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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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The last of the fossil fuels ?

If the story of humankind starts with the invention of fire, then wood is the fuel that changed the world. But fast forward a million or so years to the Anthropocene age, and more than a third of the people on this planet are still so impoverished that they have no alternative. They must either search and gather wood for fuel if they live close to woodlands and forests or purchase the fuel as charcoal in the marketplace.

The pressure on the world’s forests is intense. When three billion people cook with wood and charcoal each day what is, in principle, a renewable source of energy is overwhelmed by the needs of millions of poor families that have no alternative but to gather wood wherever they can find it, or to cut down young trees if they can’t.

Analysts speak of an energy ladder.  Families are imagined as ascending from biomass fuels like firewood and charcoal, to kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG), and finally to natural gas and then to the most powerful and magical of all fuels: electricity.

Around 3 billion people in developing countries (mostly women and girls) cook with wood and charcoal. The exposure to smoke and household air pollution kills several million women and young children every year.

For most low-income families in the developing world this idea is a fairy tale. They may have electricity, but in such small quantities that it is used for the most important tasks: lighting, and charging the ubiquitous (and essential) mobile phone.  Why waste precious electricity on something as mundane as cooking?

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Three crises, one solution

Three crises, one solution

The paroxysm of anger that has erupted across the US in the wake of the murder of George Floyd has been called by some observers “a tipping point”.  A multicultural younger generation is showing that it is genuinely concerned about social injustice, racial inequality, and the climate crisis.

The astonishing scenes on the streets of America have echoed around the world including in the UK, Canada, and Australia.  But is it a tipping point?  We have been through this before, at least since the violent riots that wracked Los Angeles almost 30 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating—captured on video. If there’s a single technology that has to some degree protected the  Black community in America and Canada against racial injustice at the hands of the police, one could argue it’s the video camera and the smart phone. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a million.

The pandemic

The widespread protests against police violence have almost overshadowed the sombre news about the Covid-19 pandemic.  Around the world, over 400,000 people have died—more than a quarter of them in the US.  The death toll in America is certain to rise—ironically because the protest marches bring thousands of people into close proximity at a time when the contagion in the US has barely abated. 

But behind the nightly news programmes showing protesters on the streets in cities around the world, and warnings from public health professionals about the continuing pandemic, there is another simmering crisis.  This one is slow-burning, but much more dangerous.

The climate

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The lockdown air-freshener?

The lockdown air-freshener?

The Covid-19 pandemic has cleared the city streets. But who foresaw that it would dramatically clean the urban air?

One unexpected consequence of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the extraordinary reduction in urban air pollution in cities where the majority of the population have been required to stay home. This level of clean city air—clean enough to breathe freely without fear of eventually  damaging one’s health and that of one’s children, is unprecedented in the modern era. Urban residents have marveled at the clarity of distant mountains rarely seen or imagined. Cities that used to be shrouded in a grey-brown blanket of smog, now seem newly minted against a background of sparkling blue sky.

London in 2016. Parents were warned not to take their cchildren into the city

Urban air pollution in major cities has been a scandal for centuries. The air pollution in London, England, has been atrocious since the 17th Century when the poet Sir William Davenport complained about the ‘canopy of smoke’ that covered the city.  We might have imagined that London’s air quality had improved over the last three centuries as the burning of coal in the city has been replaced by cleaner fuels, but we would be wrong. A report released in 2017 found that all Londoners are exposed to concentrations of particulate matter higher than WHO air quality guidelines. In central London, about 8 million people breathe in air that exceeds the guidelines by a whopping 50 percent or more.

The last ICE age

Coal is no longer the primary culprit. It is now the unbridled use of the internal combustion engine (ICE) for urban transport and the combustion of huge quantities of hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline and diesel in the urban environment.  

