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What Kind of a World do We Want? (…really?)

What Kind of a World do We Want? (…really?)

Although this question is both enduring and familiar, its present urgency is fully accentuated in a typically brilliant, but viscerally terrifying, exposition by Noam Chomsky on the current frangible condition of the world, and its near-term prognosis. However, I am also reminded of the strapline from the International Permaculture Conference, held in London in 2015, offering the intention and perhaps the means for “Designing the world we want.”

Chomsky never pulls a punch, as he strikes at layer on peeling layer of mendacity and fragility, from a prevailing framework whose groans, under the cumulative stresses of “growth”, should be heard as cries of threatening systemic collapse. The intermeshing quality of the world’s many woes has been conveyed by the term “changing climate” (i.e. climate change per se being just one item on the list), and amid a morass of such magnitude, positives are apt to remain obscured and muffled. Thus acknowledged, there could hardly be a better time than now, for a recasting of the world, having decided how we want it to be, in the broadest context, while there is still sufficient residual integrity to the whole that change might yet be managed, and full collapse is not yet inevitable, or already crumbling out of our hands.

It is no surprise that Covid-19 is a principal feature on the current global stage, and is probably the major focus of our concerns and attentions just now. While we cannot know how exactly everything will pan out, it is likely that the virus will be with us for some time, and we are entering a period of “recalibration” rather than a Post-Covid “back to normal”. Hence, focussing more on local and community resilience increasingly seems to make sense. We will certainly need to share support with our family, neighbours and friends, in the time to come.

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

Transition Towns, Re-localisation, COVID-19 and the Fracking Industry.

Transition Towns, Re-localisation, COVID-19 and the Fracking Industry.

The vulnerabilities of the global village and its economy have been laid bare by the assault of the coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2), which has led to a pandemic of the infectious disease, COVID-19. The mobility chains that enable the flow of civilization are now substantially truncated, with collapsing demand for transportation fuels – and crude oil, from which they are refined – leading Russia, Saudi and other OPEC countries to agree on combined production cuts of 10 million barrels a day, even though demand might have fallen by 30 million barrels a day. It remains an open question how soon, or if at all, everything will get back to normal, when arguably, it is “normal” that has brought this current situation upon us, as yet another element of a changing climate. The broad reach of the expanding global mechanism both invades previously uncharted terrains and ecosystems, and provides vectors for the transmission of contagion. Thus, the relentless rise of a resource-intensive civilization and its highly mobile population carries many potential dangers. 

The need for re-localisation, in the anticipation of Peak Oil, leading to waning supplies of cheap transportation fuel, was a founding tenet of the Transition Towns (TT) movement. However, this motivation appeared to lose some of its urgency, once a flood of oil entered the market, largely as exhumed from shale by the procedure of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Indeed, a few years ago, TT-HQ asked itself the question, “Does so much cheap oil mean peak oil as an argument is now over?” In fact, the production of conventional crude oil has remained on a plateau since 2005, while 71% of subsequent growth in the production of “oil” has been provided by shale hydrocarbons; hence, we may anticipate that any stalling of the fracking industry will begin to restrict the overall global oil supply. 

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

Human Consumption of Natural Resources Exceeds an Annual 100 Billion Tonnes.

Human Consumption of Natural Resources Exceeds an Annual 100 Billion Tonnes.

In 1969, the late Professor Albert Bartlett famously delivered a lecture, entitled “Arithmetic, Population and Energy”, which begins with the observation that, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” The truth of this is profound and irrefutable, as is further compounded by Bartlett’s averment, as the first law of sustainability, that “You cannot sustain population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources”. Nonetheless, exponential growth has continued, unabated, over the past half century, as is attested by an increase in the consumption of natural resources from 27 billion tonnes in 1970, to 92 billion tonnes in 2017, which corresponds to around 12 tonnes/year for every person on Earth. If recycled material is also included, the total rises to 100.6 billion tonnes, and hence 13 tonnes for every breathing human on the planet, and significantly, the proportion being recycled has fallen from 9.1% to 8.6% in the past two years. This rate of material consumption is expected to rise to between 170 and 184 billion tonnes by 2050, on the basis of a BAU, “take-make-waste” economic model, which equates to more than 18 tonnes per person, given an expected population of 9.8 billion by then

