What’s the truth? Is the planet hurtling towards disaster, as reported by the BBC this week, or are the UN climate goals now within reach, as reported by the BBC this week? No wonder the general public generally finds the climate crisis far too complex to engage with. I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 4th December. Yes, just three weeks to Christmas.
Let's be positive. Let's be realistic. Yes, we are faced with extreme challenges and challenges which our international leaders do not seem to be taking sufficiently seriously. I know they have other things on their minds at the moment, but the future survival of the human race does deserve attention. I don't want the Sustainable Futures Report to be constantly depressing so let's look at the issues and look for pragmatic solutions. I’ll try to find something more lighthearted, although not trivial, to end each episode.
Stories this week about the State of the Planet, the climate clock, Energy, Protests and finally a story of recycling what was once seen as scrap to be part of a prestige product.
By the way, I did promise you an interview with the sustainability people from Veolia. They approached me, I asked you, the patrons that is, and most of you came back and said yes let's go ahead. I went back to Veolia and then I went back to them again but they've remained totally silent, I'm afraid. But I have got an interview next week with Harald Overholm who has a particular angle on solar energy and after that I've got an interview with the head of sustainability at Avery Dennison, the labels people. I'm also putting together an episode on carbon pricing which I expect to publish in 2021.
First, have you come across the Climate Clock? It’s at climateclock.world. They say,
“The Climate Clock shows two numbers. The first, in red, is a timer, counting down how long it will take, at current rates of emissions, to burn through our “carbon budget” — the amount of CO2 that can still be released into the atmosphere while limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This is our deadline, the time we have left to take decisive action to keep warming under the 1.5°C threshold. The second number, in green, is tracking the growing % of the world’s energy currently supplied from renewable sources. This is our lifeline. Simply put, we need to get our lifeline to 100% before our deadline reaches 0.”
Apparently, Greta Thunberg custom-ordered the first hand-held Climate Clock and still carries it with her all over the world.
Think carbon! Much more on that, as I said, in a future episode.
State of the Planet
On Wednesday of this week, I listened to what was described as a landmark speech on the state of the planet by Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General. You probably saw the headlines. He said,
“The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on the planet. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back and is doing so with gathering force and fury. The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperilling food security.
“And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”
He spent the first part of his speech listing the evidence for the emergency. He spoke of oceans overfished and filled with plastic, of millions of people killed by water pollution, of heatwaves despite the cooling effect of La Niña and the lowest extent of Arctic ice and the slowest refreezing. The rate of CO2 emissions has declined during the global pandemic but the total atmospheric emissions continue to increase. We are on course for a 3 to 5°C warming by the end of the century and the impacts of the climate crisis will be felt most by the poorest and most vulnerable. He said that human activity is at the root of all this, so therefore human activity can solve the problem. I'm not sure of the logic of that, but nevertheless, he expressed hope. He identified three objectives.
Net Zero 2050
First, global net-zero emissions must be achieved in 30 years, in other words by 2050. He said that the EU and other countries have already announced commitments to achieve this and these countries together account for 65% of global emissions. China has set itself a similar target for 2060. 2021 should be the year of the quantum leap and a commitment to a cut of 45% by 2030. He looked forward to the revised NDCs which countries will publish in advance of next year’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. You’ll remember that NDCs are Nationally Defined Contributions where countries set out their individual pathways towards net zero.
Sadly, in the face of the pandemic some countries are rolling back environmental regulations and some are spending significantly more on fossil fuels. Shipping is the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and while the industry has published commitments to reduce this, they have so far done little to implement it. Aviation is in a similar position.
The second objective presented by Antonio Guterres is to bring global finance in line with the global climate agenda. All investors both public and private must be involved. All governments must have specific policies with specific timelines. There should be a price on carbon and an end to subsidies for fossil fuels such as coal. Polluters must pay. There must be a mandatory risk assessment of planned investments taking account of environmental consequences. Pension funds, with trillions of dollars under management, are crucial to taking a lead on this. He said that developed nations must support developing nations. That comes in a week where the British government has announced it is cutting back on foreign aid. He said there must be a private Carbon offset market. Again that’s something we will look at in detail in a future Sustainable Futures Report.