Shanghai, before the lockdown

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Trees and the TMEX

Trees and the TMEX 

Just before the recent federal election in Canada, the Liberal party committed to planting two billion trees over the next 10 years, the cost of which is to be “offset by forthcoming revenues from the Trans Mountain pipeline.”  However, a closer look at the proposed deal shows that sequestration of carbon dioxide by two billion trees will never compensate for the additional emissions generated by the expansion of the TMEX pipeline.

According to the Liberal Party pamphlet, over a ten-year period, planting a total of 2 billion trees is estimated to absorb and store about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide. How does that compare to the emissions caused by the new pipeline?

The TMEX, when operational, is intended to increase the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline by 590,000 barrels a day. Production in the tar sand region will ramp up to meet this newly available capacity.  That’s the whole point of building a pipeline.  Mining and refining bitumen from the tar sands deposits produces large emissions of greenhouse gases.  According to the Oil Climate Index, emissions from the tar sands are estimated to be as high as 174 kg of equivalent carbon dioxide per barrel of crude.       

Doing the math, we can calculate that ramping up production by 590,000 barrels a day will generate an additional 37.5 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. So over a ten year period, the TMEX pipeline will generate emissions of about 375 million tons of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e). During the same period the 2 billion trees will sequester less than one tenth of the carbon in these emissions.  To put the additional pipeline emissions in context, 37.5 MtCO2e a year is greater than the combined emissions of the cities of Calgary and Toronto, which in 2016 were respectively 18.2 and 18.3 MtCO2e/year. So operationalising the TMEX pipeline is like adding two major Canadian cities to the landscape

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Buckle up. It’s time to rock the boat.

Buckle up. It’s time to rock the boat. 

The news in the summer of 2017 was all about the hurricanes in the Caribbean (three of which ripped into the US causing extensive damage), the earthquakes in Iran, Iraq, and Mexico, and disastrous, flooding in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh that drowned over a thousand people and displaced millions more. 

In 2018, the roll call of natural disasters continued: stifling heatwaves in Australia, numerous destructive wildfires along the west coast of America and Canada, and more devastating hurricanes tearing into the Caribbean islands and the USA.  Then in early 2019, the monster cyclone Idai barrelled into Mozambique killing at least 1000 people and leaving almost half a million homeless.

Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017 

Are these disasters becoming more frequent, and are they somehow related to climate change?  Or do they always happen every 10 or 20 years, and so the disasters of the last few years are just a normal run of horrible weather: storms, heatwaves, and floods. 

Most people have read that scientists and meteorologists are saying that global temperatures are now increasing year after year. After 2015, which was a record-breaking year, 2016 was hotter still and then so was 2017. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2010. Is this just part of a normal cycle of temperature variations that sometimes go up and then eventually come down? 

Earth, wind and fire

But the warning signs are unmistakeable. The Earth is suffering from a multitude of stresses and forces that are making life miserable and dangerous–not just for the majority of people around the world, but also for most of the ecosystems and animal species that share this space with us. Something is seriously wrong. Something out there is having  a malign influence on what was once a beautiful and healthy planet.

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The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees 

North America’s birds are dying at a rate that’s alarming ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers report this week online in Science. The findings raise fears that some familiar species could go the way of the passenger pigeon, a species once so abundant that its extinction in the early 1900s seemed unthinkable.

In past decades, researchers have documented the decline of particular bird groups, including migratory songbirds. But more recent studies have been broader: covering 529 bird species, about three-quarters of all species in North America, and accounting for more than 90% of the entire bird population.

Skylark numbers have plummeted

Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. Nineteen common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground. Only waterfowl and raptors seem to be thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains.

Pesticides are very probably a factor. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds.

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More talk and little action

More talk and little action 

The grim reality is that Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech lambasting global leaders at the UN climate summit in New York on September 23 is unlikely to make much of a difference in the way the largest global polluters do business. The top emitters aren’t bothered: the US didn’t show up; China yawned; Brazil was shown the door, and India agreed that more should be done but made no promises. Disgraced UK prime minister Boris Johnson promised more money.  How many times have we heard that one before?  Seventy developing countries committed to stronger action—but there is little they can do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases on a global scale. The Pacific small island states are close to panic: they know that their days are numbered. 