Over the entire 1970-2017 period, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for resource consumption of 2.6% may be deduced, and hence we may infer that, by 2021, total annual demand for virgin natural resources will have exceeded 100 billion tonnes. The breakdown of this tally into individual components is interesting, and for 2017 amounts to: 24.06 billion tonnes [Gigatonnes (Gt)] of biomass, 43.83 Gt of non-metallic minerals, 15.05 Gt of fossil fuels, and 9.12 Gt of metallic ores; when these figures are compared with those for 1970 (9.00 Gt biomass, 9.20 Gt of non-metallic minerals, 6.21 Gt of fossil fuels, 2.58 Gt of metallic minerals), some patterns begin to emerge. Thus, the corresponding (2017/1970) ratios are: 2.67 (biomass), 4.76 (non-metallic minerals), 2.42 (fossil fuels), 3.53 (metallic ores).

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

The Uninhabitable Earth.

The Uninhabitable Earth.

This is a book review that I wrote, which will be published in the journal, Science Progress, of which I am an editor.
“The Uninhabitable Earth.” DAVID WALLACE-WELLS. Allen Lane 2019 ISBN 9780241355213; xx + 310 pp; £20.00

As set in motion by human hands, the forces of the Anthropocene – a word coined to mark the scale of our intervention in Nature as numbering among those of previous geological epochs – are predicted to drive the Earth system in expressing climate change to a degree that for many of the almost 8 billion, let alone 11-12 billion predicted to be here by 2100, the Earth would have become barely tolerable, and for some, actually uninhabitable, depending on the degree of warming that prevails by then, and the attendant consequences to the natural commons of air, land and water, which would be manifest unevenly around the globe. Even if we could halt our carbon emissions, instantly and today, the intrinsic inertia of the Earth system would nonetheless unfold the rising of sea levels, the degradation of land, and other changes (some, as yet, unknown) for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come. The book, “Uninhabitable Earth”, begins with “Cascades”, and takes a look at some of the likely consequences of climate change, the magnitude of which will be tuned according to the degree of warming that is unleashed, including mass migration of climate refugees, water scarcity, famine, a more extreme climate,  wildfires, outbreaks of disease, and extreme “once every 500 years” events that become more the norm (“rain bombs”, mighty hurricanes), since the effects are not binary – “yes”, “no”; “on”, “off” – but exponential, and worsen over time, so long as we continue to produce, and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

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

Only 12 Years Left to Readjust for the 1.5 Degree Climate Change Option – says IPCC Report. Current Commentary.

Only 12 Years Left to Readjust for the 1.5 Degree Climate Change Option – says IPCC Report. Current Commentary.

1. Introduction.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently published a report1 (abbreviated as SR15) which concludes that humankind has a mere twelve years left, during which time sufficient and dramatic carbon-emission mitigation strategies must be inaugurated to avoid the “global average temperature” from rising above the 1.5 oC limit which the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement2,3 aimed for, while pledging to keep it “well below 2 oC above pre-industrial levels”. The Agreement was endorsed by 195 countries2, although the United States later conspicuously withdrew from it3. Contained within the Decision of the 21st Conference of Parties, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to adopt the Paris Agreement, was an invitation4 to the IPCC to deliver a Special Report, in 2018, which ascertained the changes that would be caused by a 1.5 oC elevation in global average temperature, and what measures might be introduced in order to hold global warming in check such that this level is not exceeded. In 2016, the IPCC Panel accepted the invitation, adding that these issues would also be considered “in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty” 4. The final report1, which was released on October 9th 2018, emphasised that reducing the degree of warming by half a degree, from 2 oC to 1.5 oC, would significantly ameliorate some of the worst effects of climate change, in particular reducing the number of people likely to be affected by water shortages by 50%, but the most significant influence would be on the Natural World: for example, it is expected that practically all (>99%) coral reefs (Fig. 1) would be lost by a 2 oC increase, whereas at 1.5 oC, this would be ameliorated to a decline of within 70–90 %.

[Fig. 1]

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Rising Sea Levels – by How Much, and Why? A Current Commentary.

Rising Sea Levels – by How Much, and Why? A Current Commentary.

The following was published in the journal Science Progress recently, of which I am an editor. Since this blog typically covers issues of environment and energy, I am including the present topic, which I hope will be of interest to its regular readers, and indeed to anyone else with concerns about the direction of “the changing climate”.

Introduction.

