The climate crisis hasn’t gone away. There’s a clock in NewYork counting down to irreversible climate change. It reckons we have just over 7 years. The COVID crisis hasn’t gone away and shows signs of rapidly becoming more serious. The Sustainable Futures Report is getting increasing numbers of followers all over the world, but even after more than 5 years the actual number is tiny. There’s nothing to be cheerful about in any of that.
What’s the reason to be cheerful? Quite simply, if we are not positive, if we are not optimistic, we have nothing left. There are denialists who don’t want to believe that humanity is at risk. There are lobbyists who don’t want us to believe that humanity is at risk. There are conspiracy theorists who believe that COVID is a hoax and all part of a plot to control us. They’ll probably tell us that any measures to deal with the climate emergency are all part of the same hoax. Take comfort from the fact that these are all minorities which make a good headline so may be more prominent in the media than they deserve, but don’t ignore them; stand up to them.
It’s easy to say that governments are not moving fast enough to meet net zero targets. The British government promises announcement of a new green strategy shortly so I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen it. But signs for cautious optimism include announcements from both Scania and Mercedes of electric heavy goods vehicles, announcements from Airbus Industries of hydrogen-fuelled aircraft, new battery technology from Tesla and the statement from BP that Peak Oil is upon us. Last week I spoke of tipping points. Industry insider James Spencer says that BP’s latest pronouncements truly are a tipping point. More on that in a moment.
First, just a reminder of why the need to reduce emissions and mitigate the climate crisis is urgent. As of Wednesday this week over 18,700 firefighters continued to battle 27 major wildfires in California. At the other end of the world Arctic sea-ice shrank this summer to its second lowest extent since satellite observations began. Both are symptoms and both can be causes of continuing climate change.
According to the Telegraph, a newspaper not known for radical views, BP’s briefing on its latest Global Energy Outlook Report dropped a cluster bomb on Big Oil. Spencer Dale, BP’s Group Chief Economist, presented three scenarios for progress to 2050. The message was that the world has reached Peak Oil. About 100m barrels are produced each day at present and BP does not expect that rate to be exceeded. Indeed, the company will not invest in further exploration and expects some 1.7 trillion barrels to remain unused in the ground. About 10 years ago the then oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Yamani, was fond of saying that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It looks as though his words are beginning to ring out for oil.
Bob Looney, CEO of BP, described how the company would achieve net zero by 2050 and endorsed the British government’s plan to end the sale of fossil fuel powered cars in 2030. BP is transforming itself from an oil company to an energy company and by developing its alliance with Lightsource could become the world’s largest solar operator. The company sees a continuing demand for natural gas as a transition fuel for the next 15 years, but it is investing heavily in wind power and hydrogen. “Our new purpose and ambition are underpinned by four fundamental judgements about the future. That the world is on an unsustainable path and its carbon budget is running out. That energy markets will undergo lasting change, shifting towards renewable and other forms of zero- or low-carbon energy. That demand for oil and gas will be increasingly challenged,” BP said in its report.
Apart from the Telegraph’s response, there have been mixed reactions. The Fuse, a journal specialising in energy security, sounds sceptical with its headline, “BP Joins Peak Demand Crowd”. It points out that there have been rumours of approaching peak oil for a while, but BP is the first oil major to openly state that it believes it’s happening. The New York Times reports that OPEC foresees a declining demand for oil while BP sees it plummeting.
Good News or Global Strife?
Is this good news for the planet? Clearly the reduction in emissions due to declining oil use is to be welcomed. The economic and political impact is something else. In the face of falling demand the OPEC countries can try and limit supply to force up prices. The effect of this will be to make US shale economic, but only until increased shale output increases supply and drives prices down again. The International Monetary Fund says even the richest Gulf states may face a solvency crisis by the early 2030s. In BP’s most extreme scenario that could come within five years. And it’s not just the Gulf states that will be affected. Russia will never be able to profit from its oil reserves and other less stable states which rely on oil revenues will become even less stable. States like Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Libya and Iraq. Nigeria has the 7th largest population in the world but its population is growing at five times the rate of the UK. How will they feed their people when they cannot sell their oil? Can there really be a future for the Canadian tar sands? How will the British workers fare when Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to spend billions on British armaments? COVID is already affecting the global economy. It’s not the only factor which means that business as usual is unlikely to be anything more than a memory.