The third objective must be to protect the planet, its people and biodiversity. It’s nature which feeds us, provides us with oxygen and with our raw materials. There will be a biodiversity framework for 2021although the biodiversity targets for 2020 have been missed. We need more and bigger conservation areas and we need to eliminate overexploitation like overfishing. Chemical and solid pollution must stop, to protect the oceans. There will be a sustainable transport conference in Beijing next year and protocols are being drawn up on chemical waste. More than 50% of us now live in cities and this will rise to 70% by 2050. We need a new urban agenda. We must reduce deforestation and restore forests. We must recognise that lands managed by indigenous peoples are usually managed in the most effective way.
We must learn lessons, he said. We must change course and we must do it together.
As I mentioned at the start, the BBC published another story about climate this week with a very different tone. “Temperature analysis shows UN goals 'within reach’”. The story was roundly condemned by Zoe Cohen writing on LinkedIn. It makes it look as though we've nearly solved the climate crisis, which is far from the truth. The article was based on the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) which is an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organisations tracking climate action since 2009. They track progress towards the globally agreed aim of holding warming well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. They recently reported an improved outlook. Previously they had calculated that warming would reach 2.7°C by the end of the century, but now they believed that it would reach only 2.1 degrees centigrade. This is still ahead of the Paris target which is for an absolute maximum of 2° and an ideal upper limit of 1.5°C. While they believe that 2.1°C is possible, the biggest problem as the researchers see it is that the near-term plans to cut carbon by 2030 are just not up to the job.
"Countries have not yet adjusted their short-term actions to be on a pathway towards the long-term target," said Niklas Höhne, from the NewClimate Institute, who also works on the Climate Action Tracker.
Clearly, the article gives a false sense of security. I assume that this is due to journalistic carelessness rather than a desire to mislead, but while there are many lobbyists and others out there determined to demolish climate reality, we can do without the BBC giving them a hand.
The central objective of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality. It needs your support.
Hydrogen for steelmaking
In his latest Carbon Commentary Newsletter, Chris Goodall reports that Swedish mining company LKAB plans to smelt iron ore using hydrogen. This will involve considerable investment and require enormous amounts of electricity to produce the hydrogen through electrolysis. Goodall estimates that world manufacturers may need to invest well over $100bn a year to switch to direct reduction of iron ore.
There's a new coal mine which has recently been approved for Cumbria, in the north-west of England. The coal that this mine will produce is specifically for steelmaking. My attitude has been that if there is no alternative to coal for producing steel then it might as well be British coal, rather than coal imported from places where pollution and safety standards may be far looser. Now it seems there is an alternative and if it uses renewable energy it’s much cleaner.
This must cast doubt on the viability of the new mine.
thehill.com reports from the US, home of denial and climate hoax conspiracy theories, that Invenergy has announced plans to construct the largest solar power plant in the country, with companies like Google and McDonald’s as customers. The project is expected to finish by 2023, by which time it will have 1,310-megawatts of solar and wind capacity.
Construction News tells us that gas network company SGN has announced that customers in Fife will be the first in the world to heat their homes and cook their food using 100% zero-carbon hydrogen. The hydrogen, which will be produced through electrolysis powered by an offshore wind turbine, will be supplied through a new network connected to 300 homes.
The fact that a new network is needed suggests that the existing gas grid is not suitable for transporting hydrogen and this may have implications for the hydrogen-powered city which the UK Prime Minister recently announced as part of his 10 point plan. I have been confused about whether the future lies with hydrogen, at least as far as domestic heating is concerned, or whether we're all going to have heat pumps. Patron Tom de Simone draws my attention to an exhaustive article by Carbon Brief entitled “Does the world need hydrogen to solve climate change?”
In Tom’s view hydrogen is much less efficient and more expensive than using heat pumps. Also, switching the whole national gas grid to hydrogen is estimated to take until 2032, whereas heat pumps can be installed now. However, we're still likely to need hydrogen for heat in some cases e.g. remote communities, and it makes even more sense if such communities are near an abundant source of green hydrogen production.
