Hello and welcome to what I predict is a turbulent world. I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 6th November 2020. I have to prepare the Sustainable Futures Report in advance of Friday’s publication date, but it’s already clear that even if I leave it right up to the last moment - as I have - the result of the US election will still be in doubt. Something for next week’s episode. Friday 13th sounds really auspicious.
Apart from the election, there is environmental news this week ranging from the Arctic to Australia and pollution problems from plastic waste to artificial light and used cars. There is another Carbon offset scheme. This one’s for investors. How does block chain relate to the climate and how can you make money for charity by making an internet search? Finally, I’ll share a concerning article I found on human attitudes, and follow it up with wise words from James Dyke.
What will change after the US election?
On November 4, a day after the presidential election, the US formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement on constraining global heating. We did think that on Thursday 21st January, the day after his inauguration, President Biden would apply to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Or if it was President Trump, he wouldn’t. That deadline’s been missed. More next week.
In environmental news this week we learn from The Guardian that “'Sleeping giant' methane deposits in Arctic trigger new global heating fears”. This is a report on the work of the International Siberian Shelf Study 2020, a Russian/Swedish led research programme. They say,
“The central focus of the ISSS-2020 expedition is one of the biggest open challenges in climate change science; understanding subsea and coastal permafrost thawing, hydrate collapse and the processes that result in releases of potent greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.”
The Guardian’s report says, “Scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean – known as the “sleeping giants of the carbon cycle” – have started to be released over a large area of the continental slope off the East Siberian coast.
“High levels of the potent greenhouse gas have been detected down to a depth of 350 metres in the Laptev Sea near Russia, prompting concern among researchers that a new climate feedback loop may have been triggered that could accelerate the pace of global heating.
“The slope sediments in the Arctic contain a huge quantity of frozen methane and other gases – known as hydrates. Methane has a warming effect 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years. The United States Geological Survey has previously listed Arctic hydrate destabilisation as one of four most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change.”
So far, so concerning. But wait, the ISSS has a Facebook page and while the Guardian article is prominently displayed there’s a message from Facebook: “Missing context. Independent fact-checkers say that this information could mislead people.”
There’s a link, which you’ll find below or on the Sustainable Futures Report website, to a detailed analysis of the article by four identified scientists. In essence they’re saying that The Guardian has overstated the case. They point out that the research has not yet been peer-reviewed, that “Sources of methane emissions cannot be assumed to be new simply because they are being observed for the first time,” and that Arctic methane emissions do not appear to have increased over the past two decades, meaning these seeps are not currently having a significant impact on climate change. The largest human-caused emissions of methane, they say, come from agriculture, waste management, and fossil fuels, while natural methane emissions are dominated by wetlands.
It’s a lesson, I think, for us all. The climate debate is a minefield and reports which are published with the best of intentions can damage the arguments if the facts are incomplete or inaccurately reported. No doubt the research will be peer reviewed and published in due course. I’ll look out for it. Meanwhile I hope I never fall into such traps, but please let me know whenever I do.
It’s interesting that I get very, very few comments on the Sustainable Futures Report. The upside is that I don’t get trolled, either. Oh, what have I said?
Staying with the environment, ABC News in Australia reports on plans to construct a Great Barrier Reef Biobank in Far North Queensland. If built, the four-storey centre in Port Douglas, described as a 'Noah's ark' for the reef, would protect and breed about 800 coral species from around the world. The building has been designed to resemble a mushroom coral and will include an exhibition centre, auditorium and research laboratories. Good news in one way, but isn’t it like putting endangered species in a zoo, while they go extinct in the wild?
As the Northern hemisphere goes into winter wildfires continue to burn in California. Power companies cut parts of the network plunging consumers into darkness. They do this because overhead power lines can spark and start fires. They cannot face the costs of liability for such events. Meanwhile President (at the time of writing) Trump blamed Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, saying he had done a "terrible job of forest management”, even though several of this year's major wildfires have burned in unforested areas.
Increased temperatures due to global warming are causing huge wildfires in California, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But of course Trump doesn’t believe in global warming.
The US is singled out for criticism in a report published in Science Advances, the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Researchers demonstrated that, in 2016, the United States generated the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world (42.0 Mt). Between 0.14 and 0.41 Mt of this waste was illegally dumped in the United States, and 0.15 to 0.99 Mt was inadequately managed in countries that imported materials collected in the United States for recycling. Accounting for these contributions, the amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States’ contribution among the highest in the world.