A UN  report, appropriately called The heat is on, released just before the climate summit, projected that with the current set of emission reduction plans (the Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs negotiated under the 2015 Paris Agreement), emissions of carbon will in fact rise by over 10 percent between now and 2030. Confirming the upward trend, the International Energy Agency reported that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew 1.7 % from 2017 to 2018, the highest rate of growth since 2013. This is insane. It’s no longer business-as-usual.  It’s more business than ever before.

Greta Thunberg didn’t mince words : In a stinging speech, the Swedish teenager told governments that “You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.” 

Greta Thunberg’s words spread

At the end of the Summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried to put a brave face on things saying, “I was deeply moved by many examples of inspiring leadership by countries that have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis.”  

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

AFOLU’s warning

AFOLU’s warning 

A second sobering report from  the IPCC again provides solid scientific evidence that the climate crisis cannot be resolved if we continue along our present path. While previous assessments have focused on transportation and industry, the most recent report shows that if the way we misuse and degrade our land does not dramatically improve, there is little chance of keeping global heating within bounds, and the future climate will bring widespread global disruption and spell disaster for millions of world’s most vulnerable people.    

Human use has radically altered more than 70% of the ice-free land surface of the planet. Population growth and increases of per capita consumption of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy have caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use. Agriculture now accounts for about 70% of freshwater use. Soils are being decimated. Erosion from traditional forms of agriculture  is more than 100 times higher than rate at which soil is being formed. This degradation not only is destroying habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity, it is exacerbating the forces that are driving the climate crisis. Regenerative agriculture is now a global imperative.

What’s called AFOLU, meaning Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use, is both a source and sink of the greenhouse gases that are driving global heating and intensifying the climate crisis. 

At present, for carbon dioxide, the global sink is larger than the source. Land sequesters more than twice as much of this gas than is emitted. 

Land is a net sink of carbon dioxide

But for methane and nitrogen dioxide, two other major greenhouse gases, the AFOLU sector is a serious global problem: it accounts for over 40% of global emission of methane and over 80% of emissions of nitrogen dioxide.  

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Renewables power forward

Renewables power forward 

Renewable energy continues to outperform and outmuscle traditional sources of energy in the majority of countries across the globe. Renewables are now the cheapest power technology for new electricity generation across two-thirds of the world.  This is the startling finding of a new study from an authoritative agency published earlier this month. 

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s assessment of the global energy picture is more objective that those of the oil and gas companies (like British Petroleum), or even of supposedly non-aligned agencies like the International Energy Agency, which tend to assume that that world will deviate only slowly from a business-as-usual path. On the other hand, BNEF is more concerned with global finance and investment opportunities: it tends to be clear-eyed and much more realistic about what the future holds.

Megawatt-scale wind turbine blades delivered

The numbers speak for themselves: solar photovoltaic modules, wind turbines and utility-scale lithium-ion batteries (the essential partner for solar and wind), are set to continue down strong cost-reduction curves of 28%, 14% and 18% respectively for each doubling in global installed capacity. This irresistible market pressure means that by 2030, the energy generated or stored and dispatched by this triumvirate of transformative technologies will undercut electricity generated by existing coal and gas plants almost everywhere.

In the BNEF scenario, the electrification of the major economic sectors substantially drives up the global demand for electricity.  But this power is not generated by carbon-based fuels. The world changes from two-thirds fossil fuels in 2018 to two-thirds zero carbon energy by 2050. For wind and solar this is 50-by-50: supplying 50% of the worlds electricity by 2050–effectively ending the era of fossil-fuel dominance in the power sector.

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It’s confirmed. It really is an emergency

It’s confirmed. It really is an emergency 

The latest report that charts the accelerating impacts of global warming, climate change, and mankind’s destructive impact on the natural environment lays out a grim future for over a million of the planet’s species. This warning follows hot on the heels of a Canadian government assessment that forecasts that Canada will warm twice as fast as the global average, and the startling 2018 IPCC report that meticulously laid out the evidence that even keeping global warming to 1.5°C will result in widespread social and economic disruption as climate-driven natural disasters increasingly bludgeon the planet.