The aviation industry accounts for 2% or 3% of global emissions, but Airbus has announced hydrogen-powered aircraft which will produce no emissions in flight. Prototype electric aircraft have already flown, but the power to weight ratio of batteries severely limits the range. The three designs from Airbus will use liquid hydrogen in gas turbines and could be flying by 2035. They expect a turbofan version to be able to carry 200 passengers for 2000 miles, which will cover most domestic and intra-continental flights, except perhaps in Australia. For the moment conventional oil-powered aircraft will be needed for intercontinental flights.
Back on the ground, both Mercedes and Scania have announced electric heavy goods vehicles. Scania claims its vehicle will travel from London to Birmingham on a single charge and recharging will fit in with the driver’s rest times. Looking at that a bit more closely, it’s only 125 miles from London to Birmingham and should take less than three hours. Recharging time will be 100 minutes. There is no information yet on the cost of either vehicle and no comment on how far the battery weights will reduce the payload. It is interesting that BP expects the HGV of the future to be powered by hydrogen. Toyota has no pure electric cars. It has a hydrogen car, but that’s held back by the lack of filling stations. Has it backed the right horse?
This week saw Tesla’s Battery Day and the announcement of new technology. Tesla’s new battery is cylindrical, but more importantly the new design will make it six times more powerful and increase range by 16%. Elon Musk said that his company would eliminate cobalt from its batteries. Much cobalt comes from independent mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are few regulations and no safety standards and child labour is known to be used. Ceasing to use cobalt must be a reason to be cheerful. Musk also suggested that once the world’s cars were all electric there would be no need to mine any more lithium as all the batteries could be continuously recycled. Bad news for Cornwall, where significant lithium deposits have just been discovered.
On the other hand…
Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot presents another side to the news. Yes, he says, electric cars are emissions free and we can look forward to cleaner air. But a car’s tyres, regardless of whether that vehicle is powered by petrol or electricity, are a major source of pollution. Tyres gradually wear down through contact with the road, and as I reported in a previous episode the dust which is created is carried by the wind and eventually pollutes the oceans. Tyres are a major source of micro-plastic pollution in the sea. Taking a whole-life view, cars are an environmental hazard from the point of manufacture onwards. There are emissions involved in the production of iron and steel, there’s pollution and despoliation of nature from the mining of the rare metals needed for the motors, batteries and control systems. Unless we review the whole idea of travel and just replace our fleet with the same number of vehicles but just with a different power source, it won’t stop cars from carving up communities and turning streets into thoroughfares and outdoor life into a mortal hazard. Cycling is great until the cycleway comes to an end and you find yourself riding on a road with cars and lorries thundering past, frequently far too close. During lockdown local councils have been experimenting with closing residential streets to through traffic. These Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have caused controversy and petitions. The idea is to eliminate rat-runs and make these streets quieter and safer. The outcry from motorists, most of whom don’t live in the areas affected has been deafening. The truth is that our cities are not getting any bigger and traffic has continued to grow. Public transport is one answer, but during the pandemic people are understandably avoiding it. Walking and cycling are both healthy and frequently faster, but we need to change public opinion and plan road improvements with cyclists and pedestrians as the priority. It’s unlikely that our present government’s £27bn roadbuilding budget will take this view.
Take Action - Urge Action
It’s clear that corporations have realised the threat of the climate crisis and are taking action. Governments, too, need to take action, but they first need to realise that business as usual will never return.
We must manage consumption and encourage people to buy quality - things that will last, and not things that are used once and discarded.
We need to expand recycling and have a national recycling strategy. In the UK at present we have different recycling bins in different local authority areas and different rules depending on local recycling facilities.
We need to reinforce the circular economy, and re-use not just Tesla’s new batteries but almost everything. That means redesigning products for repair, refurbishment, re-use and ultimately recycling. We must adopt the producer-pays principle, so that manufacturers cannot abandon all responsibility for what they have produced once it is in the hands of the consumer.
This week Canadian police stopped a car travelling at more than 90 miles an hour which seem to have nobody in it. When they eventually stopped it they found that the two front seats were fully reclined and the driver and passenger were asleep. The car was a Tesla on autopilot. Clearly the driver had great faith in technology, but even the manufacturers recommend that the driver should have hands on the wheel at all times including in auto mode.
Hands on the wheel.
A good plan.
And that’s it!
Thank you for listening.
A special thank you to all my patrons. Thank you for your continuing support.
I know we have stresses and strains and worries from the pandemic, some far more that others, quite apart from concerns over the climate crisis. One of my colleagues told us yesterday that as far as he’s concerned humanity is irretrievably stuffed, although he didn’t put it as elegantly as that.
As far as I’m concerned we should be cheerful, and if you can’t be cheerful be cautiously optimistic. I’m certainly not going to give up on this without trying.
As Dylan Thomas said:
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
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