(Click on image for Enlarged view)
(People’s Climate March, Sydney – 45,000 people united, November 29th, 2015.)
“A week is a long time in politics,” said former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in 1964. The 24-hour news cycle, a half-century later makes that seem like something from the very distant past. Sometimes, through frequent use, we lose perspective on just how long a time period has elapsed since something was embedded in our memories.
The first UN Climate Talks took place in Berlin in 1995 (COP1). The far-reaching Kyoto meeting occurred in 1997. That’s already 18 years ago. As I write, we are in the midst of the Paris (COP21) meetings. They have drawn 150 World leaders and some 40,000 global delegates and observers. The conference itself will generate some 300,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions from flights and movement of people. But, for the first time, a united USA and China commitment to a declared target has set the tone of hope and positive action.
(Picture: VOA News)
While there is sharp disagreement from developing countries, led by India, on who should pay for the clean-up and changed energy consumption, there are also funding declarations by the Innovation Group, led by Microsoft founder and philanthropists, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, to provide Billions of dollars of alternative microfinance for developing nations for them to bypass fossil fuel consumption and go straight to renewables in their quest for improved living conditions.
Sitting and Watching
I have been studying energy substitution, transport efficiency and building technology changes for thirty years, not as a scientist, but as an interested and concerned member of the public. I have read of the pioneering solutions-oriented work of global organisations like the Rocky Mountain Institute, under the leadership of the remarkable Amory Lovins. Such organisations have made major contributions to energy efficiency and renewables substitution in transport and the built environment. I have seen organisations like WWF, the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace express their concerns and give increasingly alarmist warnings. New-generation pressure groups like GetUp and AVAAZ have harnessed the concerns of citizens and given them voice. I have looked on in horror as the power of some sections of the media and some seemingly perverse climate-change denialists have slowed adoption of essential policy incentives for emissions reduction by the most extreme polluters of diesel particulates, brown coal power stations, oil producers & processors, as well as cement producers.
The Challenges we face and why?
Peer-reviewed Climate scientists tell us that the world’s temperatures have risen by around 0.9 degrees Celsius at the latitudes of North America, Europe and China, in the past 100 years . At the poles it’s rather more. This has led to Arctic and Antarctic land ice loss and increased sea ice, raising ocean levels. In the same timeframe the world’s population has risen from just under 1.7 Billion people to 7.2 Billion today. That’s 4.2X the global population in 100 years. 80% of the world’s natural rain forests have disappeared since 1900 . The oceans have risen 8 inches (225mm) since 1900 . The Canadian Sustainability activist Paul Chefurka believes there is a huge correlation between Population growth and Oil production. There appears to show high correlation.
It is not only the use of oil, of course, but the close connection to Agribusiness. Agricultural productivity has seen world food grain output grow by a factor of four since the start of the 20th Century. It’s done this in part through mechanisation and land clearing. As land is cleared forest cover has declined. Since the 1960’s there has been a massive increase in oil derivatives and phosphates from natural and coal gas production used as fertiliser.
The human species has presided over a world consuming prehistoric trapped energy (fossil fuels) and increased its dominance over other species at an unprecedented rate. It’s a situation that is unsustainable, whichever way you look at it. Climate change is one result. Growing season and rainfall pattern changes have followed.
Loss of Species
The decimation of hundreds of animal and insect species per decade are another critical consequence of such man-made impacts. For all these reasons the November 27th – 29th weekend of People’s Climate Marches around the world ahead of the COP21 Paris meetings emphasise, if nothing else, the urgency for mankind to bring its own impact on our climate back under control. Over the next century the world has to arrest further growth in climate-changing emissions. And then it has the much more painful task to bring them down further, so the atmosphere can get back in balance. We now have an atmosphere of 403 parts per million CO2 (0.04%), higher than in the last 800,000 years. It will take 100 years of effectively zero emissions to start to lower that back down again. CO2 has an approximately 100-year atmospheric life, unlike the other big greenhouse gas Methane, which lasts 8-10 years in the atmosphere.
And to those who claim that a gas that has increased concentration from 3.5 parts per million (ppm) to 4.03ppm concentration in the atmosphere cannot surely affect our climate so profoundly, they fail to note that tiny traces of other elements can massively alter their contribution from benign to fatal in other similar levels or concentrations. As examples, moving from one part per million units of liquid in the case of arsenic moves it from survivable to fatal if you go to three parts per million. 3 parts of blue ink per million in water will change its colour from transparent to blue. Ozone is a serious health hazard at just 0.1% of the atmosphere. Scientists advise a safe maximum of 0.05%.
Ozone is a particularly relevant gas. In this case, having identified fluorocarbon gases in the 1970’s as contributing to depletion of the safety benefits of ozone (-It protects from excess UV rays reaching the earth,) in the upper atmosphere, the world united and banned them. The ozone layer is slowly repairing itself some 25 years after these refrigerant gases were banned. It can be done. Substitutes were found and the world did not end; our lifestyle did not suddenly change for the worse. At the time car and refrigerant manufacturers warned of dire adverse effects and unaffordability. In real terms both cars and refrigerators and air conditioners cost less today than pre-ozone refrigerant days. That’s the result of crisis and inventiveness colliding.
Consequences of unlimited growth
Throughout history, mankind has used what it has learned from empirical observation and scientific analysis to adjust its own progress and advancement. The past two centuries have seen a period of profligate consumption of what appeared to be endless natural resources to advance the human cause. At the same time that level of consumption has seen waste accumulate at a breathtaking rate. Analysis of all the oceans, but especially the Pacific Ocean, shows large amounts of micro-plastic debris both at the surface and through most depths of the ocean. The oceans, the repository for the majority of the atmospheric excess CO2 now are suffering from the added weight of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste that kill marine life and plankton of various sizes, – the foundation of the marine food chain and 2% of human food supplies. Another dimension of unsustainable growth and “convenience with consequences.”