The alarming report on global biodiversity published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, presents the work of more than 450 experts on biodiversity who have laboured for the last 3 years to bring together the latest assessment of the deteriorating condition of the planet’s natural environment and its biodiversity. 

The Bramble Cay melomys: already extinct

Their stark conclusion is that human actions threaten more species with global extinction than ever before. An average of about 25 % of animal and plant species are threatened, suggesting that around 1 million species face extinction within a matter of decades unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.

The problem is not only climate change—which is judged to be the third most destructive influence on the biosphere. The main culprit is the way mankind has radically changed and destroyed the natural landscape. Seventy-five percent of the land surface has been significantly altered, 66 percent of the of the oceans are experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 percent of wetlands have been lost. Across much of the tropics, 32 million hectares of primary or recovering forests were cut down between 2010 and 2015—an area half the size of France.

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Mainstream to jetstream

Mainstream to jetstream 

A couple of decades ago, renewable energy was almost an outlier: the new kid on the block. But now, solar and wind are not just mainstream: in both developed and emerging economies, they are the preferred option when it comes to power generation.

A powerful synergy of enabling factors and demand-side attributes is propelling solar and wind to compete against, and win, in competition with even the most cost-effective and flexible hydrocarbon-fuelled sources of power. Renewable energy is now the preferred choice when it comes  to reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible energy.

A new report on global renewable energy trends from Deloitte Insights charts the astonishingly rapid disruption of traditional energy systems and markets that renewables are causing as the cost of photovoltaic and windfarm power plants continues to fall.  

Clearing the way

Longstanding barriers to the greater deployment of renewables have faded thanks to three strong attributes: rapidly approaching grid parity, cost-effective and reliable grid integration, and technological innovation. Solar and wind can now beat conventional sources on price while increasingly matching their performance. Moreover, the integration of renewables is actually solving grid problems rather than exacerbating them. Wind and solar are now competitive across global markets even without subsidies.

Onshore wind has become the world’s lowest-cost energy sources for power generation, with an unsubsidized levelized cost of US$ 30 -60/MWh, which falls below the range of the cheapest fossil fuel , natural gas—which weighs in at around US$ 42 – 78/MWh. Except for combined-cycle gas plants, the levelized costs of all conventional sources and nonintermittent renewables have either remained flat (biomass and coal) or increased (geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear) over the past eight years, while the cost of onshore wind and utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) plants have dropped by 67 and 86 percent respectively as the cost of components has plummeted and efficiency has increased—trends that are expected to continue.

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Icebergs and bankers

Icebergs and bankers 

On Saturday March 16, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Paris demanding action on climate change.  At the same time and not far away, a group of gilets jaunes protestors were demonstrating, sometimes violently, against the economic policies of President Macron—one of which increased the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. This was intended to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from the transport sector and help France meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement.  

Something is wrong here.  Both groups of protesters agree that climate change is a problem that needs to be urgently tackled, but they disagree vehemently about how this should be done. 

Pricing carbon is a delicate instrument that needs to be wielded with care. Either Macron doesn’t understand this or doesn’t care. Either way his policies to reduce carbon emissions are incredibly cack-handed.

Increasing taxes that push up the price of gasoline and diesel fuel is likely to be unpopular almost everywhere that people drive vehicles, and where agricultural produce and goods are delivered by road.  Which is to say just about everywhere in North America and Europe.

There is only one way to sweeten this bitter pill and that is to make carbon pricing revenue neutral. Households are compensated for the additional costs they will incur paying for fuel, and receive a modest annual payment–ideally in advance. 

End of the month, end of world. Same people responsable, same fight

In some places, communities will swallow this pill and grin and bear it.  But this requires a widespread understanding of the urgency of climate action and a willingness to pay the price of being a polluter–which in fact is what all of us who operate a gasoline or diesel vehicle actually are.  But in many jurisdictions, and obviously in France, an increase in the price of fuel is going to be met with strong resistance.

