 from the air, because cutting our emissions isn’t succeeding fast enough. 

All this in the past 10 days! But the message is clear, simple, and very unpalatable: we have to change our behaviour – all of us, immediately, and significantly. Nothing and no-one is going to rescue us from our own folly.

Business as usual is not an option.
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