They say, “Plastic waste contaminates all major ecosystems on the planet, with concern increasing about its potential impacts on wildlife and human health, as smaller and more widespread plastic particles are identified in both the natural and built environment. For decades, scientists have documented plastic debris in the ocean. Marine sources of ocean pollutants were addressed in the 1970s and 1980s, before the focus turned to land as the purported, yet poorly substantiated, source of 80% of marine debris.”
Initially the research concentrated on South East Asia, but the found that high-income countries such as the United States and members of the European Union (EU-28) also had large plastic emissions to the ocean. Despite having robust waste management systems, the large coastal populations and very high per capita waste generation rates in these high-income countries together resulted in large amounts of mismanaged waste due only to litter (estimated 2% of waste generation) that is available to enter the ocean. According to the 2010 analysis, the U.S. coastal population generated the highest mass of plastic waste of any country (13.8 Mt, 112.9 million people), whereas coastal populations in EU-28 countries collectively produced even more plastic waste (14.8 Mt, 187.3 million people). The next highest country in coastal plastic waste generation was China (11.6 Mt per day, 262.9 million people).
As I’ve discussed in the past, plastic has all sorts of attributes which make it a wonder product. Equally some of these attributes, notably its resistance to biodegradation, make it a wonder polluter. Unless we take action to limit the use of plastic or to ensure that it is recycled, by using sanctions or incentives, studies like this will continue, only differing insofar as they are finding that the problem is worse.
Light pollution is a phrase which has been around for awhile but a new article in Nature Ecology and Evolution looks at its wider effects. The authors say, “We found particularly strong responses with regards to hormone levels, the onset of daily activity in diurnal species and life history traits, such as the number of offspring, predation, cognition and sea-finding (in turtles). So far, few studies have focused on the impact of artificial light at night on ecosystem functions. The breadth and often strength of biological impacts we reveal highlight the need for artificial night-time lighting to be limited to the places and forms - such as timing, intensity and spectrum - where it is genuinely required by the people using it to minimise ecological impacts.”
True darkness is indeed very difficult to find these days, even in much of the countryside as many an amateur astronomer will tell you. Dark sky discovery (darkskydiscovery.org.uk) can help you find the right place in the UK. Meanwhile, it seems to me that cutting back on lighting, especially street lighting in the hours between midnight and dawn, would reduce the problem and save energy, which is never a bad thing.
Used Vehicles and the Environment
In a new report from the UN Environment Programme we find that while Western nations are exporting their used light vehicles to the developing world there are several worrying concerns. These include:
● pollutant and climate emissions of used vehicles;
- the quality and safety of used vehicles;
- energy consumption;
- and the costs to operate used vehicles.
The UN says,
“This trade needs to be supervised. Regulation is essential to ensure the quality of the vehicles and [tohttps://www.linkedin.com/in/elliotcoad/">Elliot Coad, Alex Price, and Lucy Jack, with buckets of help from cofounders.” It’s an organisation which works in developing countries to plant trees and to develop carbon reduction projects. These include power generation from wind, solar and landfill gas, as well as forest regeneration and improvement of cooking facilities and water supplies. These are all good things to do. Some will reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere but others will only avoid future emissions and therefore do not offer a net CO2 reduction.
I’m afraid that Cazenove is deluding itself if it thinks you can pay to make your emissions problem go away while you go back to business as usual. It should spend time examining the organisations within its portfolio and urging them to reduce their emissions through improved techniques, and not by covering them up.
Blockchain is something we all ought to know about and most of us are aware that it is the software technology behind bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies. I have looked into it in some detail and I have to admit that I still struggle to understand it. Now it seems that blockchain could be coming to a climate crisis near you. Pixelplex reports that,
“ Climate change is without a doubt a defining issue faced by humankind. The effects of anthropogenic climate change are likely to affect the life and livelihood of large fractions of the human race. This has prompted the scientific community across the globe to work towards mitigation measures. Interdisciplinary approaches have often found applications in this field, and blockchain technology is no exception.
The ability of blockchains to build robust ledgers that are both transparent and secure has been utilized primarily in the field of finance, specifically in cryptocurrency applications. Blockchain global warming initiatives formed to oversee climate change mitigation efforts, however, are also becoming a trend.”
They go on to explain,
“It has been suggested that blockchain technology can find uses in climate policy enforcement. Blockchains offer a transparent method for ensuring regulatory compliance without the need for third-party assistance even when the process involved may be taking place across jurisdictions. The technology can be applied in any interaction where it is possible to create and trade in tokens.