With more people than the earth’s ecosystem can sustain, with an atmosphere that is fast getting to a tipping point where uncontrolled temperature rise may break out and in which oceans may logarithmically accelerate their rise from higher temperatures (more volume) as well as from melting icecaps and glaciers, it is clear something drastic has to happen. Even with every nation signing up and delivering on their COP21 promises for mitigation, the earth’s temperature is still likely to rise by another 1.5°C in the next 50 years before temperature rise can be expected to stabilise.
Hundreds of millions of people will, within 50 years, be displaced from living in low-lying cities close to oceans, just as are the peoples of Kiribati and even Miami today. In Bangladesh both the rise of the ocean and changes to the Monsoon have seen over 60 million people experience water invading their streets and homes in many of the recent most extreme weather events in the region, leading to mass migration. That impact will spread over time to much more temperate areas, like New York, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Tokyo, Shanghai and Sydney, as well as more than 40 small island nations around the world. Drought in Africa, resulting from deforestation in West Africa is already causing mass refugee movements, just as four years of unprecedented drought has in the Middle East, especially Syria.
It is unlikely we will reduce carbon emissions sufficiently to avoid some or all of these adverse impacts. but it is vital that we do our best to mitigate the very worst possible outcomes. If, by 2050 to 2060 we manage to arrive at a zero emissions level, and that’s a huge if, then from that point forward the earth can start to repair itself. But that repair process will take at least 100 years from that point forward. That’s at least 150 years from today or six generations of humanity. That’s 37 US Presidential election cycles away. Which politician in this world would take that as a priority over the next mid-term or general election due in the next two years. Clearly not many! So it is up to the people to not only demand it, but force through both technological and political change.
So what’s to do?
The current UN-led talks in Paris are certainly more positive than those in 2009 in Copenhagen. But…
China continues to grow its emissions; it’s a country whose cities are so polluted already that air pollution levels in Beijing are so severe that citizens are being advised to stay in-doors again this week, not for the first time, but this time for five days in a row. Chinese leader Xi Jinping warns that China’s emissions will likely not peak until 2030. India seeks to open new coal power stations to bring 300 million citizens out of abject poverty and will more than double their emissions over the next 15 years. Their emissions per head, however, even with that scenario, will still be less than half those of Australia after its 26% reduction effort by 2030.
The reality is that the rest of the world will have to actually have negative emissions by 2050 to produce the required reductions back to a level of 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, a level that Scientists agree has proved sustainable since records have been traced back. Politicians say a 100% renewables route would be painfully expensive. Australia’s Prime Minster calls a 45% reduction level ‘heroic.’ Even that is therefore unaffordable in his eyes. Nonetheless the fall in costs of solar and wind and the start of the downward price experience-curve in battery energy storage, in combination with ever more efficient house-building, appliance device manufacture and recycling, plug-in and hydrogen powered mass transport, – is not only possible, but it is affordable and achievable. Affordable has many meanings. If by saying it is unaffordable to change you are also saying that you will condemn the human species to eventual extinction, along with many other species. The affordable solution is one where we start acting sustainably and inventively, and we survive, perhaps with a few less billion humans and other creatures too can continue.
History tells us that in crisis mankind’s inventiveness intensity can increase in almost logarithmic ways. From the biplane of 1939 to the V2 rocket of 1945, military flying weaponry evolution took only six years. That 1945 state of the art has stayed pretty much constant since, in the absence of crisis, subject to refinement but no major breakthroughs, except in efficiency.
Investment Redistribution and Inventive Solutions
If the vested interest groups that produce 80% of the world’s oil output redirected just a tiny part of their drilling research into renewables instead, things could change rapidly. Increasing funding for universities like the University of NSW, which has demonstrated solar panel efficiency in the lab of over 30% could accelerate commercialisation. The ANU in Canberra has a completely different Sliver technology that shows promise. These lab examples compare to today’s more typical 18% efficient mass-produced panels. Accelerated investment and resources will make them financially competitive or even beat today’s oil based energy. In some regions we are already past that breakeven level of affordability.
In an interesting announcement by Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, in Paris, she announced that the City of Sydney identified 70 major buildings some five years ago as contributing over 50% of the emissions of the urban built cityscape. Half of those buildings have now been retrofitted with new heating, cooling, and lighting technology. The offices also have new IT devices, consuming a fraction of the earlier devices, such as CRT displays and desktop computers. The exciting result has achieved 45-55% energy reduction in just 5 years. And that with present technology! It’s daily breakthroughs like this that are happening now. In Australia we are still subsidising hydrocarbon energy to the tune of A$4B a year. But we provide less than one fifth of that to new replacement and sustainable alternatives. Globally the subsidy to hydrocarbon energy is over $400B. No pun intended but it does not stack up!
We know what is needed to begin to rein in excess temperature rise. It is now a case of will. It’s a case of constant pressure on weak politicians who continue to pander to big energy and old thinking. 150,000 people of every faith, all walks of life and every age group expressed their concern, passion and hope for a better future by marching in some 70 venues over one weekend in November 2015 across Australia. That was multiplied many hundreds of times over around the world in similar People’s Climate March events.
The worst of the adverse consequences of a weak response to climate change can be prevented, through accelerated action, innovation and a greater respect for sustainability by all. And our great grandchildren can look forward to the end of the beginning of correction, an era that started in a little publicised UN meeting in Berlin in 1995 with a few scientists showing concern.
All text Copyright John Swainston, 2015. All rights reserved.