The term “sea level rise” normally refers to an increase in the global mean sea level (GMSL), caused by an increase in the volume of water in the Earth’s oceans, primarily as a result of thermal expansion, the addition of further water  from the melting of land-based ice sheets and glaciers, and  to a  smaller degree from changes in land-water storage, including the transfer of groundwater that has been pumped from aquifers1. As measured on the local scale (Section 4), sea levels may be higher or lower than the global mean value, as a result of various factors, including land subsidence, glacial rebound, tectonic effects, and the influence of currents, local temperatures, winds, tides, storms, and variations in  local barometric pressure2 among  the particular locations where the measurements are  being made. There is strong evidence that the GMSL is increasing, and as a result of long response times from various components of the climate system, this  process may continue over the course of centuries3. It has been estimated that more than half of the observed sea level rise during the 20thcentury was due to global warming4. According to satellite altimetry measurements, the GMSL is currently5,6 increasing by 3.2 ± 0.4 mm yr-1, which is about double the rate determined to have prevailed throughout the 20th century6, and it has been predicted that, for each degree Celsius rise in the  mean global temperature (MGT),  over the next two millennia  an increase in the   GMSL  of  at least 2.3 m   can be expected7.

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

Rising Sea Levels – by How Much, and Why? A Current Commentary.

Rising Sea Levels – by How Much, and Why? A Current Commentary.

The following was published in the journal Science Progress recently, of which I am an editor. Since this blog typically covers issues of environment and energy, I am including the present topic, which I hope will be of interest to its regular readers, and indeed to anyone else with concerns about the direction of “the changing climate”.

Introduction.

The term “sea level rise” normally refers to an increase in the global mean sea level (GMSL), caused by an increase in the volume of water in the Earth’s oceans, primarily as a result of thermal expansion, the addition of further water  from the melting of land-based ice sheets and glaciers, and  to a  smaller degree from changes in land-water storage, including the transfer of groundwater that has been pumped from aquifers1. As measured on the local scale (Section 4), sea levels may be higher or lower than the global mean value, as a result of various factors, including land subsidence, glacial rebound, tectonic effects, and the influence of currents, local temperatures, winds, tides, storms, and variations in  local barometric pressure2 among  the particular locations where the measurements are  being made. There is strong evidence that the GMSL is increasing, and as a result of long response times from various components of the climate system, this  process may continue over the course of centuries3. It has been estimated that more than half of the observed sea level rise during the 20thcentury was due to global warming4. According to satellite altimetry measurements, the GMSL is currently5,6 increasing by 3.2 ± 0.4 mm yr-1, which is about double the rate determined to have prevailed throughout the 20th century6,…

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

Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels. Dieter Helm.

Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels. Dieter Helm.

Book review

 

Ironically, given its theme, as published early in 2017, “Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels” shortly preceded the announcement made by President Trump of the withdrawal by the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, driven primarily by an aim to support the US coal industry, which he maintains has been hampered by environmental policies, and disadvantaged in comparison with other countries, such as China. The book’s title offers  a punchy proclamation, that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end:  this is not as a result of any imminent shortage of them – far from it – but an expectation that natural gas will be employed as a cheap and plentiful bridging fuel,  en route to a dominant electrification of the energy sector, most likely powered by advanced solar technologies, and that such innovations as the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, and robotics will confer a more efficient overall use of energy, hence reducing demand on oil, gas and ultimately renewables.

The author, Dieter Helm, is professor of energy policy at Oxford University, and an outspoken commentator and critic on global energy strategies, including those intended to ameliorate climate change. Thus, this book is in part a consolidation of some views, framed from the viewpoint of an economist, espoused in his various writings on the subject, and an extension of some of the themes covered in his previous books. Helm remains thoroughly censorious of the peak oil concept, and bangs the drum that “peak-oilers” have got it wrong. He stresses that there is no shortage of “oil” (or indeed of the other fossil fuels), and in terms of the large quantities of carbon-rich fossil materials that lie in the ground he is quite correct.

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

COP21 and “4 per thousand” – Storing Carbon in the Soil.

COP21 and “4 per thousand” – Storing Carbon in the Soil. 

It would have been a remarkable oversight, had not our use of the land and its soils featured among the discussions about climate change mitigation in Paris at COP21. However, at the conference was hosted a side-event and official launch of the “4 per thousand” initiative, which aims to increase soil carbon over a 25 year period, with the effect of halting the annual increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. It is important to be aware of what “4/1000” means: it is not an increase in the overall soil carbon by an annual 4 grams per 1000 grams of soil as has been claimed, but an increase in the existing carbon in the topsoil by 0.4%/year. This has been described from an Australian perspective:

“Let us start with the analogy of a football field (Soccer, not rugby!). Imagine it is a fifth larger than normal – making it one hectare in size. The top layer of soil on the field, 30 cm deep, is known as the topsoil.