“This can, for example, find applications in the global supply chain where green measures can be accounted for and maintained using a decentralized ledger without involving any centralized control.”
They suggest that the technology could be used to make Agriculture Smarter, to manage Emissions Trading or Disaster Recovery, to Support Financial Inclusion, to optimise Energy Usage, to Combat Deforestation and control Waste Management Systems and Green Buildings.
Can you make money by searching the net? Sounds like a nice idea. Enter Ecosia. It’s a search engine and their website tells us, “We use the profit we make from your searches to plant trees where they are needed most. Get the free browser extension and plant trees with every search.” How does it work? It claims to be a search engine like Google and to use some of its ad revenue to support forestry projects across the world, including in the US. I haven’t downloaded it so I can’t tell whether it works as well as Google or whether it feeds more or fewer advertisements to the user. There’s a link on the blog, if you’d like to try it.
There’s a disturbing article on Eudaimonia from Umair Haque, entitled How the West got COVID So Wrong.
He starts by comparing the performance of eastern and western societies in tackling the pandemic. In the east, in places like Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand immediate steps were taken to lock down and eliminate the virus. On the other hand, he says,
“There is a kind of toxic indifference that seems to have spread through Western societies. Life itself is treated with a kind of shrugging fatalism — especially those of the vulnerable. It is literally valued less than a night out at the pub by much of society. The attitude of toxic indifference is what the West seems to share in common now, and that is why it has been brought to its knees by Covid.”
As we’ve seen, Eastern nations locked down to eliminate the virus. He goes on,
“The West, though, tried a different approach. Its idea was that because there was a “tradeoff” between “the economy” and public health, eradicating Covid wasn’t realistic. It could only be controlled, in some vague way. And local, temporary lockdowns would keep it under control. Now, most scholars and scientists in this field disagreed vehemently. But Western leaders were not listening.
“Western leaders, in other words, modelled toxic indifference for their societies. They gave people a license to be indifferent, by acting largely indifferent themselves. “When the numbers rise again, then we’ll take care of it” is not a responsible attitude — it is an indifferent one. But catastrophes like pandemics thrive on such indifference.
“That is a profoundly troubling sign. Because we know where a society of indifference ends. It ends in America," he says, “in stupidity, ignorance, violence, hate, racism, brutality, and the poverty and despair which underlies it all.”
I think there is no doubt that we are seeing more of the behaviour that he describes. (He goes into a lot more detail which you can find if you follow the link on the blog.) But the people who are indifferent have no concern for the rest of society, particularly the weak and vulnerable.
Their attitude seems to be “Bring it on, I can take it!” and many of them will get it and will not even know that they've got it. But then they can take it home, they can take it into shops, they can take it to the office, they can take it to where there are older or weaker people who will get it too. But those people will certainly know they've got it, and some of them will die.
If we take the “Bring it on, I can take it” attitude to the climate crisis, many people will avoid the worst consequences and probably have little understanding of how devastating it is for people in vulnerable and poorer parts of the world. And those people will certainly know about it - already know about it - and some of them, many of them, will die.
That's why I do this podcast. That's why Greenpeace campaigns. That's why Extinction Rebellion organises civil disobedience. We are all doing this for each other and for people we don’t know and will never meet.
Before I go, you may remember James Dyke of Exeter University that I interviewed a while ago. He writes a column for the i-newspaper and a recent article (22nd October) was headlined “Being in denial won’t stop climate change happening.” I dropped him an email “I agree with everything you’ve said, but what can we do?”
His response: “If the sort of changes we are making are not being vocally resisted by some of the most powerful vested interests in society, then they are probably not going to be sufficient.
“Fortunately such vested interests are really only a tiny fraction of society. Everyone else has much to benefit from with much more sustainable policies.”
A positive note to end on.
Yes, that was the Sustainable Futures Report, I’m Anthony Day, and whatever happens across the pond, there will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week.
Thanks for listening!
And bye for now!
'Sleeping giant' methane deposits in Arctic trigger new global heating fears
'We don't have time to lose': plans for coral ark to help save the world's reefs
US experiences winter and wildfires at the same time
US and UK citizens are world’s biggest sources of plastic waste – study
Treat artificial light like others forms of pollution, say scientists
‘Old and unsafe’ cars sent to developing world fuel air pollution
Conditions ripe in US for more dust bowl years
Re-enter the Paris agreement