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The methane menace

The methane menace 

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has been increasing for more than a decade and now appears to be accelerating. The rising concentration is worldwide, but is more pronounced in the tropics and northern mid-latitudes.  What has caused this increase is not yet well understood.  It is almost certainly due to rising emissions of the gas, but a decline in the ability of atmospheric oxidative mechanisms to breakdown methane is also possible.  

What is alarming is that this increase in emissions was not anticipated in the preparation of the  greenhouse gas emissions scenarios that are compliant with the targets of the Paris Agreement.  

A research article just published by the American Geophysical Union paints a disturbing picture of the impact on global warming if atmospheric concentrations of methane continue to rise. At present rates, the additional global warming impact of the methane may significantly negate or even reverse progress in reducing global CO2 emissions. This effect may fatally undermine efforts to meet the target of the 2015 UN Paris Agreement on climate change to limit warming to no more than 2°C.

But strangely, the source of the rising levels of this powerful greenhouse gas is something of a mystery.

Where’s it coming from?

Methane is emitted from both anthropogenic sources (primarily the oil and gas industry and large-scale cattle production) and from natural sources such as wetlands.  The table below shows the range of annual emissions from both groups of sources.[1]

Anthropogenic and natural sources of methane

By far the largest source of emissions of methane is from wetlands.  Emissions from the oil and gas industries and from livestock are about equal in second place.

The article in the American Geophysical Union offers three possible explanations for the  global increase in atmospheric levels of methane:

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Carbon tax fine print

Carbon tax fine print 

If the Paris agreement target of keeping global warming to well below 2°C is to be met, it is generally agreed that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels and industry need to peak and then decline very soon–meaning before the end of next year, or very shortly after.

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change sheds light on how 18 countries have managed to achieve this feat: effectively reducing their emissions of CO2 over the period 2005 to 2015. The figure below shows emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels for the 18 countries in the ‘peak and decline’ group.

Change in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion for the 18 countries in the peak and decline group [1]

In spite of this positive performance by 18 countries representing almost 30 percent of total CO2 emissions, global emissions of energy-related CO2 rose in 2017– after a sluggish period from 2014 to 2016 when there was hope that emissions may have flatlined. That hasn’t happened, and estimates for 2018 indicate that CO2 emissions are continuing to rise. 

It’s instructive to look more closely at how this group of ‘peak and decline’ countries have managed to reduce their CO2 emissions over the decade through to 2015. Are there lessons to be learned?

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Cities muscle up

Cities muscle up 

Action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to tackle climate change can be organised more rapidly and have greater impact when it’s taken at the local level.  Communities are urging their elected officials on municipal councils to introduce and implement measures to transition to renewable sources of energy, curb emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce waste, and  improve energy efficiency in buildings.

The latest reports from the United Nations released in 2018 have confirmed that the world is still on course for catastrophic climate change caused by the continuing emissions of greenhouse gases.  Already this year, several international agencies have confirmed that average global temperatures in 2018 were the fourth highest ever recorded. The years from 2014 to 2018 rank as the warmest 5 years on record, and 9 of the 10 warmest years in the last century have occurred since 2005.  

Although over 190 governments committed to reducing their emissions in order to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, last year’s Emissions Gap Report clearly shows that these commitments are inadequate. It’s anyone’s guess where global temperatures will be at the end of the century: probably at least 3°C higher, but even 6°C higher is within the realm of possibility. 

It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that more people, especially younger people, are taking more direct and confrontational action. A group called Extinction Rebellion in the UK has disrupted London’s parliament and draped dramatic messages on bridges across the Thames; school children in Europe have taken to going on strike; and protests against pipelines are growing in intensity across the US and Canada. Getting arrested for protesting against what many people believe is an existential threat is increasingly seen as a legitimate and moral course of action.      

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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