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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?

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

 

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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It’s the hottest decade–ever

It’s the hottest decade–ever 

As the decade comes to a close, environmentalists are looking back over the last ten years of supposedly ‘natural’ disasters and extreme weather. It’s alarming: there are absolutely no signs that the global climate crisis is under control.  

It just keeps on getting hotter. While Canadians are enjoying a balmy winter (which officially started on December 21, when temperatures were way above seasonal in Toronto), Australians are once again being scorched half to death. 

Temperatures peaked on December 21-22 in Victoria and South Australia with  several areas exceeding 48°C.  The heat and bone dry conditions have sparked numerous bushfires. New South Wales has been placed under a total fire ban as firefighters battle to contain more than 100 fires burning around the state, including the 400,000-hectare Gospers Mountain megafire in Wollemi national park in the Blue Mountains.  Across the globe in California, the 2019 fire season, which so far has counted close to 7000 fires, is still not over. Moreover, fires are flaring up in places where they have rarely been seen before—in the Arctic tundra and in Siberia above the Arctic circle. The chart on the left shows the startling spike in carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires that has occurred this year.

Emissions of CO2 from Arctic wildfires

It’s not hard to figure out that the increasing number of wild fires might be sparked and fanned by rising global temperatures. Meteorologists are already saying that 2019 is the planet’s second-warmest year on record, rounding off the hottest decade on Earth since those records begun. Eight of the ten warmest years have occurred this decade, and the other two were just a few years before. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) headlined their latest assessment by saying that “2019 concludes a decade of exceptional global heat and high-impact weather”.

…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.

 …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.  

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

Have we got a deal for you!

Have we got a deal for you! 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered an interesting  deal for Canadians. In return for agreeing to the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMEX) pipeline, his government has offered to invest all the profits from the operation of the pipeline into clean energy projects. Is this a deal we should accept?

Even acknowledging the pipeline’s significant negative impacts on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and marine ecosystems (including adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale–an endangered species), the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) after its last review concluded once again that the TMEX is ‘in the public interest’. So if the new pipeline is in the public interest and we get lots of money invested in renewable energy isn’t this a win-win situation?

Not so fast..

The review conducted by the NEB does not take into account the additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would be generated by the ramped-up production from the oil sands deposits enabled by the increased capacity provided by the new pipeline. In the NEB’s opinion: “it did not consider that there  was a necessary connection between the Project and upstream production or downstream use.”

This is an extraordinary and astonishing statement. The additional pipeline capacity will result in a significant rise in oil sands production and increase west coast tanker traffic from 5 to 34 vessels a month. How are these direct effects not considered to be a “connection” to the Project?

The TMEX pipeline will substantially increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the Liberal government has declared a climate emergency and is nowhere near on track to meeting its emission targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement.   

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

 …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.      

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

SOTU’s glaring omission

SOTU’s glaring omission

Trump missed two little words

President’s Trump’s State of the Union address on February 5 was a call for bipartisan action. But mostly of the wrong kind. His southern border wall is of course a controversial and expensive proposition, but it was his boast that the USA now exports more energy than any other country in the world that got my attention. Since President Trump mis-remembers, mis-speaks, and exaggerates so frequently, the fact-checkers will be hard at work to verify that claim.  

It may well be true: the quantities of natural gas and tight oil produced by fracking have increased hugely, and while the demand for coal as a fuel for power plants has declined, the export of coal to Asia has picked up the slack, together with exports of liquid natural gas.

Two words that never passed Trump’s lips were ‘climate change’. One might have thought that a review of the state of the union might have dwelled for a moment on the huge wildfires that scorched California last year, and the two devastating hurricanes: Florence and Michael, that caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage during the summer. The Camp fire destroyed the town of Paradise in California; while Hurricane Michael devastated the town of Mexico Beach on the Florida panhandle. 

Trump continues to pretend that climate change is fiction and that global warming can be disproved by the first winter snowstorm. Since the previous week had seen record frigid temperatures occurring across Canada and most of the USA, it was of course predictable that Trump would tweet that the best remedy for the sub-zero conditions was a good old dose of global warming.    

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

Mercury rising

Mercury rising

Mercury is back in the news. And it’s not good.

A new report just released by IPEN (a global network of public interest NGOs) documents the high levels of this potent neurotoxin found in women surveyed in 21 countries, including many small island states. Almost 75 % of the women surveyed had mercury levels greater than 0.58 ppm in hair samples—a level considered the threshold for potentially harmful effects in women of child-bearing age. The predominant cause of this toxicity is the mercury found in fish—the main source of protein in numerous populations on small islands and isolated coastal communities, particularly in regions close to the Arctic. The consumption of fish and other marine animals is considered to be the main source of methylmercury exposure in most populations worldwide.

But a more dramatic report was actually published a few weeks earlier–and seems to have gone unnoticed by the mainstream media. A comprehensive review of mercury levels in human populations over the period 2000 to 2018, was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in October this year. Led by Dr Niladi Basu at McGill University in Montreal, the team analysed almost 435,000 mercury biomarker measurements from 335,391 individuals across 75 countries.

Within the cross-sectional studies, the researchers identified 71 populations from 18 countries that were specifically studied because of concerns associated with the consumption of fish and other aquatic animals. Exposure to mercury in this group of people was approximately four times higher than in the general background population.

Not surprisingly, populations associated with bodies of water tend to have higher levels of mercury. Inland groups that were linked to rivers and lakes had almost seven times more mercury in their blood than normal levels.

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

Carbon price wars–BC, Ontario or Quebec?

Carbon price wars–BC, Ontario or Quebec?

The question of how the Canadian provinces should deal with the issue of greenhouse  gas emissions continues to be contentious and occasionally acrimonious.

The new provincial government of Ontario has declared its intention to cancel that province’s cap-and-trade system—referring to it as “a punishing, regressive tax that forces low-and middle-income families to pay more.” A week ago the province of Alberta threatened to pull out of the Federal government’s carbon pricing scheme after progress on building the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline ground to a halt. Progressive Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has vowed to shut down carbon pricing asserting: “Conservatives know that carbon tax isn’t just bad for big business; it’s bad for everyone. And that’s why, come 2019, my first act as prime minister will be to get rid of it once and for all.”[1]

So is it?  Bad for everyone?

There is no question that pricing carbon works. Over 51 countries and subnational jurisdictions are now operating carbon pricing systems, or planning to do so.[2]  A report last year by two of the world’s top  economists was clear: “A well-designed carbon price is an indispensable part of a strategy for reducing emissions in a efficient way.[3]

Earlier this year, Environment and Climate Change Canada published the results of a modeling exercise which showed that a carbon pricing system applied across Canada would reduce greenhouse gas pollution by between 80 and 90 million tonnes by 2022–making a significant contribution to meeting Canada’s Paris Agreement target of a 30% reduction over the period 2005 to 2030. [4]

But some forms of carbon pricing systems seem to work a lot better than others. Can we learn a few lessons and draw some conclusions by looking at the performance of the four Canadian provinces where carbon prices have been introduced: Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia?  Of the four, British Columbia’s revenue-neutral carbon pricing system is widely regarded as a major success.[5]  But the latest data on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions paint a rather different picture.

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

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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