“Don’t forget”, he says, “that in both cases, the first essential step is to improve the energy efficiency of the building.”
Power and Protest
Returning for a moment to the presentation by Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations: in answer to a question he said that in his experience as a former politician, “Power is not given, it is taken.”
Put that in the context of the power of the citizen to influence governments. We have seen in the United States that a majority of the popular vote is not sufficient to elect a president because in 2016 Hillary Clinton received more votes than Donald Trump, but the electoral college process awarded him the presidency. In the United Kingdom, our first-past-the-post system means that a party can achieve government with a substantial majority of seats on a minority of the popular vote. The consequence is that many people feel unrepresented and that their votes make no difference; their opinions never heard. This is no doubt one of the reasons behind the growth of organisations like Extinction Rebellion, and the reason why XR believes it needs to organise civil disobedience in order to get the government to take notice of it.
It is unfortunate that disruptive protest appears to be the only route, but at least until now protests and demonstrations have been allowed. It is therefore worrying to learn from The Network for Police Monitoring that the UK government plans a major crackdown in 2021 on the right to protest. Stifling protest will not make the truth go away.
The Home Secretary is already on record as describing XR as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals”. The police put XR on a list of terrorist organisations until an outcry forced them to remove it.
A decision by the Metropolitan Police in October 2019 to unlawfully impose a blanket condition using Section 14 to prohibit various XR protests across the whole of London was successfully challenged in the High Court. New legislation is likely to extend police powers, for example by allowing them to act in the face of significant disruption, rather than serious disruption to the life of the community. They may also be able to exclude demonstrations from specific areas, as they can at present with processions.
The government intends to introduce new grounds for using stop and search powers in order to “prevent significant disruption”, which could include searches for items that protesters could potentially use for direct action or civil disobedience, such as D-locks or climbing equipment.
This would represent a significant expansion of stop and search powers and encourage front-line police officers to search everyone even vaguely associated with a particular protest, just as Kent Police officers did (unlawfully) at Kingsnorth Climate Camp back in 2008.
Campaign groups say the ability of people to collectively take to the streets in opposition to government policy does not need managing, it needs protecting.
NetPol, the Network for Police Monitoring, says there must be a Charter of Freedom of Assembly Rights. They say, “In the face of a draconian, politically-motived crackdown, we need a clear reminder that the police still have a legal duty to both facilitate and safeguard our rights.”
And I say, again, Stifling protest will not make truth go away.
Here’s one for the musicians. Bloomberg reports that Taylor Guitars are making instruments from trees culled from suburban streets by municipal governments in California and Arizona. Otherwise, the wood would be burned. Guitars are typically made from rare woods and while the industry uses only a fraction of the wood used by the furniture industry, for example, guitars are prestige and high-profile objects and several manufacturers have been raided by enforcement agents looking for timber from endangered species. The problem is particularly acute with ebony, the wood traditionally used for the fingerboard. This wood is imported, legally, from Africa, but on a visit out there Bob Taylor found that 10 trees might be felled and nine rejected before they found the perfectly black one. He decided to use the variegated or striped timber which would normally be rejected. He decided as well to use it on his high-end model to demonstrate commitment.
In presenting Taylor with an Award for Corporate Excellence from the U.S. State Department, John Kerry said, “Bob and Taylor Guitars have fundamentally changed the entire ebony trade.”
And on that note…
…I leave you for another week. Thank you for listening, and if you are, thank you for being a patron. Your support is always appreciated.
You’ll find links to all the stories on the website which is at www.sustainablefutures.report where I publish the full text of each of these podcasts. You can also find out there how you, too, can become a patron.
Don't forget to listen to that interview on Mama Earth Talk where I am the guest. It's number 122.
If all goes well, next week’s episode will include that interview about solar power. Whatever happens, I hope next week goes well for you and your family and friends.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Keep Thinking Carbon!
UN Secretary-General: The state of the planet