“Carbon is the main ingredient of organic matter, so organic matter is often referred to as ‘soil organic carbon’. In Australian soils, this organic matter makes up on average, between 1 and 3 percent of the topsoil. For the purpose of the exercise, we will assume that the topsoil on the football field contains 1.5 percent carbon. This equates to 58 tonnes of carbon in the topsoil across the whole football field.What the French Government is calling for is to increase that 58 tonnes by 0.4 percent per annum – in our imaginary football field that would equate to an increase of 0.2 tonnes (or 200 kg) of carbon in the topsoil each year.”

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

The Global Oil Supply: Implications for Biodiversity?

The Global Oil Supply: Implications for Biodiversity?

The following is an overview of my recent lecture to the Linnean Society of London, which is named in honour of Carl Linneus, who among many other accolades has been described as “The father of modern taxonomy”, and is also considered as one of the founders of modern ecologyIt is the world’s oldest active society for the biological and environmental sciences, and the roll call of its Fellows includes such great names as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

The lecture itself can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/143163653

The link between the global oil supply and biodiversity is not directly causal; rather, the two are elements of a broader and more integrated picture. Of the energy used by humans on Earth, crude oil represents the lion’s share (33%), followed closely by coal (30%), with gas in third place at 24%. Traversing the gamut of energy sources, we find nuclear energy (4%) and hydro-power (7%), with renewable energy (wind and solar) entering the final furlong at just above 2% of total energy use, meaning that around 88% of our energy is furnished by the fossil fuels. 100 years ago, oil could be produced at an EROEI of 100, while this is now nearer to 17 as a global average, and falling, as unconventional oil sources increasingly make up for the decline in conventional production. So it’s becoming increasingly harder to maintain the oil flow into global civilization.

The Global Oil Supply.

We produce around 30 billion barrels of oil every year, which is absolutely staggering, and depending on exactly what you count as oil, this works out to 84 million barrels a day, or about 1,000 barrels every second. The major producers are Saudi Arabia and Russia, who between them produce around one quarter of the world’s oil supply….click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Permaculture: Regenerative – not merely Sustainable.

Permaculture: Regenerative – not merely Sustainable.

Introduction.

September 2015 saw the International Permaculture Conference, held in London followed by the Convergence, which occupied 6 days at Gilwell park, on the Essex-London border, where practitioners of the discipline gave presentations and workshops on various aspects of this growing art, which is a sustainable design system intended to emulate the principles of living ecosystems. While it has been emphasised that such terms as sustainable development, and sustainable agriculture, are really oxymorons, since neither untrammeled growth nor our present form of industrial food production can be maintained in perpetuity, permaculture has a value-added factor that extends beyond what might be merely maintained or sustained, which is the quality of regeneration.All sustainable solutions are unsustainable over the longer term, if they are not also intrinsically regenerative.

Nature offers the ultimate example of a design that is both sustainable and regenerative, and it is logical to appeal to natural principles for solutions to many of our current problems. This is sometimes taken to mean that we need adopt more “simple” lifestyles, abandoning our technology in the process, but the reality is more complex. Within a broader perspective of Regenerative Design, permaculture identifies the elements of sustainable living which are harmonious with nature. Discordant practices which lead, e.g. to soil erosion fret the environment, and are neither sustainable nor regenerative, but degenerative.

Regenerative versus sustainable.

That which is sustainable maintains what already exists, but does not restore (eco)systems that have been lost. The word “sustainable” strictly means “self-sustaining” but is often understood, particularly in the media and by the general public, to merely mean “able to last” or “the capacity to endure.” This has been represented, humorously, by the example of two men talking together. One asks the other, “How’s your marriage going?” To which the other man replies, rather dejectedly, “Well, it’s sustainable.”

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Eat Less Meat to Save Ourselves.

Eat Less Meat to Save Ourselves.

A report has been released by the U.N., in which it is urged that we reduce consumption of meat and dairy products as a means to mitigate climate change, hunger and fuel poverty  It is stressed that food, transportation and housing must be made more sustainable if we seriously intend to ameliorate biodiversity loss and climate change, and as a matter of urgency. Some 30% of global CO2 emissions is a result of internationally traded goods, while the mining sector uses 7% of the world’s energy: a fraction that is expected to increase in line with “growth”, which has serious connotations regarding international policy. A doubling of income is predicted to cause an 81% increase in CO2 emissions, which is an alarming prospect in the context of the rising population, predicted to be over 9 billion by 2050. 70% of all the world’s freshwater consumption is taken by agriculture, which also accounts for 38% of the total use of land, and 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It has been estimated that it will be necessary to increase food production by 70% in 2050 if the population of the world is to be fed, but its expected increase from 7.3 billion now to perhaps 9.6 billion in 2050 will overwhelm any efficiency gains in agriculture. The production of animal products is particularly demanding in terms of land for grazing animals, and water, and a rising global middle class which is increasingly meat-hungry.

The above 70% increase in food production assumes that the western diet will spread to the Global South, with no reduction in consumption by the northern nations. 30-40% of cereals are presently fed to animals, which could rise to 50% if levels of meat and dairy consumption increase as predicted. It has been reckonedthat 3.5 billion additional people could be fed if all cereals were given over for human consumption.

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Cleaning the Earth Nature’s Way – Phytoremediation.

Cleaning the Earth Nature’s Way – Phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation1,2 may be defined as the treatment of environmental problems by using plants in situ so to avoid the need to excavate the contaminant material for disposal elsewhere. It can be applied to the amelioration of contaminated soilswater, or air, using plants that can contain, degrade, or eliminate metalspesticidessolventsexplosivescrude oil and its derivatives (refined fuels), and related contaminating materials. Phytoremediation has been used successfully for the restoration of abandoned metal-mine workings, and cleaning up sites where polychlorinated biphenyls have been dumped during manufacture, and for the mitigation of on-going coal mine discharges. Phytoremediation uses the natural ability of particular plants (“hyperaccumulators”, described below) to bioaccumulate, degrade, or otherwise reduce the environmental impact of contaminants in soils, water, or air. Those contaminants that have been successfully mitigated in phytoremediation projects worldwide are metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, and crude oil and its derivatives, and the technology has become increasingly popular and has been employed at sites with soils contaminated with lead, uranium, and arsenic. A major disadvantage of phytoremediation is that it takes a relatively long time to achieve, because the process rests upon the ability of a plant to thrive in an environment that is not normally ideal for plants.

Advantages and limitations of phytoremediation.

  • Advantages:
    • In terms of cost, phytoremediation is lower than that of traditional processes both in situ and ex situ.
    • The plants can be easily monitored.
    • There is the possibility of the recovery and re-use of valuable metals (by companies specializing in “phyto-mining”).
    • It is potentially the least harmful method because it uses naturally occurring organisms and preserves the environment in a more natural state.

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A Transition for Humanity Into the Post-Petroleum Age: 10 Commandments.

A Transition for Humanity Into the Post-Petroleum Age: 10 Commandments.

On her blog, “Our Finite World”, Gail Tverberg outlines the likely prognosis for humanity, and our best possible choices, as we run up against the Limits of Growthhttp://ourfiniteworld.com/2014/02/17/reaching-limits-to-growth-what-should-our-response-be/ The case she unveils is, to say the least of it, sobering, but I am reminded of an article that I wrote some while ago http://scitizen.com/future-energies/the-10-commandments-guidelines-to-surviving-in-a-post-peak-oil-world_a-14-3709.html, which, with a few amendments and reconsiderations, I now re-post here. The original set of 10 commandments provided a simple set of rules for members of a small community to live in reasonable harmony with one another, and that is essentially the requirement for an oil-dependent society that has necessarily fragmented into smaller communities, once its supply of oil has been severely curtailed. At first sight this does seem like a prognosis of “doom and gloom”, as indeed it will be if there is no sensible scale-down of oil-fuelled activities. Indeed, a “wall” of fuel dearth will suddenly appear, and we will drive straight into it; or really be abandoned by the wayside of the petrol-fuelled journey of globalisation. So, here are some suggestions (not rules or commandments, but logical consequences and prospects for the era that will follow down the oil-poor side of Hubbert’s peak). Overall, it will be necessary to curb our use of oil in the same amount as its rate of declining supply. The world’s major 800 oil fields are showing an average production decline rate of -5%/year http://aspousa.org/peak-oil-reference/peak-oil-data/oil-depletion/ which determines the size of the “hole” that must be filled by a matching production rate of unconventional oil, just to preserve the status quo, let alone to permit a growth in supply. Clearly the depletion-rate will not be precisely linear, but certain courses of action are indicated.

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

 

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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